Here’s why I don’t like my game.
Through most of the weekend I felt something was fundamentally wrong with my design. If I were making it in a context other than Ludum Dare I’d have abandoned it, but I didn’t want to drop out and I felt safe in the knowledge it could only eat up 48 hours. I’m going to try to explore what it is that was wrong with the design. For this post to make sense you might want to play Double Tap, it runs in your browser and only takes a couple of minutes to play through.
It’s a game with a message and it’s not shy about it. But I think I put the message mostly in the wrong place. You play through a slightly interactive sequence of events that leads to you firing two missiles on what appears to be a mosque, with the second fired after you’ve seen what are probably civilians rushing in to help the injured. It then ends in what can only be described as a wall of text about how blowing up civilians isn’t nice.
The message is contained partly in that text, and partly in the narrative of the interactive segment. But I think that’s simply the wrong way to convey a message through a game. I lack the critical language to clearly explain what I mean, so I’ll give an example of where I think it did a better job of conveying meaning:
When you’re ordered to fire the second missile, you might well hesitate. The game reacts to this by having your commander repeat the request in an angry tone. Delay more and he will override your controls and fire the missile himself. This is the only part of the game where there is a choice that is recognised by game – you can take as long as you like finding the target and firing the first missile, the game simply waits for that input. Through the consequences of this very simple choice (whatever you as the drone operator does, the civilians gets killed) the game expresses how little power the individuals actually performing the strikes has. It also underlines that the game is about the problems with drone strikes, rather than declaring drone operators to be bad people.
By putting the player in a position of lacking real power when it appears that they’re in the hugely powerful position of controlling advanced warfare technology against a lone human, the player is (hopefully) given a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. An emotion applicable both to a drone operator that questions what they’re doing, and to the potential victims of a strike. Of the many kind people who have shared their reaction to the game with me, it seems to be this moment of being forced to fire the second missile that held by far the most emotional weight.
I saw a pair of tweets today from Liz Ryerson (not speaking about Double Tap) which express my feeling on how I failed to deliver the primary meaning of the game in a manner appropriate to the medium.
I believe that games best carry meaning within their mechanics, some in their narrative, but certainly not within splash screens of text. Meaning in games is a hard thing to do. A recent example is the writer for Far Cry 3 doing interviews desperately explaining that there’s more to the game’s story than the surface of racism and power fantasy. On an more indie scale, the frustration that Jon Blow has felt at Braid being interpreted as “just” a clever puzzle game. One advantage of my game delivering its message with such a heavy hand is that it’s pretty hard for the player to miss it.
A better game about drone strikes would explore the reasons behind their use. Perhaps putting the player in a position of sending in soldiers to risk their lives, or ordering a series of UAV strikes. After using the drone strikes for a while you discover the difficulty in confirming kills within structures, so you begin ordering double tap strikes. The player will experience for themselves the series of decisions that leads to the use of drones. Here the game could switch to the perspective of a civilian in Waziristan where you experience the effect that the strikes have on your friends and family. Your younger siblings are held home from school because your mother is afraid for their safety. Your best friend grows to hate the Americans and urges you to come with him to join the Taliban.
Then your game is featured on Fox News for being a terrorist training simulator and you have instant fame.
I am glad that Ludum Dare gave me a chance to experiment with something that normally I would be afraid to approach. I’m also incredibly grateful to all those that have played the game, especially those that left comments. Speaking of which, the largely positive reaction clearly shows the desire for games to explore real and significant themes. Even if my game didn’t do a particularly good job of it.
General Post Mortem Notes:
Slightly embarrassingly the first time I played Unmanned was the evening of the second day of the compo. So I at least wasn’t directly influenced by it. Also, Unmanned is better.
Haxe continues to be a delightful language to develop in, especially HxSL which makes low-level Stage3d development a reasonable prospect.
Flash isn’t dead.