A video game reflecting on the spread of fear and discrimination
When the pandemic hit, our final quarter of University changed to all remote classes. With the drastic changes to our routines and isolation from quarantining, our team members found solace in gaming and thought it was something that brought people together. With video games being interactive by nature, our research supported that they are a great way to facilitate empathy and reflection within players. Therefore, with the creative freedom we had for our Capstone project, our team wanted to create a game that responded to these difficult times.
Due to the pandemic, there was a sharp increase in hate crimes against people of Asian descent. We worried for our parents and family members, not only because of the virus but also because of how other people might treat them. We also noticed that this issue was not being addressed enough in mainstream media and there was little being done about it. These events inspired us to bring to light the spread of fear and how it is related to discrimination.
In order to make sure we were telling the right story, we wanted to make sure we had a strong foundation in data. We did secondary research to take the temperature of the social climate and get a basic understanding of the types of discrimination that was happening, why and how it happens, and how fear and unreliable information is related to discrimination. However, we also wanted to understand how this issue affected people we know in our own communities. Therefore, we released a questionnaire on online social platforms and conducted zoom interviews with participants to ask them about their experiences and perceptions on fear and discrimination.
There was a huge reservoir of already existing games we could pull for inspiration. We looked for games that were simple in mechanics and graphics but still told compelling stories.
These games are:
Now that we had our insights, themes, and inspiration for our game, we needed to decide what types of mechanics and interaction our game would have. Because of our limited coding ability, we wanted to keep the mechanics as simple as possible but well-rounded enough to be able to depict a good story.
We landed on a 2-dimensional side-scrolling platform game concept where the character would be able to move around and interact with various objects. We used an open source game engine called GDevelop5 that allowed us to develop this type of game. As the main coder on our team, I was able to learn a lot from this program.
While we were figuring out mechanics we were simultaneously writing the story and dialogue. Our goal was to reflect the current times and struggles, but make it abstract enough to be relatable to a wider context. Having subtlety, complexity, and sophistication while giving the appropriate subtext in the writing was a challenge we believe we were able to pull off.
Players learn and adapt to gaming worlds through information they are given. Keeping this in mind, we utilized our power as narrators to immerse the player in this world through 4 major actants.
The most important actant is the player character. The player is able to explore and reflect on the world of 7 Horns through this gender-neutral character’s life. While living inside during lockdown, they must gather information via outside sources and reflect on portraits inside their home. Their world view shifts depending on perceived information.
Mirroring today's modern media, the Radio serves as the player's main source of information of the outside world. Charismatic, eccentric, and full of exaggeration; we wanted to treat this actant as a character itself rather than just an object. It delivers unfortunate news with a tone that shifts as the days pass. Everyone needs a companion when living in lockdown, and the Radio is here to serve.
Portraits on the player's wall display faces of loved ones and serve as a visual representation of the player character's perception and a way for the player to learn more about their world. As information is revealed to the player, these portraits evolve into distorted renditions of who they once represented.
Once the player character has finished exploring for the day, they record their thoughts in their trusty journal. The player chooses between written prompts that focus on different aspects of the day's events and are then given a corresponding visual entry drawn by the player character.
We believed that compelling stories could be told with simple graphics. Since we never made a game before and only had 10 weeks, this principle leaned in our favor. Katelyn, our character designer, did a wonderful job exploring various styles that we chose from.
For this style, the characters of this world are masked creatures. 7 Horns addresses sensitive topics, so we wanted to ensure that we abstracted the characters enough to avoid specifying a certain race or group. While this style was successful in being unique and abstract, it struggled in building empathy due to the lack of expressive faces.
This style had characters assembled of various animal features. However, we avoided making them real animal species (like Zootopia), because we didn't want the inherent fear between groups to be based on reality (such as wolves actually actually being predators to sheep). This style was able to elicit a lot of empathy, but did not have the unique staying power of the mask style.
This style was mainly an exercise in using cute things for eerie purposes. It went over extremely well with our audiences, but still had the same concerns as the Animal style and that the eyes were not expressive enough.
Overwhelmed with positive feedback from the previous styles, we decided to combine them. We kept the form of the masks, but added in more familiar animal features and expressive faces for building empathy. We also kept the lineless quality for its clean look and simplicity, but with the addition of small gradients in portraits and the environment. This addition of small colors on top of the generally binary style allowed for us to make more thoughtful transitions from the 1st to 7th day.
Map & Lighting
We wanted the environment to reflect the player character's gradual downward spiral into fear and apathy as the lockdown days go by. We decided to indicate this through color as if the lighting from the character’s perspective is getting grimmer.
Initially my teammates decided to depict this shift with the change in hues: an innocent light blue to a violent bloody red. However, the execution of this shift didn’t look gradual and seemed inaccurate to what we were trying to achieve. There were also issues with contrast and the obvious changes in hues might confuse the player. Instead, I suggested a gradual decrease in saturation as the days go by so that it looks as if the life and color in the room is fading which is ultimately what we decided to go with.
This project was challenging because it was our first time making a game, we had little to no previous coding experience, we only had ten weeks, and we had to adapt to do everything from research to testing remotely. There were creative differences and kinks along the way but I am thankful we were able to put the best of our ideas and abilities together to create something that tackles an important issue and helps people reflect to spread empathy. I’m also glad that I tried something new and that I acquired skills to be able to develop more games in the future. Our project was one of the five out of 40 projects in our cohort to be awarded for its message, medium, and execution.
If I were to continue this project, I would conduct thorough usability testing and fix any bugs. I would also make the teaser demo into a full game with a solid intro and ending. After that I would make the game adaptable to mobile, tablet, and various desktop sizes.