Today I hosted a short informal playtesting with an intergenerational group of folks. Some quick notes I jotted down include:
- the height of the game needs some work. The children (all under seven) weren't able to see the top while playing, ducking up and down to see what was going on. (Although, maybe we could play with this difference if we had "below" feedback…)
- the players (young and old) weren't always sure about what they were connecting. Jonathan was on hand to translate from French to English for me, but telling the players about "velcro" ends didn't necessarily mean people knew what to do with them (i.e., one adult told me they thought maybe they had to connect the roots themselves vs. the roots to the cushions)
- children ended up doing a lot of explaining to the adults, which was interesting given the above noted problems with height disparity. They were commandingly saying things like, "see look the flowers are growing! connect the thing over there!” (etc.)
- children were generally more open and curious to playing; they jumped in without hesitation
- children were also excited to see clear cause and effect. The impact of their actions was something that they seemed to really enjoy
- the body of the well itself is something that's underused; it serves to be hugged which is great, but I think from how the kids were tugging at the fabric, we could play with that materiality more
- my lifting of the well to show the roots was really powerful; all gathered around to see what was going on
- the group I was with, a family, ended up playing with more than two people together at once (which was an interesting dynamic - lots of group discussion about what to do)
While a lot of these points are technical things that I think we can smooth out as we continue with the project, the tricky thing will be to consider how these interactions relate to reflection. The moments where both parties really connected together - seeing the roots at the end, both realizing something had died when I pointed it out - were almost in themselves little kinds of debriefs or reflections-on-actions, whereas the decisions made while playing ("connect this root here!") could I think be refined to also be more reflection-in-actiony.
Because this whole thing is so unknown for players, there is a lot of discovery and patience that needs to be balanced. On the part of the older players there is also an extra layer of cynicism. One adult told me for example this seemed like a girl’s game; another got frustrated very quickly when growth wasn’t happening. Here I think the eagerness of the children to be leaders is a powerful dynamic for play and reflection alike.
Yesterday was our final presentation with the faculty for our project. I felt that the event was both constructive in its critique and affirming of some of the suspicions we'd been thinking about as potential areas of improvement. For example, the tactile feedback of the roots - velcro with conductive thread - was something that was a bit too easily lost in the sea of materials under the well. The scale of the unit was also something that needed some adjustment; Pippin and Jonathan had a bit of a hard time, which makes me wonder what it would be like for a child to play. More importantly, this session gave us ideas for how we will refine the project for the future - how we will make the well a "well console" for telling many stories about intergenerational care. In terms of other lessons learned, we will be seeking to create a physical design that is able to be tested along with the digital game. That is, because of the scale of the unit, the game's playtesting was left until later out of class timeline necessity. This iterative feedback however is integral to the design process, especially one that is social and reflective in nature.
Today I'm doing some more work on the digital part of the game. Now that we have the physical controller almost done and mostly functional, it's time to make improvements on feedback and general flow of the game.
After some wok in the morning, I managed to get the game flow to work with resetting and also by object pooling the plants. This way we'll get better performance as the game gets more and more filled with life.
I'll now put some work into moving the bee between layers, instead of having it in one layer only. This will probably involve changing much of its logic to avoid parent-child hierarchy issues.
Enric & Rebecca
These are photos from our building session on Wednesday. Today, we picked up the fabric materials that we will need to finish the project (not shown yet!). We tried to pick these in a way that each "root" will be discernable by touch, while interaction sets are further explained to players by the visual feedback.
On Thursday of last week we went into the shop and made the top part of the well, and will be making the rest of the structure (hopefully!) tomorrow;
Today we had a learning session about the sewing machine on the Milieux Maker Lab (it's the same model at TAG). It was very productive and it will certainly help a lot in making the roots and the cover for the game. By knowing more about how to make 2 kinds of stitches and how to hem fabric, we'll be able to experiment and try out different formats for the game roots. We've also thought about buying some conductive thread to make the connections sewn into the fabric, for resistance. It should not be too expensive for us, it seems (aprox. 10 CAD for 80m).
