I was on Wikipedia trying to figure out what the more mature game from Blue Dragon developer Mistwalker was called. Lost Odyssey. Slightly dismayed that I couldn’t remember the title off-hand (I was a fan, after all!) I skipped through the sections wondering if I could find the time to pick the game up again (only got to disc 2 of 4 when I played years ago) - I can’t, not until summer, at the least. A thing that struck me was a mention of Jay Rubin (Harvard professor) who was tapped to translate the short stories of the game into English. He at first rejected, citing a refusal to add “to the world’s supply of senseless violence”, but changed his mind once he read the script.
I figure this is often the premise for video game “outsiders”; video games are violent, a source of deviant behaviour and are to be distrusted at every turn - as it happens, I share the sentiment, although only for the subgenre of social networking games (“Facebook games”). It got me thinking about the types of games we see, and the types of games that are made. The violent triple-A titles make the front page, causing mass-hysteria and a call for banning electronic entertainment. Playful, thought-provoking games go unnoticed. These are extremes, naturally, but speak to the types currently in motion.
I wonder if one could implement exciting, yet pacifist (or at least, non-physical) conflicts as mechanics. To start off, I sat down with a simple mix-n-match; JRPGs meet public speech debates (speaking of, I wonder if there’s a video game jam for genre mashups).
The player is in a public debate (be it political, in high school or a good old-fashioned head-to-head) and must sway the audience to their side. Their opponent will attempt to do the same. In their arsenal, they have various argumental approaches. Arguments by analogy to make complex ideas easy to understand, transitional arguments that are lengthy to complete but typically have a hefty payoff. You could attempt a thinly supported argument, hoping that your opponent is incapable of unseating the stated ideas. You could debate aggressively, getting yourself more talk time and increasing the audience’s reaction to your arguments (be it good or bad), or stay calm and rational - risk-reward management.
In truth, all these considerations mask a classic combat system with stances and abilities, albeit with secondary targets to account for (the audience). It may even prove too simple if you have vital statistics handed to you (“speaking power”, “audience captivity”, etc). Perhaps remove HUD statistics and let the player attempt to read the room and their opponent. There are simple queues, such as applause or silence. Perhaps subtler visual clues to look for - are audience members nodding off, signifying a boring and pointless debate? Maybe they are talking to each other or staring puzzled at the ceiling because they don’t understand the arguments. Definitely, you will need to work the majority, not the select few who have been lost.
How about your opponent? A good debater is like a world-class poker player; they only show you want they want you to see. Perhaps this comes at the cost of their argumentative basis, or knowledge of facts. An aggressive, sweating and virtually pulsating opponent may be easy to rile up, but they may be so in tune with both sides of the debate that they can make up for it.
All these factors are of course simple numbers behind the curtains. Expose them and you trivialise the mechanics. The players must be challenged, partially by exploring their opponent and the audience with cursory arguments. When they have a feel for the room, they can start to work it in ways that will benefit their side of the debate. This leads us to argument construction. Should the player create generic arguments from a set of sliders and checkboxes (high fact, short speech, attempt to debunk opponent’s claim) and gauge the reaction, or should a set of (perhaps randomly) generated arguments be presented in prose? The prior again simplifies the game mechanics into a simple question of trial and error. The latter forces the player to consider the elements of their argument, the phrasing, the meaning of specific words. It presents a risk in the game experience. If the argument designer misuses words or puts a different meaning in them than is otherwise common, the player will feel disconnected from their character, unable to wield them how they want to. On the other hand, it opens exciting venus within argument construction. You have a time limit (bullet-time style) to decide on your response. You are given an array of sentences to use, and can - at the expense of time units - exchange words or phrases to more specific effect, recollect vital data about facts or perhaps something entirely different in order to tailor your response.
Are these the seeds of a simple tournament-style game? Pick or design a debater and travel the world speaking on a variety of subjects you know something about. I like the idea, and perhaps a small following might find it intriguing. But it lacks what I think most core gamers desire: Fantasy. Fiction is one thing, but the deeply interactive elements of a world far removed from our own is too tasty to ignore. Did we read Tolkien to explore a world unlike ours, delve into the story and characters with glee and imagination - or did we jump to his works of academic interests, characterising the originality of his work and the variation of his language, analysing hidden messages and cultural references? I do think games cater to a wide variety of audiences, but the most popular games are like the most popular movies; they offer the impossible fantasy, wrapped in unattainable situations and colourful delivery.
Still, it might make for a fun jam project.