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GDC: Jenova Chen's HeavenVille Wins Game Design Challenge

HeavenVille, Jenova Chen (Flower), took this year's top prize at the GDC Game Design Challenge, which also featured games by designers Kim Swift, Heather Kelley, and Erin Robinson.

Chris Remo, Blogger

March 13, 2010

7 Min Read

Noted game designers Jenova Chen, Kim Swift, Heather Kelley, and Erin Robinson presented concepts around the topic of "Real-World Permadeath" during this year's Game Design Challenge at Game Developers Conference, with Chen's HeavenVille taking the audience-determined top prize -- a bottle of Jameson whiskey. The terms of the challenge demanded the designers present pitches for games that in some way involve the actual permanent death of a real human being. No further requirements were established. Last Game & Testament, Erin Robinson and Heather Kelley Erin Robinson of Wadjet Eye Games and Heather Kelley of Kokoromi, the winners of last year's competition, collaborated on Last Game & Testament, a piece of software intended to replace a traditional written will, to be played by the family members of the game's subject after his or her death. Creating a will is "probably a pretty tedious process," Kelley said, and "the reading of a will has the reputation of being pretty morose, but also stressful." Last Will & Testament attempts to solve both of those issues. The person creating the will uses the software to create unique barcode labels for all the items in his or her posession to be given away to friends and family members. That barcode is linked to the name of the item's intended recipient, as well as any historical or family-related information the subject wishes to assign to it. After the person's death, the family members assemble in the deceased person's home and load up Last Will & Testament on smart phones or other mobile devices. They then embark on, effectively, a scavenger hunt, finding tagged items and scanning them in. Every time an item is found, each person must take a guess on which person the item will be bequeathed to, based on their knowledge of family history and the item's significance. After each person votes, the true answer is revealed, and the software plays a video message recorded by the deceased, explaining the reason behind leaving the item to its new owner. At the end of the hunt, each person is graded on his or her proportion of correct guesses. The person with the highest score is then rewarded with a particularly high-value item that the deceased family member was unable to bequeath to just one person -- it is given to the participant who demonstrated the most knowledge of family history. HeavenVille, Jenova Chen Jenova Chen of Thatgamecompany won this year's competition with his proposal for a Facebook game, HeavenVille. "Most commercial games are about fiction. We use fiction to tell the truth," Chen said before introducing his game. "But real-world permanent death is truth already." "I'm thinking about a platform for truth, and this [Facebook] is probably the best platform, so I just follow the trend," he continued, showing a HeavenVille logo, which changed from black to pink when he noted, "After hearing the Zynga talk, pink is better." Effectively, HeavenVille is a stock market for dead people. The game ranks people based on metrics of notability like the number of Google search results for their names. For example, he demonstrated, George Washington has 16 million Google results; Albert Einstein has 12 million; and Michael Jackson has 102 million. But "I don't think MJ is more valuable than these two guys," Chen countered, so the game factors in a multiplier based on the number of years since the person's death. If the person still has a high number of Google results many years after death, that reflects continued notability and value to the modern world. Under those terms, Washington has a score of 4,464; Einstein 660; and Michael Jackson 102. "That makes sense," Chen said. "Without George Washington, Einstein wouldn't have come to America to develop all these valuable things, and Michael Jackson probably wouldn't be around." "But, in a way," he added, "MJ is a quick-rising stock." "You need to look into potential investments," he said. Someone like Barack Obama "is highly rising" and is already an expensive buy, ahead of his stock's maturity date on death. But someone like "Britain's Got Talent" star Susan Boyle would have been an incredible buy just a few years ago, before she shot to worldwide fame. "If you were to buy her before she were famous, you could have made a lot of profit" when she dies, Chen explained. In addition to the direct goal of earning more virtual money through the game's core mechanic, those who own stock in a particular dead person's stock could further boost that person's value, or use that person for various vanity purposes on Facebook. Presenting a hypothetical situation of the death of Eric Zimmerman, an organizer of the Challenge, Chen gave various examples. Stock value could also be added by shareholders by tying in connections and achievements like LinkedIn friends and published books on Amazon. "Slowly this game is making people who actually care about Eric to build up a knowledge base, because everything you collect for Eric is going to add to your stock value," Chen said. More frivolous activities could include "pokeing fun at them or doing social stuff," like having the permission to publish status messages like "Jenova Chen and Eric Zimmerman played Pac-Man," or even selling stock: "Jenova Chen sold Eric Zimmerman to Tim Langdell for 1,300,000." Karma, Kim Swift The last game was presented by Airtight Games' Kim Swift, formerly of Valve, who famously withdrew from last year's Game Design Challenge at the eleventh hour. ("We could start a rumor that Kim switched jobs so she could present at this year's Game Design Challenge," Zimmerman joked.) Swift's Karma is intended as a tool to help people diagnosed with terminal illnesses to come to terms with their own impending death, and to help them use their final moments in ways that bring joy to friends, family, and strangers. "Most likely I'm going to die one of two ways: from a heart attack, or some form of cancer, based on my family history," Swift said. "If I learned I had terminal cancer with two months to live, what would I think? 'Shit.' That about sums it up. But what about after that? If you have a grim prognosis, you could get prescribed this game, and it would take you through the stages of death in advance, so you could enjoy what time you have left in life." The game would have the player control a character who has been diagnosed with two months left to live, and the game's goal is to deal with the upcoming death in the best way possible, "both inside the game and outside in your own life as well." "If you want to sulk and be depressed, it's perfectly normal; you're welcome to do that. But what I want to encourage poeple to do is to help people," Swift said. The game takes place over a series of rounds, each of which represents one in-game day, beginning in the character's office environment. During that initial stage of the game, the player can navigate the office and perform helpful tasks for various people -- fixing a coworker's computer, bringing in coffee and donuts, and so on. Each action consumes energy from the player's energy meter, but rewards the player with karma points. Fourteen days later, the player's energy bar shrinks as they approach death, and he or she progresses to the next environment: the character's apartment complex. Every further 14 days, the player progresses to a new location, starting in the character's office environment, then moving to the character's apartment complex, then to a hospital. Tasks at home could include talking to neighbors over a cup of tea, or helping a neighbor find her cat, and each task is completed by playing a unique mini-game. Tasks in the hospital could include visiting sick children, or helping a fellow patient in a wheelchair. Throughout, the game would assign real-world tasks that would attempt to enrich the player's life as well as those of the people surrounding him or her. As the game continues, the player character's mobility decreases further and further, and their energy bar continues to shrink until the player character is effectively immobile in a hospital bed. At that point, the player is visisted by friends attempting to provide comfort. You can help those friends come to terms with their impending tragedy, Swift explained, "or you can tell them to get lost and you just want to be alone." The final mini-game is to smile -- achieved by tracing out smile with analog sticks. "it's difficult to do," Swift explained, "because you don't have a lot of energy left, but it's your last act as a human being on this planet."

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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