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As a major aspect of this Thesis, the Emotional Design drove the whole development process. The next sections depict how that happened: the development approach, how I derived the mechanics, level and gameplay moments from the emotional flow, and the results and lessons gathered from that.

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Emotion-centr. approach

One of the core design aspects of this project was to use the Emotion-centric design to create innovative game mechanics, usually not explored in the games industry. As this methodology is not well established in our medium, I did a lot of research on how games generate emotions beyond their narrative aspects. Following that top-down approach, I defined guilt and sadness as the central emotions of my design, examining psychological aspects of games and deconstructing titles that either successfully used emotional design or effectively established mechanics based on moral choices. Moreover, I derived the whole level from those emotions: gameplay mechanics, challenges, layout, and all the other elements of the level served to the purpose of these key feelings

According to my research, for achieving these goals, the quest required two fundamental aspects: players’ attachment and morally questionable situations (in terms of the artifact’s established moral code). In terms of the former, although some degree of players’ attachment is key for immersion in any title, an emotional experience requires an even stronger link between players and in-game entities in order to, successfully, affect them in personal boundaries.

The Guilt Cycle - a simplified approach to the psychological aspect of guilt

The experience needs to provide players with a moral code, establishing what, in general, the game world – or the player – considers right. Then, it should create circumstances that are not clearly right or wrong in relation to that conduct, giving players options of action or inaction towards those settings. Finally, by seeing the consequences of their choices, players experience the sentiment of guilt and sadness. This process, called Guilt Cycle, occurs several times, under different circumstances, in order to make players feel the mentioned emotions – references on my paper.

Ixion commands Reus to sniff around - the dog finds a pressure plate linked to a trap, triggering it

Ixion commands Reus to sniff around - the dog finds a lever linked to a gate, opening it

The level attempts to evoke guilt and sadness through the idea of companionship and sacrifice: players control a child, Ixion, giving orders to his companion dog, Reus, in order to help both overcoming environmental threats. The core mechanic consists of using the companion to access areas that the main character cannot reach, establishing a cooperative gameplay style, where both players and dog help each other to progress. The level evokes guilt by forcing players to put Reus in danger, as traps may hurt, and, eventually, kill it. Sadness comes as a natural consequence from such moments.

Aligning the Guilt Cycle with the Flow theory, I designed the following emotion flow, which describes the emotional intensity for players throughout the level:

Hover to see level flow

Quest’s intended emotion flow - the intensity of player's emotion that the level intended to evoke from beginning to end

Not only the quest’s overall arch represents the Guilt Cycle (Moral Code -> Questionable Circumstances -> Guilt), but within each Zone, this cycle repeats, in an increasingly intensity, represented in the graph by the Emotion Flow. The gestalt effect of all these cycles is responsible for evoking the intended emotions on players. With the established flow, I designed the maps and the level flow summary – created to support the emotional experience.

The Farm - Overlay
Emotional Flow  - Complete - Farm + Mountains
On The Mountains - Overlay

Zone 1 - Starting Point:

Players learn the game mechanics and premise, establishing the moral code considered right in that world. This zone corresponds to the tutorial and aims to establish the foundation of the relationship between players (Ixion) and the dog companion. It also foreshadows that Reus can get hurt.

Following the flow

Level Details

As part of the mentioned approach, the level’s environments, color pallet, music, and level layout follow the specific emotional flow. Players start the quest in a colorful farm, brightened by the morning sunlight. The playable space’s topography is flat, with no sense of danger and a calm background music. Their way out to the next area leads to a path uphill towards the mountains. Such setting reflects a warm, receptive environment, where players feel safe and tranquil.

Ixion's House - Progress Shot - Whitebox
Ixion's House - Progress Shot - RTM

 LEFT - Whitebox

RIGHT - RTM (final) 

Ixion's house at the Farm

Farm - Progress Shot - Whitebox (1)
Farm - Progress Shot - RTM (1)

 LEFT - Whitebox

The Farm - Entrance Perspective

RIGHT - RTM (final)

Farm - Progress Shot - Whitebox (2)
Farm - Progress Shot - RTM

 LEFT - Whitebox

The Farm - Back Perspective

RIGHT - RTM (final)

The next area, mountains during a snowstorm, represents a twist in the emotional flow: although bright tones persist due to the snow, the background music is intense, accompanied by storm-like visual and sound effects, which cause a dramatic change to the previous mood. After that, players face a downhill to guilt and sadness. As they enter in the ice ruins, their path is constantly going down. The further they go, the dimmer the lights get. The background music keeps the gloomy trait, enhanced by water drops and wind gusts sound effects.

