Game developer of many hats. MFA Thesis student. Part-time vocal synthesis guru.

Thesis Blog

Warning: not all blogging is directly related to thesis, although most of it is.

The Abstract Aesthetic, and Metaphors

I don’t quite feel up to getting into the academic stuff right this minute, so let’s go back to the game design side of things for a minute to talk about the aesthetic values I’m looking at and the logic behind them.

In talking about how to create empathy, some of the notes made in iThrive’s design toolkit include a strong central narrative, and relatable characters and themes. As I mentioned before, an avatar character might look like a cheap way to induce empathy, but it can actually remove the player from the game world if the “avatar” does not act as the player would themselves. Instead of an avatar, a relatable protagonist with goals of their own, someone with whom the players can empathize, is a better choice. In addition to this character, there should be a couple more characters who can be targets of empathy—both for the player, and for the main character, so that the player can learn alongside the main character. Giving the player time to bond with these additional major characters opens up a door for additional perspectives on stigma and mental illness, so it’s valuable in a number of ways.

Beyond that, I believe that using a somewhat abstract—but not entirely so—aesthetic will help keep characters easily relatable. Couching the matter at hand (mental illness and stigma) in a thin layer of metaphor so that it’s easier to swallow without initial prejudices is the first step of this abstraction; I wish to portray the illness as a “monster” which threads itself through every aspect of the main character’s life. However, this may not have a concrete interpretation in the narrative, and instead remain only as a visual and mechanical metaphor; I haven’t yet determined the best course of action on that matter. At the moment, my idea for the narrative itself is somewhat abstract and couched in metaphor, too: a quest or project could truly represent any long-term goal, and the everyday actions that the character takes in the process of maintaining their state of being should be as universal as possible.

I’m thus far imagining a sketchy, desaturated art style, to help remove bias of who the characters are; they could be anyone, really, although despite this, they should still have distinct personalities and intentions. They should still be able to visibly show emotion even in these abstracted forms, so keeping them as stylized humans is ideal, I think. Humans relate easily to human faces, and things which can quickly be abstracted as human faces; taking advantage of this, it should be completely plausible to use a stylized aesthetic to portray my characters and world. It also makes the art assets far easier to complete, which is definitely a concern when I’m pressed for time and help, so making the best of my limitations is a good thing.

Going back to the idea of metaphor, I think metaphor plays a very important role in empathy games. Metaphor helps make an experience more generic and easily understood; choosing good metaphors is essential to my creative process. Unfortunately, I still only have one metaphor which I’m attached to: the endless boss battle. The boss’s “health” is seen as an inverse to your own health; every action you take should work toward weakening it. That said, mental illness flares unpredictably; the boss’s counter-attacks are sporadic, and not entirely related to your own actions. Your coping mechanisms are your special skills when it comes to fighting back and dealing more damage, or perhaps passively improving your own stats (mood, stress level, etc) as you use them. I think this metaphor is simple, elegant, and quite a lot of fun, so I intend to weave this into my narrative in a satisfying way… but that narrative eludes me somewhat even now, a matter which I must tackle sooner than later.

Progress is slow, and it’s distressing to see slow progress. The worse you’re doing, the worse you continue to do; a terrible, vicious cycle of spiraling downward… this is another part of the experience I want to capture, personal, raw, and immediate. Failing in my goals makes my motivation decrease; this is the feeling of Inertia, and why i have chosen that as my game’s working title. An object in motion will stay in motion: if I can simply continue moving, it will all become easier… but a body in stasis will remain in stasis, and the sheer amount of force it takes for me to begin to accelerate is staggering.

Laden with negative thoughts, days extend into nights, and time doesn’t exist in static chunks. I can easily make the time system in Inertia feel that way, too, with inconsistent sleeping hours, and blocks of time wasted doing nothing but staring at your computer screen wondering what to do next, or trying to convince yourself that what needs to be done is worth doing, and is possible in the first place… well, at least that answers the question of how to make my mechanical schedule in this simulation…

…Sorry, this last bit got off track, but I wanted to record some of these insane thoughts while they’re alive and fresh in my spiraling brain. Seems my depressed brain cell might also be my poetic brain cell…