Pretendistan is a first-person, dystopian game that commentaries on the current trajectory of the global political climate. You can play the game here.
I had a difficult time coming up with an idea that I was passionate about for this game.
I originally thought about mental health awareness as my topic, which was the idea behind my first iteration that I later abandoned. Instead, I shifted my focus to the issue of nation-states and human-rights inequalities around the world. In the past calendar year, both Afghanistan and Ukraine have been the subjects of extreme political instability to no fault of the residents of these nations. Not to mention, countless people who are uprooted every day that we don’t hear about as widely. It also seems that the last several years have really been a turning point in terms of political ideology as younger generations seem to be more and more fed up with the current systems in place. I wanted my game to try to capture some of this essence and perhaps instill a little fear for how things may progress if we don’t start to institute changes. (I’m sorry, I’m totally oversimplifying these issues but this is just a super shortened version of my thought process.)
I also wanted the game to have a more unique feel than the story games that I play-tested. I took some inspiration from the movie Groundhog day wherein the main character relives the same day of his life over-and-over until he has a breakthrough for his character at which point the looping ends. I instituted this in my game, where if the character makes the wrong choices at some decision points the game resets.
The game is set in a country called Pretendistan, which is really a stand in for a generic, politically unstable, middle-eastern country. Throughout the game, you only go to a few locations. The main character’s house, her friend’s house, the highway, a pharmacy, another friend’s house, and the airport. While the scenery changes at various points during the story, it isn’t integral to the story as any of these places could have been replaced with anywhere else and any other description without changing the story significantly. There are also very few characters in the story. It’s the main character, James, and her sister, Anna. Then, there is James’ best friend’s family, Nadia and her parents. James meets a couple, Seb and Marcia and finally Uncle Pete before the end of the game. Each character that she meets is either somebody she helps, or helps her, or both. There is an aura of collaboration and generosity in all of James’ relationships with the other characters in the game. To understand the dystopia, we follow James on her journey to escape Pretendistan after waking up to see that the country is suddenly going through a civil war. Without her parents to help, she gets crafty to get out of the country along with her younger sister. James’ main character arc is that she must realize the importance of helping and generosity as the game continues to loop when you make selfish decisions on behalf of James. This feature of the game was instituted in hopes of alluding to the importance of collaboration and community to being at least part of the resolution to some current political problems. The ultimate goal of the game is to make players feel. I want players to feel sad about people who are affected by political instability. I want people to recognize the lingering effects the west has had on the rest of the world from a developmental perspective. I want people to acknowledge the importance of helping and generosity. But, most importantly I want to call attention to the fact that if we continue on the current trajectory, existing issues such as wealth inequality and global divides will continue to be exacerbated even as we globalize from a technological perspective.
My first iteration of the game was completely different from what I ultimately settled on. I originally wanted to create a game themed around mental health awareness, but I honestly found it really hard to tread lightly on while still having the game feel like a game. It was going to be set in a building that seemed to be a “mental institution” that was really a dystopian version of it where all the rooms are empty and everything is white. Your character would have accidentally been awakened from the mystery treatment and is looking for a way to escape. I planned to have the main character partner with two other characters on their way out. I also wanted this game to use the Groundhog Day inspired looping, to be broken when the character realized something. I couldn’t come up with an idea for that something without feeling like I was somehow making it seem as though the main character needed to be redeemed in order to be saved–I think it’s a weird message for a mental health awareness game. That’s why I shifted gears to my real topic.
I did start making this version of the game in twine, it can be played here.
I also play-tested it twice with some friends. The play-tests and feedback were also instrumental in causing me to shift gears away from this topic. My two play-testers were just generally confused at the amount of the story that they were shown in Twine and it didn’t seem obvious that the game was meant as a form of mental health awareness. One of my friends asked, “why is she being punished for being depressed?” which made me realize that my intent for the game and the actual game were two very different things.
Iteration 2 and Playtesting
The second iteration of the game is the one that is submitted here today and described above in greater detail. Of course, the game is still not perfect but I changed it a few times along the way (almost a pseudo RITE testing) according to what my play-testers told me. I ended up play-testing with 3 friends in the end, 2 of which were the same people who play-tested my first iteration of the game (I’m sorry, I have a limited number of friends).
The first iteration of feedback wasn’t great because I built the game to only have one route through so I could build my story. It didn’t have the Groundhog Day element that I meant to incorporate. Here were some quotes from the first iteration:
“I thought there would be more endings”
“Pretendistan is funny”
“LOL, Pretendistan is basically Iran”
“It’s really cool that the main character helps the others”
The second two iterations of play-testing were on the final product. But, I tried to make the game more dynamic by adding more choices. The final version of the game did have the Groundhog Day feature. Here are some quotes from my second and third round of play-testing:
“It’s so frustrating, I don’t know how to beat the game.”
“The main character is crazy for abandoning her sister.”
“The premise is sad.”
“This is making me think of Ukraine”
“I think the day loop is cool”
What I liked, What I didn’t like, What I learned
I found the assignment really quite interesting as well as challenging. It was cool to think about something in a more creative way that CS classes typically allow for, creating a story of our own and bringing it to life. I liked going through the mental exercise of looking at different story creation methods, drawing maps, iterating through different ideas, bouncing thoughts off of friends, and honestly doing the actual writing. It’s something I haven’t had the opportunity to do in a really long time and it was honestly refreshing. So, I loved that the assignment afforded us the chance to think outside the box. I also thought that working with Twine was really cool and I was amazed by how easy of a tool it was to use and how robust and high-quality the output could feel.
I didn’t necessarily dislike any aspect of the assignment, but I did find it challenging (which I suppose I disliked). Writing is really, really hard. Especially creative writing. Especially when you want there to be a lesson. Coming up with an idea and executing it was really hard, even with guidance and story-writing tools at our disposal. It almost made me miss when writing was a bigger part of my life. But, seriously all the more respect to game story writers and fiction writers in general, they do some tough stuff.
I hope I didn’t leave anything out! But, really a fun assignment and while the final product isn’t as well-written and high quality as a professional story game, it was fun to show my friends what I had created and I think that the premise could be built out into a much bigger and better story than is possible in one quarter.