Time flies by annoyingly fast, and I can’t keep up with my old post frequency. But let’s try to compensate quantity with quality.
Last time I made some vague points about expressing philosophy with gameplay. The example used, Eschalon, was probably not the best as I think the mechanics were like that not because there was deep philosophising behind it, but simply because of nostalgia. So let’s try to cook up a better example.
As I mentioned, I tend to think about existentialism. It is quite troubling to know that because of the limits of human understanding, I will probably never know why everything exists. And what is my purpose is. Here we have a problem that has confounded people with too much spare time throughout history. Let’s use it as our basis. As life seemingly has no other purpose than to proliferate, the game should have one singular purpose. Since the game should be playable on its own merits, let’s try to make it relatively simple: A Diablo-style hack’n’slash.
The game is about a hero going forth and killing monsters. The game world consists of a wide bridge suspended over swirling, ghostly mists. The player starts at the left side of the bridge and proceeds to the right. At regular intervals, the left side of the bridge collapses, preventing the player from backtracking. The bridge also has great walls that separate different strips of it. The strips merge at some points, allowing the player to head either towards the centre or the edges.
The bridge represents the world; A single, understandable strip of time and space, surrounded by something completely alien and incomprehensible. It is constantly marching forward. But as it is observed by you, time never leaves you behind. But when you walk forwards, it will never let you go back.
At the centre of the bridge the player can find most loot and monsters. The environments are ordinary, with trees, rocks and other natural things.You get better equipment, you improve and you overcome challenges. Dungeon Siege II-style powerful special attacks interrupt the slaughter to give the player powerful and visual attacks that eviscerate monsters. For fun. Sometimes you can find shops and people you can talk to. Most of them are concerned with the monsters and give you some insight about them and their reasons for the fight. A select few will discuss the world itself and will mention that at the edges of the world you can find people investigating it and the surrounding universe.
Towards the edge the player can spy the surrounding world through holes in the ground. There are eccentric people here who explain what they think the world is. And at the very edge, the player can finally see the surrounding void; A vast swirl of colours and strange shapes, with a hint of some vast structure. This is the most important visual of the game, and should be extremely impressive. Standing at the edge are scientists, pilgrims, priests and shamans, all offering their explanation at the phenomena. The closer you get to the edge, the less loot you find. There are still monsters here, though, meaning that drudging through them is going to be more difficult.
Now we are delving into my world-view. Most people will probably head to centre, to the easy path. You get a lot of loot and experience, the spice of a hack’n’slash. They skim the plot-related text and speed on, just enjoying the game. I believe this is the “normal” western human: Seeking thrills, enjoying the things in life that are designed to appeal to human physiology and nature, and procreating. Then there are people who take a look at the edge, for curiosity. They find the edge of the world and can see that there is something beyond it, something they can’t observe clearly or interact with. Some might listen to a couple of the ponderers and return to the centre to fight. Some might follow the edge, fighting difficult monsters since they have no weapons and discover more perspectives on the world. These people are philosophers, who are trying to shape the world into a form that they can understand. Some of these people find a suitable explanation and can live their life without thinking about it ever again.
As the player progresses to the right, the bridge starts to narrow. Soon just a small diversion from the centre path will reveal the edge. People around here speak more about mortality. And finally, the player pushes through the last group of monsters. Beyond them is a figure dressed in robes and holding a staff. Behind the figure, the bridge simply ends, with nothing beyond it.
The game keeps track on how much you explored the world. If you just slew monsters and swam in loot, the figure is an old and wise wizard, congratulating you on succeeding in slaying the evil monsters and says you won. If, however, you spent some time at the edge, listening to some of the onlookers, the figure is Death, asking what you thought about your impending end. You can choose what to answer from all the things you have heard about. And if you have spent pretty much your entire game in the edge just listening to the philosophising, there is no-one there. The bridge just ends. And in every case, the final part of the bridge crumbles, sending the player in the mists. And then the game ends.
The end of the bridge asks questions about the purpose of your existence. Are you here to just kill monsters, or is there something else behind the reason you are here, now, reading the blog of a game designer living in the far north? And in every case, it is irrelevant. Whatever you think life is about, you can’t verify, as you would have to understand everything. The limits of existence.
So here is a game that expresses philosophy with mechanical concepts. Are you the person who just wants to live in the moment and party on, or do you spend your Friday nights lying on your bed, trying to figure out whether existence is infinite or finite?
EDIT: Mistyped left as right in the bridge-falling scenario. Fix’d