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Postmortem: O'Kane On Irony, Activism In Whaler Sim Harpooned

Can an activist game be fun? In this personal postmortem, Conor O'Kane discusses the development of Harpooned, his ironic freeware PC "Japanese Cetacean Research Simulator," and reveals the process behind a game designed to provoke fierce debate on

March 4, 2008

8 Min Read

Author: by Staff

[In this personal article written for Gamasutra, Conor O'Kane discusses the development of his personal project, the ironic "Japanese Cetacean Research Simulator" Harpooned, investigating his decision to make an activist game in which the main aim was to make something fun, not just educational.] Why Make A Game About Whaling? Whaling is big news here in Australia. Every December when the Japanese whaling fleet passes by Australia to hunt in the southern ocean, we see footage on the television and read about it in the local newspapers. This is largely due to Australia’s interest in whale watching as a form of tourism, and also because Japan kills whales in and around the Australian Antarctic Territory. So it’s a controversial and emotional issue in Australia, however for the rest of the world it’s not newsworthy and I suppose most people never give it a thought. I decided to make a game about whaling and specifically about Japan’s claim that their whaling is scientific, to draw international attention to the issue. Games have the ability to reach a younger and broader audience than newspapers or television and a game distributed on the Internet can have a truly international impact. So my objectives in making Harpooned were: * To draw international attention to Japan’s claim that their whaling program is scientific, not commercial. * To reach people who would not normally read a newspaper article about whaling. * To encourage debate and discussion on the subject.

The Restrictions Imposed Upon Development I decided to make the game around the middle of December 2007, and wanted to get it finished within 4 or 5 weeks so that it would be released at the peak of the Japanese whaling season. I knew that the game would be more likely to attract media attention if it came out while whaling was already in the news. So the first restriction imposed upon the development was time. I have a full time day job (as an artist at a game development studio) so for the first 2 weeks I worked on the game in the evenings, and then I had 2 weeks off in which to complete the game. In order to reach the widest audience it was important that the game be a small download (I was aiming for less than 10Mb) and that it run on older computers. So I used Torque Game Builder, from Garage Games, which is a 2D game engine that runs well even on older computers. From a game design perspective, there were two important goals: Firstly, the game had to be fun in its own right, and not rely on the whaling issue to get attention. If the game wasn’t enjoyable people wouldn’t play it so the gameplay had to be the top design priority, with ‘the message’ being an important, but secondary consideration. Secondly, it was important that the game be short and easy to finish so that casual players could finish it on the first or second play through, and hence experience the full message. That said, it was also important that the game have some depth and that it reward repeated play – I didn’t want people to just play it once! Techniques Employed To Convey The Message. Right from the start I knew it was important that the game not be preachy. I didn’t want to tell people what to think; rather I wanted to encourage them to think for themselves. I thought a humorous, satirical tone would enable me to convey a serious message without being patronizing. I also knew that it would be extremely hard to make interesting gameplay that revolves around saving. It is far easier to make a compelling game that revolves around shooting. So I cast the player in the role of a Japanese whaling vessel and designed the game around the typical shoot-em-up formula. This allowed for lots of sarcastic humor, with messages commending the player on the quality of their ‘research’ while they are blowing up whales with explosive harpoons in a distinctly un-scientific manner! 2008_02_29_harpooned1.jpg

Since whaling is a violent and bloody activity, it was important that the game too be violent and bloody. I was not concerned about offending people, in fact, the game should be offensive, since what the player is doing is horrible. Providing a challenge for the player proved quite complex -- the standard technique in shoot-em-ups is to have the enemies shoot at the player, but since whales don’t shoot back, I instead used obstacles like ice-bergs and protestors to restrict the players movement, and a meat-collection-combo system as a secondary gameplay objective to encourage the player to move around and think about more than just the shooting. It was my hope that this combo system would provide enough depth to keep the game interesting for more experienced players who might want to replay for a higher score. Press And Public Reactions I am grateful to Matt Bachl from Australian TV/news network NineMSN, who ran a story about Harpooned on the NineMSN news site a few days after the game launched. This created a huge surge in downloads and probably resulted in most of the traffic to the game’s website. G4TV’s Attack of the Show also had a segment about Harpooned. I think they really captured the satirical tone of the game, although perhaps performing a live, onstage harpooning was taking it a bit far! The public response to the game fell into 4 basic categories: 1. People who played the game, got the message and approved. This made up around 90% of the responses. 2. People who were appalled by the blood and didn’t play the game. These were often the most vocal responses, and invariably they were opposed to whaling, but didn’t realise that the game was satirical. These were a very small, but vocal minority. 3. Young males who were attracted to the game because it was violent. Often they didn’t notice or care about the message within the game at first. However this group are internet-savvy. They like to post their impressions online and read other people’s comments. I was delighted to see many in this group who started to engage in serious discussion about whaling, after at first only being attracted to the game because of the blood and gore. 4. Pro-whaling responses from English speaking Japanese people. Usually these were along the lines of “Australians kill kangaroos, so you can’t tell us what we can or can’t kill”, “Whaling is our traditional right” or “If we don’t kill the whales they will eat all our fish”. I have had some very interesting discussions with these people and I’m grateful for those who have taken the time to present their side of the story. 2008_02_29_harpooned2.jpg

Lessons Learned (And Plans For The Future) Good timing. Releasing the game during the whaling season greatly increased the exposure it got in the press. I doubt the game would have appeared on American television if I’d released it when whaling wasn’t already in the news. Reliable tools. I used Torque Game Builder for the game engine and the Nullsoft Scriptable Install System, along with HM NIS Edit for the installer. Both of these I had previous experience with and knew that they were reliable. This allowed me to focus on the game and not worry about tool chain issues. Early playable prototype Within the first week I had the gameplay 90% complete, using only simple box graphics. I knew there wouldn’t be time for re-doing art, so making a feature complete prototype with no bugs allowed me to simply add graphics until I was happy with the quality of the game, and then release it. The art was completed in 3 weeks, and then I spent about 5 days testing and tweaking before releasing the game. Utilizing the online community Not having a QA department of my own, I was reliant on feedback from the development community online. I am grateful to everyone at SHMUP-DEV and The Poppenkast who provided feedback and testing. The people on the Garage Games forums and IRC channel were also invaluable with their technical advice. Misinterpreted humor. It’s hard to know when writing dry humor if you’re getting the tone right. Is it too subtle or ambiguous? My high-score table listed the names of famous scientists, so that when the player finished the game with a high score they get to put their name in this list, as though by blowing up some whales they have earned the right to be ranked alongside real scientists. However many players were confused by this and wondered if I was making some statement about the evils of science in general. This joke basically fell flat. Conclusion Getting exposure on US television was more than I’d hoped for, so I think the game was a success. Thousands of gamers who were not concerned about whaling now know something about it, and maybe they will pay more attention when whaling is in the news, or even search out material to read about whaling, and ultimately want to do something about it. If Japan continues its hunt next year I’ll probably update Harpooned and re-release it. It should definitely include a ‘capture protestors’ button. As game developers, we have access to a huge audience who are eager to be entertained. We can make an effort to do more than just entertain – we can convey something important with our games, and even affect people’s opinions. Game Data 2008_02_29_harpooned3.jpg

Release Date: January 13th, 2008 Developer: Conor O'Kane (full credits) Platform: PC Development Time: 5 weeks [Conor O’Kane is an Irish born artist and game developer, currently working for Tantalus Interactive in Melbourne, Australia.]

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