I was never really sure what to think about game jams. You get together for a few day (often on a weekend) and make a game from scratch within a given theme. I mean, I like games, I have a lot of fun making them, so having a context where like-minded people come together just to create something sounds pretty awesome. But then, having only a few days with intense work (that always includes things nobody likes to do) in an area were crunch is a common problem already, seemed... let's say not optimal. Plus taking part added pressure - for me at least. Watching the top entries of big game jams is like watching a scaled-down game of the year show.
Anyway, I took part in Ludum Dare 48 after some great advice from seasoned game jammers (which was pretty much: just have fun, try things you'd like to try and don't worry about anything else). Spending a weekend doing something I enjoy doesn't sound bad at all, I had to admit. So on Saturday morning the theme was announced: Deeper and deeper. At this point, I was really excited and had a lot of ideas (no group yet though). So I thought about what I really wanted to try and came up with a concept of a psychological therapist talking to a defensive, closed-up patient, trying to dig "deeper and deeper" to uncover a story (yes, studying psychology for 5 years leaves some marks...).
With that concept, I found two other PhD candidates with a psychology background who were willing to try that (yay!). The key challenge was a narrative one, because the actual gameplay needed to be "talking" and we wanted to create a natural flow (as much as possible). The player was supposed to think like a therapist and ask the right questions and the patient was supposed to answer in a way that always made sense (how naive we were). So we knew that if we wanted to have a narrative that was sensible, we needed a fixed amount of questions for the therapist and possible answers for the patient. But because we didn't want to just give the player the questions, but rather have them activly participate in a conversation, we needed an open way to get player input and then translate that to possible questions.
Our solution was inspired by the lovely game Her Story, which has a similar concept: You try to uncover a (fixed) story, while at the same time having complete freedom of how you approach it. In Her Story, players can type keywords in an input field and then get related videos that show parts of the story. So we also included an input field where the player could put in anything they would like to ask or say - and then specific questions from the therapist would pop up that were appropriately formulated. This way, the questions represented the original thoughts of the player, while also staying true to what a therapist would say in such a situation.
We then wrote the story and different branches that players could freely explore to find out more about our patient - Mira. We wanted to have a sense of realism, at least as much as possible. Having only a few days made the whole project difficult (shockingly) and in the end, we didn't achieve the free conversational flow we hoped for. Sometimes the game expected specific inputs that the player had to almost "guess". However, the core principle worked surprisingly well and if you tried to ask the right questions, you would uncover Mira's story. So for us, the little game was a success and brought up more interesting questions, like: If we would try to build a game that represents real therapy, could we use something like that? What are some concerns for that? How can we show that therapy is a process and not a game where you can just win? How can we make a situation enjoyable that represents something so sensitive and potentially triggering?
These are questions we were not able to answer within the game jam, but we were glad that they came up. And this is what the jam did for me specifically: It brought me in a situation where I had to think about some new and interesting implications that games can have - especially when they revolve around deeper and more difficult topics. We found a gameplay mechanism that worked for what we were going for (although it would need a lot more time and polish if ever explored further). Still, in the end, it wasn't really about the game. It was about thinking what games are and could be. I'd love to work more on this, but for now there is only the very raw game jam demo.
If you're interested, you can try it out here. Please be aware that the story revolves around trauma - so take this as a potential trigger warning.
Written by Maximilian Croissant