Link to Game: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy-v4
Over the past three weeks, the concept for this game changed. Originally, players would take on the role of Cappy, an 8-month old golden retriever owned by a widowed man (known only as “Dad”) who is haunted by the ghost of his wife. However, Cappy can see her. So, the goal for players would be to get rid of the ghost as a dog.
However, when I went to fully write this story at the start of week 5, I felt that having the players pretend to be a ghost-hunting dog who helps relieve their owner’s grief by literally getting rid of his dead wife’s ghost was tonally… off. So, I changed the game’s premise to be more like “a day in the life of a dog.” Although players still act as Cappy, their goal is to use their acute sense of smell to identify and resolve their owner’s negative emotions. Depending upon how you choose to resolve Dad’s emotions impacts the cutscenes you get after each major portion of the day. If players fail to make him happy enough by the end of the day, the game is reset and they are encouraged to try again. Once they successfully make Dad happy all the way through bedtime, they have beaten the game.
I got the idea for the story when I considered the aftermath of my own death. You see, I intend on adopting a golden retriever named Cappy after I graduate from my Master’s. I’m also in a long-term relationship that I expect to last for quite a while. So, the original premise was literally my vision for what would happen if I died shortly after my boyfriend and I get married… assuming ghosts exist. Although the ghost idea was cut, the original (perhaps morbid) sentiment remains – this is how I imagine a future in which I am no longer alive.
There are four stages: morning, afternoon, evening, and bedtime. As Cappy, your job is to make Dad as happy as possible during each of these stages. However, Dad will be feeling different emotions as the day progresses. In the first, he feels one emotion: dread. In the second, he feels two: frustration and hopelessness. In the third, he feels lonely, inadequate, and frustrated. Finally, in the fourth, he feels lonely and exhausted.
The player’s job is to sniff Dad, read the descriptions of the emotions, and find an action or object around the apartment to resolve that emotion. For example, in the Morning, players will only be given one options to relieve his dread: give him his medicine (antidepressants). This is my attempt to onboard players to the exploration mechanic. However, in other sections, different choices have different efficacy. This “efficacy” is denoted by points. Players do not get to see the point values of their choices. Instead, players should think like a dog.
You accumulate points throughout the game as you resolve Dad’s emotions. At the end of each stage, the number of points you’ve gained until then determines which cutscene you get. If you have enough points by that stage in the game, you get a good scene! Otherwise, you get a sad version of the scene. It’s worth noting that the points mechanic was only introduced after the first playtest.
History of Versions
In-Class on 4B
This playtest was completed under the original premise of the game. Here is the map of the apartment I sketched for it!
Even after revisions, the layout of the apartment remained the same… not that players can tell.
In this session, my goal was only to test the mechanics of my game, such as moving around the physical space of the apartment and Dad’s mood. Specifically, I wanted to test the feasibility of:
- Dog actions, such as bite, bark, etc.
- Dog communication via the button pad with 10 initial words
- Puzzle solving with limited actions/communication
- Dad’s mood
Another big idea I wanted thoughts on was how to communicate emotion from the perspective of a dog. Specifically, my question for people was: How do I describe the world in such a way that humans can understand the story and its emotional impact, but from the perspective of a dog that does not know human vocabulary?
During the actual playtest, I basically ran a mini D&D quests where the only objective was to roleplay Cappy and get food using 10 basic actions (such as “bark” or “paw at”). Two of the three players chose to interact with Dad to get food. The third broke into the cabinet with the food. No players explored the apartment first. It was noted that audio cues might be beneficial and contribute to the story. The player who made that comment also added that “your energy added a lot to the game” (referring to my role as the game master). Another player noted that “Eat” should be an action for the dog. Finally, all players appreciated using the “Charlie Brown Adult Voice” for Dad, except for words that Cappy would have been trained to know.
