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Road to GDC: The Power of Helplessness in Video Games

February 13,2018 16:34

Why do we play video games? This is a complicated question, to which there's more than one answer. You may be attracted to the idea of slowly getting to master an intricate system of rules. You may crave for the almost intoxicating feeling you get when ...

Why do we play video games? This is a complicated question, to which there's more than one answer. You may be attracted to the idea of slowly getting to master an intricate system of rules. You may crave for the almost intoxicating feeling you get when roaming through an open world. Or maybe you enjoy the simple satisfaction of hearing your opponents yell insults involving your relatives after you annihilated them in a competitive online FPS.

Road to GDC: The Game That Helped Me Overcome Death Anxiety
The developer behind A Mortician’s Tale discusses her fear of death and the game that helped her get over it

There are millions of reasons why we enjoy playing video games, but the vast majority of them have at least one thing in common: they involve a sense of control. You, the player, are responsible for your virtual avatar’s successes as well as their discomfiture. They jump when you tell them to, crouch if you say so, and go wherever you point.
Of course, video games offer different levels of adversity, and require different levels of mastery from you. In the wonderful Night in the Woods, dying is not possible, whereas in the Dark Souls series staying alive is a miracle. In "walking simulators," all you have to do is explore and marvel at your own pace. Super Meat Boy-esque platformers, on the contrary, demand constant pixel-perfect precision. Yet, in every case, you are in charge.
I mean, that’s even a "game design 101" advice : "Make sure the player understands what they can do, and how to do it." Agency is one of the most valued characteristics in games. That’s because part of the pleasure – part of the fun – arises from your ability to form an hypothesis in your mind, try it in the game space, and see how things turn out. Sure, some experimental games, such as Mu Cartographer, bend this a little bit: Their entire point is for the player to figure out the actual relationship between their actions and the things that happen on the screen. But in general, taking control away from the player is considered an awful idea.
It is frustrating. It is unfair. It makes players feel helpless. And that’s exactly why we decided to make lack of control the core mechanic of Bury me, my Love’s game design.
But before I try to explain why we did such a silly thing, let me provide you with a little bit of context. "Bury me, my Love" is a Syrian phrase meaning "Take care," "Don't even think about dying before I do." I know this thanks to Dana. Dana is a young Syrian woman, and in 2015, she decided to flee from Syria to find refuge in Germany – as her sister had done a couple months before. The day Dana left, she set up a WhatsApp conversation in order to stay in touch with her relatives during her journey, and "Bury me, my Love" is one of the first messages her mom sent her.
A few weeks later, after she made it safely to Europe, Dana agreed to share screenshots of her WhatsApp conversation with Lucie Soullier, a reporter from french newspaper Le Monde. Lucie turned Dana's story into a very powerful piece, that's how I got to know it.
I've been doing reality-inspired games for a while now (I've been a journalist for 10 years before that), and this story immediately struck me as a powerful potential basis for a video game. It shed a very intimate light on what being a migrant looks and feels like, and bridged a gap between people. Most of us use instant messaging applications on a daily basis, but only a few do so to discuss life-and-death situations – a game based on those had to be thought-provoking.
Thanks to Lucie, we got in touch with Dana, and she almost immediately agreed to help us write a believable story. So we chatted a lot with her via Whatsapp, and in parallel, gathered tons of documentation: interviews, testimonies, NGO reports and what not. Very soon, we identified two trends.
The first one was that, no matter how meticulously planned, the journey would always go sideways at some point. There were just too many things migrants had no control over. You never know if a smuggler is going to try to scam you. You can never be sure that you won’t be caught by a border patrol. Even finding a place to sleep can sometimes be very challenging. The rules are always changing, and migrants have to constantly adapt if they want to keep moving forward.
The second one is that, paradoxically, new technologies such as smartphones to some extend made the journey even worse. Sure, being able to keep your relatives updated on your situation is nice, because when all is fine you are able to tell them and alleviate their worries. But when things go sour, on top of everything else, you have to be careful not to frighten them. And if you're unable to refrain from telling them how awful your situation is, they end up feeling helpless, and sorry, and sad – and you do, too.
