[Putting An Emotional Moment In *The Quiet Sleep*](/blog/city/emotion)
I recently read an Alexis Kennedy post on capturing emotionally moving things in games and after thinking about it for a while, I realized that is exactly a thing I did with The Quiet Sleep (out now in Early Access on Steam). I did actually take an emotional point from my life and transcribe it in my game. This article is going to go over that concrete example and how I fit it in.
Note that this article will necessarily contain both spoilers for TQS and details of my personal life, so you have been warned.
The Emotional Moment
I quit my previous job mid-October, 2015. I had spent the previous two years working on a game that I was heavily invested in. I was the first person to work on that game full-time and it was what I spent the vast majority of my waking hours on for those two years. It was quite painful for me to leave that game behind and the most difficult part was that I was so used to thinking about the game whenever I had a moment. I used to think about it when walking to the grocery store and when on the train. It used to be on my mind before I went to sleep and when I got up. It had just filled all of those little spaces in my day. I had to consciously stop myself from thinking about the game on a regular basis after I quit.
This feeling of building something up and then dealing with its loss is fairly universal. Additionally, it is something that works very well when represented mechanically, which is something I was looking to do and it fit well with the idea of a city builder/tower defense that I had in the back of my head. I didn’t actually set out to recreate it in my game, but now that I look back, it was clearly foundational.
A lot of how I designed traits in this game comes from this early thing stuck in my mind. The image I had was that there was a large part of my mind that had been developed around the game that I used to work on and after I quit, that entire district had just burned down and now there was a hole where it used to be. From that image, you can see the steps that would have been necessary to get my mind to that point and those foundational steps are what TQS was built on.
More directly though, all three of my stories explicitly have this feeling embedded deep into the story and for all three, the moment where you experience it is meant to have impact.
In TQS itself, the game lets you renounce your homeland. The trait for your homeland is one of the earliest ones you get and is very heavily used. The work ethic that you get from your homeland is what pushes you through the unpleasantness of your job and much of the excitement of the game comes through that trait. When you renounce it though, the trait just disappears and, even though you intentionally excise it from your mind, the feeling of loss and of needing to find new paths to old goals comes through perfectly. I wanted the full complexity of that emotion to be conveyed. Both the magnitude of the loss and the fact that you chose to remove it are important pieces of the emotion that I wanted to represent.
Additionally, this is the kind of thing that I feel is very well suited to a mechanical representation. It’s easier for me to put this into game terms than into words. This is because the depth of the emotion is the result of a system more than an event. The loss of the trait is felt in how other things become harder because you cannot use that trait anymore and in how deeply that trait had become a part of you.
To go back to the real-world feeling, I used that old game as a constant, ever-changing mental puzzle and for a sense of purpose. I work a lot normally and I always have more work to do than I have time to do it in. My normal routine has large sections in it devoted to work. Also, I use work as a way to keep my mind from obsessing about the more negative aspects of my life. When something major goes wrong, work serves as a good way to keep me from thinking about the pain until enough time has passed that I can start to process it. When the source of the pain is that the work has disappeared, it’s naturally quite the interesting situation.
In Songcraft, the second story of TQS, I have a bit where you’ve just released a new song and all of the stuff that you had built around that song just disappears. The game intentionally leaves you a little bit of space there and it feels disorienting because you have just spent a fair bit of time running from task to task to get this song finished and then suddenly all of those tasks just disappear. You can start a new song almost immediately, but the action of going to start a new song feels strange after so long of working on the previous one. That moment of autonomy after an extended period of reaction is quite disconcerting.
This is actually a more common emotion to evoke in games. There’s something similar in Knights of the Old Republic when you finish a planet for instance. However, grounding it in the way of The Quiet Sleep and making it more of a personal thing through the setting of this game does highlight the feeling in a new manner.
Evocations actually has you bring this emotion about in another person. As a ploy to break through that person’s defenses against emotion, you build up a project of his just to have it fail. It’s a story built around the toxicity of the player character and that felt like it would make a good impact moment there.
A Note On The Approach
An important thing to note however is that I did not build these stories with the goal of expressing this emotion. I built them to do something new with video games. The key aesthetic of the game is to have the player see novel ways of expressing familiar thoughts. The emotion described here is just content to serve that aesthetic. I’ve dumped a number of other, similar experiences into these stories as well.
This is all rather different from what I got from the Alexis Kennedy article, and much less useful than what he wrote. However, I do think that by pressing an emotional moment into the service of the game instead of the other way around, you get a very different result and possibly one better suited to your goals for the game that you are making. Also, strong emotional moments tend to find their way into your work, whether you want them to or not.