Eternal Punishment… Complete?

Let's Play Ancient Greek Punishment Limited Edition

Almost done with Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: Limited Edition! now. It’s not a complicated game, much like its predecessor (Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment), so it hasn’t taken especially long. Naturally, though, it’s taken much longer than I’d like, and has revealed my many incompetencies as a programmer and animator. For a project that is basically the previous game “plus a bit” I sure did seem to have to do a lot of extra work and animating.

As I believe I’ve said, the premise of the game is that instead of an eternally repeating punishment cycle, Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: Limited Edition! “frees” the various characters from their torment by allowing them to finish what they’re doing in one way or another. The problem being that life after punishment turns out to not be much better, and in fact perhaps it’s worse.

This led to the most interesting part of making the game, which was working out what happens differently – in particular, how do they finish their eternal task, and what do they do afterwards? There are lots of ways that Sisyphus could defeat his boulder, for example, but not all of them are going to be appropriate to the emotional tone I’m trying to set or the idea that the game is about showing that the very game-y act of “winning” can be as depressing as its opposite. This means that the endings and their followups can’t be too empowering, for instance.

So, you can’t have Sisyphus pick up his boulder and fling it into the horizon and stride boldly offscreen – that would suggest a much more traditional story of victory, and in particular would let the player (and Sisyphus) off the hook by simply eliding what happens post-boulder. This is pretty typical of depicting victory I guess? At some point you cut away so that you don’t have to deal with the fact that life goes on, things probably get worse again, better again, worse, better, you die (if you’re lucky?). Etc. So I needed to keep the “eternal” part of the games in tact (which makes sense if you’re still in the underworld) so you can see that post-boulder (or post-race, post-bath, etc.) isn’t really better.

Similarly, the defeating of each given task needed to be fairly prosaic, while guaranteeing the task’s end. Tantalus can obviously just eat the fruit and drink the water, say. Sisyphus was the toughest, since the boulder is a big thing that’s not necessarily easy to get rid of. I thought about having him get it to the top of the hill and the just leave it there, but then it’s still there and the player will naturally want to mess around with it, which means the game might be in danger of still be slightly fun/interesting. He could push it offscreen, but then you wonder why the boulder can roll offscreen but Sisyphus can’t follow it. So in the end I opted for pushing the boulder off a cliff (done with quite a nice reveal if I may say so myself). This way he loses access to it, but it’s not unreasonable not to allow players to “follow” the boulder down.

Finally, you need to decide what the characters do after they’ve “won”. For maximum drudgery, I opted for: walk around. You don’t want to have it be “nothing”, because if you totally remove the player’s agency you’re basically saying the game is over, which is another way of saying they won. If the game rolls on, you have to be able to have some minimal input. Given that each character is left standing there after completing their task, it made sense to just limit interactivity to selecting where to walk to next. And there’s a nice way in which this mirrors, say, the Zeno level: infinite walking. Except it’s worse because it’s not even a race and there’s no visible finish line.

So they just walk around. Some of them sit down sometimes, which I like because characters sitting down in the absence of any other stimuli always looks to me like the most sad and defeated action possible, like you’re taking time to think about how awful things are. I guess they could lie face-down on the ground, but that seems overly dramatic at that point, and also final in a way that works against the eternity.

And that’s how you work through the design problems of making an eternally futile game even more futile. Videogames.

14 June 2016
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