Enric & Rebecca
We went to the woodshop for consultation and made some decision wrt the joining of the frame and shelves (we will use l-brackets) and using a round top board to attach the monitor with VESA screws (M4 threads, 7.4mm depth in the monitor).
About the stuffing cover: we thought of pool needles attached to the edge of the board, to protect from it and also to help shape it. The cover from the board edge to the screen hole would be held together by draw strings and fabric, according to the diagram below. This would make it easier to open and close and it would give a good hold to the fabric.
We also discussed about patterning the wall fabric of the well with a quilted brick pattern, similar to this one on this link, but in larger size for each brick.
We also managed to take apart the monitor stand, so now it can more easily stand flat on surface.
Enric & Rebecca
We worked some time today on discussing the build of the controller and its supporting structure. Here are some loose notes from today's working session.
The cover / stuffing
We are thinking about making a large fabric cover with a hole in the center for the screen with a duvet-like stuffing near that hole (forming the well border).
The volume between the monitor, the support board would be filled with foam or other soft materials.
The cover can be embroidered with different materials and patterns to create a more patchwork kind of aesthetic that would hopefully invite players to touch and interact with the controller.
Make them so they are long and can reach any spot on the bottom shelf and also in a way that we can stuff it
Discussed ways to connect them to the electronics shelf. The idea is to use staples for holding the fabric and take most of the mechanical stress of players tugging the roots. The conductive thread would be connected via a terminal block as intermediary, with hot glue to help hold it in place.
We are experimenting with different ways of sewing the roots in order to keep the conductive thread protected from tugging and also create a good compartment to put stuffing.
We are scheduling a learning session with Marc about the sewing machine on the Maker Lab.
We'll visit the woodshop for the open consultation period Monday morning, to see what can we do and how. Also, we'll try to make an appointment for a working session soon if that's possible.
Ok, so after the class today, I visited the wood workshop. Got their schedule and also time info to try and book a spot for building the frame and structure for the controller.
I did some sketches in paper and on 3D modelling. Here is how the current version looks like:
The top shelf is 100mm away from the board that supports the screen. The top shelf will hold the laptop and the electronic board (a MakeyMakey), and roots will be fixed here. The bottom shelf will have adjustable height, to accommodate different player needs and settings, and it has the purpose of being the "ground" where the roots are connected. The whole controller structure will be covered with fabric, with cuts so that players can reach through to the roots. I think this is looking interesting.
Another interesting reference: the #carewave manifesto. The definition of care they put forward is very relevant to what I think of our game's goals:
Care is a consensual exchange that brings all parties towards mindfulness, empathy, and understanding; inspiration and action; strength and connection; purpose and insight; safety, rejuvenation and healing; and joy, peace, and agency. (3-A)
The whole document is very good and I believe our game dialogues with that very much.
Another reference that sprung up is this text by ElectronDance on Japanese "secret boxes" and their relationship to trial-and-error. This is an important element to be thought of in or game: I don't think we rely too much on this dynamic, but maybe we should? I really like the unveiling of secrets as an experience. Here is the author's definition of the term:
A secret box is a game which is built around some form of content and challenge is trivial or absent. The emphasis is on conveying moments or ideas to the player rather than testing the player's abilities.
In other news, we got a screen (here are its specs)! I found its disassembly manual, so we can dismount it and make it smaller for our building purposes. It has 17" and a 1280x1024 resolution, so we can optimize the digital game for that. In terms of size, it's a bit small, so it might be a good idea to make the whole game more of a tabletop object.
While talking with Rebecca about references, I went looking for more games on Shake That Button](http://shakethatbutton.com/) for some alternative controllers that were related with our project. I found a few and I think it's good to list them here.
- Shoal: similar in mechanics, visual solutions and goals, but ours has a stronger emphasis on materials and touch.
