read more

HMW explore a moment in 2050?

Choices 2050: Storytelling through Game Design

Choices 2050 is a short interactive story experience to explore the question: "how would a moment in 2050 differ from today?"

I love video game design as an artistic and storytelling medium, so when IDEO asked their Makeathon applicants to explore a moment in 2050, I knew I had to make a game. Choices 2050 was built in a single week (jam-style!), influenced by some of my favorite games, and I wrote every piece of dialogue and made every asset from scratch.

Fun fact - this was my first time making pixel art!

Why I Love Game Design

To me, video games are the ultimate tool for creating empathy. In writing, film, and art, the intended emotions are translated through a limited viewing window; the author/filmmaker/artist can only hope the audience experiences the same emotions.

But with games, game designers can have players experience those emotions as if they were living them. The act of controlling the game, engaging with its mechanics, and making decisions in a story create countless new possibilities for immersion and have created some of the best storytelling of recent decades.

A moment that deeply resonated with me in the game Life Is Strange, where you try to talk your friend Kate down from suicide. Your success or failure ripples throughout the rest of the story.

My Moment in 2050

When I think about how a moment in 2050 will differ from today, my mind immediately goes to artificial intelligence affecting our choices. I was drawn to this subject after watching a fascinating interview with historian Yuval Noah Harari and ethicist Tristan Harris about the implications of technology knowing you better than you know yourself. In talking about artificial intelligence and coming out, Harari asks:

""What would my life have been like, first, if I knew [I was gay] when I was 14? Secondly, if I got this information from an algorithm?"

I also wonder how Artificial Intelligence's knowledge about me will affect me. What if my phone's personal assistant always knew how I should act to achieve maximum happiness, even if I didn't agree with that course of action upfront?

If I could find a way to make the discomfort of that experience playable, then I could both explore what it felt like to me and bring others into that conversation.

In Choices 2050, the player must confront the discomfort of having their phone tell them who to date.

Design & Development

By this point, I had learned the lesson from several past failed game jam games (as in, once attempted to make a narrative-driven heist game in 8 hours with friends, but ended up making a walking simulator around a single room) and so I started by first defining my scope. I had a single week until the deadline, so I chose to explore three choices of varied stakes: choosing what to wear, choosing a romantic partner, and choosing a career. I ended up cutting the last one for time and also decided to make only the assets I needed to convey the narrative- meaning no backgrounds or scenery objects.

Next, I needed a visual style that was simple enough to create, but allowed for just enough expressiveness in my characters; so I looked for inspiration in the dialogue system from Celeste. That game features childlike character portraits that change with dialogue alongside pixel art characters - allowing the player to easily read emotions at a glance without body language.

A screenshot from Celeste-- my primary visual inspiration-- a beautiful game about climbing a mountain as a metaphor for overcoming depression and anxiety.

Even though I was operating on a short timetable, I couldn't resist designing systematically. I created reusable and flexible components and functions for a game state controller, dialogue boxes, player input handling, and animations. I was careful to set it up so that I could easily jump to any point in the story to debug - a time investment that paid off when I was more easily able to focus on the narrative throughout the week.

My protagonist's five expressions that I can easily pick from when writing dialogue in my system.

Narrative & Empathy

My biggest challenge was creating empathy quickly. The player would spend very little time with Sarah, my protagonist, so I gave her pithy dialogue while having her be entering a new place as a common human experience. I also gave the player as much agency as possible so they would feel stressed when asked to revisit a choice by Ego. (I may have gone a little overboard with 14 shirts, each with unique dialogue).

When the players are given the agency to pick a favorite shirt, they are more likely to be upset when Ego tells them to change.

I walked a careful line with Sarah's sexuality. I originally wanted the player to choose a romantic partner before Ego told them who they would be happiest with, to increase their stress in deciding whether or not to listen to it; but I didn't want to invalidate the player's sexuality, so I made Sarah bisexual first and had Ego select a partner before the player could decide.

Finally, I wanted the player to feel compelled to revisit their choices after a single playthrough, so I made every Ego decision randomized, so few playthroughs are alike.