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.

"Being a Person is Hard" - Design Progress!

This blog post is massively disorganized, because there’s simply so much going on in my mind, now. I’ve got pages in my sketchbook of notes and diagrams as I try to envision the system that underlies a person’s mind. Even boiling this down to the simplest form possible, trying to eliminate as many variables as I can, I still wish to portray the holistic experience of living with depression, and the specific weight of stigma. In order to do this, things can’t be too simple; oversimplification, in fact, is one of the problems presented by stigma.

My “three resource” system remains, at its core, with the ideas of Stress, Mood, and Energy being central to the character’s actions; all other variables influence these resources, as do actions and combat. These three resources are synthesized, while the rest are a bit more concrete: hunger, sleep, hygeine. Some things get a little more complex, though, like the impacts of social interaction and stigma from the outside, and the nebulous, frightening prospect of “making progress”. Some things are falling into place well: Energy is primarily governed by sleep, but that speaks mostly to the physical energy of the character, not the mental energy. The disparity between these two things can rather conveniently be represented as a “cap” on the energy meter which cannot be exceeded due to lowered mental energy. “Mood” will not show as a meter, but instead occur in the character’s dialogue/monologues and in their acting/expression. “Stress” is a negative resource, which might sometimes be mistaken for motivation but truly is dangerous whenever it builds past a certain point.

On the note of combat, the player may enter combat with the “monster” at any time, and leave combat at any time. Combat utilizes the same synthesized resources, and those synthesized resources also play into creating the monster’s “health bar”. Fighting the monster is a thought exercise: “attacks” are played out as talking to yourself, processing emotions, planning ahead, reorganizing your mind. The monster may fight back with “intrusive thoughts” or “negative loops” which misdirect your attempts to fight it and lead to you beating yourself up or falling into self-stigmatizing patterns. The monster will never grow smaller as a direct result of combat; combat is often unfruitful, but occasionally, it may be useful for processing emotions and self-actualization.

One of the big themes of the game is, indeed, the process of becoming self-aware, realizing that your body and mind are one cohesive system and nothing truly exists in isolation of another part of you. Realizing your bad habits, changing the way you think, restructuring the interface and UI so that you can better understand what is happening in your mind underneath that—these are all things the main character will likely have to do as they try to get better.

Stigma comes from social interaction, but social interaction also boosts your mood and can also be the key to reducing stigma and learning new perspectives and coping mechanisms. Some people help, and some people don’t; some people get it, and some people really don’t. Some of them mean well, some of them are malicious; sometimes they have reasons for being that way, sometimes they’re just ignorant. The social element of this system is pretty complicated, but I think it’s manageable if I keep the cast of the game fairly small.

The camera should stay at eye level whenever possible. Eye level is the most relateable camera angle for obvious reasons.

I need to begin on a prototype, and begin testing some of these systems in tandem with each other. One of my biggest questions is time: is a real-time clock plausible, or will it put too much pressure on the player? Is a “block-based” clock, where time only passes when the player selects an action, realistic enough, will it feel like time has meaning in such a system? I know that I don’t want a “set number of actions per day” type of clock; this doesn’t capture enough of the nuance of living. In addition, I have a great deal of dialogue trees and narrative choices to consider, as well as the obvious question of how the actual math underlying my “human system” should work. Thankfully, math is fun, and I can mess around with it quite a bit as I go.

I’ve been working together with Taylor to get some characters designed. The main character’s name is Agate, and their experiences in many ways mirror those of both myself and Taylor—though, that said, Agate is a different person entirely from either of us. The game, at the moment, is borrowing its new working title from a flower, considering that Agate is an apothecary: Protea.

Now then, I haven’t quite met the goals I had shot for myself last week. I got distracted digging around in the design, finding bigger and more issues than I had anticipated; personal matters have also gotten in the way, including a bad week at my day job. I’m experiencing the same awkward balance as Agate will in Protea: not feeling like I’m meeting my goals, but trying to be gentle with myself even so, and maintaining hope that it can still be done. I’ve certainly made progress, mostly in writing out the system and creating profiles for some characters, but I became distracted from the things I wished to accomplish. A timeline is imperative at this point, to keep me from continuing in this pattern of distraction. Now that I have a better understanding of my system, a prototype is a necessity as well; I am anxious about returning to code space, and in particular, my uncertainty of how to handle the interface was blocking my way. I’ve got some interface designs I don’t hate, though, so that nasty barrier is overcome, hopefully.

I’ve also been feeling out my relationship with my own body—most notably, with my chronic pain. I’d never applied this phrase to myself before GDC, but it hit me rather like a ton of bricks that… yes, that’s something I have, and I don’t need a specific medical diagnosis to justify that I’m hurting all the time. Only I can know that I’m in pain, after all. It’s bizarre how much I simply normalized it, assuming that because I was “out of shape” I was in pain, and that this was just my fault and nothing out of the ordinary. As it turns out, most people aren’t miserably sore to the point of not wanting to get out of bed many days just because they’re out of shape.

Chronic pain, digestive issues, chest pains, depression, anxiety. It’s all part of one system—the human system of being me, and likely, these things are all tightly interconnected in the web that is my health. This is a lot of the inspiration for Agate’s human system; they also deal with fatigue and chronic pain as part of their experience. Funny, how even now, as I work on a paper about stigma, I’m only just now realizing my own silly self-stigmas that prevent me from being nicer to my body… I’d always assumed that just… doing more would make the pain go away? Since I was just in pain from not exercising enough, obviously. As it turns out, I’m not in that bad of physical shape… my physical therapist pointed out that there’s nothing structurally wrong with my body, and for how stiff I feel, I actually have good range of motion and am very flexible. Weird how that works out… It’s rather freeing, actually, to just acknowledge that this pain isn’t in my control, and that maybe there are other ways to deal with it than just the narrow assumptions I’d initially made.

thesisLou Carroll