1984: the arcade sandbox game

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Indigo Static gracefully comes back from a not so long hiatus to deliver a new Round Table post. This month’s discussion is:

Putting the Game Before the Book What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first?

I have to confess that my first idea was to convert Where’s Waldo into a game but I couldn’t even dare to say with a straight face that that was literature. I may turn that idea into another post, but for now the Round Table get’s a de-make of 1984. Curiously enough, another blogger has beaten me to the punch already, which was to be expected since 1984 is a fairly famous book. Thankfully, his designs are so different than mine that I suppose it’s okay to have two entries on the same book.

Internet cookie goes to those who know where this image comes from.
An internet cookie goes to those who know where this image comes from.

Let’s start this with the central theme of 1984: Pessimism. Not because of the dystopian world per se but because all hope is lost by the end. Nothing can be changed, the Big Brother will always be there, watching, judging your every move. Just look at the protagonist, he tried to go against the system and ended up tortured and brainwashed. Resistance is futile, everyone must love the Big Brother, the Big Brother always tells the truth, he is always right, he always wants what’s best for you, you must never disobey. It’s not exactly a fairy tale, isn’t it?

The other theme that runs through the book is the so-called newspeak, “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year”. It’s a simplified form of English, one in which any words or possible constructs which describe the ideas of freedom, rebellion and so on are missing. By enforcing this language, the populace can’t even express the idea of rebellion, much less act upon it. Which is far-fetched in my opinion, but let’s not get off-track here.

Now, how can we turn THAT into a game?

Well, I feel that a sandbox title would fit the theme best, since it’s a genre known for the keyword “freedom”. This contrast is of course deliberate, since the player would most likely start playing 1984 expecting yet another GTA clone. Boy, is she going to be surprised.

One important element would be the camera itself. In almost every place, the camera will be in third person but it won’t follow the player from behind or over the shoulder. It won’t be fixed either, it will function exactly like a security camera that can move on rails. Yep, the player is going to see the protagonist through the eyes of the Big Brother. Of course, there are going to be some places where the almighty eye can’t see, so for these the camera will change to first person.

How can people even go to the bathroom with this guy watching?
Insert obligatory DRM joke here.

Another important element is the interaction with the world. Typically, in a sandbox game the main verbs are “shoot”, “drive”, “steal” and “run” (in order of importance), but 1984: the game has nothing that can be described as typical so we are not going to even consider those. Instead, we are going to have “chit-chat”, “grab” and “use” at the start, since we don’t know any other way of interacting with anything because of that dammed simplified English.

Throughout the game the player will learn more and more verbs, positively widening her repertoire of possible interactions. Since there are going to be a lot of verbs available, we can’t just assign one to a different button/key, so what do we do? We could possibly do something like Casting Shadows (*cough*shameless plug*cough*) and show three verbs at a time on the screen when prompted: the selected verb, the next one and the previous one. This way, there’s a visual emphasis on how the language affects your actions but it doesn’t hit you over the head with the concept.

The importance of language and the sensation of being constantly watched are taken care of, so now all that’s left to address is the overall pessimism. It’s not going to be easy is it? I mean, we are all used to be able to win if there’s a story to be told. I can’t just say “Here’s the bad guy, you’ll never even come close to defeat him, no matter how good you are at the game” … or can I? Yes, yes I can, there’s one genre that does precisely that: Arcade Games. Take Duck Hunt for example, you never “win” at it, you just play until you loose, there’s no actual way to win. On the other hand, rogue-likes are also famous for this, their audience may be limited but it certainly is a valid way to approach 1984.

I considered designing the game as an MMO since one of it’s main qualities is the lack of closure, but there’s one tiny little thing that stopped me on my tracks: the atmosphere would be gone. No matter how gloomy it looks, how haunting the music is or how restrictive the mechanics are, the atmosphere would be gone in a flash once you enter a city and a dozen citizens are doing a conga line in the middle of the street. While we are at it why don’t we add a chat functionality? Leet speak would be the new newspeak!

