This War of Mine was one of the most significant games of last year, mostly because it made players feel really bad about themselves.
Set in a war-torn city, the game tasks players with staying alive, by securing food and medicine, while protecting themselves against bandits, depression and other dangers. It requires difficult moral decisions.
At GDC yesterday, Pawel Miechowski, lead writer at the game's developer 11 bit Studios, talked about how much work went into drawing emotions like remorse out of players.
"Did a movie ever make you feel remorseful?" he asked. "You can feel compassion and sadness and lots of other emotions watching a movie, but some emotions can only come from inside."
In his talk, "This War of Mine: Raising Emotions from Unique Narrative," Miechowski shared some of the lessons the team learned.
First and foremost, he said, it was important to avoid shaping the game around a particular genre. "We did not set out to make a game in the survival genre," he explained. "We wanted to make a game about being a civilian in a war. Everything we did was based on this idea. The survival mechanics were a natural progression from the original idea of people trying to stay alive."
Early observations of tester reactions also proved useful. One woman played the game and stole some supplies. She then went back to the scene of the crime and returned half the supplies. "She judged herself, morally," said Miechowski. The designers used this lesson to work on the game's responses to moral decisions.
He said that players feeling bad about their own actions will always carry more impact than a game telling people they did something reprehensible.
Play-testing also showed that overly simplified characters were treated as "cannon fodder" by testers. "They treated them as a resource" and behaved "more like soldiers than civilians". Characters were subsequently given more complex personalities by the writing team. Players responded by taking more care with their lives.
Likewise, when players were given an extra inventory slot to carry guns and ammo, they tended to behave more like they were playing a shooting game. Inventories were tightened up, forcing players to spend more time worrying about securing essential supplies like food and medicine than seeking out combat situations.
This War of Mine perplexed players by setting them in game-like situations where solve-able puzzles and perfect outcomes are often to be found. Instead, players were presented with dilemmas and consequences that did not always feel good.
"The only way for players to feel real remorse is if they judge themselves," he said. "It is a very strong emotion, to feel bad about something you have done. It is impossible for a movie to make you feel this way."