The 2018 Game Developer's Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.
Unicornelia teaches some fun, yet important lessons about mental health by having players wear a tent-sized unicorn outfit and work through aspects of their social/work life. Players must tap at big, fluffy pillow buttons on the inside of their unicorn body to minimize the size of some of the bad on-screen tasks while making sure to hit the important ones with their glowing horn. By choosing the right things, they can work to balance their social and work life, but the process can get a bit frantic.
This difficult balancing act was born of the real life stresses of Courtney Snavely and the team who worked on Unicornelia. Their silly take on it, playable at the Alt.Ctrl.GDC exhibit, may make many laugh, but through that laughter break down some barriers to talking about the mental health challenges that come from trying to keep up work and social lives when people are beyond busy.
What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?
I'm Courtney Snavely, game designer and developer. There was also Jane Mitchell, game designer and hardware developer, Dylan Negri, game designer and construction, and Vivan Lee, fabricator.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
We usually have to preface it with, “this is going to sound very weird.” Go into this giant unicorn body, and strap this horn on your head. Imagine you are a unicorn, a sparkle statistician. You’re having a hard time maintaining your internal turmoil with your external responsibilities. Use your horn to complete the tasks on the screen, and squeeze those squishy things to control your emotions.
What's your background in making games?
We all have a more non-traditional background in making games. The team met in the MFA Design & Technology program at Parsons. I think we would all describe ourselves more as creative technologists who enjoy creating unique interactions for people in the form of large-scale physical games.
What development tools did you use to build Unicornelia?
We are working with some bluetooth micro controllers, motion sensors, and serial communication with Processing.
What physical materials did you use to make it?
The structure of the unicorn body is actually a tent used for the beach. We covered it in a felt fabric and lined the inside with a plush material. The internal ‘feels’ are also plush felt with conductive fabric. The monitor is surrounded by a structure embedded with motion sensors to detect when the horn is inserted.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Certainly not enough time. We will be investing upwards of 60-70 hours to prepare for alt.ctrl.
How did you come up with the concept?
During the fall, we were all having a bit of a hard time maintaining our emotional instabilities while also keeping up with daily obligations and responsibilities. Instead of dwelling on this, we decided to funnel our energy into something fun and bright. For us, a unicorn was the epitome of the most colorful, silly, fun character we could create.
What drew you to explore internal and external pressures through a silly unicorn costume? How does that alter the player's interpretation of the (technically) serious subject matter?
I think discussing mental health, or handling your internal and external pressures, can often become heavy and intimidating. We wanted to create something that forces people to have fun with it. Our hope is by creating through our own struggles, we are able to make players feel more comfortable discussing their own issues. We also wanted to reward players for completing small tasks. Some days you only have the energy to cook lunch, or do laundry because of your internal emotions; these small steps should still be celebrated and rewarded.
What challenges did you face in creating a full wearable outfit as a controller? In turning the subject matter into this fun, lighthearted controller?
The biggest struggle was: how do we get players to feel like they are a unicorn? We started with something smaller but then after testing realized we needed the full outfit to make players feel the full embodiment of Unicornelia.
Why add bad tasks to trip players up? What do you feel that added to Unicornelia?
A lot of tasks throughout our daily lives don’t exist in a black or white area. We added these ‘bad’ or ‘grey’ tasks to make players logically think through how they are handling their external pressures. Listening to your internal emotions is important, but being successful (in the game) means also listening to external logic. Sometimes the tasks that we choose to ignore can actually be beneficial to our emotional and mental health.
How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?
There will always be standard interfaces and gaming controllers, i.e. for Xbox and PlayStation. However, when you look where experimentation with newer technology is happening, at companies like Nintendo or the indie game community, I think we’ll see more controllers that will allow a more harmonious experience when it comes to gestures by the user and feedback from the game. Players still want something unique and tangible that doesn’t quite exist in the purely digital space.