Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The One Who Wept

I've been struggling, these last few days. Struggling to decompress from Triangle Game Conference and digest all that I learned there. My thought hamsters (more on them later) are working overtime, sorting, cataloging, and shelving all the information that was stuffed into my brain last week.

Something in particular has come to my attention in regard to a presentation I attended on the second day of the event. Brenda Brathwaite's lecture, "How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design," wasn't billed as a life-changing experience, but then, such things are rarely spelled out so explicitly. Something of an overview of the presentation, it's subject matter, and the audience's reaction can be found over at The Escapist, but frankly, it really doesn't do Brenda or her work justice.

The part that got my attention was in the next to last paragraph:

There were audible gasps in the audience when Brathwaite revealed Train's shocking conclusion; one attendee was so moved by the experience that she left the conference room in tears.

Well, boys and girls, I have news for you: That attendee the author mentioned was me.

Let me explain.

Essentially, this legend in game design was fed up with digital games. Brenda had played three video/PC games in a row that seemed nearly identical in scheme though they were produced by three different companies, and she'd had enough. Being a board-game aficionado, Brenda made the conscious decision to spend a nine-month period avoiding all digital gaming and immerse herself in the non-digital possibilities. During that time, as the article outlines, the opportunity to use a game to drive home the true meaning behind the events of the Middle Passage to her 8-year-old daughter presented itself.

This scenario started the wheels turning, bringing up questions along the lines of, "Why is it more games like this don't exist? Why is it that other mediums, like film, photography, and writing, could tackle the difficult subjects such as Columbine or the assassination of JFK, but making games about them was "just too much?"

Thus, the project The Mechanic is the Message, a series of six board games that deal with some of history's most uncomfortable (and horrifying) subjects, was born.

The piece in the series that has gotten the most attention thus far is one titled, quite simply, Train. During the lecture, the first slide that came up in regard to this piece was all black, with the title hanging in the lower right-hand corner, in white, eerily nondescript type.

A younger part of me, locked away during my teenage years, gasped. "Please, please, please," she pleaded, "let this be a game about the Underground Railroad. Pretty please?"

The next slide was a close-up shot of a black boxcar with its tiny sliding doors standing slightly open, through which you could see little yellow avatars, about the size of your thumb. I recognized that particular shade of dingy, dreary yellow. . .

"Oh, God. No, no, no. . ."

Then the next slide came up, which depicted the whole game board in all its terrible glory. Three train tracks, laid across a shattered window pane, with little black boxcars filled with tiny yellow people. . .

I gasped again, this time audibly. Part of my mind quailed, wanting to tune out the words that were to come next. . .and that was when the aspiring designer in me took back control. After all, I wasn't going to learn anything if I stopped paying attention just because the subject matter was uncomfortable.

"Nope. Definitely not the Underground Railroad. Things are about to get REAL interesting."

As Brenda described the objective of the game, which was to get all your pieces from Point A to Point B, I became misty-eyed. She explained, "You see, I had made the pieces just a hair too tall to fit through the doors easily. Because of this, some players opened up the end of the boxcars and began "stuffing" the people inside to make them fit better." That was when the first tears started silently streaming down my face. And when she said, "It wasn't until someone 'won' that the destination was revealed: They had just shipped all those people to Auschwitz," it was all I could do not to openly sob.

Now, the reason I wrote all this is because I don't feel that the writer at the Escapist truly understands why I was so moved. Well, I should say reasons, plural. The first is the most obvious: The subject matter all of these games deal with is very difficult to face. I married a half-Haitian Jew (I'll give you a a moment to wrap your mind around that), so not only do I feel strongly connected to the events of the Shoah, I have very strong feelings on the slave trade. Always have, honestly. (I took a black gay man to prom and got a shitake-load of flack for it.)

The other reason? I "got" it. I understood what Brenda was trying to teach us: the mechanics are the game, period. Neither a storyline crafted by a Pulitzer-prize winning author nor the highest polygon count in the universe can save your game if the mechanics don't work. Clunky and/or confusing mechanics rob the player of complete immersion into the world you've created, and thus she is cheated out of a "whole" experience. Next-gen technology is nice, but it isn't (nor should it be) the heart of design. In the race to create the most outstanding looking game out there, companies seem to have lost the ability to create the best all-around game. They seem to be going for a category award, such as "Best Musical Score," rather than reaching for the ever-coveted "Best In Show."

Until last Thursday, I had no idea that Brenda prototypes her digital games non-digitally. To me, this was a WONDERFUL revelation. Because I am a writer with no programming skill under her belt, I had become discouraged with finding where I belong in the games industry. Now, thanks to Brenda, I know that the written word is all I really need to create great games. And for that, I am grateful.

To end this post, I will leave you with the words from Brenda's last slide, about working with "taboo" subjects in the digital medium:

"I saw the wide, blue ocean and full possibility space of design. Photographers, painters, musicians, poets, actors, writers can all do it. We can do it, too."

Thank you, Brenda, for showing us the way.


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