Dayna Galloway: Emotional 9.03m a rich experience

A screenshot of 9.03m. Picture: Comp
A screenshot of 9.03m. Picture: Comp
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DAYNA Galloway is a lecturer in games design at the University of Abertay Dundee’s school of arts, media and computer games. Here, he reflects on 9.03m, a game he first encountered while supervising Karl Inglott, who produced a beta version of title in the final year of his studies.

I had the pleasure of supervising Karl Inglott throughout the final year of his studies at Abertay University, where he delivered what was essentially a beta version of 9.03m. For me, 9.03m is a landmark project that could only really have been conceived as a result of utilising an academic, questioning approach. The research that led towards the iterative design of 9.03m explored a broad range of gaming experiences to underpin the development of an insightful and useful critical framework for the design of meaningful interactive media.

This grew from Karl’s initial research question which aimed to ascertain how, and to what degree, videogames can stimulate and effect emotional, contemplative or inspirational real-world thoughts and actions from people. Clearly, this approach does not necessarily guarantee a successful game, but it is an approach that has worked for several creators of some of the most innovative and rewarding digital experiences.

If we look at thatgamecompany, its titles flOw, Flower and Journey have all been crafted in conceptual response to an intrinsic problem or conflict. flOw concerned the issue of difficulty and player progression, and was informed by the principles explored by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who argued that our most favourable experience through a task is one that balances level of difficulty against our developing skills over time, ensuring the optimal levels of motivation and reward. flOw therefore intends to provide a calm and engaging experience that avoids failure and punishment, yet still manages to reward skill and presence in the game world.

The pastoral, dream-like world presented in the follow-up title Flower shares similar traits in accessibility and player engagement, but attempts to infer more of a narrative, presenting a theme that explores the conflict between rural and urban environments. Throughout development the team were faced with the challenge of providing the player with a tranquil, yet progressive experience that found a balance between the freeform play and expression of the user and the need of the game to somehow convey structure, goals and direction. Through a process of prototyping, user-testing and feedback, accepted ludic devices such as scores and timers were rejected and replaced with visual and aural feedback that provides the player with positive feedback which functions subtly to encourage further action and exploration.

thatgamecompany’s most recent title, Journey, casts players as a mysterious character in a seemingly barren desert and aims to address some of the issues raised by online play and co-operation between strangers. To achieve this there is no online lobby (the virtual waiting room where players gather prior to the beginning of a period of play), no voice-chat (players are able to communicate using a limited amount of on-screen emotes and actions), and no communication of goals or objectives (this encourages players to undertake the journey and co-operatively discover its secrets).

This brave approach to development, whereby standard and lauded constructs of videogame practice are dropped due to their irrelevance and negative impact on the communication aim of the developer and the overall experience of the user, is a process that can be seen in the development of 9.03m.

Space Budgie, the developers of the full release of 9.03m, have provided us with a beautiful and haunting interactive experience that strikes a perfect balance between authored storytelling and freeform exploration. The game itself – and I use ‘game’ quite happily here as I feel it is a term that should not lead to prohibitive definitions – is expertly crafted to support the communication aims and intentions of its director.

Every aspect of the game, from its minimalist Rothko-esque art style to the expanses of empty beach to traverse has been designed with the purpose of provoking contemplative play and the personal construction of meaning. For a new studio it is heartening to see such a confident and bold approach with regard to how they communicate with the player and draw them into the experience by providing just enough information to lead to interaction.

The dynamics that emerge from the player’s inquisitive navigation and manipulation of the world serve the dual-purpose of being the currency of the game (the motivation and reward for exploration and interaction) and the emotional heartbeat of the overall experience through affecting musical composition and sublime cut-scene animation.

As a relatively new parent, 9.03m is an experience that resonated with me profoundly – in fact it may have been the first game to tap into my hopes, fears and sense of responsibility that came bundled with parenthood. As a life-long gamer it was a pleasure to have a new and different emotional response to playing a game, and it is gratifying to know that games, my favoured entertainment media, are able to illicit a comparable, if not greater emotional response than that of documentary film for example. For me, the best documentaries live with you long after watching them – and I would argue that this is a phenomenon that exists in 9.03m and is therefore a true mark of its success.