Pictures for Truth, an “advocacy game”
Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.
Pictures for Truth is a newsgame funded by Amnesty International, produced using Microsoft’s XNA software development kit. You play an American journalist in China just prior to the Beijing Olympics. You have a date to meet with a Chinese journalist covering poor living conditions at a toxic electronics dump. When you arrive at your hotel, you receive a call informing you that your friend has been detained by authorities at the dump.
A police officer at the dump confiscates your camera and hauls your friend off to jail. You must find a new camera, interview people at the dump and outside a jail, and take pictures to accompany the “stories” generated by the interviews. You write three stories: about the health issues surrounding the dump, the working conditions of those living near the dump, and about China’s municipal system in regards to the death penalty (this story is unlocked by completing the first two).
Aesthetically the game is rather beautiful. Unlike many of these investigative reporter games we’ve played (like Homeland Guantanamo), PFT is rendered in realtime 3D. So instead of clicking between discrete composed scenes, you get to move through sensory-immersive recreations of the dump and the Chinese jail. The game is in black and white, presumably to compare the game with a newspaper. Texturing is spare, mostly hatched greyscale or pencil scribbling. The characters look like white paper cutouts.
A lot of effort has gone into making PFT “gamey.” You receive fame points for every interview question you ask and for adding pictures relevant to the stories you are composing. Fame unlocks three “power-ups:” a zoom lens, an extended hard drive for your PDA, and a hidden camera.
Unfortunately, only the hidden camera is actually useful. You must have this in order to take pictures inside the jail cell where your friend is being held. The zoom may increase the fame points you receive for taking pictures, but if this is true it would violate the photographic rule of thirds (placing the focus of your pictures in a third of the screen, with axis of action from the subject aiming toward the unoccupied two thirds (this assertion is disputable, but the fact that the NPCs remain static means that there’s no real reason to zoom up close to their faces to catch, say, teardrops forming in their eyes). The PDA hard drive space is only needed to store pictures; you can delete unwanted or used pictures, and there aren’t really enough subjects to require massive amounts of space.
The biggest problem with the game is that there’s no real room for agency on the part of the player. All one has to do is click through every available conversation piece with each NPC. Anyone used to playing games made by Bethesda knows the drill: swiftly click through the conversation tree without paying attention to much of anything in order to unlock everything, and then find the one piece you need to progress the game state and read it carefully. Adding insult to injury, the game only takes two lines of conversation and forces you to use them for the article you’re writing. It would have made much more sense to add a score for each line and then allow you to combine then to maximize the “fame” points for the article. This would at least provide some feedback educating the player on the quality of different types of information. The picture mechanic does some work to remedy this: much like in Dead Rising, capturing points of interests (represented as nodes or “hot points” once the cameras snaps) awards more points; re-using the same subject twice in an article subtracts points.
In the end it’s obvious what Amnesty’s purpose was for this game: not to teach one how to be a journalist, but to teach one how difficult it is to be a journalist in China. There’s also the ancillary educational goal of teaching players about living, working, and municipal conditions in China.
The makers do connect these three educational points with their narrative thread. Another occupant of the jail holding your friend is a woman who has been jailed for trafficking heroin. She did this in order to buy medicine for her daughter, a girl you encountered earlier in the dump standing around by herself. You can choose whether or not to enlist a doctor’s help for the child, but it really doesn’t make sense not to do it and your ending condition doesn’t change if you do this or not.
As a side note, this game did highlight for me the difficulty of using XNA to create one of these games. Only a Windows machine will run games made in this way, and they have a somewhat high barrier of entry on account of the fact that Windows has to install the .NET Framework 3.5 in order to run them. This requires roughly 15 minutes of downloading, installing, and configuring (plus a mandatory system restart) – of course, this is a one-time only thing, and now your computer is set up to play anything else built in XNA. The payoff seems worth it in the end, however, because the product comes off as much more polished than something developed in Flash. Realtime 3D rendering is always a plus, and at the very least this game didn’t require as much of a download time as a game distributed through Kuma War’s download client.