Mountains - Progress Shot - Whitebox (2)
Mountains - Progress Shot - RTM (2)

 LEFT - Whitebox

Snow Mountains - General view

RIGHT - RTM (final)

Forgotten Ruins 1 - Progress Shot - Whitebox (1)
Forgotten Ruins 1 - Progress Shot - RTM (1)

Forgotten Ruins 1 - Entrance

 LEFT - Whitebox

RIGHT - RTM (final)

Forgotten Ruins 1 - Progress Shot - Whitebox (3)
Forgotten Ruins 1 - Progress Shot - RTM (3)

Forgotten Ruins 1 - Deeper in the ruins

 LEFT - Whitebox

RIGHT - RTM (final)

The final areas bring a brighter tone to the quest, with the intention of providing players a false hope, metaphorically represented by a waterfall. This last part gives them a sense of progression right before taking their companion away from them, through its sacrifice, which takes place with an ominous background music.

Forgotten Ruins 2 - Progress Shot - Whitebox (1)
Forgotten Ruins 2 - Progress Shot - RTM (1)

Forgotten Ruins 2 - Coop Puzzle 2

 LEFT - Whitebox

RIGHT - RTM (final)

Forgotten Ruins 2 - Progress Shot - Whitebox (2)
Forgotten Ruins 2 - Progress Shot - RTM (2)

Forgotten Ruins 2 - Reus' Sacrifice area

 LEFT - Whitebox

RIGHT - RTM (final)

Gameplay Beats:

The gameplay scenarios also followed the emotional flow. In order to either prevent players from getting used to hurting the dog but also keep them aware that it was in danger (check Foreshadowing, in Level Design), situations that caused players to hurt the dog needed to be properly distributed among the level. Click on the pictures below for further details of each situation.

Observed emotion flow with callouts for the high moments: Finding traps; Seeing dad’s corpse; Pulling the lever; Burning the dog (pressure plate); Killing the dog.

The fact that, during many of those moments, players did not have a choice but to hurt/kill the dog, made a few of them feel forced by the game, blaming the quest designer for the companion’s death. Although I acknowledged that issue, forcing players to take those actions was a conscious design decision intended for gameplay experimentation. The outcomes of such approach served as valuable lessons for future projects.

Emotion-related Insights

As the before graph shows, the observed emotion flow (blue) differs from in certain points from the intended one (orange). These points are “seeing dad’s corpse” and “killing the dog”. This section discusses in a general way such outcomes. For more details about each gameplay beat, as well as the results in general, check the thesis journal.

The majority of testers established some degree of positive relationship with Reus, considering it loyal or obedient, helpful, and friendly. Moreover, the one negative adjective, which players mentioned more often, was dumb/stupid. As the diagram below shows, not only the most used words have positive connotation but also the majority of the words used in general defines the dog with some sort of positive quality. On the other hand, a significant amount of testers considered Reus a tool in some degree.

Word diagram for Reus' descriptors - collected from playtest, testers were asked to describe Reus with three adjectives

As the next diagram shows, the vast majority of players felt sadness, anxiety, and concernment. Happiness, cleverness, and curiosity followed them. This confirms the previous results: most of testers established some sort of emotional bond with Reus, which the gameplay mechanics and situations used to leverage the most elicited feelings. Though, the fact that players still felt Reus was some sort of tool broke part of the emotional engagement, heavily diminishing any sense of guilt/regret.

Word diagram for players' emotions - collected from playtest, testers were asked to describe their feelings with three words

In broader strokes, the quest worked as desired to a certain extent. The cooperative play style added to the relationship between the main character and Reus, strengthening players’ emotional engagement with the overall arch. Being able to pat Reus on its head, check its emotional state, as well as the ability to send it over an area and call it back, felt genuine, as if interacting with a real dog. Along those lines, while the boy’s voice over for the commanding mechanics added to his relationship of the dog, Reus’ whimpering sounds made testers care about its safety. The music background established the quest’s mood, which prepared players and enhanced their immersion. The combination of these elements resulted in an emotional journey, where most players worried about their companion, feeling anxious about what could happen to it. Ultimately, the level delivered a gameplay experience with sadness as its core emotion.

The quest's last sad moment, when players get Reus' collar, their companioin's last memory.

Future development and lessons:

In order to reach a wider audience and evoke the sentiment of guilt, the level needs to focus more on the companion and on the illusion of player’s choice. Despite the editor’s limitations, I came to the conclusion that further work on this quest should encompass designing and implementing more situations where players need to check the dog’s state and interact with the companion, utilizing some real life-based dog interaction, such as playing catch, engaging in a game of chase or occasionally giving it a special treat for good behavior, bringing players and dog closer together. In terms of the illusion of choice, design changes should include situations where players harm themselves to protect Reus, as if they were repaying it for the help. On top of that, using food or patting on the head as some sort of healing mechanic to keep the dog alive could help delivering the illusion that players could have saved it. Finally, providing alternate paths, which make players wonder about their choices, also creates such deception and enhances the likelihood of players feeling guilty.


Audio Work

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