Another Chance, and 2016 Life.Love. Game Design Challenge
by Andrew “Boter” Bugenis
I started off the evening playing a cute, sprite-based game that by and large played like a top-down RPG. It had some interesting mechanics and, yes, got a bit preachy. But I enjoyed playing it, it was a well put together game and I was thinking about things like music and how smooth the gameplay was while also communicating its lessons.
Then the end hit.
I wasn’t in my content gaming space anymore. For a brief, razor-sharp moment I was confronted with a real issue in the world today: Teen Dating Violence.
I’m pretty sure most of us know the stereotypical abusive relationship. The abuser attacks the victim’s physical, sexual, mental, and emotional well-being to turn them into something the abuser can control. I’m willing to bet, though, that you didn’t when you were younger. Not all the signs, anyway. But by the time they turn 14, one in three teens will have experienced some sort of this abuse within a relationship. By the time they graduate college, that number rises to nearly half.
It’s a big issue.
In 2008, the Jennifer Ann’s Group held a video game contest to call attention to the dangers of Teen Dating Violence (TDV). “Can you create a game about Teen Dating Violence… without using violence?” Over time this contest became an annual event, and entries are now open for the 2016 Life.Love. Game Design Challenge.
It’s become a great way to not only raise awareness about TDV, but is also an opportunity for social outreach from the game developer community. Games, and by extension their creators and players, have a stigma of basic violence, and the Life.Love. Game Design Challenge has become a great way for the community to reach out and give back.
There’s more to say about TDV, but I want to talk about it through the scope of the winner of last year’s Game Design Challenge: Another Chance, by Jean HEHN.
(Spoilers for Another Chance follow.)
In Another Chance you are what the game calls a Helper. Your job is to guide Emily, a girl of some unspecified age. Her boyfriend, Brad, has been locked up, and it’s up to Emily to get the four keys needed to unlock him from the castle dungeon.
There’s a fair amount of self awareness in this top-down RPG, as is in vogue these days. Brad can be let out with the keys because that’s the law. “Am I in a game?” Asks Emily when first waking up from a fuzzy pale vision with a colored blob to the side.
Before moving forward, Emily visits a Priestess in a temple. The floor is one gigantic map – and spots of light on the map represent the locations that people have played Another Chance, the location of all the Helpers in the world. It’s one of the more subtle messages in the game, that help is everywhere – you need only to look around you. The Priestess fills you in on the most video game-y mechanic in the game – while wandering the wilderness, there will be spirits that will try to bring you back to a white gate. If they try to make you do something they don’t want you to, say “No.” (Or in video game terms, once they have a hold on you, press the action button and they disappear, using up some of your Courage meter.) And then, with that advice and encouragement, Emily is sent out to recover the four keys that will free her boyfriend from the dungeon.
Between story beats, the “host” of the game gives trivia questions, like that one-in-three statistic I gave earlier. They are… not subtle, to say the least. I feel like they were shoehorned in to drive the point home further, while the game really doesn’t need it. I personally felt that the game conveys its message very well without the trivia breaks, but perhaps they were included to satisfy some rule of the Game Design Challenge.
The four keys have been left with important people in Emily’s life. The first is with her mother; the second, her teacher; the third is with her brother, and the last is with her best friend. All of them, through dialogue directly with Emily or by having her go talk to others first, reveal to Emily something about her relationship with Brad that Emily may not have realized herself. It’s a bit troubling – from controlling what she wears to Brad having punched her brother for confronting him about bruises on Emily’s neck – but at the same time, it’s experienced from a safe distance, overhead above some sprites. You empathize with the character, sure, but it’s not visceral.
The art is cute, vibrant, and does a great job creating that fantasy RPG look. The music is that old-school RPG fare, with flutes for town music, some strings for wilderness areas. And the gameplay is nice and smooth. The browser version of the game uses the arrow keys to move, the spacebar to interact, and Ctrl and Alt to move a cursor, or just invites use of the mouse. Versions on Android smartphones likely use a virtual joystick and the touch screen, though I haven’t tested those out. It’s a very polished experience the whole way through, no bugs or glitches. On its presentation, it’s a very satisfying game to play. Its message, however, keeps you from considering it a happy experience.
Eventually, Emily gets all four keys. “Are you going to free him?” Asks Laura, her best friend.
“I don’t know,” Emily replies.
It’s up to the player – the Helper – to make Emily confront Brad. And while there’s not a choice in-game, it’s still something that Emily needs to do. It struck me that Emily needs to make that decision – she needs to go back to the dungeon and talk to Brad, it doesn’t just get resolved off screen. She needs to confront him, and remember why he was locked up in the first place…
The screen goes black, and only dialogue appears. No cute sprites, just pixelated text. She’s breaking up with him. He refuses to believe it. And gets angry.
Everything goes black.
From Emily’s point of view, she wakes up. The blurry visions we’ve seen all game with cryptic phrases resolve into a hospital ceiling and a Get Well balloon.
Reverse shot on Emily.
“Oh God!” That’s me, right there. Not the game. A visceral reaction.
Emily. Not a sprite. A very detailed illustration.
Lying in the hospital bed, heavily bruised, brace around her neck, bandages around her head and an eye, and intubated. The uncovered eye stares up at you, helpless.
Teen Dating Violence is a real issue, the prevalence of which I was not aware. A press release from the Jennifer Ann’s Group told me it was a problem, and gave me numbers, but only by stepping into Emily’s shoes for a half hour did it really sink in.
Is Teen Dating Violence something that means a lot to you? Do you have something to say on it, some message to help bring the issue to light? The 2016 Life.Love. Game Design Challenge is currently accepting submissions. There are cash prizes for the top games as well as a lot of recognition… and it’s for an amazingly good cause. You can enter your game at https://jagga.me/contest. If you’re interested in helping but don’t have a lick of game design in you (like me), you can go to the Jennifer Ann’s Group’s webpage at www.jenniferann.org to find other ways that you can help.
Platform: Browser-based (Unity Web Player/All browsers except Google Chrome), Android (Google Play Store, Amazon Appstore)
Developer: Another Kind
Publisher: Jennifer Ann’s Group
Release Date: 2015
*All statistics have been provided by the Jennifer Ann’s Group.
Andrew “Boter” Bugenis
Boter is a gamer and a filmmaker, and to combine the two, a Let’s Player. Say “science fiction” and his ears perk up, but don’t say “Star Wars” unless you have nothing else to do that day. You can check out his series “Boter Plays Something” and more on his YouTube channel and elsewhere.