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*clears throat* Anyways, without a doubt 1984 is a never-ending single-player game. There is no main story or missions to be found anywhere, so in essence it would truly be a sandbox game, albeit a very restrictive one.

The only issue left is how to handle failure, we have to have punishment, or at least seem to have. Going against the rules has to have some consequences. What do we do? Well, a brainwash would be appropriate. This way, every time the player get’s caught, she loses all of her progress; namely, the verbs that she had learned. Of course there is going to be a somewhat simple way of recovering all the lost knowledge, since we can’t just take everything away from the player while we laugh maniacally, can we? Err, yes but no. We can do it, but nobody would want to play it.

Summing everything up, to me the game that inspired the book 1984 is a restrictive never-ending single-player offbeat arcade GTA clone with a weird camera and an unorthodox way of interacting with the environment.

Yep, that’s about it.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for more entries on this month’s topic.

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As a side note: I didn’t even mention the themes of love and betrayal since this post is long enough as it is, but I suppose that including those themes into the game would add a little extra flavour.

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8 thoughts on “1984: the arcade sandbox game

  1. I like where you’re going with this. My thing is just that roguelikes don’t really give you the feel of hopelessness that you’re trying to convey; they more give you a feel of ‘try again, with your new knowledge.’ I mean yeah, they’re brutal to a fault, but they’re not depressingly hopeless. I think the flaw with your game is that there is always that hope of a better next time…which might simply be how you interpreted 1984!

    Mad props on the pictures, while I’m posting this anyway.

  2. Diego Doumecq

    Thanks for the compliments 🙂

    I think the camera would work, since it is very similar to God of War’s (in my mind at least)

  3. I like the idea of having a changing repertoire of verbs. Have you considered simply having a text-adventure-type parser? It would hide away the available options without the need for making verbs unlockable. I haven’t played your game (because I don’t understand the language) but the interface you described seems to be very modal and hence will cause mode errors.

    Also I although the concept is great, how would you control a character that is off-screen? Isn’t the cool thing about 1984 that you never really KNOW if you are watched anyway? Being able to see the limitations of Big Brother makes him less menacing.

  4. Diego Doumecq

    I didn’t consider having a parser, not only because I kind of despise those things, but because it doesn’t quite give the player that sense of progression that a growing list of actual verbs can give.
    Although, if it is implemented well it can be done, but it’s a real challenge to come up with a parser that is at least decent (comprehends normal typos, synonyms, grammar, etc.)

    What do you mean by mode errors?

    The player character is never off-screen, there’s always a camera following him at all times (like I said, the cameras move on rails mounted on the walls or something similar).

    Experience 112 … game design reviews? Oh god I read that post months ago but forgot all about it. I should probably play that game at some point. Maybe when I’m finished with Beyond Good & Evil.

  5. “I considered designing the game as an MMO since one of it’s main qualities is the lack of closure, but there’s one tiny little thing that stopped me on my tracks: the atmosphere would be gone. No matter how gloomy it looks, how haunting the music is or how restrictive the mechanics are, the atmosphere would be gone in a flash once you enter a city and a dozen citizens are doing a conga line in the middle of the street.”

    Have you played Toontown Online? It’s a world of “forced” fun and silliness, where evil robots require you to throw pies and you can only speak in silly sentences about jellybeans. Toontown Online, from this perspective, is sort of a 1984 MMO, only big brother is Disney and who would rebel against childish silliness?

    I’m only partly serious, of course, but the constrained grammar (to keep the game “kid friendly”) immediately came to mind in reading your post.

  6. Diego Doumecq

    It’s a very specific case and the atmosphere is nowhere near what I had in mind… but that does sound like a 1984 MMO.
    “Be happy and nice to people or I swear I’m going to rip your head off and murder your entre family. Remember: Smile”

    Awesome.

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