May 262008
 

Steve Gaynor posted a Call to Arms a few days ago, asking his readers to produce:

…a decentralized game design symposium; a call for new takes on interactive expression. If we’ve succeeded by now in conveying feelings like “exhilaration,” “fear,” and “victory,” and conflicts such as “individual power vs. strength in numbers,” “man vs. rule system,” “entropy vs. order,” and “good vs. evil,” the Call to Arms focuses on some more elusive aesthetics.

He explicitly asked people who aren’t in the games industry to contribute, so he has only himself to blame for the following proposal, entitled Resonance, for a oratorical simulator.

Resonance takes place throughout the history of a city-state. The particular kind of setting (fantasy/sci-fi/kittens) doesn’t particularly matter because the idea is to tap into the universal aspects anyway. On each mission the player become the Muse of a Hero, whose task it is to guide the city through a crisis. The Hero comes with his own point of view, and strengths and weaknesses in communicating to particular demographics. The player’s task is to preserve the city, and his only means of doing so are telling the Hero when and where to speak, and providing inspiration for the Hero’s speeches.

Each crisis poses a sort of yes/no question: should the nation accept a large influx of refugees, should it go to war against an evil nation that does not threaten the city directly, should workers form labor unions, should income be radically redistributed, etc. By adjusting his strategy the player can allow either of the propositions to “win”. The Hero’s position is not always “right”. Indeed, were I making this game I would have at least one mission where the Hero’s choice is quite obviously wrong.

The Hero works his magic through speeches. In a speech, the Hero supplies the main talking points, but on his own the speaker is very dry and dull. Without inspiration from the player, his speeches suck the spirit right out of an audience. The player’s task is to provide images that fit the speech and raise the audience’s spirit. In doing this the Hero’s influence (and the size of his future audience) is increased, listeners convert to his position, and those who are unconvinced become more open to it. At the same time, there will be an Opponent moving around the city trying to convince people of the other side of the argument.

Usually several inspirations will be suitable for each talking point, but they will affect different properties of the audience. I think a 3-4 point matrix like Fear, Anger, Pride, Acceptance would be appropriate. The city is divided into different districts in each era, with different demographics and varying levels of these characteristics. Harsh, divisive rhetoric lowers your side’s Acceptance (making them more resistant to conversion) and increases their Anger, making them less likely to attend opposition speeches. However, among the portions of the population that are uncommitted or opposed to the Hero’s position, this kind of rhetoric will increase their Fear and decrease their Acceptance, making them more difficult to recruit. On the other hand, inspirations that stress unity would tend to increase Pride of the people on the Hero’s side and increase the Acceptance of other groups. However, in an area that already has low Acceptance among the Opposition, a good, harsh speech may provoke Fear that drives them to pay more attention to the Hero.

The strategic task of the player is a balancing act of trying to choose the right kind of speech to give at the right time to the right people, so that the city does not descend into a panic or widespread rioting. When Pride and Acceptance are low, and Fear and Anger are high in any group except those who are undecided, violence can erupt. Usually this will only happen in one district at first, if left alone the violence will spread. Fear and Anger will rise for all groups in neighboring districts. If your side riots, the Pride of your allies in other districts will decrease, while the Acceptance of the Opposition will decrease. So the Hero must calm the violence by giving speeches. If his influence is too low (from making poor speeches earlier), however, nobody will listen to him. The player has to keep the Hero popular, so just flubbing all speeches outright isn’t really an option. However, flubbing a few key speeches may work. Having the city descend into riot is the only way to “fail” a mission.

The tactical task of the player (in speeches), is to choose the right inspiration to go with an idea, and also to time the delivery of that image correctly. The spirit of the audience will rise and fall during the speech, rising when the right inspiration is used and falling as the Hero goes over the nuts and bolts. The player has to choose the right time within each talking point to apply the inspiration, and also when to use more powerful vs. less powerful inspirations. So this could be implemented like a rhythm game of some sort. For instance a player could use gestures with a Wii-mote to set up the speaking cadence and then some button combo to use the inspiration at the right moment.

The mission hub takes the form of a giant, labyrinthine library. The character starts in the deepest part of the library and must find his way out. As he moves through the library, the character finds two kinds of books. Opening “Histories” initiates new missions, and when a History is completed a nearby door unlocks, allowing further exploration. Also, the character can find “Literature” books that give him new inspirations. Because the “combat” is oratory, these will obviously include important speeches (“I Have a Dream“, the sermon on the mount, “Never, never, never” etc.). However, since the player’s task is to supply imagery and inspiration they should also include poems (Dwarf Birches, If) and excerpts from plays (Henry V) and novels.

Different outcomes to the missions unlock different doors and thus different routes through the library. The inspirational Literature available to find along the way (and the powers to be used in combat) therefore depend on the outcome of the missions. In addition, the Hero of each mission becomes available as an inspiration power for future missions; the strength of this inspiration will depend on the mission outcome. This need not be linearly related to whether he convinced people of his position. Losing to the opposition for strategic reasons while performing well in individual speeches may result in a powerful inspiration; succeeding strategically while barely scraping by in speeches may result in a weak one.

Unlocking the final door of the library releases the character as a citizen into the city he has created through previous missions. The character of the city will be decided by the character as well as the facts of the decisions made. So, if the city accepted the refugees, then traces of that race of refugees will still be physically present. In addition, the inhabitants of the city will tend to be kind and helpful. If you opted to take on the evil city, they will be proud of their city but have a militaristic streak. The city will be facing one more great moral crisis, but one that is a trick question, in which one of the alternatives seems quite reasonable and comforting but is, when properly considered, a path to destruction. The player must now serve as his own muse, working up influence from street level so that he can convince the city to do the right thing. This will be easier or harder depending on the ways that the previous missions were performed.

Having only one Hero position per mission would simplify the programming task while confronting the player with the fact that people can be just as honestly passionate about a proposition he disagrees with. If I were to pick one feeling out of Steve’s laundry list that I meant the design to speak to, it would be vindication (in seeing the city you created through your actions as a muse). The individual missions could be tailored so that they speak to several of the conflicts he proposes, though the conflicts of Pragmatism vs. Romanticism and Tradition vs. Progress are clearly built into the fabric of the design (such as it is).

Well, this may be the worst idea for a game ever, but I had fun thinking about it, so thanks, Steve. Readers should check out the post I linked to above for some of the other entries. All of them are interesting and would make good, or at least intriguing, games.

  5 Responses to “Called to Arms: Resonance”

  1. Nice submission. I noticed you live in Waltham. Have you ever been out to a Boston Post Mortem? No idea if you'd like to go, but it's the monthly meeting of Boston-area game developers, happens at the Skellig on Moody the second week of each month.

  2. That sounds interesting. If the developers don't mind having a consumer come by and crash the party I might check it out.

  3. Hi there. I'm a research tech in a psychology lab. We're studying the emotional content of speeches and the relation of same to eventual acts of aggression on the part of the speaker's ingroup.

    Your idea sounded really interesting. To be clear, this was simply an idea proposal and not an existing game? Also, do you know of anything like this?

  4. Hi Kerry,

    This is only a proposed design. To my knowledge nobody has ever actually created this or any other oratorical simulator.

  5. gotcha. thanks for the quick response. it's a really interesting idea.

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