Monday, February 6, 2012

Project Overview - Maddox: The Retail Rebellion

The following is an account of my visual component's current progress. It is titled "Maddox: The Retail Rebellion" and follows the story of one Dr. Robert Maddox, a mad scientist whom the bank forecloses on, forcing him to seek legitimate employment. He seeks such employment at a retail giant called U-Mart, where he works a series of blue collar jobs, unsuspecting of a diabolical plot that lays beneath its friendly vernier. In this post I will give an overview of the game thus far, the approach used to conceptualize it, how that approach differentiated from my earlier approach with The Brothers Riley, and the decision tree architecture driving it.

Game Overview

The core mechanic driving this project is the Madness Meter; a "health bar," or more accurately, a "pressure gauge" of sorts in the upper left corner measuring Dr. Maddox's control over his wits.

His situation in this game calls for him to restrain his manic impulses as a mad scientist and try to be socially acceptable as he works a blue collar job at U-Mart, but his outrageous personality does not repress itself easily. By performing acts that indulge his idiosyncracies, Maddox can "vent" the Madness Meter, but repressing himself will cause it to build up, potentially to dangerous levels. At 100%, Maddox undergoes a psychotic break and gets shipped off to the mental hospital, earning a game over.

However, Maddox is held accountable for his actions by those around him, and his natural personality is often condescending, abrasive, and generally off-putting and disruptive. As such, he's on a "three strikes and you're out" system with each NPC, all of whom have different reactions to when he finally crosses the line--either sabotaging him at work, foiling his various "schemes" (more on this in a minute), or outright reporting him to the manager. U-Mart has its own "three strikes" system as well, which can lead him to being put in worse and worse departments as he tries to maintain his sanity and earn his pay, or even worse than that--being fired. Furthermore, the worse the department he works in, the worse it can affect his Madness Meter; the more menial and disinteresting the task, the more Maddox will rattle his cage.

Pictured: Schemometer

Maddox does have a few tools that can help him out, though, chief among them the "Scheme" mechanic. Schemes are optional, adventure game-style puzzles that the player is able to solve in each level, taking on the theme of crazy inventions and plots for revenge, and the presence of a Scheme is indicated by the lightbulb icon in the lower-left corner of the screen. For a hint as to how to perform the Scheme, Maddox can consult his pet rat Willard for advice, as illustrated in the video above. When Maddox performs a Scheme, he vents a great deal of Madness--anywhere from 25-50%--and the icon shatters.

Schemes come in two flavors--"Spite" Schemes that are made to take out Maddox's frustrations on those around him, and "Work" Schemes that take on the form of inventions to aid him in making his daily drudgery less problematic. Different U-mart workers have different criteria for scoring a "strike" against them (some include working more efficiently and making them look bad), so either type of Scheme in each different department carries a risk to go with its reward.

Conceptual Approach
The Retail Rebellion brings in an extra component in addition to the decision tree architecture developed in prior projects, that being the overarching systemic principle of the Madness Meter, namely, its application of conflicting rules. Per the "Rule Following" approach to psychology, The Retail Rebellion adopts the idea that ambiguity is formed from conflicting identities, in this case the player character's identity as a mad scientist as well as his identity as a blue collar worker at U-mart. Each identity has a different set of rules, and both are evoked through clear systemic elements in the overall design at all times throughout the game, thrown in direct conflict with one another at all times.

Thus, instead of taking the approach that the personalization elements of choice-driven narrative are purely for the sake of role-playing and interpretation of the narrative, the Retail Rebellion integrates them into a balancing act for the player to follow. While it is entirely up to players where and when and against whom they must indulge Maddox's personality and what rationale they use for doing so, they must indulge him and cannot simply ignore his characterization for an "optimal" run through where everybody likes them.

To put it simply, the themes of this story, that of personal versus professional identity, are integrated not just through the types of decisions built into the decision tree, but into the overall systems and game mechanics driving it in a tangible risk-and-reward relationship. The core experience of this story isn't merely trying to get through day-to-day life in a retail store, but that of a mad scientist stuck in a retail store, and the game puts that upfront and uses it to create a unique challenge in how the player navigates the decision tree.