- Ferdinand Laboite: uses the "hidden in a box" idea and has a similar emphasis on materiality as our project, but it's focused on providing a clumsy and hectic game experience.
- Proteus: it's a game with a traditional controller, but the art style and atmosphere are very inspiring for us.
- Viridi: similar idea of garden and care and open-ended gameplay. Does not uses altctrls.
- We are fine: the game has a key emphasis on touch and listening. Our game would like to provide a reflective mood too, but without verbal stories.
Another thing! I was talking with TOny about Shoal, the game he made for CriticalHit15. While discussing it, we thought of how a cilindrical frame could work for our game. Based on that I thought of barrels and wood spools as possibilities for the game structure. Here is a reference image. There are used plastic drums for 20$, but also we could try to find some for recycling. Another option would be to build something similar from scratch.
Today we are doing some co-working to improve the visual feedback of the different gameplay elements, as well as defining how biomes will work in game. I structured them to make them work with the Pool system for prefabs and to make it as easy as possible to shift between the biomes gradually. It works kinda well for now, but we still need to add some more interactivity and the depletion and humidity factors in the whole interaction. We also added clouds that can be controlled with a single float, which will help a lot when making them interact with players.
Today I'll work on making a basic bee AI. With this addition, we might have the basic loop and most of the in-game elements ready for Thursday's presentation. I think that besides including the bee and well dynamic, I should put some work on the feedback on growth and nutrition actions.
I'm thinking that a basic behaviour could be expressed as a flowchart. This is a simple version that emphasizes randomization.
When implementing it, I improved it to allow for 1) picking just plants on the same garden for logic and 2) avoid repeated behavior (never repeats the same action twice). It works quite well as a flow right now. It can be improved with some priorization (an idea: SAD -> HAPPY -> SURPRISED -> REST -> PLAY). This would entail some changes on how data and config is done for each action. Not a big issue, actually.
Ok, got the static garden we had created earlier to work well with the "well" movement of layers. For that I changed that system to work with a perspective camera instead of a scaling dynamic, but I kept the AnimationCurve for tweaking. It worked quite well, and I also used the time to add a fog system that is customized via a gradient. You can see it working on the gif below. The visuals are ok. In terms of functionality, I still need to reset the last layer, so that recycle properly.
Tonight I pushed what should be the last of our basic animations up. The roots draining has been giving me a hard time, and I'm not 100% satisfied so maybe that will need revision... Enric had had an interesting comment about it yesterday though, saying that it looked more "animal" than plant - I think it's interesting to think about how the roots, the unseen, is maybe the scariest/strangest part of the experience...
2018-03-05 to 07
Today I'll do some work on putting the plants art into the game. After doing that, we'll be able to prepare the game logic to follow the growth / wilt cycle.
After a lot of struggling with Unity's animation system, I managed to get a continuous transition between growing an wilting that is already integrated with the gameplay variables. From there, it was quite quick to get some other features working: plant reproduction and the wind animation via shaders.
Now I'm focusing on getting the bee animations that Rebecca made and create a basic non-player character (NPC) that uses them. The biggest challenge in this is getting the circular movement working. I'll try out some math-based one, but if it doesn't work I'll work with splines and animation.
Today we spent most of our time getting re-situated after the break and planning our steps for the first rough prototype showing. Most of this also involved fighting with Anima2D, which has proved to be a one step forward two step back type thing. It’s use of bones can make some really nice deformations but it has proven to be incompatible with the animation switching system we’ve made. So rather than rely on it, Enric is going to dig up some older shaders that will “ripple” the edges of the sprites to make them seem like they are moving.
On my end of things, I’m going to be focusing on getting our bee character animated, which I think (like the other animations so far) will involve a lot of trial and error. Given how low fi everything is, I’m curious how conveying emotion will happen with the bee’s expressions. I think looking at other kids media with similar styles could help.
