PhD Student | Game Design / QA

Not Alone Projects

Genetic Lottery

Overview

“Genetic Lottery” is my first experiment in creating an autobiographical documentary game based on my personal experience of illness diagnosis. Through using a personal story and recollection of thoughts and feelings - accompanied by surreal visual interpretations to heighten the game experience - I hope to create and evaluate a ‘framework’ that I can use for the development of NOT ALONE. This prototype exposes deeply personal thoughts and feelings during my own experience of the NHS diagnosis process.


1: Data Gathering

Whilst awaiting ethical approval to gather stories from those affected by cancer diagnosis, I decided that the best way to proceed would be to test my ideas for depicting health stories through using my own. I have been suffering from severe back pain throughout life, over the past few years this pain has been getting progressively worse to the point of it disrupting my daily life and routines. After years of putting it off, I finally decided to seek professional help.

Throughout the process of diagnosis I have experienced what could be regarded as common aspects of the patient journey: Regular visits to multiple doctors, referrals for specialist tests to eliminate possibilities, experienced invasive procedures, X-Rays and MRI scans, all of which can be commonplace in a cancer patient’s journey. I have experienced first-hand the frustrations and anxieties surrounding waiting times, feeling like you are not being listened to properly or taken seriously, being bounced between departments and the strain the illness and diagnosis process can have on your daily routine and mental health.

During this process I tried to record as much data as I could regarding the experience. I intend for the prototype to include photographic elements captured during the process and to narrate the game myself. This will enhance the autobiographical documentary intent of this game’s design. I took notes of the interesting audio-visual cues, my thoughts, and floor layouts to create a direct representation of this experience.


2: Whiteboxing

After drawing the floor plan from memory, I decided to try to reproduce the layout of this “memory snippet” using the whiteboxing technique in Unreal Engine. Whilst primitive in appearance, having a completed whitebox segment at an early stage will prove useful for the feedback and evaluation phases of software development later. The intention at this stage is to gain an understanding of the space that I have to work with for adapting my X-Ray experience at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. This would be one of the later ‘levels’ in what would be a series of “memory snippets” that would be presented to the player in chronological order.


3: First-Pass Dialogue

The next step was to add placeholder narration/ dialogue for the prototype to test the method for story delivery. As you can see in the video above the narration style is a bit all-over-the-place; swapping between spoken thought, reflective, and auto-narration of actions. At this current stage this isn’t such a big issue, as during whiteboxing/ prototyping the scripting process is more ‘raw’ recollection of thoughts and events. To make the product more accessible for players, some of the story cues will be refined to ensure a smoother narrative flow. Further set-dressing with placeholder assets was also done to help visualise how these scenes would appear.

One further thing to note was during this stage I realised that the actual layout of the hospital would prove difficult for delivering certain ‘key’ narrative cues (1:09), as such some corridors and rooms may be restructured to ensure that the story is told at a natural pace.


4: Visualising The Mind’s Eye

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One of the more interesting aspects about using a games as a medium for autobiographical representation is that, as an art-form, you can visualise the thoughts of a character through the inclusion of surreal elements. During the long period of waiting before being called for my X-Ray I found that the heat of the room and the soft rhythmic hum of the air conditioning unit caused my mind to drift and wander. Whilst I originally intended to portray this through purely dialogue voicing my thoughts, I realised that I can depict these thoughts as visual aberrations appearing in the gameworld.

Whilst my mind drifted as I sat in that waiting room, I began thinking about how no matter how your lifestyle is, your health can sometimes come down to chance, luck or circumstance. When we’re born, we can inherit genetic traits from our family tree. Some issues can remain dormant in genders or skip entire generations before resurfacing again. Sometimes health issues can come down to luck of the draw, but we have to play with the hand we’re dealt. It was this concept that landed me on the name: “Genetic Lottery”.


5: A Different Perspective

Whilst I was originally interested in the player adopting my persona from a first-person perspective, I decided that a more technically challenging - yet rewarding - method of player navigation would be from a third-person perspective. The player will now adopt the role of a digital avatar representation of myself and relive the experience that way. During these tests I used a third-person orbiting camera technique from third-person games such as Grand Theft Auto and an over-the-shoulder camera technique more akin to Resident Evil 4. My personal preference favored the over-the-shoulder camera as it allows the player to observe the avatar, yet at the same time feel like they embody the avatar rather than an invisible observer.

As the player character would need to interact with other characters in the gameworld (doctors, nurses, other patients) I had to gain a basic understanding of animation and animation re-targeting. The above video depicts mo-capped animations being re-targeted to fit a custom humanoid rig. Learning this process was more challenging than I originally anticipated but I believe that this will add an extra dynamic to this title as my previous games have only ever featured the player character and alluded to further characters through clever narrative cues/ environmental storytelling techniques.


6: The Art Is First

“The art of the movie is more important to me than the politics. Yeah, you heard me say that. The politics is secondary. The art is first. Why? Because if I make a shitty film, the politics aren’t going to get through to anyone. If I ignore the art, if I have not respected the concept of cinema, and if I haven’t understood why people love to go to the movies, nobody is going to hear a damn word about the politics and nothing is going to change…” - Moore (2014)

Over the festive period I was looking at my prototype and asked myself: “Would I play this? Would I look at this game on a digital storefront and be interested in downloading it?” What I was making was a 1:1 recreation of my experience, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but as a game I probably wouldn’t be too interested in playing it. Upon reading the above quote from Michael Moore, I decided to re-evaluate my development process for Genetic Lottery.

“So the art has to come first. It has to be a movie first, not a documentary.” - Moore (2014)

So I asked myself; “What games do I like to play? What visual style can I use to catch someone’s eye and what can I do mechanically to make the game more interesting?” I’ve always had a passion for abstraction and minimalism, which are both incredibly useful concepts when developing small video games by yourself. I looked at what games I enjoy playing and drew inspiration from them - Gone Home, Lieve Oma, Fragments of Him and the Silent Hill series - to create a style that was intriguing, has a focus on character introspection, and most importantly was achievable within my limitations. The gameplay has been overhauled to include multiple interaction types instead of the previous, passive, walking simulator style. The soundscape has been improved and the implementation of haptic feedback (controller rumble) to emphasise moments of pain are a huge improvement from the last version. The newly adapted structure uses the same recorded narration cues, but portrays them in a more intriguing fashion. Whilst the previous prototype was intended to be structured in chronological order, this new prototype delivers the story in a more filmic fashion.


Alexander TarvetComment