This differs greatly from The Brothers Riley, which simply sought to create emotional connection through its narrative--that of two brothers trying to save their sick mom--and allow the player to explore that narrative in any way they chose. This meant the game was devoid of a unifying core experience outside of the very plain notion of "two brothers in London." While The Brothers Riley was meant to lead players into the heist of the Koh-I-Noor diamond as the core experience and storyline, the build-up chapter that I'd built allowed the player to choose goals outside of that line of characterization; IE, players could avoid a life of crime entirely and take the side of the law, not even getting involved in the heist. Effectively, players could opt out of the core experience of the game, and thus there was no core experience to drive mechanics, develop a story, or develop dilemmas--hence my reservations about the game not having any stand-out moments or exceptional features. In the absence of risk and reward players had full control, and could easily avoid putting themselves in a dilemma or facing an ambiguous decision.

I would argue that the failings of The Brothers Riley are mainly due to poor craftsmanship on my part--but, at the same time, I feel like this scenario makes a strong case against the notion that "agency" is the goal of choice-driven narrative, as too much agency can leave the player devoid of interesting decisions to navigate. In a world of perfect player agency, the player can optimize rather than merely satisfice--and this is not consistent with the human decision-making process, and thus, not consistent with players' expectations of choice.

Decision Tree Architecture

Pictured above is the master decision tree for Maddox: The Retail Rebellion (Part 1), detailing the introduction and the flow from one job to the next in terms of the decision archetypes I've detailed--personal, structural, long-term, short-term, direct, and indirect. Here I've not only detailed the flow of the game's events by these terms, but also associated specific game mechanics with specific types of choices, creating a greater sense of consistency in how the player interacts with and sees the world.

The flow is as follows:

First Node - Introduction of Maddox, as displayed in the video above. Choices here are personal choices for personal choices' sake, both for learning the character and for learning the dialogue system. This takes us through from the scene where Maddox is menacing the UN to his meeting up with his friend, Jacob Haynes, in the apartment. As of now we are in a consequence-free zone.

Second Node - Job Interview. A string of personal decisions (how Maddox answers questions) leads to the first structural choice of the game, landing him in one of many different departments at U-Mart depending on the impression he makes. Three different departments shall be included in the final game: storeroom, complaints, and electronics.

Third Node - Introduction of Job. Each department at U-Mart is represented with a different mini-game and has a different corresponding NPC to give Maddox a tutorial. In the introduction, Maddox gets a chance to make a first impression on this NPC before being thrust headlong into the job.

Fifth Node - Working the Job. During this segment the player partakes in the minigame, a completely rational segment wherein Maddox must balance gaining additional points in the minigame (represented in this chart with "bucks") with his Madness Meter. Each job involves a "cycle" of interactions designed with the explicit intention of being simple to do, and each cycle pays out some number of points. For instance, a "cycle" in the storeroom minigame might involve moving to an item, grabbing the item, and taking it to someone. However, depending on what job Maddox is performing, individual actions in the cycle have the potential to increase his Madness Meter. The more menial the task, the worse it becomes, thus forcing him to find ways to vent--or to slack off.

Sixth Node - Performance Evaluation. After a set number of rounds at the minigame (currently two--adding a "break room" segment in the middle for reasons that are forthcoming), Maddox undergoes a performance evaluation with the interviewer from before. He takes into account any strikes that have been added against him as well as the number of points he's managed to earn thus far, then determines whether or not Maddox should be put into a different department, employing a mixture of rational and personal criteria to route the player towards the rational goal of moving into a better department--or keeping a good one, as the case may be.

Other Elements - Schemes. The scheme mechanic is listed here as a long-term/rational goal due to its nature as a high-risk, high-reward action as well as a potentially significant piece of additional content.

Other Elements - NPC Reactions. As stated previously, NPCs will react to Maddox in one of several ways, all of which are listed here. These are displayed as structural, indirect decisions, as they occur due to reactions to the player's input and can bear significant changes on either the player's relationship with that NPC, their performance in their job, or their overall U-Mart score.

The overall philosophy which this is built around is that it is not desirable to have multiple, different content streams but rather that the player's decisions should change their perspective, point of view, or relationship with one, singular content stream. As such, alternate content streams in this game takes on shallow cul-de-sacs before then altering the main content stream, changing the way the player must perform their duties at U-Mart and their duties to Maddox's manic mindset.

As this game develops further, this flow chart will be updated with more information.

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