Monday, January 27, 2014

Global Game Jam 2014: Squared Interactions

I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about this year's GGJ because I have been so tired lately. Something to do with the Finnish winter perhaps. At least I went there, and even finished a project. I have skipped a few game jams due to various reasons from lack of energy to health problems in the past year and I think the last one I actually went to was last year's GGJ. Once again I had grandeur plans of joining someone else's project to save myself some headache...

Here's the game (webkit browsers recommended)

1. Theme and concept

This year's theme was a phrase: "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." My mind was pretty much screaming to do something artistic, something with a healthy dose of mindfuck if at all possible. I was chatting with some random people about possible concepts and among the more interesting ones was a bureaucracy game in the spirit of Papers Please but it was deemed too content-intensive. In my head the concept was somewhat reminiscent of Brenda Romero's Train - can the player see through all the paperwork what harm will befall the applicants if he follows the rules blindly. Other concepts I thought of were somewhat similar; the general idea was: it would be up to the player to decide what the game is about. The final piece of the brainstorm puzzle came from the diversifiers. 

The diversifiers were published a few days before the jam. Initially I was thinking one of them felt like it didn't belong to a jam: the Bechdel test one. I felt that way because dialogue is very rarely something you want in a jam game. Naturally I chose to pursue this diversifier but not through written dialogue: I wanted to make a game that's an abstraction of a conversation. My inspiration was The Marriage and I also wanted to use nothing but simple boxes for my graphics. I figured the game would have two squares representing two women (originally pink boxes) and one representing a man (blue box). The squares would move based on some rules that allowed the player to guide the conversation. If either pink box ever hit the blue box, the game would end. I wasn't entirely sure what the exact mechanics would be but I felt it was a concept worth pitching.

Pitch we did. Once again I was slightly disappointed at how ordinary most of the concepts were. Platformer, point-and-click, area control... some sounded also a bit too ambitious. There were two other concepts I considered working on instead of my own: a fridge magnet poetry game and a button mashing game that where the idea was to use player inputs throughout the game to produce a song or something like that in the end. We had some plans to form an art game coalition but nothing game out of it ultimately. At this point I was still not sure if I really wanted to even do this jam but I stayed on the site to see what people were up to. I didn't even take out my computer - I just worked inside my head and shared some design ideas with one organizer who I recruited as a co-designer. 

In the final design I actually combined all three of the more artistic game concepts. Unfortunately I didn't find the person who pitched the poetry game idea earlier but I proceeded to assimilate the mechanic anyway. So the final design: the squares would move independently to depict the living nature of a conversation. The player would influence the behavior of the squares by dragging words from a word pool into the topic area. Placing a word would change something: size of a square (ego) or its speed (enthusiasm). Finally I decided that ego-inflating words would also push the other square away. Likewise, ego-reducing words would attract the other square. Enthusiasm was affected by discussion topics - each square liked a random set of topics and disliked the rest. The dynamics I planned were quite a bit more complicated than what you'll see in the outcome but the concepts of ego and enthusiasm are there. 

2. Development

I once again chose to use CraftyJS. I have tried a few other JS game libraries in the past year but there has been no real advantage over Crafty with any of them. Best stick to what I know. I worked with a rather lazy pace on this one. The concept itself was very easy to implement but like always, I managed to create some hard to detect bugs. I had great plans for how the squares would move, including having them connected to each other with a rubber band. Ultimately I didn't feel like dealing with all that math and went for something very simple. Honestly it doesn't matter that much in the outcome. There's really not that much to talk about development this year. I was done in about ten hours which is like twice as much as a project of this scale should have taken. I took the laziest possible path in every turn and my code was really sloppy.

I didn't use any obvious color does for the squares and it's probably very hard  to figure out how the game works or what it's all about. I dropped some hints like the game ending in failure if any word that somehow means a man is chosen. When the game ends through one of the squares touching the third one, the end screen has another hint: "The third party interrupted". The fact that I ticked the "The Ultimate Bechdel Test Survivor" diversifier is another hint for those who actually look at the game's GGJ page.

3. Hindsight

The game turned out very hard to really control so to a casual player it will seem completely random. It was not intended but it doesn't really bother me that much either. In a way it's a meta-commentary about by jam games in general... they are always too hard to get. In a sense the real focus of this project is the word game. When the game ends, the words the player put on the topic area are brough to focus and it can read as a very weird poem. There's a lot of room for creativity because words can be placed freely, and there are a lot of words for each game mechanical meaning. As a mechanic it feels new. It's also a different perspective into game outcomes: the outcome is not the final game state in itself - it's made of the player's input history instead. I think it was crucial to bring the "poem" into focus when the game ends. This draws the player's attention to it, and makes it feel more like their creation.

I really liked this dynamic between gameplay and creativity. If I were to do this game again, I would change what the game is about to something less abstract and random in order to give the player more incentive to think about which words to choose. This word mechanic is also excellent soil for all kinds of easter eggs. For example, choosing the word "end" actually ends the game. Similar hidden meanings could be attached to more words which would make the game more delightful to explore. In a sense there would be two layers to the word game instead of one: each word represents a category, but they also occasionally do something else. Whatever the game concept for this control dynamic would be, it definitely needs to be slower than what I did in this jam. Choosing words is a ponderous action, but the squares move constantly and pretty fast too.  


Although I didn't spend even half of the allocated time, I'd call this GGJ a success. The game I made is not much to talk about, but as an experiment it was successful. In a way this game is truer to the GGJ spirit than any of my previous games (well, excluding this) because I really tried something different with no fear of failing. It's hard to break free of doing games with familiar mechanics. Especially in your first game jams, you probably want to really make a game that's fun to play instead of some crazy experiment. Familiar mechanics are easy to implement, and they have been proven to work. Experimental mechanics might be easy to implement like in this case, but making a functional game with them is another story. It is however worth trying.

As a final note: it's not always necessary to tire yourself out using every minute you humanly can in game jam. It's perfectly okay to have a shorter project and get more sleep. After all, most game jam games are done for their creators and will be forgotten by everyone else anyway. Just do whatever you want. 

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