Ultimately, I decided that Cappy would interpret smells as the emotions surrounding their own memories. For example, in the Morning section, Cappy smells “dread” as an “unwanted trip to the vet.”
Google Form Responses from Halloween Weekend
Link to Cappy V1: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy
Here’s a peek at the notes I scribbled during revisions
Over the next week, I feverishly revised and wrote 16 pages of content for this story in time for the weekend. At this point, I felt that Cappy should be a service dog, since their whole goal is just to help Dad. As far as testing goes, I wanted to send it out to a bunch of my friends and family so that I could aggregate the major points of feedback. It was during this development that I switched to using Twine, and feedback was given via a Google Form (which can be seen here: https://forms.gle/Vh1yx8v7nGD749pEA). Below are the major issues:
1) Players would benefit from images to ground them in the setting and break up the large walls of text. I agree whole-heartedly with this, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to include those by the point I needed to send it out to people.
Quote: “Maybe add images towards late game passages? Since those passages tended to be longer, it’ll be nice if they’re visually broken up to seem less daunting to read through. Plus your drawing of Cappy was adorable!”
2) Players were simultaneously overwhelmed and confused by the house exploration in the evening when there were three emotions to deal with. I felt like this quote summarized the issue well:
Quote: “I was a little confused about why–no matter what I chose–I kept coming back to the same prompts: nuzzle dad, investigate this, investigate that etc. I think the confusing part was these choices were being presented all the way up until bedtime. So, regardless of the continuum of time, it felt like I wasn’t making any progress because my choices remained the same throughout the day.”
I think this would have been somewhat alleviated if I used Inform instead of Twine since a lot of the choices I give players are really just “things you can do as a dog,” and Inform is structured better for an exploration-based game. However, another way to solve it was to signpost changes in Dad’s mood more clearly after players take actions.
2.5) One player felt that they would have been more invested if they themselves had a dog. On the other hand, another player understood the point I was making about dogs despite not having one. I understand the tension, though. Because you are playing as a dog, not knowing anything about dogs is… a bit of a problem. I wonder if there is a way to onboard players into the experience of being their pet regardless of their prior knowledge.
Quote 1: “ive never had a dog, so i feel it was less relatable for me. I imagine if I’d had a dog, it would’ve been more relatable”
Quote 2 (in response to “What was your main takeaway from Cappy?”): “That dogs are very innocent, caring and delightful. Which is great cause I’m getting a dog soon!”
Ultimately, the feedback I got during this round of playtesting highlighted what would remain my biggest issue: choice paralysis. Players were overwhelmed by the amount of options they were shown upon reaching the afternoon and were lost as to the story and the point of the game.
In-Class on 6A
Link to Cappy V1: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy
Due to time constraints, I was unable to revise my game after the weekend. I playtested with Nick La Rosa and got some good feedback. There were three major takeaways from this round of playtesting.
- Big walls of text are a turn-off to players.
- The order of the player’s options affects how they make decisions.
- The impact of your choices is not obvious.
Below are the solutions I plan on implementing to resolve those issues:
- Break down large chunks of text into smaller paragraphs that players can navigate to separately. No more than one paragraph per screen!
- Organize the player choices graciously and color code the types of options (those that affect Dad, those that end the scene, those that are purely exploration). For this round of edits, I kept all of the link colors in the visible spectrum of what a dog can see (yellows, browns, and blues).
- After “Dad Final Choices” are made, automatically direct the players back to the “Sniff Dad Passage” so that changes to Dad’s mood, or the impact of their choices, are immediately apparent.
For the next playtests, I made all of the above changes, as well as added a feature that loops players back to the beginning of the day if Dad is sad by the time he falls asleep. The reason for this was to encourage players to try new options they might have missed/skipped during the first playthrough. I also felt that it reflected the way depression and mental health would look to a dog who just wants to help – maybe you couldn’t help Dad today, but you should always try again!
Finally, I added a timer to the opening dream sequence because I thought it would better mimic the sensation of dreaming.
