Jan 102009

Corvus’ January round table asks us to envision a game that preceded a favorite piece of literature. What game might have inspired The Iliad or Foundation? Well, I’m not going to deal in anything quite so epic. Instead I’m just going to imagine a game that might have inspired a poem I like by E.E. Cummings. This may not be what Corvus was going for, but it was an idea that came to mind and would not leave, so here you go.

I envision this as a browser-based flash game or a small downloadable. An impressionistic art style is what I would really prefer, given some of the early focus, but the later stages could also work with the heavily-lined visuals more common in these games.

The start-up screen for the game is an image of a tree standing alone in a lush field in summertime. Once the player has chosen to start the game by activating the window, the field of view zooms in on the top of the tree, finally focusing on a single yellow leaf, which immediately falls from its branch. From this point, all movements of the mouse result in gusts of wind. The player is free to move the mouse in any direction, but the maximum angle of the resulting “gust” will be 30° from horizontal. The ostensible aim of the game is to prevent the leaf from falling, but this is a losing battle for two reasons. Firstly, the leaf will not be able to exit the field of view, and the field of view will only travel downward in such a way that the leaf never enters the bottom fifth of the field. Secondly, the wind will not produce pure directional motion in the leaf, but rather chaotic tumbling.

The leaf begins descending through a green tree. The surrounding branches and leaves will move in response to the player’s wind gusts. Starting about a fifth of the way down the green surrounding leaves will start transitioning to reds, purples, and dark browns. In order to assist the player’s focus none of these leaves will be yellow. Once the color palette has transitioned completely the number of leaves on branches will begin to decrease (but none of them will fall off in the player’s field of view). The player’s aesthetic experience in this segment should be focused on the interplay of colors between leaves and sky, as well as light and shadow showing through them.

By about third of the way from the bottom the branches should be completely denuded (but still responsive to the wind gusts). The appearance of branches themselves should start decreasing in frequency until the field of view contains only the trunk and the leaf. The player’s aesthetic experience in this region should be focused on the motions of the leaf itself. In keeping with this idea the chaotic tumbling of the leaf should be enhanced in some way.

As the leaf nears the ground the player sees that it is a white field of snow. Although this may have landscape features such as drifts, no living things should be in evidence: it is a fresh, deep snowfall. When the leaf lands on top of the snow the game ends. At this point the player’s ability to perform any input ceases and more snow starts to fall, eventually burying the leaf.

During its descent the color of the leaf should fade from a bright yellow to a dull light brown. Its material behavior should also change. At the outset the leaf should be flat but flexible, changing its shape as it tumbles. During descent, however, it should gradually curl slightly at the edges and become a more rigid body. The color of the sky should fade from a light Carolina blue to a flat gray. Also during the descent the window should slowly zoom in on the leaf. At the outset the leaf should take up about 5% of the screen, growing to about 20% of the field of view at the end.

The E.E. Cummings poem I hope would be inspired by this game is “l(a”:





I wanted the game to represent the explicit event while expressing the emotion. Obviously the verticality is important, but it’s a natural part of the event (which is part of the brilliance of the poem). The simplicity of the game and spareness of the final stages are meant to connect with the linguistic efficiency of the poem. I suppose in one sense this isn’t much of a game, because it’s basically a way of playing with leaves, but I wanted it to display an unconventional attitude. The design relies heavily on gradients (of color, of shape, of element density), which doesn’t really have much to do with the poem, but which I think would be critical to helping the emotion sneak up on the player.

I probably had more fun thinking that up than you had reading it, but fortunately everybody else has better entries. Go check them out!

  12 Responses to “Downward Spiral”

  1. So, so nice. And without doubt a game, at least in the sense I'm currently using–and so much more a game than any number of other things people want to call by that name.

    Have we even scratched the surface of this technology's expressive potential?

  2. You did a perfect job describing that poem in a game. It'd be a shame if someone didn't make it, someday.

  3. You did such a good job of describing the experience that I'm left feeling empty knowing it doesn't exist.

  4. Wow, what an interesting entry. I'd love to see a group of indie developers pick out poems and create gaming experiences from them. Would be a fascinating cross-genre experiment.

  5. Have you heard of an indie games called The Graveyard? It sounds somewhat similar, not in content, but in style. While I'm not sure that it's based on a poem, there is still something "bigger" there.

    I can't tell you why I mentioned it. Just that it immediately came to mind after reading your post. That being said, I think I'd probably play the heck out of that game. Poetry + Games should happen more often.

  6. This game is a good idea, and you should feel good about having it. More stuff like this needs to be made.

  7. Fabulous, just fabulous. I actually think you've managed to write a game concept in way that is just as effective as the actual game would be. I can picture the entire experience quite clearly.

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I regret to say that actually making this game is far beyond my capabilities. If this idea really lights a fire in anyone who wants to make it or something similar, though, I'd love to see it done.

  9. Great ideas here!

    I love how you chose a poem so everybody can read it and knows what you are talking about.

    I love how you decided to make a small flash game instead of the AAA behemoths many other posts describe (including mine).

    I also like the idea. It's such a simple, short game. Do you have any interest in actually making that game with some flash game developer – say… me? Contact me if you are interested.

    What I didn't quite understand: would that be a 3D game or would it be 2D? Because you are talking about a field of view and this is a 3D term.

  10. Glad you liked it, Krystian. To clarify: the idea is for a 2D game. When I say "field of view" I simply mean that the player can only see a small rectangular portion of the flat view of the tree. I don't use these terms in their conventional way because I'm not at all familiar with the actual making of games.

  11. Nice choice and excellent design!

  12. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

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