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Charlotte post-mortem: decisions we made on mechanics, narrative and visual storytelling that would let players empathize with powerlessness, think about gender roles and interact with history as evidence.

Elizabeth Goins, Blogger

October 17, 2016

13 Min Read

Charlotte is an exploration/walking simulator game that allows players to explore the history and culture of 19th century women through the short story, The Yellow Wall-paper and the life of its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Players are put in the role of a woman trapped by the rest cure for hysterical tendencies so that they may empathize with the character's feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

Working on Charlotte gave us an opportunity to experiment with visual storytelling and history narratives to deepen player experience. There was little time for development and no budget, so we turned to Unreal 4. None of us had ever worked with Unreal before but we believed it would allow us to achieve relatively polished results quickly, so we took the plunge. We had no money to put towards the game. Everyone on the team were volunteers and we relied on assets that had been purchased or made for other experimental projects that we could modify. In total, we would have spent less than $200 on the entire project, not counting our time. The development took place over 4 months in the winter and spring of 2016, when the presidential primaries and debates were taking place and it was an odd experience to learn that many of the problems that women struggled with in the past are still here, in some form, today. We wondered if putting these themes into a game could help foster discussion regarding gender roles and identity.

Narrative and puzzle mechanic

There are three narratives embedded within Charlotte. The main story arc is the most accessible; it follows that of The Yellow Wall-paper and portrays a type of creepy, psychological horror. The major theme of the story focuses on the interaction of forces on the human psyche when artificial constraints or systems remove personal agency, in this case, that of a woman. In the story, the protagonist fixates on wall paper decorated with an incomprehensible pattern behind which the figure of a woman appears trapped. The main active mechanic in the game, a locked door system, attempts to put players into this feeling of frustration and restriction. It is this mechanic that moves the player through the main story arc. The second narrative arc tells the story of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and is presented as fragmented evidence through ephemera, books and excerpts from her diaries. Finally, a third narrative, presenting conflicting ideas of how we see or understand women as a society, is told environmentally through paintings, ephemera and books.

It took some time to hit upon the door puzzle mechanic. I had been prototyping this game out over the past several years but  still had a long way to go. The first attempt was a Skyrim mod that locked players in a house where they had to follow a series of quests. One of the things we wanted to figure out with this prototype was if narrative tension could be modulated through the mechanics. So  hidden "melancholia" triggers were scattered throughout the house and the effect, acting like a poison,  depleted the players health and could only be stopped by drinking a medical tonic. The melancholia trigger idea certainly increased the pace and intensity of the game. During play tests, however, it was found that players were so focused on finding bottles of tonic, that they pretty much ignored any narrative components. Players reported that it was too intense; they felt they had no time to explore. So it was back to the drawing board.

The next attempt ramped down the mechanics to make the pace of the game slower. This prototype was built as a graphical-text based adventure, The Goblin Market, during which time our content advisor, historian Michele Finn from the Rochester Public Library, checked on the source material. This approach seemed to solve some of the problems while simultaneously creating new ones. It did manage to put player focus firmly on the narrative with lots of time for reflection, but it was completely lacking in tension. Also, players and educators reported that it would be cool to have a virtual or 3D game and see the house.

When work actually began on Charlotte, we knew we were making a virtual three dimensional setting but we still hadn't settled on the final mechanics and approach for the narrative. So, we tested on ways to combine puzzles with the exploration and narrative. The original idea when we started was that there would be a number of mirrors in the game that would reflect back to the player what society thought they should be versus what they actually were inside - and that this image would change with increasing madness. We wanted the mirrors to give players a sense of the distortions caused to identity by societal pressures. This seemed great in theory but, when implemented, proved to be somewhat obscure and difficult to convey the ideas to the player and so was abandoned.

Eventually, everything was stripped down to a very basic door puzzle that connected with the story's theme of restriction. Instead of depleting health or other puzzles, we wanted to use environment and atmosphere to add to tension. The narrative method was based on that of the Goblin Market, a simple text-based mechanic that is more passive but critical for understanding the real puzzle of game: why did Charlotte Perkins Gilman really write this story? We felt the best way to do this was to let history speak for itself through primary source material and to allow players to act like historians. Historians create narratives about the past by piecing together primary source material. The impact of this approach on the narrative is that it makes the narrative itself dynamic and open to interpretation. Our hope was that this would spark thought and discussion.  Each room in the game represents a time in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s life. From her early years as a graphic artist making trade cards for the Soapine Company, to her doomed love of a close female friend  to her disastrous marriage to Charles Walter Stetson, the story is told through archival ephemera and quotes excerpted from her diaries and autobiography. Every painting, book, picture and print in the game is a virtual reconstruction of history. Everything really happened.

Finally, the three narratives -the main story arc, visualizing women and the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman - were designed to function independently as different layers. Players can simply play the main story arc without thinking about the history mechanic at all or they can play both simultaneously or at different times. The idea was to structure everything thematically so that the game can be “read” or understood at different levels with each level a perfectly acceptable way to experience the game.


Putting lots of books and ephemera in the game was important as the house was to act as part of the story and also as a virtual archive that brought together all kinds of cultural information surrounding the author and the story. And so, the house also came to represent Charlotte Perkins Gilman's mind. One of the things we really wanted to highlight were the interesting things that are hidden away in the freely available digital archives of museums, libraries and other organizations. Players should  be able to leave the game and go directly to the original source material for further exploration. This was particularly important for all the books as we could only include a small sample in the game. The method we ended up using was to select important sections from a book - all of which were too long to include in their entirety - and use them exactly as they were found in the digital archives. We didn't want to put text in a standard font and format because we wanted to maintain a sense of diversity that you would get in a library and also to retain some connection to the archival source itself. The solution  was to include a full list of links to all the things used in the game in a reference document with the game download.

