If you wanted to tell the story of humanity — to take people through the evolution of life from the beginning of civilization to modern times — would you do it in a video game?
Keith Nemitz decided to do that with his upcoming game, 7 Grand Steps. The title serves as a description of the game's arc and the idea itself — "ambitious" is one word you could use to describe Nemitz and his game, but the adjective seems somehow inadequate. The nomination of 7 Grand Steps for the Independent Games Festival's Nuovo Award, which recognizes "abstract and unconventional" games, seems apt for its unique, staggering concept and presentation.
In 7 Grand Steps, you begin at the dawn of Western civilization, with the objective of propagating your family line forth through the ages. You'll ascend from laborer to ruler, making decisions along the way that affect your family's chance of survival. You'll encounter other people in similar positions and different ones, discovering the structure of human society. You'll raise children — more than one at a time, if you don't want the family line to die out. This all plays out on a literal wheel of life, in a penny arcade-style interface that more closely resembles a board game than what we think of as a video game.
Nemitz, the founder and sole member of the studio Mousechief (pronounced like "mischief"), previously developed Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!. It took about two and a half years to make and won numerous accolades upon its mid-2008 release — it was selected as a 2008 IndieCade finalist and nominated for the Writers Guild of America's 2009 Videogame Writing Award.
"I promised myself," he told Polygon during a recent phone interview, "my next game wouldn't take as long."
7 Grand Steps has been in development since early 2009. And the full title of the game Nemitz has been making for the past four years is 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat. It is the first of seven steps — of seven planned games.
Nemitz acknowledged that he vastly underestimated the work that the project would require, if not its scope.
"I completely fooled myself," he said. "I literally thought it would be a year and a half to two years of total work." The design of the game mechanics themselves, and the programming they took to implement, turned out to be a comparatively small part of the process. And Nemitz said his estimate of that effort was relatively accurate. The lion's share of 7 Grand Steps' four-year development consisted of writing the stories it tells.
The game's script comprises more than 140,000 words, two novels' worth. But you don't spend most of your time in 7 Grand Steps reading text; the size of the script owes more to the significant variety of possible interactions and scenarios in the game.
"The text is consciously designed to be as [unobtrusive] as possible," said Nemitz.
Instead, 7 Grand Steps takes the form of a board game, a design Nemitz had settled on before he even knew what the game was going to look like. He left that to Bill Stoneham, the art director whom he contracted for the project; Stoneham proposed an interface inspired by antique coin-operated arcade machines, the kind on display at the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco.
As a result, 7 Grand Steps has a very tactile quality: Your primary interaction with the game is dragging and depositing tokens into slots. Nemitz explained that he "wanted to have that little R2-D2 [design] — what vent opens up the chainsaw, what vent opens up the fire extinguisher."
It is the first of seven steps — of seven planned games
The tokens move pawns — the husband and wife of your family's current generation — forward along the wheel, with death waiting behind. Your family members collect beads as they move through life, and eventually they'll have enough to earn a legend. The legends you choose help define your family's legacy: technological discoveries, upward movements in society or heroic feats. Each one will serve your family as it comes up against the Challenge of the Age, and attempts to continue on to the next age.
As you move along one layer of the wheel, you'll eventually have the opportunity to ascend in society. Four social groups exist in each wheel: laborers, artisans, nobles and the ruling class. The final level offers a ruling game that you can choose to participate in, as you approach the Challenge of the Age. If you win the challenge, you move on; if you lose, it's back to the noble track — as long as you have an heir left to pick up the family lineage. In that way, Nemitz explained, children essentially serve as save games.
What Ancients Begat takes place over the first three ages of human civilization: the Copper Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The end-of-age challenges are based on historical situations that are said to have caused the end of a particular period. In the Bronze Age, the ruling game has you organizing your kingdom's forces and economy to sustain warfare; eventually, society can sustain it no longer and collapses. The challenges themselves play out as interactive fiction — you make choices and hope your family survives.
"Civilization 4 pretty much becomes a bullet-fest"
Nemitz came up with the idea for 7 Grand Steps after playing another game based on human history. After releasing Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, he "literally played [Civilization 4] for a month." He eventually burned out on the game, largely because of what he saw as a major flaw: the militarism that it essentially required for success.
"The game pretty much becomes a bullet-fest," said Nemitz, explaining that it forces you to go the military route at some point. "I liked building libraries and theaters and such."
Nemitz wanted a game that painted a more holistic picture of humanity, one that would illustrate "what [life was] like for the rest of the population, other than just the ruling class." When asked if he has any background in anthropology, Nemitz said no, but noted that he had studied psychology and has a deep love of history. To prepare for designing and writing 7 Grand Steps, he read numerous books to understand life and culture in ancient societies.
However, 7 Grand Steps doesn't specify any cultures, civilizations or places; instead, Nemitz described its version of history as a "mélange of cultures." The Copper Age's laborers are based on ancient Egypt, while its artisans are inspired by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
"Cultures can vary wildly," explained Nemitz. "History isn't just one thing; people aren't just one thing."
7 Grand Steps presents a "mélange of cultures"
The descriptions of 7 Grand Steps above don't do justice to the experience of playing it, and Nemitz is well aware not only of the difficulties of explaining how his game works, but also of the challenges of marketing it.
"I've done enough user testing with the game over the last two years that I understand how best to sell the game," he said, "and that really is to get a demo in people's hands." According to Nemitz, the act of playing 7 Grand Steps isn't all that complicated; it just gives rise to complex and varied events. Unlike traditional video games, which Nemitz called "environment-based," this game is — like any board game — based on a particular rule set.
Nemitz characterized 7 Grand Steps as a casual game, or at least, one designed for casual players. In fact, that audience is perhaps more likely to enjoy the game, he pointed out, saying that "one advantage of casual gamers is that they actually read the rules." The interface is also why Nemitz is excited to bring the game to PAX Prime later this year — PAX attendees "have a wonderful overlap with [fans of] board games."
But Nemitz also admitted he's unsure of the long-term future of 7 Grand Steps. Its development was funded by sales of Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, which are still coming in. Nemitz is currently planning to release a final version of What Ancients Begat in late April or early May, and he said it has to do at least twice as well as his previous game in order for him to continue on the franchise, although he foresees making at least the next two Steps.
"casual gamers actually read the rules"
Even so, Nemitz estimates two years would pass between new entries in the series, and he doesn't envision the basic mechanics changing much over the course of all seven Steps; each game is more about demonstrating the changes in human society through time, which is accomplished through the writing.
"I take this core gameplay to give a sense of striving in life to match history," said Nemitz, describing the movement of the pawns along the wheel of life. He hopes to be striving for many more years with 7 Grand Steps.
Keith Nemitz's 7 Grand Steps is a 2013 finalist for the Independent Games Festival Nuovo Award. The Independent Games Festival will take place during the 2013 Game Developers Conference, in San Francisco from March 25-29.
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