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Our project grew out of a discussion about storytelling in gaming. Most of the best examples of storytelling in gaming that we could think of were largely all either violent/combative/competitive in nature or based on some sort of motivation via goals/acquisition - because these were the narrative concepts that translated most easily to a traditional gameplay setting, in which a player must accomplish a set of tasks or achieve a specified goal while avoiding defeat. While these stories clearly have their place in art, we began to wonder about the kinds of stories that are not traditionally told in gaming, and how to integrate them with a system of gameplay. We selected "unrequited love persisting after a breakup" as a nontraditional storyline for a game and tried to think about how to turn it into one.
This led us to think more about story in games. We decided to differentiate between what we called "peripheral stories" and "game stories" - peripheral stories being the stories attached to games, or anything narrative that doesn't directly involve the player interactively (cutscenes, prerecorded dialogue, etc.) and "game stories" being the actual story of the gameplay itself. Looking back at game history, we realized that most popular examples of "great stories" in gaming were peripheral stories, not game stories. For instance, in the popular PlayStation game Final Fantasy VII, most people talk about the famous scene in which Aeris, the main character's love interest, is killed - in a video cutscene, without player involvement. The actual game story would simply be the protagonist's series of menu-based battles against sequences of monsters, which is not what people bring up when they talk about its great story. Similarly, one can look at the recent and critically-acclaimed Bioshock as an example of a game with a story lauded for essentially non-game elements - the opening scenes that introduce the player to the world of Rapture are universally acclaimed for their atmosphere, drama and tension, and the player remains fully in control of his first-person character at all times but they are still essentially scripted and occur the same way every time. There is no way to "lose" them or "win" them. Later on, the player must complete tasks to survive, but these parts often seemed to drag the story down - in between every interesting plot point stood a number of menial item-collection tasks that created a boring and repetitive game story wrapped in a brilliant peripheral one. We then tried to consider how to create a more engaging essential "game story".
What this led us to was a consideration of what it means to be a "game". Traditionally, a game is something that has consequences, that is played to be won or lost - the player is involved because they are working towards a goal, a goal of victory. This is a very useful idea but it can also become limiting. People play games because they enjoy them. Enjoyment stems from interest. The easiest and most common way to create interest in an interactive medium is to add game-like goals and consequences for failure. However, as the game market opens and variety increases, more and more popular and acclaimed "video games" are becoming largely consequence-free and "ungamelike" - while a game such as LocoRoco involves working to a set goal, guiding your LocoRoco through levels, there is no way to fail - enjoyment is not created by the tension of trying to survive, but the joy of rolling your little colorful ball around, listening to him happily sing. Similarly, while Call of Duty 4's acclaimed single-player game was mostly standard gaming fare - shooting and trying to not get shot - the game featured a number of very popular levels that were essentially impossible to "fail". For instance, in the second level you play as the president of a Middle Eastern nation as he is assassinated - while you remain in control of him the entire time (you can limp and look around), the events never change. You are always carried in a car to the execution stand and shot. In fact, it seems clear that goals and consequences, useful as they are in most situations, are entirely inessential to what we call "interactive entertainment" (as "game" becomes a limiting term) - they are just one of many ways to maintain interest and, through syllogism, enjoyment, while interactively involving a player. Is a goal-less game like The Endless Forest a "game"? This question ceases to be important when you recognize "game" as the limiting term that it is.
With this as our starting point, we tried to devise a method of interaction that would serve our nontraditional game story. We decided to try to take a very simple concept - the scrolling shooter game - and remove all of the inessential elements (scoring, lives) that it often features and reduce it to its barest essential interaction. In this case, that became "shooting", or to phrase it more broadly, the elimination of targets. The best way to use this to represent our story, we decided, was to move it into the realm of the abstract - our "game" then became one about the nature of memory.
We decided to use non-interactive means to further the peripheral story of the relationship as a concession to time (because inventing lots of things on a deadline is risky business) and chose to focus on the personal interior aspects of the person in the relationship, specifically their obsession with how memory relates to the relationship and how the relationship exists in memory. We then developed a visual and aural aesthetic that we felt corresponded well with the realm of memory - this manifesting in the abstract backgrounds and the collage nature of the enemies and backgrounds, as well as the surreal way in which the female character's ex-boyfriend pops in and out of her memories. A lot of time was spent figuring out how to insure the "game story", the essential story of the basic interaction, was the most critical part of the piece - by making the surreal creatures splatter ink where they are caught, gradually building a complicated pattern out of random ink splatters, we put the character in the shoes of the protagonist's interior self, trying to take everything and turn it into a memory - "to cover the pages this time", covering the screen with as much ink as possible, remembering as much as she can.
Our choice of title was important to further the concept of memory and trying to remember. By choosing a surreal and impossible dream picture as the title (as the protagonist says, if you don't take pictures "the places all blur together at the edges"), we referenced the feeling of memories blurring together. By choosing a picture as our title instead of a linguistic title, we force people to have to think when referencing the game in speech. What do you call something whose title is a picture? We felt that the only really practical way was to try to describe the picture. Naturally the description changes from time to time and from person to person, which we felt was a powerful way to reference the confusion of memory and the diverse ways in which people remember things.