Faded Memories is the culmination of my final year thesis project from OCAD University.
Faded Memories is a first-person exploration game where you visit your grandfather in a nursing home to learn more about their past. You experience the memory from the grandfather’s eyes.
In addition to the game itself, a full written report was produced as part of the requirements of the project. It covers research, inspirations and projected paths that the game can take. I have included a link to download this report here: Faded Memories Thesis Report.
This project is close to my heart as I never got to know my grandfathers’ pasts due to them suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. In creating and playing this game, I felt that I got to connect with them in a way I wasn’t able to when they were alive. Countless tears were shed over the game and I hope that anyone else who has dealt with a similar situation will feel open to discuss it with others.
I’m hoping to continue developing the game in the future. If you are interested in following it’s progress, let me know on Twitter.
Crunch time. It is always crunch time. Juggling the writing, production and testing all at once – in addition to other commitments – is not the easiest process.
I did the first rounds of testing recently and the results were great! The game is emotionally resonant to some and that is a huge ego boost. With the testing feedback there are some changes that need to happen, but that was a given and expected.
I have restructured how much I am making and I am only focusing on a single level. There is no time for anything else so I should make it as good as I can. This also means I have to streamline the production of the level and interactions. Pathfinding was a huge problem and needs to be incorporated into this restructuring as well.
Other focus is on ambience design. Sound, mood, atmosphere, I have to make the level feel evocative. I’ve found it is in the small details that the most emotion comes through. A certain line of dialogue or a particular image stays with the player longer than the total experience.
I have been trying to create an atmosphere that feels as though there are people in it, without there actually being people there. This has proved to be difficult as the sounds never sound right. They are realistic but some of them don’t fit or they aren’t isolated sounds (as in they have background noise) which ruins the whole atmosphere around it.
I’m going to ask some friends if they’ve done realistic sound design before so we’ll see how it goes. I hope I can find nice sounds for this and not just filler sounds.
First Memory – Childhood
The first memory has changed from what it used to be to what it is now. Not thematically but visually. I’ve made it a lot more in line with writing from my grandfather and have even included Google Map screenshots to help lay out the area based on the streets.
So far the process is going well but I need to build out the interactions more at this point. That’s a matter of programming and testing. The rest of the memory is a matter of modelling and creating.
Nursing Home Upgrade
I’ve upgraded the nursing home to being closer to what it actually should be. It is still not completely there but it’s closer. It even has the tree in the lobby!
There are two questions that have been raised regarding my thesis and the design process that I will attempt to answer here.
Realism vs. Fictionalization
This dualism (if it can really be seen as one) comes up in two ways in Faded Memories. One in regards to the Grandfather figure, the other in the level layout and interactions.
The grandfather started out as a placeholder model that was very realistic in its depiction, despite it being untextured. However, I redid the model to be more cartoonish and less realistic for two reasons: one, it is more to my style and is easier to produce quickly (which will help with future models), and two, it allows the player to project more onto the in-game avatar.
Using Scott McCloud’s ideas of abstraction from Understanding Comics (pg. 46), the more abstract a character, the easier it is to project your own understanding, beliefs, etc. onto the character. While the stories and feeling within Faded Memories are my own, the universality of these experiences – dealing with a loved one who has memory problems, for example – lends more to allowing the player to project their own needs and memories onto the characters within the game. When I look at the model, I can see bits and pieces of each of my grandfathers in the model, the player should be able to do the same to a certain extent as there are no specific identifying features that could break this illusion of generality.
Currently, I am in the process of recreating the first memory in accordance to a letter one of my grandfathers wrote about his childhood friend. The original level could have been used however I changed it for one specific reason: It makes me feel closer to my grandfather. Recreating a memory from his writing makes me feel as though I am living his memory and not a imagined scenario or conception of what I think it would’ve been like. The risk in doing this is that it does create a specific memory and one that might not be relatable, but in the same way, it is a memory of childhood and despite it being my grandfather’s memory, it should still allow players to enjoy and connect with their own experiences in their own way.
The need I feel for staying true to the source material shows itself in the main area of the nursing home. This home is one I’ve physically been to, many times, where I visited one of my grandfathers. I was allowed to have basic floor plans of the home and take pictures (without any residents in them, of course). From these I am recreating the nursing home because it has so much emotion and memory built into it. I find myself walking the hallways reliving visiting my grandfather, and it is hard to, knowing that he’s not there anymore. Perhaps this is the only way I’ll ever see them again.
Memory as a Gameplay Element
The question is related to whether the game needs to be about Alzheimer’s or whether it is more about memory and memory loss. The simple answer to that is I don’t know if it needs to be specifically about Alzheimer’s or not as it’s still too early in the process to have really introduced that. However, it is worth noting that memory should be seen from its possible game mechanic uses.
