The Power of Words
A downloadable game
Semi-finalized game demonstrating the importance of optimism and hope, as well as balancing relationships in preventing teen suicide.
When I started The Power of Words I was tasked to create something with a core loop that symbolized something personal, something that can identify me as a designer. As I thought about my skill set and time commitments it became apparent I was not about to make anything ambitious, but I needed something minimalist, something I could tune to have increasing amounts of depth. I wanted a message engrained in a simple mechanic, something that in every way communicated the functionality of the real thing. So as I wondered what that would be I was suddenly gripped by the question of what DID I want to make? What am I as a designer? This came at the same time as another class requiring me to write a presentation on the matter. Far be it from a manifesto of my greatest work, but nonetheless, I would make a game that captured some deep passion and bared it to the world in a game. Yikes.
I can go into all the deep reasons of why I wanted to be a game designer, to educate and create meaningful, impactful experiences that will enrich people's lives and teach them skills they might not even realize they are learning, but this is not that game yet. This game - to me- is something deeper, full of fear and triumph, primal and bare. This is a game about my highschool experience. Or rather, this is about surviving at an age when all my friends and I were suicidal, for various reasons. Everyone made it out ok, but not without great effort and loss nonetheless. This is a very hard game to make, and even harder to show to others.
Every night, to fend off my own insanity and stress, I would instead take it upon myself to act as a hotline to help my friends- with school, with relationships, with family matters, whatever they needed. I always put them before myself and in so doing lost a great deal of personal drive and success, my grades slipping from straight A's to F's in the span of a few years, at least for the classes I didn't care about. I spent all of my time trying to understand their problems, their mentalities, and find any way I could solve them, to make it better, like waving a magic wand. This consumed me and so too did the stress of inaccurately believing that it was up to me to do this, that their failures were my failures and so on, as well as being heaped on by friends and family that I was neglecting myself in this endeavor and no one could understand why or convince me otherwise. It took years for me to come around and see that without helping myself first I could not help anyone else. But at the time, this was my life: balancing and shifting perspectives.
The game is this: several hearts float around the center of the screen creating radial patterns of movement. These symbolize the mental and emotional states of those around you, those literally in your closest circles, and drifting in from time to time on the furthest orbits. Initially, everyone is in varying degrees of stress, symbolized by the darkness of each heart. The less stress and more positive the heart, the whiter it becomes. But you must be diligent. Each heart if infected with enough negativity will only breed more, slipping deeper into a funk and thrashing out at those around it. The "words" of the game are the small circles that shoot out from the hearts. These are based on the mood of the heart, and are varying degrees of helpful or harmful, symbolized by the same scale of shades of gray as the hearts. They are naturally attracted to the heart in the center.
This heart, the Escort, is the one being protected by the Paladin, the dot and shield that rotates around it. The player is under control of the Paladin. This manifests the drive I had to protect my friends no matter what, to focus not on myself but on the needs of those around me. The Paladin is not so much a person as an ideal, an aspiration greater than oneself and immune to the toils of life. This is the small lingering instinct in my mind that kept me going no matter how bad things sucked or how confused I got, I just had this impulse to endure it, to understand it, and to best it. I'm not saying I am solely responsible for my friends and I making it through these tough times, but I know this is the sole reason I survived and am who I am today. I faced my darkest thoughts and deepest realities and terrified myself until I had nothing left to hold onto but lived for others sake.
The Paladin mechanically has the power to reflect these incoming words, these thoughts and feelings that can be positive or negative, and no matter what can convert them to their purest good. It will bounce back only the most positive perspective, the silver lining, the new take on life that everyone needs to receive from the shit flying around them, all the events of their life, interactions with another, and innermost worries symbolized by the Words. Simply being the Escort of the Paladin reverses the slide into depression and slowly rebuilds the heart's inner strength. The shitstorm of these interactions whirling around you as people are darting in and out of reach and all the while drifting in and out of peace and depression, this is where the Paladin steps in and deflects the negativity from the Escorted. This can then be used to reabsorb into the Escort or any of the other hearts it touches as positive energy. The player controls the Paladin by rotating it around the Escort to strategically defend it and restore balance to those around it.
This didn't feel like enough however, because it became increasingly clear to me that leaving one person as the Escort, as though I were the only one being defended, did not feel right, I often put others first and sacrificed my own time and success for them, and often needed to place all my emphasis on one person who was having a particularly challenging night. So I developed the mechanic that when the player clicks, any heart in front of the paladin is switched with the active Escort. This demonstrates the change in focus of the efforts, and helps to better serve those hearts on the outskirts which often see very little reinforcement because of the difficulty of sending positivity so far out and without spending it on others closer to you first. So switching became necessary in life and in the game to better spread my efforts, putting myself often on the outskirts of my priorities and choosing to nurture one person in particular instead. Of course, this also means exposing the current Escort to outside, where it will slip into depression and wildly encounter damage again. This is where the difficult choices lie, which hearts to protect and nurture and which have to survive without your help just a little longer. Allowing any of them to sink into total depression destroys them, a metaphor for the fear I lived with every night of my friends or I finally having enough and ending it.
The ultimate goal is to heal each heart to the point it turns red, when it overcomes the depression and anxiety and learns to master its own wounds and creates its own Paladin, able to take a hit and give only love in return.
PS if you recognize the background artwork, please contact me so I can properly credit the artist!
Unity Engine Personal and Education editions 5.4.0f3
Adobe Audition Cloud
ChipTone by SFB games
Special Thanks to Anna Kalandyk and Nathaniel Leandro for advice and background music.