Essay assignment: Impending Doom

Two weeks ago we received our first proper writing assignment in the game analysis course. We were to hand in an essay on a game concept with the theme “Impending Doom”.

This is how the assignment was explained to us:

  • Our essay had to include descriptions of gameplay and setting.
  • We had to explain our design decisions and why we thought those were the best.
  • The essay should focus on gameplay and how the sense of impeding doom was conveyed, not narrative or background.
  • We had to support our arguments with written material (lectures, course litterature).
  • The game had to be unwinnable for the player.
  • The player had to believe she/he had a chance to win the game.
  • The player character was not allowed to move, except for hand- or head-movements.
  • The essay had to be 500-750 words long and formally written.

One of the examples our teacher brought up was a shaving game where you had to shave for work with very little time. “Sense of doom” did thus not necessarily mean “mortal danger” or “fear of death” and could be lighthearted.

Some examples of my first ideas were:

  • The player is a student taking a pop quiz where the test is deliberately messing with the player, changing the player’s answers, switching around questions, replacing easy questions with ridiculously hard ones half-way through etc. Trying to explain this to the teacher or other students will only get the player scolded – to them your test seems perfectly normal! Bothering the other students too much will get you suspended – there’s not supposed to be any talking during tests. Silly student! When the time runs out, one of three possible things happen, this is randomly selected: A. The player hands in their demon-spawn-test to the teacher and is suspended for not taking the test seriously, with the test still mocking the player. B. The player suddenly awakens in the classroom, realizing that she/he has fallen asleep, the test in front of her/him is blank and it’s time to hand in. C. The player realizes she/he has been taking the wrong test all along.
  • The player is a pet that accidentally breaks her/his owner’s favorite possession. The owner is on their way home and the player can hear the owner walking up the stairs. The player can then try to clean up the mess with their paws and sweep things under the rug and under pieces of furniture which only creates a bigger mess.
  • A two-player scenario where the players have to take turns putting themselves at risk to try and escape.

I ended up going with the third idea because in the first one, (while fun) the sense of irritation likely would overthrow the sense of impending doom (Note to self: Do this one at some point for self-amusement. There is potential for serious hilarity here). 

In the second one, the sense of impending doom relies a lot on stress. I felt that the sense of doom would very much hinge on how the potential punishment could be communicated. The three alternatives I could come up with were: A. Cutscene. B. Owner talking while walking up the stairs or perhaps leaving messages on the answering machine. C. The game telling the player in a text-message or something. A and C felt sub-optimal since they do not involve actual gameplay. Option B relies on voice-acting and bad voice-acting can both break immersion and make the threat seem funny rather than scary.

I’m going to briefly talk about my motivations behind my design choices here in a Q&A-form. Those who are interested can read the entire essay at: Dropbox link to essay.

Synopsis: You and your friend are buried in a dark forest and are under attack. You have to take turns distracting the enemy and attempting to dig yourselves free. The enemy gets more aggravated over time and finally kills both players.

Perspective: The game is played from a first-person perspective.

Player actions: The player can wave her/his hands in the air to draw the enemy character’s attention or dig at the ground in front of her/him. That’s it.

Character behaviour: During the game, the player character grows more distressed. This is communicated to the players through the sound of an elevating heartbeat, panicked breathing, shaky hands and whimpers. These symptoms increase in volume the closer the enemy comes.

Q: Why are the players in a dark forest? Isn’t that kind of cliché?
A: It is to draw on the innate human fear of the unknown in two ways: Firstly, limiting their line of sight with darkness and obstructive objects and secondly, placing them out in the open, a setting the player is (presumably) less familiar and therefore less comfortable with than being indoors.

Q: Okay, why can’t the players look around then?
A: This is also to limit line of sight and play on the players’ fear of the unknown since it allows for sound effects that give the players the impression that more potential enemies are approaching, without letting the players know what they look like or how many there could be.

Besides that, this solution keeps the controls simple – move the mouse to move the character’s hands – period. (This is also a psychological thing. Since the player character’s hand movements correspond with the player actually moving their hand, it will feel more natural and require less thinking on the player’s part than for example moving their hand to move the character’s head).

Q: So why the first-person perspective? To increase immersion?
A: It is mostly to support the limit-line-of-sight argument and give the player clear view of the other player and the enemy characters. If the player can zoom out, the “unknown” part about other enemies is lost (if they get too close the player sees them, if they keep their distance, the player won’t perceive them as as much of a threat).

Q: Why are there two players? In horror games, co-op gameplay often breaks immersion.
A: It is a two-player game to increase player investment in his/her actions. On the one hand: The player’s own survival is dependant on the other player’s ability to act. On the other: The player’s actions decide the fate of another character whom the player associates with another human being rather than just a NPC.

Q: How does the player character know how much time they have left?
A: The enemy character exhibits increasingly aggresive behaviour (louder growling, faster movement building up to a charge) and the player characters express greater distress, building up tension. The players are not given an exact time-limit, a visible counter or anything of that sort. This is to keep the players focused on each other and on the enemy character in the middle of the screen rather than have them keeping track of numbers.

Q: Do we get to see an example of the setting?
A: You can see a quick speedpaint.

 

Setting example
Figure 1. “A quick speedpaint.”

 

Great job reader! It’s Saturday, so you can have what we Swedes call “Lördagsgodis”.

Lordagsgodis

 

 

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