Designing from form vs. content

I’m starting to work on a new game, which has got me thinking about how I come up with game ideas. The answer is obviously “it varies”, but I have noticed that in general, I tend to start from one of two places: form (how the game is going to play, look, and feel) vs. content (what the game is going to be about). Ideally, in a finished game, both are strong and complement each other; it’s just that more often than not, one of them tends to come before the other.

Here’s how this dynamic has played out in some of my previous projects:

you used to be someone: Form. I started out wanting to play with a particular 2D/3D first-person aesthetic in Unity, and the idea of making it about going for a walk when depressed came after.

DomPam1: Form. I wanted to make a stop motion musical adventure game. Making it about a genderqueer detective came after.

DomPam2: Content. I wanted to explore the idea of what it meant to write a sequel to a game with multiple possible endings, especially in the context of the previous game, its success, and how it affected me. It ended up becoming a weird Frog Fractions-esque pastiche of different game genres.

Coffee: A Misunderstanding: Content. I wanted to explore the fan/creator dynamic in an interactive narrative. Turning it into an interactive theatre piece for multiple players emerged later.

Interruption Junction: Form. I wanted to make a one-button conversation game. Then, it turned into being about my anxiety around when to interject in group conversations.

Impostor Syndrome: Content. I wanted to make a game about speaking up against abuse and how hard it is when you’re already so used to being devalued as a person. It turned into a Twine game with only one decision point, and a hard one to find at that. (I still stand by this design decision even though it was extremely unpopular with IFComp judges.)

Conversations We Have In My Head: Form. I wanted to make a game about people talking while walking. It became about imaginary conversations with an estranged ex.

Quing’s Quest: Content. I had a lot of feelings in the fall of 2014 about a certain harassment campaign against people I consider friends and colleagues. It became a very campy and sparkly Twine game.

When it comes to my new game, I’m finding myself on the “content” end of things, which is probably appropriate given that my last project was a “form” project. The ideas swirling in my head centre around the concept of intentional communities: many of my friends and I have talked (sometimes flippantly, other times more seriously) about going off to live in an artists’ commune away from the pressures of the increasingly scary world in which we live. I want to explore what it would mean to actually live in such a commune, what challenges people would face, and how it might fail.

I’ve also been having a lot of feelings around #MeToo as of late: on one hand, you have these very clear-cut cases of abuse, power dynamics, and privilege, but then there are also more subtle cases which in many ways affect me on a deeper emotional level than the clear-cut ones. How do we deal with the grey areas? What does consent mean if you’ve spent your entire life absorbing messages that your desires don’t matter, to the point that you can’t even recognize them? What does it mean when someone who abuses you was also abused themself, and worse? What if your abuser never meant to hurt you but is relying on harmful coping mechanisms? What if you are both part of a marginalized community and you feel a need to protect your abuser from those who would further marginalize your community?

Initially, I was thinking about making another 3D first-person “walking simulator”-type thing with Gone Home-esque environmental storytelling wherein you explore the ruins of a failed utopian community, but then my brain became more interested in exploring dynamics between characters in a more immediate setting, so I then started thinking about creating something more focused on character interactions, like a visual novel. While it theoretically would be possible for me to create a narrative game that was both rich in character interaction and environmental exploration, my experience suggests that I would much rather prefer to limit my scope and focus on one area.

So, visual novel it is! Although I’ve played a lot of visual novels, I haven’t actually made one before (at least not a straight-up example of such) so working within the affordances and constraints of a tool like Ren’Py will be exciting. Of course, my ideas are likely going to mutate and change as I develop this game, and there is certainly a lot of space for that to happen, but now that I’m pretty set on both content and form, I get to move on to the finer details of things. Yay!