Introducing Platypuzzler

It's been months since I've posted anything – the last thing I wrote on here was about losing interest in doing a PhD, clarifying my interest in education, technology and politics, and developing an interest in games as a way of exploring all three.

Since then I've reorganised the rest of my website around this thinking, and, after exploring various approaches to doing a PhD a while longer (including an ambitious attempt to combine a study on video games and political theory across continents) I have decided emphatically not to pursue a PhD anytime in the foreseeable future. More on that another time, perhaps. In the style befitting my slightly obsessive personality, I've also, having identified an interest in games, been getting involved with games from multiple directions, including:

  • Subscribing to various games industry publications
  • Reading some of the leading lights of the game studies discipline (Ian Bogost, I'm looking at you)
  • Doing a Coursera specialisation on game design and development
  • Meeting and getting to know some game industry people
  • Playing a bunch of interesting and different thinky and persuasive games
  • Making my own game

Today I want to talk about that last one. I'm interested in the potential of games as technologies of empathy, as active spaces for exploring, creating and participating in imaginative worlds, with the hope that the experience might make people better explorers, creators and participants in the real world we inhabit together. Y'know, the usual kind of lofty shit I'm into.

We can talk more about the theorycraft of 'persuasive games', 'affinity spaces' and 'procedural rhetoric' another time – for now it's enough to know that there is some depth, structure and a community of practice connected to thinking about games in this way.

I'm a big believer in learning by doing, so I figured the best way to find out what's actually involved in the making of these kinds of games is to try to make one. Happily, the Coursera specialisation I found is structured around this premise – four courses focussing on different aspects (introduction, design, business, development) leading to a capstone where you apply all this to making your own project and shipping it. I started the course back in March and have been plugging away at it when I can. I'm now up to the capstone and hopeful of seeing out the year with a finished game.

With Doug's help, I've workshopped a bunch of faintly ridiculous ideas for games along the way. These include:

  • A Lemmings-like game in which little people bumble along being easily drawn to various stupid and dangerous ideas, while the player tries and usually fails to intervene by placing items of reason and critical thinking in their path.
  • A Kafka-esque city-builder-type game where you are in charge of completing a project for which you have unlimited resources and everybody agrees is important and necessary and yet which nonetheless cannot be built.
  • A casual game in which you toss strategically placed hot chips in front of a pack of seagulls who you can watch fight among themselves while being resentful and afraid but nonetheless dependent on you, intercut with occasional quotations from Thomas Hobbes.
  • A game called Escort Quest in which you attempt to be as irritating and disaster prone as possible while the AI tries to save you (I've since found out about an even better execution of this basic idea)
  • A rouguelike RPG in which you have to persuade NPCs to do things by finding out about their irrational worldview and delusional ideas (which are procedurally generated) and then assembling  a narrative that they will find coherent and appealing out of scraps of rhetoric which you have mined from the surrounding landscape.

Assembled together, I fear these ideas offer a troubling amount of insight into my psyche. They are in any case tremendously therapeutic to imagine. However, the game I've chosen to actually make is decidedly less cynical. The design and gameplay mechanics have already gone through several conceptual iterations, but the core premise remains unchanged:

Platypuzzler is about having a playful, respectful and joyous encounter with a mysterious and unfamiliar creature on its own terms. Platypuses are my favourite animals – they are curious, playful, comfortably and stubbornly independent, in constant search of fresh stimulation, and a bit weird. More troubling amounts of insight into my psyche, I fear. I can (and have) happily watch for hours as they swim around madly and contentedly following some unknowable purpose, changing directions, annoying turtles whose existence they seem to find intensely interesting, and using their natural buoyancy to relax and float amusingly to the surface when they feel they've had enough.

The platypus is not a creature anyone can control. This is important. You have to come to it, and it will reward you with the surprises and delights of its presence. I once had the pleasure of sharing a tank with a platypus for a little while. She paddled over to investigate and stare at me intently while munching on some worms I had offered, and stayed to enjoy a few tumbling tickles on the tummy. Then, having satisfied her curiosity, she would dart off to investigate some moss which had suddenly outranked me in terms of interest and appeal. I stirred up the water a bit to attract her attention, but she was done with me for the time being. Once she had exhausted the possibilities of the moss and done a few laps and leisurely somersaults, she came back to see if I had turned into anything interesting, and for another tickle. Eventually she had had enough and the moment was over. I wanted more, but I had already had so much.

Meeting a platypus at Healesville Sanctuary

I wanted to see if I could recreate this kind of affective experience in a game:

  • The pleasure of observing another creature be authentically themselves, swimming in their own natural habitat.
  • Being a part of that environment for a little while, with some indirect influence, but ultimately no control.
  • Forming a satisfying connection built on trust and respectful distance, in moments and without words.
  • Fully experiencing and appreciating a magical and fleeting moment while it is happening and before it is gone.

These qualities are what I see in the promise and puzzle of the platypus – together they form the core premise of Platypuzzler.