TL;DR Train to nowhere is an interactive narrative based on field research (cultural probes) that dives into what we fear as human beings. Through research I developed a prototype of a game that visualizes modern fears like FOMO, Depression et cetera as monsters to defeat or befriend. PARTNERS/CLIENTS Done as personal project during the Master Digital Design.
Where do you begin with fear?
For this project I started with a main inspiration: a documented case from the seventies, known as ‘the Philip experiment’: A group of scientists tried to create an entity by willpower. While this experiment did not result in any conclusive evidence the idea has always intrigued me. I decided to personify ‘Philip’ into the main character or ‘Quest giver’ in the game.
The next step was to look into what people were afraid of, I did in the form of a cultural probe, I designed a diary that could be send out physically as well as digitally to get results from all over the planet. Not only did I collect data from within The Netherlands but also Australia, South-Korea, Germany and more. From these diaries that posed questions about current fears, childhood fears and ‘urban legends’ from their neighborhoods I have the following snippit from a rapport:
“…however I can say that from the diaries I have
confirmations on my assumptions that the sound design and
story telling is very important to the players. Next to that I have
found that the players enjoy learning more about the origin of
a creature or story and that they want to know more creatures
from around the world. There is a clear link between popular
fiction and the monsters someone knows and, lastly, the things
we feared when we were younger have made way for fears
from ‘real life’. Taxes, ‘white powerful men’ and the meaning of life were mentioned as things that the participants feared. In one of the diaries a participant said that they did not see vampires and werewolves as monsters but that humans themselves were the creatures to fear.”
From these cultural probes I analyzed the data and realized that things we fear as young adults are indeed different but perhaps I could approach it in a similar way as we do in myths and legends. Using metaphors and ‘monsters’ to visualize fears we have now and to overcome them. Sure, not the most revolutionary idea when it comes to designing games about fears; however I used the data gathered to create the game.
A train and a labyrinth as storytelling vehicles
As a storytelling help, I used a train that traveled through ‘nowhere’ and went ‘nowhere’, this way I could have one main point, almost to be used as a dashboard where the player would return after every level. In the prototype created there was only one level to be completed. The game starts with a tutorial on how it works, explained by Philip whom you meet and then the player goes right into the first level.
The first level is a metaphor for depression. The forest is a labyrinth where you have to find your way, giving clues as the player goes through it. When the player gets stuck in the forest, the text describes feelings of being stuck, hopeless and defeated. These feelings were taken from research into depression and how people with depression experience it. When the player finds their way out of the forest they meet a monster described as the ‘tall white one or black one’ and ‘Slenderman’, while the notion of Slenderman is reasonably new (early 2000′) the notion of a tall creature with bony limbs is not.
The player can be mean or friendly to the creature which both result in different outcomes. The prototype of the game ends when the player returns to the train.
Where will the train go next?
The game was deployed among friends and family for user-testing, used as one of the projects for my Master (and thus, degree) but has been collecting dust in the folders of my computer since.
While on-hold, I do want to use First Class: Train to Nowhere for a future project. Do a more elaborate user study into fear and urban legends and write the new levels. Train to Nowhere is one of the few games I have been working on that was ‘just fun’ even though it has a very serious topic.
The creation of the prototype or ‘demo’ has taught me a lot about interactive narratives, deadlines, sound-design, storytelling (horror) and the creation and deployment of cultural probes. Which is a research technique I intend to use in future projects as well.