This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
BORE DOME is a game of the dull, tedious, awkward moments in our lives, asking players to examine and reflect on the less-than-amazing things that happen to us all.
Aggelos Efstathopoulos, developer of the Best Student Game-nominated title, spoke with Gamasutra about what interested them in creating a game about the boring parts of life, how they turned those moments into gameplay, and how the game encourages players to see these experiences in a different, and more playful, light.
All things as experience
My name is Aggelos and my role in BORE DOME was to complain. Here, next to me, there is Andres and William. Andres is the person I have been making the project with. We are both doing all the things from the thinking and concepting to programming and developing. William is the newest addition to the team. He is in charge of management bureaucracy, company policies, strategic planning, and all of the things we don't like doing. William is in charge of our darkest nightmares.
Our official background in making games is studying visual game and media design at KADK in Copenhagen (this is also where we met). At the same time, we consider video games as a form of art. Τherefore, from a creative perspective, everything is counting as background in making games. Playing video games as children, and as adults, but also, for example, observing real life interactions are things that influence the way we perceive and create games.
We were always amused by games that contained social interactions, and all the weird possibilities this would give to the player. There are games that are conscious of this weirdness and embrace it, but also there are AAA “serious” realistic games that we would play in weird, ”wrong” ways.
BORE DOME came up one day we were talking about the idea of terribly offending a person who is dancing by standing too close to them. This became the first level we prototyped, and at the same time, we started playing around with conceptually similar ideas. We would keep the ones we preferred and started categorizing them. Later in the process, we wrapped the game into the context of “future humans are so perfect that they have to take pills in order to experience imperfection”.
The tools to make BORE DOME
The game is made in Unity. Also, as we have no idea how to program, we used a plugin called Playmaker that does visual programming, and we used this in order to create state machines for the whole game.
Apart from the digital tools, most of the ideation was done during many coffee sessions in which we would jokingly enact or play situations that we thought were interesting or entertaining.
The pillars of their design
We tried creating and then respecting some pillars around the idea. We agreed on what we wanted to express through this game, and then we used this as a base to concept and develop it.
These pillars are:
1.Each level / experience is only using what it needs in order to communicate an idea.
This had to be true for simple scenarios; for example, having a dialogue with a person means the level contains only a person, but also for more complicated scenarios, like a level about being in a sad party, which only contains elements that make a party sad.
2.You, as a player, need to feel like you are in control of some sort of system (BORE DOME) that gives you access to a variety of experiences and you can choose whichever one you prefer.
3.Each level, no matter the size or complexity, needs to be designed in a way to give the player a small moment of realization - a moment in which the player, after observing each situation, understands the intention of each room/experience.
4.The game will not have normal game mechanics to reward the player. The way we could play a AAA game and enjoy it in a different way than the one it was “designed” for, was something we wanted to use. So, we practically made a game deprived of “normal” juiciness, that puts in a way the player in charge of their own entertainment. Its a toy.
Giving the player "mediocre" abilities
We loved seeing and playing various games that used “weird” abilities and strange interaction possibilities. Of course, the list of inspirations is too long, but the most important points of it are:
-Jazzpunk is one of our favorite games and we really loved the style and logic of the humor that is based on the interactivity.
-Abe's Oddysee has a communication system that contains a fart, which is actually used as a game mechanic but also as an expressive tool for players.
Having this and other things as a theoretical background, we started concepting ideas for ridiculous skills and unnecessary abilities that the player would mostly find confusing rather than useful. The skills are used as a game mechanic (in order to play hide and seek with a character, you will have to close your eyes), but mostly, they are provided to the player as a tool of expressing themselves (I don’t want to look at this, therefore I am closing my eyes or I will cry while running and screaming).
The five senses were the first batch of skills we designed, and we liked it a lot because it enhanced the idea of being in a simulation that gives you “ultimate control of your senses”.
Additionally we wanted to give the player an extra set of abilities and skills that would be basic and mediocre. We chose things that are generally avoided in traditional video games since they are not perceived as amazing and impressive, like crying or coughing. These extra abilities are earned throughout the game and are a way of indicating progress within the game.