Those two points really caught our attention. When you hear about the so-called migrants "crisis" in the media, it's often presented as a matter of numbers. How many of them are there? How much will Germany welcome? And France? This is dehumanizing, as are the images you see on TV. Airing decontextualized footages of a crowd piling up at a border sure is visually striking, but it shows "migrants" as a faceless entity. It's far less common to have them presented as a sum of individuals with people who care and worry about each and every one of them. It’s far less spectacular, too. But if you ask me, there's not enough video games with a focus on what it means to be a human being. So I wanted Bury me, my Love to adopt this approach.
With that in mind, we imagined two reality-inspired characters, Nour and Majd. Majd would remain in Syria, Nour would try to reach Europe. And they would stay in touch thanks to a messaging app on their smartphones. You, the player, would witness their conversations, and sometimes, you would help Majd provide Nour with support and advice. Obviously, this would be a complicated task. But because we wanted to stay true to what we had learned in the documentation phase, we wanted it to be more than just "hard." We wanted it to be unfair. We wanted it to be broken. Because we figured that would be an efficient way to make you feel what a lot of migrants’ relatives feel: helplessness.
In Bury me, my Love, for instance, it is not uncommon for Nour to lie to Majd. Sometimes, it’s out of love, because she doesn’t want him to get mad about something he has no power over. Sometimes that’s because he’s so worried for her that he’s being very annoying. And sometimes, telling the truth would force Nour to relive the bad things that happened – and she simply doesn’t have the guts for that. The result is that Majd often has to give advice based on incomplete or false information on what Nour’s situation actually is. And anyways, she won’t always follow it, because she’s the one who’s on the ground – she’s the one who knows. Majd is there for her, but he’s not there with her.
So there are moments in the game when your choices will not matter as much as you’d want them to. But sometimes, it’s the other way around. Some decisions that look completely trivial might have overwhelmingly good - or bad - consequences. I know that because I wrote the game’s script and the branching and conditional logic that will lead your Nour and Majd to one of the 19 different possible endings. But for you, as a player, this will remain unnoticeable. We decided to provide you with zero interface elements, zero feedback whatsoever, so that the conversations, situations and conclusions feel as realistic and, sometimes, unfair as possible.
Even the game’s more artificial features are designed with that objective in mind. For instance, 90 percent of the gameplay is you (and Majd) waiting to get news from Nour. When she’s busy, she turns offline, and you can put your phone away: you won’t hear from her until you get a notification saying she’s back. This is meant to mimic the excruciating anguish migrant’s relatives feel when the ones they love aren’t online – be it because of an empty battery, or for a far more serious reason. Once again, the way the game works takes control away from you, as you’re not the one deciding when and for how long you’re playing. Similarly, Bury me, my Love doesn’t offer any save point. Every decision is final, no matter how hard – and unpredictable – consequences are.
All those design choices might seem bold, stupid, or even dangerous business-wise, and up to some point, they are. We have had quite a few complaints from players who were angry because they “could not get all the endings”. Others were annoyed by Majd’s sheer presence, let alone his pre-existing relationship with Nour, because it impeded them from getting immersed in the game. I totally get where those reactions come from, and I understand the frustration. But we made the choice to design a game that would go against the power fantasy most games encourage. No Nour’s and Majd’s fate is not in your hands – it’s not even in theirs. No, you can’t decide to get a “good” ending - no matter how “well” you play. That’s because Bury me, my Love ultimately is a game about coming to terms with the idea that, no matter how much you love someone, there are times when you simply can’t save them. You’re helpless. It’s something that often happens in the real life, and I think it’s interesting that it sometimes happens in video games too.
This is part of a series of columns written by developers speaking at the Game Developers Conference in March.Florent Maurin graduated from Lille's journalism school (France) in 2002, and worked as a journalist for 10 years. He then founded The Pixel Hunt, a gamedev studio with a focus on reality-inspired games. Bury me, my Love, The Pixel Hunt's first independent game, was co-produced with Figs and Arte.

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