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BoRT Feb’09 [Paranoid Android]

February 24, 2009

scannerI have long considered the idea of contributing to CorvusE’s “Blogs of the Round Table” over at Man Bytes Blog. But time and ambivalence have reserved my position to an onlooker more often than a participator. Therefore it is almost poetic that my first entry for BoRT not only comes late in the month but also branches off from Travis Megill’s January BoRT entry over at The Autumnal City. In it, he proposes the idea of designing a game from a literary source: Philip K. Dick’s cyber-punk, science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly.

Megill’s design for A Scanner Darkly follows a perspective from The Sims, where the play controls the protagonist Fred who is an undercover narcotics officer in the guise of Bob Arctor. In it he must balance the relationships with the NPCs in the household either by doing drugs, having conversations, and basically keeping them happy. At the same time he must uncover the leader of a drug ring in the mists of the group. The player eventually beings to lose control of Fred as he consumes more drugs. This proposed A Scanner Darkly game is highly reliant on the scanner aesthetic and social relationships.

But I’m going to take a different direction, moving out of the social mechanic and balance of control, but instead growing on the concept of surveillance and focusing much more on the aspect of paranoia. My reading of Fred/Bob is that he is not a social character but quite the opposite. It is irrefutable to deny the themes of alienation and disassociation that are prevalent throughout Philip K. Dick’s work. This type of dissonant and isolate gameplay deserves to be explored further at a time where social networking and communal gaming are on the rise in the industry. So let me take Megill’s “scanner” concept and take it a step further.

My idea is a combination of the cinematic voyeurism from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear View Window in combination with the paranoia of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Megill has the ingenious idea of setting the game in The Sims perspective, but let us experiment with the idea of camera angles. The player will be able to review multiple angles of the same or various other rooms ala the Resident Evil skewed perspective. Each level will be the course of a day where the player will be able to complete the day by attempting to balance his investigation while maintaining the balance of keeping the housemates happy.

But after the level is complete, the player gains the ability to review the events that previously transpired. He will be able to review the video of multiple rooms he was both present and absent for. Similar to the recent PSN demoscene game, Linger in the Shadows, the player will be able to fiddle around with the environment as events transpire rewinding and forwarding. Experimenting with objects at certain points reveal different scenarios of events in the surveillance. By playing with the environment and video the archive reveals events that may never occurred during the playthrough and choices not performed by the player.

Nona-monitor support is a plus for the optimal experience.

Nona-monitor support is a plus for the optimal experience.

To deal with the mechanic of differing gameplay footage hiccups will occur in the primary angle that shall be considered the default angle of the player. These hiccups that indicate key video footage will occur as the player rewinds of forwards through the video. In order to see the varying accounts of footage the player must go to different angle of the same room to see how this new scenario transpires. The player will be able to control the character at these different angles and play around with the environment or varying conversation to determine whether his original or new playthrough is true or not.

This mechanic increases exponentially as the game progresses dependent on the narrative the game takes. In Megill’s interpretation is is the use of the drug, Substance D. There is a single ultimate scenario for the game but the path to this may differ. The real difference in the conclusion is the amount of information revealed or hidden in the ending the player achieves. The player can lose friends, gain evidence from the archive and decide whether it is questionable or legitimate all leading to varying levels of the game’s conclusion. To decide the authenticity of evidence the player must compare events and footage from areas in the household that he is not present in.

Level completion is determined by the player when he decides he has gathered enough evidence. Similar to the game Way of the Samurai, losing friends and key points in the game will lead to different scenarios containing information for ultimate ending. In the A Scanner Darkly instance, increased drug use of the character during gameplay will open up new footage and evidence revealed through hiccups as well as dialog trees with other characters. The “true” ending of the game will reveal the entirety of the role of protagonist(s) and the purpose of the surveillance.

Players will be able to mark pieces of footage and level sections into a time-line, which he can revisit in order to piece everything together. At the end of each level the game will go into a first person narration interpreting and accounting the events in one continuous video in order to provide some linear account to what is actually going on. The game will ultimately conclude with a pan back to reveal another surveillance camera angle of the final segment and play out a final in-game cinematic concluding the ending scenario and level of information the player ultimately achieves.

What I have just described is an unwieldy design of a game. The easy possibility of frustration is a necessity in order to provoke a sense a paranoia and mistrust on what he believes to be true or not. It becomes a balancing act of keeping the player immersed and interested in the mystery while at the same time not becoming a hindrance on the players “enjoyment” of the game. It’s a daunting concept sacrificing ease of entry for an experience unique, terrifying, and compellingly cerebral.

This will all make sense in the end.

This will all make sense in the end.

Visit the BoRT Main Hall for the rest of this month’s entries.

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