Stuck At Home DevlogPosted on 2020 Oct, 9th
Designing a game prototype about the pandemic, during the pandemic
Stuck At Home is a game prototype made by Chapin Boyer & me, that we created for the Jamming the Curve: COVID-19 Game Jam hosted by Indiecade. It is a walking simulator with a very specific premise: you are a college student living in a big city and are finishing up your Spring semester during the peak of the pandemic. Naturally, this was based on our own experience as 2nd year MFA students at the NYU Game Center during the month of April 2020. The prototype conveys the combined pressures of being a student and the unique challenges of living in New York City during the height of a global pandemic.
Social distancing and staying indoors to help slow the spread of and avoid catching COVID-19 was already challenging enough for all of us - we are inherently social creatures and starving ourselves of social interaction was necessary, but no walk in the park. Given that the NYU Game Center heavily emphasizes creating games as part of the community, we especially missed the physical presence of our peers, professors, and friends. No more spontaneous discussions with Dylan & Palmmy about how the New York railway system informed the design of Zenith Junction. No more spontaneous lock-picking research sessions with Connor & Mary for their game Picklock. No more impromptu matches of Killer Queen on the arcade cabs in the lobby. When the PAUSE order was announced in New York on March 20th during NYU's Spring Break, reality struck us. We had to adjust to working on our thesis project, The Bog, under these new conditions. We very quickly decided to gut the arcade aspect from the multiplayer action arcade game, which was disheartening since the twin-stick controllers had a heavy influence on our game's design.
Besides the academic pressures of the MFA program and the mental pressures of self-quarantine, living in New York City presented us with its own set of challenges. As any New Yorker or resident of a big city knows, it's really hard to avoid running into people because they're everywhere. This means that unless you have the resources to consistently order groceries online, you have to make that trip to the local grocery store or deli which runs the risk of you interacting with strangers, falling ill, and becoming the next vector for the coronavirus. Toss this into the pressure cooker with the aforementioned ingredients of having to keep yourself motivated enough to perform consistent and useful work, and you've got quite the concoction cooking indeed.
For Stuck At Home, we chose to maintain a dull, grey palette within the apartment and a similar bleached look for the rest of the environment, except the park. We used this visual aesthetic to convey the monotony of daily routine during the pandemic as well as through the procedural rhetoric in our prototype. The main mechanic is of course, the prominent resource bar UI in the bottom left corner of the screen:
The Resource Bar UI
There are 3 visible resources - Hunger, Motivation & Sleep. Both Hunger and Sleep dwindle constantly, creating a sense of urgency and panic.
The truth is that nothing happens immediately when the Hunger bar is depleted - but just like in life, you are unable to focus on other activities like working while you're hungry. Motivation depletes when you work and it's up to you to balance taking a break (watching TV, taking a stroll in the park) against completing enough work for the day.
However, the Sleep bar marks the passage of time and when it runs out, you are too tired to do anything more for the day and are forcibly returned to your apartment at the start of a new day. As a player, you are stuck in this loop for 14 days, at the end of which you are presented with a summary of your grade for your course & stats about whether or not you caught or transmitted the virus.
Time marches on, paying heed to no one
There's also a hidden Exercise resource bar tracked by the game which can be filled by doing pull-ups inside your apartment. Filling up the bar allows you to complete your work faster for the day. We wanted this mechanic to reflect how easy it has been to forget to take care of your physical health during the pandemic, despite the fact that staying active and doing regular exercise makes a big difference to your motivation and energy levels.
It is a wonder what a short walk in the park does for your motivation and mood after being cooped up inside the same four walls for days on end. In Stuck At Home, visiting the park by your apartment refills your motivation rapidly, though I would suggest putting on that mask before heading out and making sure to stay at least 6 feet away from other people!
During the entire time the player is living in our simulation, there is a simulation of the spread of the coronavirus running in the background. We were able to extend the simulation engine provided to us by Georgia Tech DILAC to fit the interactions in our game. Every time the player comes within 6 feet of an infected NPC or spends time in the enclosed space of the Grocery Store, they increase their own risk of catching or transmitting the virus.
Stay safe, folks!
The process of creating this prototype has been cathartic and has helped us reflect on our experience of being stuck at home during the pandemic. Systematizing these pressures has allowed us to process the emotions we felt and reflect on our reactions to this challenge created by external forces beyond our control. This prototype is inherently personal to us and reflects but a caricature of our experience.
For all the serious thought that went into it, I hope that the exaggerated aspects of our digital world brings some levity to your experience playing in it. If you feel a smile tugging at your lips at the ridiculousness of it all, then it'll have made my day. :)
Download and play Stuck At Home.