With student and faculty exchange programs, research alliances and the development of a brand new university, MIT has a long history of collaboration with the country of Singapore.
One such partnership, the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, considers how that strong relationship has created a unique need: how does someone reflect Singaporean culture to those on this side of the Pacific without resorting to rough, if well-intentioned, stereotypes?
A team in the GAMBIT Game Lab's demanding summer program takes on the challenge with its new title, "Stranded in Singapore", a point-and-click adventure game featuring a player "forced by circumstances to complete tasks for the eccentric Auntie MeeMaggi."
"We wanted to see how a game player's values can be mirrored in another culture," says Dr. Clara Fernández-Vara (SM '04), the game's product owner, who along with game director Richard Eberhardt oversaw the work of ten interns over the eight-week summer program. "Singaporean culture was pretty much ideal in that sense. It's distinctive and it offers the parameters needed to design a game in such a short time. It also facilitated the creation of a story: we could present Singapore almost as a character in itself."
In fact, much of the gameplay features Singapore's famously heterogeneous cuisine.
"Food in Singapore is very modular," says Eberhardt. Culinary components of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other dishes find themselves mixed and matched in creative ways. Similarly, the quests in "Stranded in Singapore" are modular, obliging players to create new combinations of found objects to make their way through the game.
Such permutating puzzles are central to Fernández-Vara's research. The game is procedurally generated, which means it's dependent on algorithms to create and re-create the story. "You can play it multiple times, solving new puzzles with each play-through," describes Eberhardt, illustrating why such games are appealing for players.
Procedural generation can make a game uniquely hard to design. Where traditional adventure games are mapped out in detail, the puzzles in procedurally-generated games change every time you play, even during development. "Our designers and programmers would make a change to an object in the game, and that change would ripple out," remembers Fernández-Vara. "Adventure games are already challenging to make, but when they can be played in many different ways, dependencies get complicated."
When featuring Singaporean culture, those dependencies can get especially complicated.
"We're dealing with dialects, for example," says Fernández-Vara. "We're dealing with mixed vocabularies -- like 'Singlish'. How do you get a game to work well when the same word can have different meanings for different people, when an ambiguous phrase can change the game's whole direction?"
As an example, Fernández-Vara cites "can can".
"In the game, we have a can as an object. But in Singlish, can can is like saying no problem or can do. These language problems are tough."
"It's curious, though," adds Eberhardt, "our Singaporean students learned new Singlish phrases they never heard before -- from each other and from resources we used for the game, such as local guidebooks."
The game development team, which included several Singaporean tertiary students, found technical and design solutions for designers in the game industry. The researchers caution developers working with permutating content to allocate additional planning time. Misconceptions in the team can cause weeks of development delays for a procedurally-generated game. Fernández-Vara describes the dilemma, "everyone on a team envisions the game a little differently, but you can't have changing content if you don't already have content."
Eberhardt backs up that sentiment with a practical solution. "Working in the same room is really important," whether the team member is a programmer, artist, or audio designer. The team's producer, Nicholas Garza '11, echoes the need for open communication from a cultural standpoint. "Every summer we're suddenly grouped with nine strangers and asked to create something unique and amazing together. Working with familiar mentors lent me some solid footing, but when half your team represents the culture featured in your game, communication is especially important. They are not only your subject matter experts, they also reflect your potential audience."
Fernández-Vara describes her satisfaction from building upon her research from GAMBIT's 2010 award-winning adventure game "Symon". "'Stranded in Singapore' features more complex puzzles and locations. To do that, we had to create a set of tools to facilitate the design of procedurally-generated narrative puzzles." The long-term impact of this research will extend beyond point-and-click adventures. GAMBIT plans to to release a version of these tools for general use to programmers and designers of all sorts of games.
Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab (gambit.mit.edu)
The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab is a research collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Interactive Digital Media R&D Programme Office hosted by the Media Development Authority of Singapore. The lab experiments with the theory, aesthetics, culture, craft, legacy, technology and play of games, developing, sharing, and deploying prototypes, findings and best practices to challenge and shape global game research and industry. GAMBIT builds collaborations between Singapore institutions of higher learning and MIT departments to identify and solve research problems using a multi-disciplinary approach that can be applied by Singapore's digital game industry.
Media Development Authority (www.mda.gov.sg)
The Media Development Authority of Singapore promotes the growth of globally competitive film, television, radio, publishing, music, games, animation and interactive digital media industries. It also regulates the media sector to safeguard the interests of consumers, and promotes a connected society.
Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
Massachusetts Institute of Technology