I am a huge sucker for working with limitations so I will hop on a game jam opportunity the best way I can. 2016 will be my first participation of the Global Game Jam and I am pretty stoked. KDU hosted the event and decided to go for a more collaborative approach rather than a competitive approach.
How it works is that you either come with a team, and get assigned a random game name through a generator, or come in solo and pitch an idea using the theme of this year (which was “ritual”) then recruit your members there and then. I arrived late due to the combination of work commitments and traffic, way past the announcement of the theme. Everyone else already had more than 2 hours to work on their pitch and there I was with only half an hour left.
The word “ritual” was an interesting choice, because it is very easy to fall into typical cliches like summoning demons, witchcraft or other forms of obscure cults. That being said, I went with it. I have an image in mind, an alter, that’s where I will start. You are only allowed to pitch using an A3 paper, in 5 minutes, so I drew this:
While cliches is something easy to call upon, I really really wanted to avoid this as much as possible. I keep asking myself,
What is this alter for?
Who is it for?
Is it for prayers?
Why would someone go through all these trouble to set this up?
Game design shouldn’t exist in a vacuum or use a theme just for the sake of it, I was determined to derive some meaning from it otherwise that kind of designer would I be? The theme should also constantly be reflected in the game, either in gameplay, story or the environment, everything must ooze “ritual” or rather “doing something in a particular order”
15 minutes left. Crap.
The first thing is How. Part of the choice of the image is that I might work well as a point and click game or an interactive first person game. Having watched some brilliant environmental storytelling behind Gone Home a couple of weeks back, I thought this game could play that way, slowly unravelling the story of the existence of this alter. This will serve as my reference point for gameplay and the narrative tool.
Now that I know this game is narrative driven, What is this alter for. Cliches is a double edged sword, it can help communicate an idea very quickly, at the same time the idea becomes dull REALLY fast. As a starting point, this was my train of thought:
Pretty run of the mill if you asked me. But I had to make a choice. I choose “Dead People” because it has more narrative space. Human relationships is also clearer and more relatable compared to a person’s existential relationship with himself or a Godly figure. Also I’m not a religious person, and I risk butchering it’s interpretations.
Next is the Why. Why would someone go through all that lengths to bring someone back from the dead. Which leads to, what kind of relationship is it that is so messed up that you are willing to cross trans-dimensional barriers to bring them back from an eternal rest? If you love someone, you let them go, an old saying. As human beings, this is not always the case. I’m sure there was a point in all our lives where we wished for a relationship to work, even though it clearly isn’t. Is that love really? I choose a husband and wife relationship because the bonds between them can range from a deep genuine connection to a very surface and superficial one. Again, more narrative space. We are always bounded by blood to our families but a relationship with our spouse has to be nurtured and strengthen over time.
8 minutes left.
The next part of the why comes from the nature of the relationship. I know it has to be twisted or messed up for someone to do such a thing, and the top of the choice messed up relationships is an abusive ones. I have an (unfortunate) experience of talking to people who went through them and helping them get out of it. It is a long process, but strangely enough, it is a cyclical one. The good and bad times goes back and forth to an almost clockwork like process and it repeats itself until things gets out of hand. During these relationships, there are some form of dependencies formed despite it’s destructive nature, so it kinda fits the theme of ” ritual”
Based on these themes, I quickly drafted a narrative structure. A wife has lost her husband and misses him deeply, which leads to her learning a ritual that can bring him back. While performing the ritual, she would need to offer memorabilia of their relationships to the alter, in order to evoke strong memories of the husband. The relationship seems very good on the surface (calm) but as you progress, you will find clues of a superficial exterior connection which hides a deep conflict (incident) which the wife, at most times fails to recognize (reconciliation). A relationship ritual, if you will.
3 minutes left
In the end, after collecting all the memorabilia, the twist is that the ritual is a fluke and the husband is not coming back. Ironically, by evoking the good, and bad memories of her husband, she did in fact “brought him back”. Just not in the way she expected. The twist ending is to reinforce the dark nature of the game and also to reinforce the “ritual” theme. Even though the husband is gone, she is still bounded by the cycle of the relationship.
The narrative also helped reinforced the gameplay. Since it’s a small game jam sized game, I intended to keep the location to a bedroom, with an alter in the closet. The players performs a “ritual” of looking taking clues from the alter, looking for an item, picking it up and placing it at the alter, which will then give you your next clue. A ritual.
Done! on with the presentation.
Out of 20+ ideas, this one was one of the final 7 that gets picked to be made. I recruited my team and went on with it. Some of the ideas were expanded and reinforced while some design choices had to be cut due to time constraints (no surprise there). In the end, I am quite proud of the work that my team made.
Turning cliches into a meaningful experience is quite the fun task. It manages to get people into your idea very quickly, but when you peel of the layers on top, you’d find a whole treasure trove of things to explore beyond the typical conventions. If there is one thing I would change, is the monologues and the item descriptions. It’s not my strongest point and I am honestly quite embarrassed by my word choices. I hope you enjoyed reading this, if you want to know more in depth about the design process, please drop my an email. I’d be happy to share.
Check out the eventual build here.