Chungking Espresso

End of Life IF

Posted in Newsgames, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 19, 2009

eol

End of Life is an interactive fiction about family life and decision-making. It started as an idea in Ian Bogost’s newsgame project studio. One of the branches of newsgames we have identified for our book is the documentary game. Typically these have a medium-length (20 minutes to two hours) playthrough time and are built as a mod for a 3D engine. There are three major types: spatial, procedural, and personal. Personal documentary games mix spatial and system-based models in order to tell share a story from a unique, subjective point-of-view. End of Life is a text-based adaptation of the documentary game form, addressing the real-world issue of “end of life counseling” or the decision whether to pull life support from a dying loved one.

The high concept pitch for EoL would sound something like, “It’s Ruben & Lullaby meets The Sound and The Fury.” Point-of-view switching is a powerful literary device, but in static texts this typically implies a forced perspective. In EoL, the player can switch back and forth between five family members at any moment and in any order. If they don’t like a character, they can ignore her for the course of the playthrough. The invalid family patriarch is our Benjy Compson (the mentally handicapped member of Faulkner’s fictional family), providing commentary that the active family members do not have access to. Some characters always do the same things in every playthrough; most have branching choices based on their moods at certain points in the day. When there is no choice in action, mood will instead dictate how the character mentally reacts to her situation.

Ruben & Lullaby provides the inspiration for the interaction model: the player controls a wisp that can nudge the emotions of one family member per hour. I see this as a direct contradiction of the interaction model of The Sims, where players are cued to a desire or feeling in the Sim that they can rectify or not by dictating action. Players of R&L and Facade are often frustrated when their commands don’t lead to tangible results in game, and I wanted to capture a similar frustration in EoL. Each family member begins the playthrough in a randomized mood. Each is variably susceptible to particular mood swings, leading to healthy dose of guesswork and replay value. The player can also choose to abstain from influencing the characters, letting the drama play out based on the beginning values.

At the end of the game, the family convenes to decide the fate of the patriarch; some will vote to keep him alive if they are in a good mood, some if they are in a bad mood. This decision takes place offscreen, much as in the violent sections of Greek tragedy (mostly because I wasn’t good enough to code it dramatically). The player has gleaned parts of their personalities in the playthrough, but he doesn’t know everything about each family member. Most importantly, their ethics aren’t considered. The game argues that people make decisions based on who they are and the mood they are in. Ethics certainly make up who we are, but they tend to be remarkably malleable under duress. Decisions are also relational; some people, under some circumstances, will take radical action to counteract what they see as the controlling influence of others.

In discussing digital media, we often fall back on an essentialist logic that says that an artifact is aesthetically legitimate if it maximizes the affordances of the medium; however, there is a slightly older aesthetic criterion, coming from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which states that aesthetic legitimacy arises not from essentialist qualities but from the reflection of the work’s means of production–it has to reify the cultural milieu of a time and place, adopting a suitable form for conveying it. End of Life draws from the latter school of thought, directly confronting a relevant public issue and encapsulating how one specific family deals with it.

The suggestion that a digital artifact should provide always immersion, embodiment, and agency is perverse. It only makes sense if one views digital media as escapism, created to fully engage the user in the place of the real world around them. A brute fact of human life is that we don’t have control over much of our lives or the lives of others. Aarseth argues that games become more “gamelike” if they are configurative, that the player should be able to see the meaningful influence her actions have on a virtual world. I would argue that agency and embodiment mean more in configurative work when they are directly contradicted in non-configurative work. By taking these essential qualities away sometimes, we make them more cherished. Such qualities should be selected from to suit the work, not the other way around. Defaulting to what is important to us robs it of importance. This is an educational opportunity, an antidote to the intoxicating sense of power that most digital artifacts provide. Some things simply aren’t configurative in the real world; families are a good example.

A week before finishing this project, I finally found published theoretical grounding for my position. In their early work on augmented reality games, Jay Bolter and Blair MacIntyre argue that point-of-view switching provides adequate embodiment in lieu of actual agency in a digital environment.2 I actually don’t find their particular example of this principle compelling; basically they simplified Twelve Angry Jurors to Three Jurors, strapped a backpack computer and a virtual reality visor to a player, and then allowed the player to switch between inhabiting the mindset of one of the three characters as a static drama played out. I think EoL takes point-of-view switching one step further and provides a better proof-of-concept for their argument.

I consider End of Life no small success. My writing is admittedly the weakest element; mentally I finished the piece the moment I finished coding the framework girding the story. This project combines everything I’ve learned how to do in Flash thus far (excepting animation), and it constitutes the first true state machine I’ve ever made completely by myself in the platform. Even though the writing is somewhat trite, pulling from every cliche of everyday family life I’m familiar with, it becomes true in that I pulled it from one specific, real-world family (my own).

There is some room for future development here, both graphically and procedurally. Right now there are two variations for every character in every round based on there mood. Given the way the structure is set up, I could add mood variations to the branching story sections or add a third mood variation (neutral) given enough time and literary inspiration. I would also love to try to remake this project as a true documentary game, in a 3D engine, with unique art assets and dialogue. The current iteration of this project represents the utmost level of my design and programming abilities given the time constraints and the specifications of the assignment.