Women and the male gaze

Charlotte is full of wall space which was perfect for putting up paintings to help create the environment. Initially the idea was to take digital images from museums to give an overview of art history at the time period. As we went through and made selections, we soon realized that all the painters were men and that just seemed to undermine, or at least not support, our main goal, of presenting this history through the eyes of a woman. Instead, we used images that were created by women OF women in the main rooms of the house. In two rooms, the Cabinet of Erotica and John’s Study, the images are of women created by men. We wanted to place these before the player, along with some explanatory text, to allow for comparison between the two. More specifically, we wanted to allow players to think about how women's bodies have been used to portray visual ideas and how that connects to concepts of gender.  The Cabinet of Erotica was designed to be  a little unsettling. It is a small closet-like room filled with 19th century erotica and it is intended to make players feel uncomfortable or voyeuristic.  The room is dominated by Gustav Courbet’s Origin of the World currently owned by the Musee d’Orsey. In this painting, Courbet clearly means to shock his audience. What is perhaps more shocking to contemporary audiences is the way in which the productive abilities of the female body are presented. We do not see the human or maternal side but rather the body is presented anatomically and dehumanized. We do not see the woman’s head so there is no personality, she is an object. She has been reduced to a piece of birthing apparatus, a machine part. However, one could argue that Courbet’s shocking and libertine approach to nudity and sexuality were part and parcel of the forces that helped change society to greater openness towards sex and gender roles. This is just one example of the difficulties encountered when interpreting history and why single, one perspective narrative can be misleading. It is better to try to evaluate the evidence and formulate one's own narrative, to interact, think and "play" with the evidence. Was Courbet's depiction just wrong? Or was his shakeup of bourgeois notions of propriety the best thing to do at the time? How do we evaluate this painting now? By simply presenting the player with the evidence we give them space to consider how best to use the past towards making sense of the present.

How do we decode history to help us understand the present?  

We felt that a game would allow players to explore and reflect in a more powerful way than any other type of media. Only a game could leave the pieces of history lying about, as in some forgotten attic, for players to use. Only a game could present them in a fragmentary form that could link the imagination together with historical evidence.

Play test

Charlotte is a serious game made to support informal learning outside or in conjunction with the classroom. Therefore, we aren’t focusing on the acquisition of facts but more on behavior. We wanted to expose players to the story and to some of the ideas, to open them up for thinking about the topic. This left us with something of a quandary when thinking about play testing. We wanted to preserve the authorial intent of the game design, that is, we didn’t want to modify the game to give players “better” experiences. Mainly because, at this point, we weren’t sure what a better experience would be. Would it be more exciting? But that would compromise players being able to experience the frustration of lack of agency – and we wanted them to try to empathize with that. We really wanted the game to be a reflective experience with some tension, but other than that, we weren’t sure what to evaluate for.

We conducted two major play tests to focus on overall player experience and technical issues: once at a very early, incomplete state at a GDC event and another at the Imagine Festival at Rochester Institute of Technology. The feedback from the game developers at the GDC event was better than we thought it would be with many indicating that they would actually pay money for the game but they would like more interesting mechanics. Results showed mainly moderate-high interest in the concept itself but it was hard to do much with this information as we couldn't get very specific with our survey questions  - there was little art, no narrative or content in the game at that point - it was just the door puzzle.

We didn’t survey players at our second play test, Imagine RIT, but instead observed and took notes. Imagine RIT is a family festival so players played the full educational version which does not include the Cabinet of Erotica. As this is a large festival with over 32,000 attendees of which most are family groups, we were not expecting Charlotte to resonate with this demographic at all. We were completely wrong. Players who sat down to play the game would not leave until they finished it, whole families played together and parents loved that the game had serious content.

Overall, the game immediately appealed to these demographics at the festival: teen girls, families and older players. It did not appeal to teen boys, they would simply walk by the game, but younger boys playing within family groups were highly engaged. All players that went through the game played it at the main story arc level. They would look at items and books and read them occasionally, but most focused on getting to the end of the game. No one figured out the history narrative-puzzle. This may have been due to the nature of the festival, as the attendees had hundreds of exhibits to see. But that’s ok, with us. We want the game to be available to be re-played and used in different ways and hope that maybe it can spark interpretation and discussion. However, even while playing through the main story arc without focusing on all the historic evidence, players did notice some of the themes. The main point that was brought up repeatedly was, "why are there so many pictures of naked women?" Well, yes indeed, this was exactly what we were hoping they would pick up on. We are bombarded by images of sexualized women constantly in real life but don't seem to notice too much. In the game, however, players were sometimes almost uncomfortably aware. We speculate that 1.) nudity and sexuality were repeated themes that were hard for the players to ignore 2.) the game is clearly set in the past which players view as being "purer" than the present and 3.) the images are removed from an everyday context which allows players to think about them differently.


19th century trade card for Pearl Tobacco

Image above: 19th century Pearl tobacco label, from Library of Congress

Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote about the idea of the new woman: “Here she comes, running, out of prison and off the pedestal: chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman.” I think we all would like to be “just a live” human, to live as we are, not locked into someone else’s interpretation of cultural identity. I hope that Charlotte, in some small way, can help.

For more information on resources used and where to get the game, Explore Lost Worlds.

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