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.

Failed Concepts: Some retrospect

One of the bigger things that’s been eating at me is the number of failed concepts I had for my project component on my thesis.

The first idea I actually wrote out was called MegaMegaMega! - a pretty large-scale action RPG styled by myself and my brother, Phayne. It featured some of our characters from an ongoing text roleplay we’d been in, plus some new ones, many of whom had mental illnesses to speak of, and who we could certainly tell an emotional story about. The main problem with this whole idea was pretty simple: it was HUGE! With a cast of five main characters plus who knows how many side characters, all of them having superpowers, all of them having illnesses and unique stories, and so, so many things planned from our text roleplay—some of which would outright hurt my intentions with this thesis, such as one of my characters becoming villainous in what might be seen as a psychotic breakdown—it was way too much to even begin to unpack. Besides that, it was more of a story of representation than actual empathy; relying only on the story for empathy is too basic.

I should’ve probably realized from there that recycling ideas wasn’t going to work, but that didn’t quite occur to my simple mind. The next idea I tried to recycle was parraLLels, a puzzle-platformer about two children in mirrored parallel worlds who strive to meet across their reflections. The original incarnation of this idea, before I tried to bring it in as my thesis project, featured a blind character and a deaf character—the differences in their perspectives would create the puzzles, and their unique abilities would help you navigate the world.

This idea of perspective-taking and forming a close bond held some promise, but I had to change things about the characters, focusing on mental disabilities rather than physical ones. The mechanic for the illness was essentially a “sanity meter”, renamed now as a “stress meter” (which does actually fix most of the issues with sanity meters) which caused actions to become more difficult under stressful circumstances. While this was all well and good, it wasn’t quite all there. The metaphor, notably, had the major flaw of making it seem that the two characters (two sides of a coin) were alters of one person, indicating dissociative identity disorder—which, if it had been intentional, might have very well been genius of me, but it wasn’t, unfortunately. I still want to focus on the illnesses which are closer to me, in order to create something personal and true. The mechanics were weak, too, with only the stress meter present to create an experience of mental illness, and while the story could discuss these things neatly, it would fall short without full support from the gameplay.

So, I took things back to the drawing board again, which caused me to enter a state of paralysis and confusion for quite some time as I searched in my mind for a good metaphor and a narrative I could get attached to. The basic idea of Inertia sprung up easily enough, though in my initial draft, all of the characters were imbued with monstrous features representing the stigma that was impressed on them and that they, in turn, impressed on themselves. The characters’ appearances would act as metaphors for their conditions, and the main character would literally have the ability to see these “mental appearances” in a liminal space between reality and perception.

That’s all a pretty interesting concept, but it started to get out of hand quickly, and I found myself mostly enamored with the simpler parts of it: the idea of your illness as a “monster” which infests everything you do. The fantastical elements may not quite be necessary, either; I intended to keep the setting mundane in that draft, which is something I’m now questioning a bit. Is a mundane setting with a few fantastical elements (metaphors) better? Or can I work with a purely mundane setting and story, using only visual (non-literal in the game world) metaphors? Or, would it be better to make the setting a bit openly fantastical, and use stronger metaphors at the risk of overcomplicating things? These are questions I’m still searching for answers to.

Either way, I want the story itself to be simple: the character has a long-term, multi-step goal to accmplish, and doing so is a challenge due to the monster that haunts them. With the help of their friends and coping mechanisms they learn as they go, they have to overcome the challenge before them: living.

(That reminds to note this neat idea I had: if you ever “lose” the battle, you’re presented simply with a screen that asks: “Do you want to give up?” And of course you don’t. There’s no dying, no game over… unless you give up. But you don’t want to give up… even when everything kind of sucks. Reflecting the bleakness of suicidality, yet the drive to simply live which keeps me going each day… because I don’t want to die, I just want to sleep, you know? Well, that’s part of my experience, which is why it’s here.)

I feel like it hardly matters what the goal is, yet that makes choosing one I like all the more difficult. It hardly matters what stands in the way of that goal, because those things will simply act to compound the effects of depression and anxiety which paralyze me on a day to day basis. I’ve gotten totally off-topic, but hey, that’s okay too. Sometimes it be like that.

If I’m really lazy, I’ll just make it grad school…