When I’d first imagined the character I’d been taken with the idea of an ant because I thought the limbs could be useful to convey postures/expressions, but a bee turned out to help convey the notion of a “caretaker” better. So, for now at least, I feel I’m going to rely more on exaggerated flying…
As well, I’ve discussed with Jonathan writing a case study for this project, and so logs will continue to be more detailed from now on :).
This log is a re-upload of documentation that was kept on Google Drives here, which I am doing for the sake of keeping things together .
Personal thoughts: Given an emphasis on the course being a building block in my thesis program, the two most critical elements of this project for me are that we are able to convey “wellness” (through building a sense of community or connection) and “participatory interactions” clearly. I think we have the second element down quite clearly, or at least we will be able to articulate it more easily because people can touch the thing, but linking the garden back to wellness remains a bit elusive.
Project thoughts: I tried to sketch out the two project directions we seemed to be generally talking about below. I think it would make sense if we went with the scenario where the game was in a physical community location, that it would presumably be played over a longer period of time and have a heavy DIY or modification capability to it so that it doesn’t get dull like some people suggested it could in class. Here, wellness would be evident in the literal community building side of things.
If we went with something that was a bit more installation-y, I think we could still play with time, but maybe use the short nature of an art exhibit to our advantage. The game could still have no end state, but require two (or more?) people to play it for anything to grow properly. In the sketch for this version I even thought it would be cool if we could somehow make holding hands a killswitch of sorts, where you need to have one hand (garden glove?) connected to the other player to start the game, using your free hand to navigate the space.
Let me know if you need help with the chicken scratch ;)
Personal thoughts: I was thinking a lot about the wellness question too and how it relates to the project as a whole. I realized I have been imagining this game-object-toy as a pivot, an instigator of rituals somehow. Maybe like a playful shrine for self-care. It is part messy, part mysterious, part organic in its fiction. I don’t feel like it needs to be super serious or grave for it, I’d prefer if it had a softer feel overall.
The magic garden-forest mix is for me a good metaphor for dialectical relationships that I see as key for wellness: seen-unseen, conscious-subconscious, agency-structure, short-long term, individual-collective, order-disorder. I think gardens and forests have this tension in them: “What makes a garden beautiful? What about a forest? What makes a plant a weed?”
The garden-forest in a well idea to me is powerful because it draws on fairytale symbolism, which is a great repertoire for invitations and hooks. The idea of invitations (to enter the game-toy fiction) and hooks (to switch to and question reality) is something that is important regardless if we’ll be focusing on children or adults. I think this tensionline is one that we can use to consider each design decision we take. These garden-forest-well symbols can spark discussion by making issues concrete, and by proposing a road for interpretation, a metaphor for processes of self-knowledge.
This is related to how I imagine the players relationship with the caretaker. It would be a limited narrator, one that creates a flimsy conducting thread for the experience. Thinking about the symbolism of the game and its theme, I think it can act as a contradictory narrator: it’s simultaneously a projected self for players but also of an “other” when played collectively. In this way, the narrative perspective it can bring would be enriched by this distancing. Also, I believe this relationship between individual and collective is a very strong relationship to tap into, as it connects directly to how we relate with the tensions in social groups of which we are part, like family, school, and so on.
Another aspect that I think is central is to communicate how time and durations (in general) are fundamental to wellness. Different issues take different times to diff folks in diff contexts with diff levels of engagement, and so on. This can be a great source to think about coping, solidarity, individual and collective. It can also spark conversations about intergenerational wellness and care as this complex, messy, scary, exciting and expressive process. If the process of playing and making sense of the game in the long term helps players to build on these concepts, awesome.
Related to the matter of the temporal dimension of wellness, I am thinking that a good strategy would be to aim for cycles of short term surprises, mid term perceptions of change, and long term consequences. The long term would then drift between recognizing, reflecting, and expressing through these consequences, as players create different goals each time the long term cycles complete.
This is what I have in mind for the “portable roots” way of carrying the game controller, hehe. (http://www.instructables.com/id/Paintbrush-Roll-up-Travel-Kit/)