So for this final project I decided to do something different from my previous projects but it still has a similar underlying theme, that is ” there is more than what meets the eye.” In “Toxic” I wanted to deliver my ideas and messages subtly.
I have always been enamored by the games as a story telling medium, as you can see from my research post.
And what I realised about recent games, at least the ones I find most impactful are the ones who do the things they do subtly to give the player a more holistic experience.
Games like Yakuza zero that subvert the “Ero” trope and Prey that makes you question your morals and virtues in a subtle way was the direction I was going for.
So for “Toxic”, I wanted to do 2 things mainly(subtly) deliver my message that is there is such a way as a toxic way of thinking, one that isn’t good for your own mental health and for those around you, in this case with regards to love. And secondly, to deliver the concept of time in my game.
Being inspired by games like
I decided to make my game a text based game. Text based in the sense that the game is delivered through a messaging interface.
Why did I choose to do so in this manner.
First of all, the theme of the game and the message I wanted to bring across was inspired by a friend in real life. And my interactions with him mainly through text messaging and thus I wanted the viewers to experience what I felt. Secondly, I also felt that there were many things in terms of rhythm, movement and expectation that I could explore based on text messages. ( this will be elaborated further.)
Why give players the abillity to choose?
This was once again to mirror my own experience in real life. Usually with this particular friend, the dilemma was always to either to support him with his actions and the way he thinks so that he can be happy for a while or scold him and risk him getting more depressed.
The next part was to teach the player about making decisions rashly based on emotions.
The game starts off with the player having to make a decision for the friend to confront this person or no. Conventionally, most players would pick the first option. This is because the dialogue here plays on familiar feelings and situations that players would have. Even during the presentation, it was a unanimous agreement for the player to choose the first option, despite not knowing much about who this character is or what kind of person he is. Eventually, we realise that confronting the character might not be the best option.
For the Aesthetics, I went with a very “cutesy” direction is it served my theme of “more than what meets the eye.” This cutesy appearance of the game was to fool players into thinking that it a very happy go lucky game, when in fact it touches more somber themes . This juxtaposition of appearance and themes allows the messages to be put across more subtly and most of all, themes and messages that are more dark becomes more palatable.
The story was something I was stumped about from the get go. I knew I was doing something really personal and it was an experience that I really didn’t like. As such I knew it would be very easy for this to come of as something superficial like a rant. But at the same time, I wanted the messages to take on the informal tone, the same tone I would use when I was messaging my friend. Thus the challenge here was to find the balance and the fine line between the two.
First of all, after going for my final class in Writing Narratives for Creative Media, I realised hey, I took that class for a reason. So I decided to use Dan Harmon’s character development story structure structure as a scaffolding for the narrative .
I used this story structure as the premise of the game only involves two characters talking with a focus on only one character. It wouldn’t have been apt to use something like the hero’s journey as there isn’t really a place or a challenge to be solved per say.
For my story at the end, the character returns back to where he was but didn’t change instead you realise that he is still the same and hasn’t learnt anything from his experience thus the title toxic. Also at the end you realise the first two options wasn’t talking about Character A confronting whoever he had a crush on. But it was a choice for the player to confront or walk away from character A.
This was my initial story planning. As you can see it was very linear and pretty messy. The main junctions for events weren’t really carefully thought out.
But this was after looking back at my Narrative Writing Class slides. It is a lot more cyclic and it was much easier to map out the parts where I wanted to give the player a choice and parts where there was suppose the be more impact.
The next hing about the story that I had to figure out was the flow of the dialogue itself. Although story structure helped with me writing the story down, it did not help me convey the story. Dialogue was tricky as it is very easy to create a dry dialogue. First of all, exposition has to be done subtly and not through on the nose writing. This is also the case when trying to convey emotions through dialogue. Next thing is that a dialogue written in the way we talk in real life would also be boring as we tend to ramble and go off tangent in real life. Once again, here it was about finding balance as i wanted to mimic how my conversations would go with that particular friend.
Here you can see how my conversation flow was the same throughout, there wasn’t any variation.
Looking up on dialogue writing online, I came across this video by Robert McKee, a figure who is well known in the realms of narrative writing, especially in the film industry.
Here he talks about story beats.
I played with story beats in two forms, one was the “beat” of the dialogue writing wise and the other was the rhythm of the text messages appearing (this will be elaborated further later on)
For the story beat, the conversation starts out neutral, and I broke this twice. First off in the middle.
The player or character B here instead of using words, replies using emojis. This was to reflect how Character B showing a bit more emotions than he normally would. And why this is so? If your realise, the time at the corner is 5.30AM. It is very early in the morning. The other character, Character A, has caught character B when his layers are down and thus is more natural, less filtered with is replies.
The next part this was broken was at the end, if the player chooses to confront Character A, Character B will suddenly give very long messages very fast in a burst of emotions when he usually gives very calm neutral replies.
Next will be how I use time in the piece. I tried to this both in an obvious manner and a subtle manner.
First this project deals both with editted time and experienced time.
The game follows a relatively linear timeline. About one month of text messages within 5 minutes of presentation. Also, the timeline for the game is jumbled up. The interesting thing about any medium that can tell a story, be it a storybook, a video or a game, time can be manipulated. You can start the story in the past and move it to the present, or start the story in the future and then show the past and then the present. It doesn’t have to follow a linear story timeline. Hence I tried to take this unique advantage of story telling mediums. The player her starts of with a decision he has to make in the present and is then taken to the past. This backwards timeline was chosen because I purposefully wanted the player to be thrusted in an unfamiliar situation and then information about the characters are slowly revealed to them.
