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  • Telescopic To Microscopic: Handling Shifts In Scope

    - James Patton
  • This post was cross-posted from our blog.

    The last game I shipped was Spinnortality, a cyberpunk management sim where you try to take over the world. The thing you stared at most was a globe, which changed colour as you took over more countries.

    The game I'm currently working on is Silicon Dreams, a cyberpunk conversation sim where you learn about people. The thing you stare at most is a TV screen with a person on it.

    That's a bit of a shift. Let's talk about that.

    So vulnerable... so defenceless. So profitable.

    Telescopic: the world as a vulnerable marble

    When I was designing Spinnortality, I was interested in exploring a cyberpunk dystopian world similar to our own. I wanted to take real-life political or business scandals, or examples of corporate overreach, and craft mechanics around them. It would become a sort of sci-fi mirror of our own reality. For more on that, see this post I wrote about why cyberpunk is perfect for this kind of commentary.

    When I first started the game, I thought the tech tree's entire first row was fictional, bar social media. By the time it shipped, they were all real. *shudders*

    Why not just make a silly cyberpunk game without trying to take stuff from real life? It... didn't seem appropriate. Cyberpunk came about as a commentary on late capitalism and libertarianism, for starters, so it felt weird for me to just use the subgenre without acknowledging that. Also, there are real people right now doing the kind of things players can do in Spinnortality, and the impacts of those decisions are in many cases catastrophic. It would have been an omission to not address the realities which informed the fiction.

    Can you see humanity through a telescope?

    This raised a few issues, though. Firstly, the world a Spinnortality player engages with is very remote from the people of that world who suffer the consequences of your choices. You play a corporate bigwig in an ivory tower somewhere; you never leave your desk to walk down the street and see, for example, an increase in homelessness. The game is mostly a globe and some numbers. In early versions, in fact, it didn't feel at all like you were conquering a world - just making figures go up.

    "The brotherhood of lonely men" is inspired by Incels. They are never mentioned again. This is a good thing.

    My solution to this problem was to add news articles: when the player does something noteworthy (or something big happens, like a global crisis) a news article pops up describing the event. This went a long way towards making the world feel like a place where player actions were actually having an effect.

    Secondly, although it now felt more like players were affecting the world, that didn't mean they were affecting people. When a news article says "PlayerCorp has forced Oceania to deregulate its genetic experimentation market", they don't get a peek into the struggles the average Oceanian citizen will now have regarding, say, risky healthcare procedures or newly released, dangerous products.

    My solution? Well, the player already receives emails each turn. These are mostly just decision events: "Give money to charity to improve PR, or invest it in research?" wrapped up in a corporate framing device. But I realised I could also use it to show the player the impact of their decisions on individuals.

    Totally not inspired by real events. Honest.

    Some of these are one-offs: messages from a person you'll never hear from again, but who's been impacted by your actions. Some are from characters you're introduced to and build up a bit of a rapport with, who might then criticise you or congratulate you based on your choices later on. Some of them even lead to unique endings.

    By bringing the experience of these people into a core part of the gameplay loop - a part you can't skip, by the way, since all decisions must be concluded by the end of the turn - I hoped to confront the player with the real-world consequences that might follow their in-game decisions, and encourage them to reflect on real-world politics and business a bit. Not to punish or berate them, but to make them aware of the context of their actions.

    Incidentally, you can avoid receiving those emails but then you get attacked instead. Power to the people!

    This was interesting and definitely made the game richer, but it was always a struggle. Ultimately, I was trying to make players feel bad about playing the game the way it was meant to be played - and while I tried to avoid heavy-handedness I knew there were other games that could present players with the human cost of late capitalism.

    So for Silicon Dreams I wanted to dig down into the experience of getting to know just one person at a time. What would it be like to be at the bottom of the heap?


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