Live Playtest over Zoom on 11/1
Link to Cappy V2: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy-v2
Here, I playtested with my Dad (my actual father, not “Dad’ from the game, haha). He plays mainstream video games, but is not a hardcore gamer. We called over Zoom for about an hour. This included both play time and an ample amount of discussion. I wanted to playtest with an older adult because I don’t feel this game should be restricted to younger players. These were the major notes I took during this playtest:
- Timed sections went too fast, keep only the last one
- Liked white on black main text
- Mirror Start is too much text
- Light gray does not indicate links, change to pink
- Would prefer fewer choices at some points
- “Way too many choices b/c there are no consequences”
- “Have no idea what’s wrong with Dad”
- Add a pork counter?
- “Clicked around, wasn’t a big deal, no links worked”
- Make all emotions links
- Add “Are you sure?” to the commit options
- “Subtle for someone who’s played a lot of games”
- But should add surrounding text
- Confused by:
- What is Dad all about?
- “Had no clue he was widowed”
- Remove light switch after its selected once
To synthesize all of that, my major takeaways were four-fold:
- Giving players all of the options as soon as they walk into the room was simply too much to process. Despite being redirected back to the “Sniff Passages,” my Dad did not pick up on the smell-emotion pattern matching until halfway through Evening.
- Even after reducing the size of some passages, others were still too much to read in one go.
- The dog-friendly link colors were a bad idea. My Dad, who is vision-impaired, had a hard time telling when text was p;ain or actually a link.
- Some of the emotions were expanded on in colored links while others were simply colored text. This was jarring.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make these changes because my next playtest was scheduled for an hour later…
Live Playtest In-Person on 11/1
Link to Cappy V2: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy-v2
This playtest was completed with a friend of mine who is 23. She lost her father in high school, so I especially wanted her opinion on whether my portrayal of grief was respectful and adequate. She also loves Pokemon, Minecraft, and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Again, this playtest was done in-person (with lots of great discussion) over the course of roughly an hour. These were the notes I took during it:
- The timer was a bad idea. Increase by three times.
- Typo: “as as whips behind” (chase tail 2 passage)
- Too much text on some passages!
- “God, I wanna grab my dogs.”
- She felt her completionist tendencies might have led her to pick every option just because
- “What’s the setting of this game?”
- She did not understand that Cappy was a service dog
- She suggested that I find a way of forcing players to explore before I allowed them to give objects to or interact with Dad.
- She wanted more feedback on whether she had made a “good choice” or a “bad choice”
- She felt that the dog colors, while an interesting idea, got in the way of human understanding.
- Maybe when the room is cleared, the text related to it changes?
- I need to lock the quilt/picture from interaction after they’ve been investigated.
- All emotions should be links
From this, my (new) takeaways were:
- Players might need to be forced to explore the apartment before they are given any options that affect their point total. Otherwise, the game mechanic of searching for objects is not clear.
- It needs to be made much more clear that Cappy is a service dog.
Although keeping certain descriptive details vague helped put players into Cappy’s perspective, this choice also limited comprehension. After these two playtests, I only had time to implement a few important changes:
- I modified all the link colors to be more indicative of the action they represented.
- All descriptions of emotion on the Sniff Passages are short topic sentences that link to longer, more interesting descriptions.
- Players must enter every room in a section before they can give objects to Dad or make choices that affect their point total. However, they can still investigate their options (or objects) in the meantime.
- Every option to “quit” a portion of the day (such as the leash in the afternoon) will now take players to a screen that asks them if they’re sure they want to continue their current course of action. I chose to do this because I found that multiple players skipped sections without completing any kind of exploration because they were just curious to see what would happen with the “quit” choices.
- I took out a few “filler” options to interact with Dad. Prior to this, there were moments when the player could bark at Dad and get a response, but my playtesters found them distracting.