Innitially, I wanted the timeline in the game to solely move backwards. With the players making a choice to send a message. Then the messages for the previous day would be revealed. However, I thought this would’ve made things too confusing and it would’ve been harder to tell a decent narrative.
Next it deals with experienced time. Here time is compressed even further. Even though the presentation was about 5 minutes, the class felt that it was much much shorter with some classmates thinking that the whole experience lasted about a minute. This was because firstly, it was a participatory experience which usually makes time feel shorter. And secondly because this experience takes the form of text messaging which is a experience players are familiar with as something that usually happens really fast and happens in a really short period of time
So essentially, we managed to experience one month, in one minute.
Also, I tried to show time more obviously, but still subtle at the same time ? If that makes sense. The first one would shown above, the ” 1 month ago” to show time moving backwards. Next would be the icons shown a the top of the screen.
The timing changes and even the battery life and the wifi signal. This was done to show that time is still moving foreward that we are not messaging at simply in one instance and thus sugest that the narrative spans a larger body of time without having to always put “one month ago” , “one day later” , ” one week” which would have broken up the flow of the game.
Next is how I manipulated the perception of time for the audience through rhythm, movement and causality.
Rhythm, movement and causality
Here, rhythm takes on multiple forms, the background song and the text messages showing on screen.
The background song follows a constant beat, with a beat at about every second. This directs the players into perceiving time as experience time , the whole experience feels like how the amount of time you would use text messaging a friend.
The background song however, was changed midway into the game when we reached a more tense scene to stretch the time experienced and in the last scene, the background song was removed all together to really stretch that experience.
The rhythm of the messages showing on screen however is more irregular. This was done firstly to show show the emotions of the characters. When the characters are excited or angry the messages appear on screen fast. When the characters are contemplating on what to say, we see “typing” for longer periods o time. The planning for this was done following the story structure I used. This was also done to break the standard rhythm caused by the background song, shortening the player’s perception of time once again. ( maybe this is why some of my classmates felt that it was only one minute)
For movement, I did it in the form of animations that appear on screen. Stillness would stretch the time the perceived time of the audience playing the game thus I added some life to the screen with thetiny repetitive movements of animations of the person walking on the screen, the emotion bubbles, the “typing” etc. This lively-ness was also to match the bright and lively song and also the whole cutesy aesthetics.
Most of these assets were found from RPG maker itself, but I had to edit them into frames to be able to play in the game. The Send and typing animations however, were done from scratch.
I changed the movement on screen periodically in the game however. Whenever the player has to make a decision, the character animations and the emotion bubble animation would stop and the send animation would play. This was done in hopes to create a form of stillness to lengthen the perception of time when the player is making a decision.
This however, I felt wasn’t done as well. The stillness would have been felt ( with only one thing moving and everything else staying still) if there were a lot more things animated and moving on screen . At present there was only 2 things moving( the character and the emotion bubbles) which changes to one thing moving (the typing). Thus there isn’t a sudden stillness. However, creating too many things on screen moving throughout the game would’ve ran the risk of the screen being too crowded and making it hard for the player to concentrate on the messages.
Lastly, is cause and expectation. This was actually really fun to try out. Playing with people’s epectations
For this, I decided to play the kind of messages people expected to see on screen with the time taken to type out a message. Usually it would proportional. The time taken to type a short message would be short while the time taken to type a long message would be long. However, what happens when that is not so? If a much shorter time was used to type long messages what would that suggest. For this scenario it suggests that the person sending the messages is exasperated. There is suddenly a lot of emotion behind those messages. This I also find, disorientates the player a little. They are suddenly bombarded with a flurry of messages and this I find makes their perceived time feel shorter. Similarly, when a long time is taken to end a suddenly short message. It suggests that the person sending it is withholding information. For the player, it creates a tense moment when they are expecting the reply, making the experienced time feel stretched.
I also tried to do this whilst following a certain flow.
For the first part of the game where there is interaction. The time taken to type the messages is relative proportional to the message being sent.
With only the final “Halp” Message being the only deviant. This was to build up the player’s expectations. ” Oh so okay it would probably take this amount of time to type this message” And this expectation was later broken later in the game.
For this scene for example.
A barrage of messages was sent at the top messages took about 5/6th of a second to appear on screen. far too short for that to happen in real life.
And then straight after the barrage of messages. The “typing” suddenly goes on for a long period of time. The audience’s expectations is broken once again. Now they are expecting something else. And suddenly a short “blocked” appears.
It was actually pretty fun watching the class hold its breath for this scene, to suddenly find a blocked appear instead.
Overall, I think the class had a fun time with this. However because I was trying to make everything subtle, I am still unsure as to wether the class was able to get the message I was trying to put across or notice the different techniques used to manipulate their perception of time. I think, if the game were to be slightly longer, what I wanted to put across will be more apparent But alas there was only so much time to do this project. At the end of it though I did enjoy myself and even though I didn’t want it to come across as a rant. It was still a cathartic experience for me to have expressed this through art.
Also, sorry Prof Lei for botching up my presentation, my mind just totally went blank hahas.
Anywho, thank you for reading this and have a very nice day!