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Systems in games like Frostpunk can express personal ideas, even unintentionally

In her GDC 2021 talk, former Frostpunk game designer Marta Fijak broke down how designers can use game systems to express authorial intent—for better and potentially for worse.

Trigger warning: Discussion of simulated suicide deaths in prototypes of Frostpunk

When talking about writing or top-level game design, “authorial intent” is an easy sentence to understand. The author of the text has an idea, and can convey that with varying degrees of subtlety using dialogue, visuals, tone, or other clearly expressed “ideas”.

In her GDC 2021 talk, former Frostpunk game designer Marta Fijak (now creative director at Anshar Studios) broke down another vector for game designers to express authorial intent: system design.

Fijak’s talk both showed how designers can apply self-expression when designing their games’ systems, but also was a cautionary tale for those assuming their systems are being designed free of bias. In one chilling example from Frostpunk’s development, Fijak showed how designers trying to solve balancing problems might stumble into expressing certain worldviews, whether they intend to or not.

A cold mindset

Fijak’s talk hinged on a definition of game design from Brian Upton’s book Aesthetics of Play: “game design is creating free movement within a system of constraints.” It’s an approach that looks at games as a set of states, and those states are created by rules engineered by designers.

A simple example, of course, is chess. Every movement of a piece in chess creates a different board state, to the point that those board states are now memorized formations used by professional players. Chess’ creators (whoever they were) set boundaries for what those states could be by creating rules for movement, capturing pieces, victory conditions, etc. We’re used to calling those “mechanics”.

“In my opinion, authorial voice manifests in all states generated by [a] mechanic,” she asserted. They don’t manifest as directly as in writing or visual arts, but it means a game system’s “states” still flow from the designer who created them.

But of course, that definition of games covers everything from chess, to Uncharted, to Frostpunk. Fijak’s next step was to separate these games on an X-Y axis, creating a rough grid diving each based on how much player choice impacts the experienced story, along with the variety of different outcomes those interactions can create:

Frostpunk lives in the lower right-hand side. It’s a game where player interactions can dramatically shift how the game experience proceeds, but the outcomes are more limited than say, a session of Dwarf Fortress. Its city-building/survival mechanics are meant to create a tightly balanced, tense experience.

But those mechanics (which Fijak worked on!) raised some incredibly thorny ethical challenges during the game’s design period.

Frostpunk’s core question to players is anchored around the question “what will you sacrifice for survival?” Drilling into this question, Fijak used the example of the game’s heating system. As Frostpunk’s arctic dystopia gets colder and colder, players must manage heat across living and work spaces. If workers aren’t sufficiently heated, they might get sick and, without treatment, may experience adverse effects like amputation or, worst case, end up dead.

 “The systemic idea behind that was when an amputation happens, that little human in Frostpunk is taken away from the workforce, so the player has less resources on that side. That should be a strong incentive to heat all the workplaces,” Fijak explained.

“But as time progressed, we found out that the amount of people that the player has to distribute among workforces is not a problem. [They] have more people than workplaces.”

FIjak’s initial (ill-fated) solution was to put pressure on the player’s Hope and Discontent meters (see the screenshot below) by having amputees die by suicide. Those deaths would have a ripple effect in the virtual community, lowering Hope and driving Discontent. The goal was to hopefully further incentivize players to heat their workplaces and prevent this outcome.

There may have been an indication something was off when it took a few iterations for the chance a suicide death would trigger to be felt by playtesters. Except to generate that outcome, every NPC in Frostpunk had a 50 percent chance of dying by suicide after suffering an amputation.

“It worked mechanically. It was engaging. But this was not a worldview I held, and this is not something I wanted to say in the game!” Fijak exclaimed.

The actual solution to the heat punishment issue was a variety of systems to better represent discontent of the populace, including a protest system and laws that would force players to reckon with amputees in their societies (some laws let players re-integrate amputees into the workforce with prosthetics, others provide the option for long-term palliative care).

It should go without saying that this design choice went way further in allowing Frostpunk’s disabled characters to be fairly represented, not dehumanized or turned into a gimmick.

With a bullet dodged in this Frostpunk, Fijak wanted to emphasize an important point for game designers: “Frostpunk is a society game, and we touched on many different subjects. Some of them are really sensitive, some of them are really important, some of them are everyday experiences of other people.”

“You cannot treat those things lightly for the sake of entertainment itself.”

Fijak’s talk also touched on the core math underlying games like Frostpunk, warning that some of the core formulas that can make your own society simulator function might reflect your own biases. What algorithms do you implement that make crime go up? What percentage of people react negatively to what laws?

Those formulas are probably based on your own experiences, ideology, news outlets, etc. Fijak’s explanation came less as a call to move away from ideology and more a desire for self-awareness.

“When designing or balancing, remember that you are also talking,” she said. “Just be aware you’re saying those things.”

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