In-Class on 6B
Link to Cappy V3: https://elizabeethedog.itch.io/cappy-v3
I completed my final playtest in class with Elliot Stewart. It took him roughly 20-25 minutes to finish it. Below are the notes I took:
- He suggested that I replace all Dad’s speech with gestures and actions. This echoes one of the original design choices in my first playtest that I ignored for time reasons.
- At points, the amount of agency he had was frustrating. However, he also kind of liked that because it helped him empathize with Cappy.
- He did not like the way in which I made players explore first then make choices. After he finished playing, he understood my reasoning, but felt it could have been done less jarringly.
- “Very immersive, I felt like the dog”
- He felt that I should do more to emphasize the positive outcomes/choices players make. This echos sentiments shared in the previous playtest.
- He liked that the game will restart if you get a sad end scene.
At the very end of playtesting, he asked me, “Do you want to make this a game that frustrates, or do you want it to be easier? Because if you want it to be easier, you need to railroad your players more.” Reflecting on this, I think I want Cappy to be a game players have to work to understand. While the goal of helping Dad should be obvious, and the mechanic of looking around the apartment should be more clear, I like that players don’t know which options help Dad the most. I think it really puts them into the perspective of a dog. However, this should not come at the cost of narrative clarity and player understanding.
After class, I also received advice/feedback from both Amy and Christina. I asked Amy what she thought I could do about the issue of “forced exploration then players can make choices.” From that, I decided to not allow players to even investigate objects in a given room until they had visited each room at least once.
In chatting with Christina, who played Cappy V1, I found that a lot of her feedback echoed comments I had already received during playtesting. However, she pointed out a major issue: Cappy does not act like a service dog. Service dogs are very well-trained and are taught to look for a wide variety of triggers from their owners, not just smell cues. Now, after gaining a little more context on service dogs, I think she’s totally right. In fact, I feel a little silly for not doing better research on that earlier.
Going forward, my final modifications within the scope P2 will be as follows:
- Reduce the amount of text on certain passages.
- Change the “forced exploration” mechanic by not allowing players to even interact with objects until they’ve entered each room at least once (in a given section).
- Remove rooms from the list of exploration options once the relevant emotions have been dealt with.
- Change Cappy’s description to make them not a service dog.
- Correct three bugs:
- Bedtime alternate options are not removed upon dealing with Dad’s related emotion.
- Light switch interaction is broken in the Afternoon.
- The links in Evening – Interact with Dad don’t have color.
I have a criminal habit of getting excited about an idea and then trying to do way, way too much. In fact, I think that the low-res Twine screenshot below indicates just how much I over-reached with Cappy.
111 passages is too many
Although my writing/story is good, I feel that I tried to do too much by having 4 distinct sections to the game. In retrospect, it would have been better to keep just one section and really dive deep into the exploration mechanics. I think this would have set me up for success in the long-run, and would have allowed me to playtest the game earlier. I fell for the trap of feeling like I needed to have the game “complete” before I sent it out… this delayed my progress considerably.
I also think this project has been a reminder to do my research before starting. I was panicking when I had to revise my premise, so I didn’t stop to do substantial research on service dogs and how they actually, well, work. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I relied on my imagination when I wrote the story… in the future, I’ll save myself the trouble and start by clarifying my own understanding of the topic first.
Finally, the biggest lesson I’m learning from Cappy is about player agency. I’ve always been firmly of the opinion that players should have as much freedom of choice as possible. I like being guided in games, but I adore being able to step off the current path and find things I’m not supposed to. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but that’s part of the fun! I went into Cappy with that philosophy only to have it proven wrong in this case. Players needed way more direction and guidance than I originally expected, and finding the right way to do that has been legitimately hard.
If I come back to this in P4, I aim to resolve any standing issues, as well as add more art and music to the cutscenes. I made short songs for the morning and afternoon that never got included because of time constraints, so I would like to show those off at some point! But, I also want to add audio cues that indicate “good” and “bad” choices.