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  • Telescopic To Microscopic: Handling Shifts In Scope

    [05.14.20]
    - James Patton

  • Microscopic: each person, a world

    Silicon Dreams is, of course, very different to Spinnortality. You're also at a workstation, but the "system" you're prodding isn't an entire globe, it's one person. It's your task to get to know this individual, understand their emotional landscape, and navigate it for your own ends.

    A key to this is the emotion-measuring machine: players are given a kind of elaborate lie detector which displays whatever feelings their subject is experiencing at any moment. This means the game isn't just about asking questions until you uncover the information you want. Instead, each line of dialogue causes an emotional response in the subject. Even tone has an impact: "You're broken" results in an entirely different response to "I worry you're broken. Is there anything I can do?"

    Because each dialogue line has an emotional impact, and because you'll need to extract factual information from the spoken dialogue and analyse/manipulate the subject's emotions, it's not really possible to complete the game without being exposed to the details and struggles of each subject's life. By tying the subject's emotions to both their dialog and the information you need to complete the report, we're hoping to bring the subtler, less quantifiable aspects of their lives into focus.

    Some questions are also locked behind emotions. Maybe your subject won't talk about their tragic past if they're currently happy, because they don't want to make themselves sad. Maybe they won't let key information slip unless they're scared or angry. Understanding your subject's feelings towards different parts of their life isn't just a fun bit of subtext and glossing: it's a key resource-management feature.

    Narrative and gameplay, commingled

    On a side note, this isn't totally unlike the gambling mechanic in Inkle's Sorcery series, which I've always found interesting. The game of "swindlestones" in that series is a game of betting and trying to mislead your opponent, and if you win you usually earn some gold. But while you gamble, you and your opponent pass the time by chatting. Eventually your opponent will say something really intriguing, but the only way for you to keep talking about it is to keep the game going - perhaps to the point where you know you'll lose this round. 


    Image from https://hulkingreviewer.com/home/reviews/sorcery-pt-2/

    So do you deliberately lose to learn useful information, or ignore those tantalising tidbits so you can win money? I think this was the first time I saw a game with fairly clear "win" conditions (like Silicon Dreams' emotional locks and report-sensitive information) with a narrative layer overlaid onto it (like Silicon Dreams' dialogue and character narrative) where both layers affected each other and were often equally important.

    It's the interaction between these two layers which I think is the critical component of Silicon Dreams. The player is certainly not all-powerful, but in relation to their subject they hold all the cards. Considering this dynamic, the game then asks the player: "Do you want to please the company, or help these androids?" This means the player must choose whether to engage with the subject on an emotional level, or operate at maximum efficiency by manipulating emotions to directly answer the questions on the report. Without the tension between this mechanical win condition and the narrative layer of subjects' lives, this choice would have no weight and would resemble the earlier stages of Spinnortality: viewing the globe as a series of numbers to be manipulated for profit; viewing subjects as a series of emotions to be manipulated for information, with no concern for the stories behind those emotions.

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