I highly recommend playing before reading the iteration history because there will be spoilers.
Overview of the game
This game aims to prompt players to consider how language impacts cultural identity.
The learning goal was assessed with the following three questions, asked before and after the player played the game.
- What do you think a language does?
- What is language diversity’s effect on the world?
- How a language shapes a person?
The story takes place in a faraway galaxy of planets habituated by different aliens, all with different languages, cultures, and values. There is one most advanced planet of them all, SaphirA, on where every alien in this galaxy wants to live. With their advanced technology, the Saphirian government developed a language software implant for immigrants which will make them native speakers of Saphirian in no time. It is mandatory for every immigrant to install the software in their brain. The protagonist is a new alien immigrant who just arrived in SaphirA, finding out that the discrimination against foreign aliens bad was rampant in the Saphirian society and suffered from discrimination. What’s more, although aliens on SaphirA were supposedly from various planets with different cultures and characteristics, you weren’t able to see any special characteristics in aliens around you. Every alien was so similar. The protagonist found out that the language software gradually overwrote every user’s native language and culture and instilled Saphirian culture, and decided to join a rebel force against the government to destroy the language software and retrieve the freedom to keep immigrants’ own languages.
Where does this game come from? Mostly, it is from my own identity. I was born and raised in Guangzhou, a city in the most Southern part of China. My native language was Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese that is very different from Mandarin. I learned Mandarin when I was a kid and grew up speaking both.
Since I came to the U.S. six years ago, I have always been fascinated by the difference between the American and Chinese cultures and how I think and speak differently when I use Chinese and English, these two languages from very different cultures. I was also intrigued by how second-generation immigrants associate the language of their parents with positive, negative, or mixed feelings depending on their opinions of their heritage, causing them to choose to or not to learn their parents’ language.
Out of my experience as a foreigner living in a place where people speak a different language and my interest in language’s effect on cultural identity, I came up with this story. I wanted to prompt the player to think deeper about the relationship between their language and their culture, and how that had shaped their thinking.
The first version of the story that I wanted to tell was centered around discrimination and oppression against minority groups. I didn’t have the full game planned out yet, but I was thinking of the protagonist as an alien immigrating to a new planet and getting treated unfairly. After getting lots of discrimination, the protagonist starts a rebellion against the planet’s leader.
In this playtest, I tested out the beginning of the story with scenarios written on paper and observed with the following questions in mind:
- Do players engage in the story?
- Is the story interesting to the player? Will it make them care about what I want to tell them?
A very simple prototype on paper was tested, with a few choices that led to different stories. After they finished the prototype, I also told them verbally about what may happen afterward and asked for their opinions on the story. I shared with them that the first try/fail loop I intended to write was that the protagonist witnessed that his childhood friend, Jax, was bullied in the company because of his heritage. The protagonist would have to choose between standing up for Jax or remaining silent. If the player chooses to stand up, they will get fired and have to find a new job, which is very hard.
Playtesters: Ecy and Alahji, who are in their early twenties and are both computer science students at Stanford.
From my observation, the playtesters were engaged in the game. The playtesters reported that they could visualize the scenes in their head while playing the game and they liked the scenes depicted in the stories. For example, the job hunting scene elicited an anxious and urgent feeling in the playtesters (probably due to shared experience), and the familiar cafe scene elicited a nostalgic emotional response in the playtesters.
The main feedbacks I got were that (1) the game was a bit too “vanilla” and needed more drastic conflict and tension, (2) and it would be great if there could be more sci-fi elements specific to the extraterrestrial setting.
What I kept/changed: I decided to keep the scenarios and elicited strong emotional responses from the playtesters, and changed the story of my game to involve more conflict and tension.
I honed in on my interest in language preservation between the first and the second playtest, so I make a shift in the focus of my game from just discrimination to language and discrimination. At this point, I was writing the story as outlined in the premise.
I wrote drafts of the story on Word and then move them to Twine.
I conducted these playtest with these three questions in mind:
- Can the story achieve the learning goal, conveying the message I want to convey to the player?
- Is Twine a good platform to use?
- Does the player feel like they are making meaningful choices?
When asked about the assessment questions listed in the Learning Goal section before the game, Shimea reported that language diversity does more bad than good to the world because it builds barriers between people who speak different languages.
The most interesting observation was how her attitude toward the language software changed as she played the game. When she started the game and found out about the language software, she was very excited about it and wanted to get it. However, when she found out the language software would wipe out her native language, she disliked it very much and said “This is so bad. I don’t want my culture to be wiped out.” That was the change of thought that I was aiming for in this game.
When asked about the same assessment questions after playing, Shimea reported that this game prompted her to see a deeper link between one’s language and cultural identity. So the learning goal was met.
The main feedback I got was that she liked the premise and the side characters, and the try/fail loops needed more work.
The main change I had after this playtest was to add more choices for the player. Since the learning goal was met, I focused on adding more details to the story. I added a lot more endings to the game (there was only one ending but there are six possible endings to the game now.) I also added more stories to the side characters to add on to the story.
In this playtest, I tested out the complete game on Twine.
What the playtester wanted to be changed:
- The endings other than the main ending are a bit extreme. They can hint at a better ending.
- The sequence of choices didn’t let the player go back and forth between them. More nuances were expected.
What the playtester liked about:
The characters all had their characteristics. For example, the protagonist is from Valtonian culture, which is a collectivist culture in which individuals are less important than the group. So the protagonist chose to sacrifice himself at the end of the game to free all other immigrants. The Lindy/Tiana parallel is an interesting contrast between protecting and giving up one’s cultural heritage.
I didn’t have enough time to implement all the changes. I added hints for a main ending to the early sub-endings, which made them much less abrupt. I also added more stories for Lindy to illustrate her love for her family. I also cut some choices and endings that didn’t add much to the core story.
Overall, in this game, I spent a lot of time crafting the story and deciding what message i want to tell the player with my game. I found it really rewarding to think of what to keep and what to cut in a game. I shared the story with many people and asked for their feedback. I compared different mediums of platforms for interactive fiction and decided Twine was the best choice for the branching story that I was writing.
I learned that choices form how players view the game and what they learn from the game. When they think their choices are meaningful, they put more thought into them, and those thinking processes make the player engage in the game more and learn better.
Next time I’d do it this way:
If I get to do it again, I will spend less time thinking about the story and put more effort into crafting the learning arc of the player. Most of the choices in my game have immediate short time effects. I want to write a longer story for the players to see the long-term effects of their choices. Some of the choices in my game lead to extreme outcomes, so I would love to add more nuances to them and make the transitions softer.
I would also love to add audio and visual effects to strengthen the extraterrestrial vibe and make the experience more immersive.