As we were struggling with the coding, we could only make simple systems. From this process, though, we developed a very basic approach to our design problems: the logic of “if you can’t fix it with duct tape, you are not using enough duct tape”. However these simple and cheap solutions led to a consistent game design style.
We greatly enjoyed creating skills in any way we could, doing things like digitally simulating the opening and closing of eyes or developing a system that projects smells in a text format.
A playful take on the normal
Being people that have been drawing for a long time, we both have our own way of representing things. Aggelos’s whole world is built around expressive, flat, and distorted characters. He is not at all interested in traditional drawing skills. Also, being a trained graphic designer has definitely influenced the way he works. Andrés enjoys profoundly distorted and ugly things, and is quite interested in technical skills. His way of confronting drawing is in general way more 3-dimensional, and his background is within fine arts.This led to a fusion of styles from both of us that we liked.
We also knew the game would not attempt to look “real”. We were playing with very normal situations, and the objective was to propose a different, playful take on the experience, so a highly stylized world seemed more appropriate. It also supported quicker development times and easier iteration.
The challenges of exploring the mundane
The biggest challenge was to create an interesting game out of not interesting stuff. Many times, we have thought that the game was going to be completely uninteresting for some people. The topic of “normal human actions” is not a typical game fantasy. No one wants to wait in queues in real life, so the obvious thing to think is that people wouldn’t enjoy it either in virtual worlds
Also, any attempt to put everyday actions into game situations requires a translation which can be challenging. Like smelling, for example, which is something you cannot reproduce in games. Deciding which parts of it need to be represented to be understood, which parts can be ignored, and then creating a small system that emulates what happens in real life is full of interesting questions.
Probably a silent question that was always behind us was “Why?”. Why would people play mundane situations? How do we reward the player that goes through it? Are we even rewarding the player, or constantly punishing them? We tried to address many of these questions by creating a compelling “context” to play in. BORE DOME is not only a regular simulation; it is also a future dystopia in which perfect humans consume imperfection in the form of pills.
Drawing on our shared boring moments
Boredom and mediocrity are concepts that we are generally familiar with. All humans are constantly experiencing situations that are mediocre. So, in a way, having boredom and mediocrity as a core concept, is like having an infinite and constantly-growing pool of inspiration.
A situation that is mediocre or boring can still be perceived as pleasant or entertaining if the receiver of the situation can think of a way to do so. For example, while waiting in a queue, which is generally something boring, one can be entertained by how weirdly people move while they wait in a queue. This internal process is something that can be communicated to others in the form of a story or news we exchange everyday with each other. This, for us, is a positive experience, and we wanted to attempt to share it with other people as well.
In our case, this process is expressed through a video game. A game makes the player responsible for the actions that are happening. This gives the player a deeper understanding of the story and details that focus mostly on the interactive aspects of it.
We think that the stories/incidents are more or less universally understood. Everyone has stepped in shit or did something that they shouldn't be doing. This gives the opportunity to reach a crowd that could be curious about indulging in this type of experimental simulations. We would love to see players be able to relate to specific situations, but also find others completely puzzling and cryptic. So, boredom and mediocrity end up being a common ground between people. Or some sort of language with which you can communicate focusing on other aspects of things.
Encouraging players to reflect
We imagine players creating interesting moments inside the game, owning the weird possibilities and acting freely. People using the language of the game expressively or randomly.
By observing and interacting playfully with these moments, there might be a chance of actually perceiving them differently, and maybe even interacting with them differently. We are used to suppressing boredom with our many forms of entertainment, and just lament every second of our life that we consider “lost” doing something that we don’t want to. We consider BORE DOME something like an intermission or a time out. The fast and intense pace of human life, the constant search for happiness and perfection, almost leaves no time to think and reflect. We think that by creating a game that is empty of amazingness, it creates a space for people to reflect and think upon these situations or life in general.
Uncomfortableness, awkwardness, and other semi negative feelings are part of our existence and are things that shouldn't be neglected but instead accepted and embraced.
This game, an IGF 2020 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony, which will be free to stream virtually starting at 5pm PT (8pm ET) Wednesday, March 18 on GDC’s Twitch channel.