I should note that this situation didn’t actually happen to my family, and the personalities have been a bit blown own to be more compelling. My grandfather died five years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, asleep in his bed, in the room that I grew up in. This isn’t meant to be a universal story, though it can be generalized to the extent that families are, after all, families; it is a directed experience featuring characters with largely determinate personalities. This is the way I wanted it, and I hope the player enjoys what I crafted for them. A big thank you goes out to Graham Jans for teaching me how to randomize variables in Flash. I’m also indebted to my family for providing me with the strong personalities embedded in the family members of this fiction. Thank you to my father, who used to work as an intensive care nurse, for describing the hour-by-hour care of a comatose patient.

———————-

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16-45.

MacIntrye, Blair and Jay Bolter. “Single-narrative, multiple point-of-view dramatic experiences in augmented reality” in Virtual Reality 7 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 10-16.

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6 Responses

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  1. Borut said, on October 19, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Nice. It definitely works best w/multiple playthroughs – once I had gotten an ending when the family decides to let the grandfather go (after several just exploring the mood effects), it wasn’t through the types of moods I had expected. Which in turn made me wonder about those correlations between the family’s state of mind and their decision, and how it has perhaps less to do with care for & the state of the family member that is hospitalized than we’d like to think.

    (That was maybe on the 4th or 5th, including the first one where I was the standard lazy player, didn’t read what the buttons did, and assumed they were each influencing a different mood. Button labels, man, button labels). 🙂

    Interesting link to Adorno, as I’m a critical theory n00b I wasn’t familiar with him. But I am often irked by the steadfast declaration that if a work doesn’t take complete advantage of the primary affordance(s) of the medium, it’s crap. Film people do it too (Mamet does it quite humorously in Bambi vs. Godzilla), but the argument never seems to address all the counterexamples that disprove the point.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on October 19, 2009 at 12:23 pm

      Woah Borut, you played it multiple times AND read the essay? I thought only like my girlfriend and maybe my dad would give it such a thorough look-see. Thank you so much!

      Yeah right away during the critique my professor was like, “Why is blue neutral? Which button is which?” So I definitely had a usability knock there. He also said the font for the son character was too hard to read (an accessibility issue), but I actually kind of like that since he’s the least favorable character and I wouldn’t mind people skipping over him completely.

      Adorno and the Frankfurt school are pretty straight up Marxism. You just don’t ever really see Marx talk directly about art except maybe in his letters and smaller essays. It’s very much a refined version of auteur theory–the specifics of creation are important, but it recognizes all the labor that goes into the work. Beckett was Adorno’s artistic hero, if that helps flesh out the notion a bit for you. Like a lot of the Frankfurt School he was obsessed with how WWII changed the world. Beckett was the poster child for the end of time.

  2. Spencer said, on October 20, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Not having read any of the critics or thinkers you mention in the essay, I’m limited to peripheral comments.

    It might have made sense for the way in which the mood was altered for each character to be idiosyncratic. As you say, the typefaces used had their own unspoken connotations, and the different photographs suggested differing lifestyles and outlooks, but the button interface was the same for every character. I think that a small change here could really change just how personal the game feels.

    Other than that, and perhaps a little tightening with the writing, I thought that it was as convincing a multiple-PoV game as I’ve played.

    But I hope you realise, Simon, that you’ve broken the cardinal rule. You’ve created a game which has no singularly satisfying ending.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on October 21, 2009 at 2:33 am

      Sorry it took me so long to get back to you! I added a couple sources in the footnotes. The third one that I didn’t post is Aarseth’s book Cybertext. I have no idea why I’m writing that here instead of in the post.

      The buttons, I admit, are probably the dumbest things on there. It was a lazy move, basically just selecting the best-fitting stock buttons out of the Flash components list. Basically I’m awful at Photoshop, so I didn’t make any of the art assets myself.

      That said, I agree that your suggestion would improve the thing dramatically. Not only could the buttons look different… but perhaps I could have *different* buttons (functionally) for each character. I’m thinking about shopping this as a prototype with some real programmers and UI designers in my program, and maybe developing it further for an IF competition or two (I would tweak the ruleset and expand/improve the writing quality). If I do that, I’ll definitely change the buttons and give you a nice citation for the idea 🙂

      • Spencer said, on October 21, 2009 at 4:26 am

        Ah – I’ve been meaning to get around to Aarseth.

        Simon, it took you a day to get back to me. If that’s “long” in the scale of your life, then maybe you devote too much attention to the Brainysphere stuff. Yours isn’t the kind of site whose functionality is dependent on the community spirit in the comments, anyway.

        Yeah, it did seem a little one-size-fits all. While playing, I thought, “the only thing stopping this being a packaged DS release is personality-relevant mini-games instead of buttons.”

        It sounds like you’d thought of this stuff already, but I’m not going to say no to an offered citation.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on October 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm

        Strangely enough I’m not doing too much commenting these days unless somebody asks me a direct question. I’m getting rusty, really, working on stuff other than blogs that keeps me from regular updates here. It feels good to take a break, but I wouldn’t mind returning to a daily journal type thing.


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