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GAMBIT Spring Prototyping: #4

The labyrinth surrounds you interminably. Your way is unclear, though it is evident that a moment's hesitation will be your end; the labyrinth's monster draws nearer every second. In your arms you cradle your infant child who is recovering from a grave illness. You know you must find the way out.

Playtest 1: Matt

Our day commenced by having Matt play our now physically imagined prototype (designed at the previous week's meeting). Initially, he had virtually no concept of the mechanics, story, or props to be used in the game, other than it was in the survival horror genre. The setup, which was ready before Matt walked through the door, was as such:

  • A small cardboard box, painted pitch-black, approximately the size of a cinder block, fixed upright on the desk.

  • Roughly centered on the box's face was a small hole, shaped like an upside-down triangle.

  • Through the hole passed a length of wine-colored string, about eight inches or so of which lay outside the box, while the rest of the string (about 4 feet long) was hidden inside

  • A pencil, which rested on the desk inside a small, red rectangle, and a pad of ruled paper

Rules used for the first game (before any sort of feedback) were as follows:

  • After a brief exposition (see beginning of post) is read to the player, he is given the string to hold in his dominant hand.

  • A list of words is then given, one at a time, in succession, beginning with the shortest (three letters) and ending with the longest (thirteen letters).

  • The player is required to write each word, using his non-dominant hand, within a certain time limit (1 second less than the amount of letters in the corresponding word - 8 seconds for a 9-letter word, et cetera).

  • If the player fails to complete a word, one unit of string is pulled from the box, measured by regularly-spaced knots along the length of the string, and the player must re-write a word of the same length

  • Every three turns, a die is thrown to determine if the player's "child" sneezes, which will attract the Minotaur to your position (resulting in one unit's worth of string being pulled from the box). The player is asked if he wants to cover the child's mouth to stifle its sneezing.

  • Victory is attained if the player manages to successfully get to - and write -- the 13-letter word before the string is pulled completely out of the box

For Matt, the two most evocative components to the game were the use of the non-dominant hand and the "oh my God, what's in the box" aesthetic. The weak hand as a mechanic not only provides the challenge, but it evokes in a very elegant way a situation of being helpless and crippled. The black box, with the red string pulled slowly from its depths, provokes a nervous curiosity in the player as he anticipates what might be concealed.

Similarly, the kinds of words we used as obstacles were important to the flavor of the game. The language, either ominous or violent, was a big part of what qualified this prototype as "horror."

Matt succeeded at winning the game, but wanted to know what would have happened had he lost. We pulled all the string out of the box to reveal a rather underwhelming "death tassel" at the end. We had been conflicted about what to put at the end - what physical object could rival the bizarre, paranoid thoughts racing through the player's head as he plays? The imagined threat will always be much stronger than the real one. We wanted to convey "death" or "gore" with something vivid and tactile that would shoot out of the box and into the player's hand as we pulled the string. We also wanted to make it abstract and symbolic, as any literal representation (of the Minotaur, a child, or intestines) might come off as somewhat kitschy. But the result was not compelling.

Before the second playtest, we had a chance to make a couple revisions based on Matt's feedback. He commented that we were operating on a high level of abstraction. Improving the game was largely a matter of solidifying our symbols: Is the tassel at the end of the string the Minotaur? Is it the character's viscera? Is it the child? Is the physical act of writing a metaphor for running, or is it literal, as in an incantation or divination the player must perform to progress?

Playtest 2: Gene

For round two, some dramatic adjustments were made to the game interface. First, we decided concretely that the "death tassel" represented the Minotaur, and the string represented its proximity to the player - if the player botches a word, this is interpreted as stumbling or failing to make the right turn, and the Minotaur catches up a bit.

On a suggestion from Matt, we fashioned a makeshift baby from spare materials. The player could then cradle an actual soft, physical object in the crook of his arm whilst grappling with the writing portion of the game. This led to a more involved version of the sneezing mechanic, in which the player would be prompted to cover the baby's "face" with his writing hand, with the threat of receiving an additional penalty if he failed to do so. This would hopefully make the sneezing mechanic more grounded in the rest of the gameplay.
Gene also enjoyed the mystery of the box and string. He found himself with a strange desire to pull the string, but refrained for the fear of what might be on the other end.
However, the baby was not an entirely successful addition to the game. While Gene found the object endearing in a morbid sort of way, the entire sneezing ordeal did little more than jar the flow of game play. The baby became irritating - not the object of a protective instinct.

Gene was also unclear as to the eventual goal of the game. To him, it seemed that we would eventually be throwing twenty-letter words at him to write in under fifteen seconds. He didn't have a good sense of his own progress, which we felt was essential to feelings of tension as the player nears the end.

Playtest 3: Rik

The third iteration of the game marked a turning point in our procedure. We had made some considerable changes to the rules:

  • The labyrinth was represented by three stacks of cards, and the player had the option of going left, right, or straight, by choosing the respective deck.

  • The three decks were assorted into three categories: easy, medium, and difficult (most difficult being the longest words).

  • Instead of having the string drift off the end of the table after it passes through the player's hand, the player would now be required to wind it around his child's throat with each penalty. Holding both the baby and the string with one arm had been awkward for Gene, so we attempted to combine them in this way.

Amusingly, these additions resulted in a rather awkward playtest. The three decks seemed arbitrary, and Rik quickly found that his decisions had little impact on the outcome of the game.

We had wanted the difficulty of the word given to the player to be randomly determined to reflect running through the labyrinth and picking a path haphazardly, desperately hoping it's the right way. But the element of choice implied that the player should be able to guess properly and be rewarded for doing so, when this was not the case.

Additionally, Rik pointed out that the longer words were not necessarily harder than the short ones - he in fact preferred doing mid-length words of 7 letters or so, because he was more accustomed to them.

By jumbling our cards together, we also lost the feeling of tense progression as the player writes longer and longer words. This progression had also served to give the player an idea of how close he was to the end. In Rik's playthrough, the idea of progress was not as intuitive, and the game seemed meandering.

Finally, the act of wrapping the string around the "baby," while macabre, had the bizarre effect of making it seem like a tendril or tongue. The idea of the string as a measure of physical proximity to the Minotaur was lost.

Playtest 4: Philip

When Philip sat down to play, we had done away with the baby and its sneezing shenanigans (though it was still part of the flavor text) and the "path choice". This was our most simplified version - keeping only what seemed to be the most effective parts.

Philip was the first player to have only a moderate reaction to the box and string: since the game was clearly still a crude prototype, he did not expect the box to harbor anything profoundly menacing.

However, with just the words, box, and string in the equation, smaller elements became more important. The string did feel like a burden, and the knots that slid through the palm of his hand were like time ticking by.

In conclusion, the more we tried to add to the game, the more confusing and awkward it became. The most compelling experience came from the simple symbols of the box and the string and the simple mechanic of struggling to write with the wrong hand. We believe that this mechanic can be incorporated into a larger game, or translated into a digital prototype, but the mechanic itself should be kept pure in order to be most effective.

One final, curious result of game was the sheets written on by the players. Each player developed a strategy to cope with having to write with his weaker hand. Most found that using larger arm muscles to write was quite a good way to do it--Gene at times devoted entire sheets to single words--with varying degrees of success. None of the players reached the level of clarity that they had with their dominant hands, particularly with the longer words. We ended up with a series of quickly scrawled lists of violent words which resembled pages from the diary of a homicidal maniac--an unanticipated but nicely creepy souvenir of our playtests.


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