Are you my mother?

The Kraken mails

She died at play / Gambolled away / Her lease of spotted hours

Last year, the Game Developer’s Conference hosted an interesting event: A “Game Design Challenge” in which three well-known designers were given an unusual criteria around which they have to design a (theoretical) video game. Last year, the challenge was to develop a game in which the core mechanic was “creating a love story”. The winner?

“Collateral Romance”, a concept by Will Wright, the genius creator of The Sims (who I profiled a year ago for Psychology Today). The concept of the game is that it takes place within another war game, such as Battlefield 1942. The players aren’t actually playing the war game; it’s merely their environment. No, they have a different task. As Gamespy reported:

Here’s how it would work: a man and a woman, chosen by the computer for having similar interests and romantic possibilities, would start on opposite ends of a raging battlefield. They’d have to arrange for a place to meet and they’d try to get there without being killed, scurrying between shelled-out buildings and staying away from the tanks and bombs. When they made it? A big reunion scene! Then, the newly united couple would be given another goal to reach together, somewhere else on the map. Would they go straight there? Would they just hide in a building and chat to each other? Would they get together with other civilians? Would they ask the soldiers for help? Would the man nobly sacrifice himself so that the woman could make it? It’s all up in the air! “I want to leave the goal structure of the game open-ended,” Wright said.

He called the genre of game a “first-person kisser”. And I have to say, I thoroughly loved the idea: I could actually imagine becoming really intrigued by that style of play. One could argue that it was merely a variation on the “stealth game” concept, in which the goal is to skulk around instead of going out with guns blasting; it might also be related to the Oddworld series, where you play as a pretty helpless creature who has to avoid danger and try and trick/convince threatening characters to do what you want. (Actually, to really geek out here for a moment, the algorithm could be posed thusly: Thief + Oddworld * Leisure Suit Larry = Collateral Romance. Heh.) Anyway, I thought Wright’s ability to think so laterally is a good example of why he’s created the best-selling game of all time.

Now this year’s Game Design Challenge is upon us, and the concept is even weirder. From the GDC’s web site:

The theme? Design a game around a highly unusual “license” – the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Licensed properties are a hotly debated topic in the game industry. Does the use of a license hamper design creativity? Or will the unusual “license” of Emily Dickinson spur the Game Design Challenge panelists into new design territory?
At the session, each panelist will present a solution to this game design enigma.

All three of the Emily Dickinson-inspired game concepts offer a very different approach to this particular challenge.

I so cannot wait to find out what the concepts are! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game in which poetry is part of the core game mechanic, but maybe I’ve missed something incredibly weird in Japan. Anyone out there heard of something like this?

(Thanks to Erik for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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