For instance, as noted by my professor, Emma Westecott, replaying a level has, in a way, connotations of reliving memories. You can not possibly repeat a level in the exact same way you did on a prior run, so in this way, the game could change each time it’s played. This would be highly difficult to implement however, so how could it be brought in differently? Perhaps by having time sensitive elements within a level, or interactions that can only happen under certain circumstances. By creating elements that make new scenarios each time you play, it can lend itself to a memory being remembered slightly differently each time it’s ‘recalled’ or experienced. Additionally, dialogue choices could be made that bring about recognition and forgetfulness from the grandfather. Each time you talk with them, you might be remembered, you might not, but either way it creates a playable experience.
Over the break, I focused more on research than on production. During the second half of the previous semester I had tried to make as much as possible because I had been front-loaded on reading and writing, so over the break I tried to get back into that swing. I made a to-do list for the break and finished reading 5 research articles and 1 book related to Faded Memories. That being said, I did do some cosmetic upgrades to the game itself.
The next steps are to put in the final models of characters (replacing placeholder ones), laying out the first memory, redoing the dialogue tree for it, getting the interactions in and then building up the scene. My goal is to finish that by mid-February. This is because I am going to be ambitious and finish two (2) memories before the end of term. I need to do this because I need to show the difference in memory within the grandfather to simulate Alzheimer’s.
Faded Memories has been getting some attention lately from OCAD University. You can check out the article HERE. As well, I’ve heard interest from several others for the desire to look at my thesis and game later on. It would seem that this game needs to be made beyond reasons for myself.
A big question the professors have been giving us is why and how is this project is a Digital Futures thesis? To answer this, you have to know what Digital Futures is in the first place and that is where it gets difficult. Digital Futures is an amorphous concept of a program that gives you everything you want out of it that you are willing to take and put into it. It has allowed me to develop my skills in ways I never thought I could before and has made me better both professionally and artistically. A question that was raised was “How do you picture the future?” That made me think that Digital Futures is whatever we make it, that we shape the way the future goes based on our intuition, creativity and what we develop. I want the future of games to be more personal with less a push towards commercial profit and more a push towards opening a dialogue and helping people – whether that’s to help people cope or understand different viewpoints or difficult concepts. I want Faded Memories to do this and more.
The semester is over with but the process continues. I would like to say I’m ahead or on schedule but realistically I’m not. I did not even finish the first memory and that’s a drag. I’m planning to work on it over the break so hopefully by the time classes start up again I’ll be on my way to making the second memory or more.
During critique, it dawned on me how affective the dialogue I’ve created is so far. Several people started getting teary-eyed or remembering their own experiences so it’s worth noting how universal some words are. The sentiment that an Alzheimer’s patient (or even just someone who’s memory isn’t what it used to be) would meet someone from their past and not recognize them seems to be a universal experience. It sounds like this didn’t affect me at all during the critique but in actuality it was hard for me to keep it together and afterwards I needed to get away and have some time to myself. It hard enough to have to deal with the experiences with my grandfather that affect me, but when others are remembering their own experiences and having it affect them, it reciprocates back to me and makes it harder to maintain control.
I’ve set forth a to do list of things I will accomplish over the break. A major part of it is to rework the first memory to be more in line with letters one of my grandfather’s wrote. The hope is to block it out completely so that it just needs art to be filled in afterwards. Another major part, which I have been lacking with, is to catch up on the academic reading in relation to the project. I’ve set a goal of at least 5 research articles to review and make notes from, but the hope is I’ll read more.
I need to remake the gantt chart (again) for this project. I have been growing to dislike gantt chart progressively more through this process. The software I’ve used either has a trial period that isn’t readily apparent even though the software is great, or the software is terrible but it’s free. I’m just going to remake it in Excel and let that be the end of it.
A big thing I need to investigate in the future is sound design. As I want the nursing home to be empty except for the player and the grandfather figure, I need to find some way to make it not feel dead. Using sound design I feel I can create a nursing home that sounds real but that the only important thing within is the grandfather.
Here are some of the newest images from Faded Memories though some are just test images:
As well as some virtual and real comparisons of the nursing home at the current moment:
Since the beginning of the semester, the progress on Faded Memories has been touch and go. It has also developed conceptually and visually since then as well. While I had anticipated that things would change, it was never known to me how they would. As I’ve found out with this project, as well as with others, change happens and it’s only by creating that you find out what needs to change.
At the beginning of the semester, I realize now, that the scope of Faded Memories was too large. It is still too large to finish by the end of the year, however, with certain changes I should be able to complete at least two of the levels (I’ve come to call them memories instead of levels, episodes or similar). From my initial plans, I’ve come to strip down some requirements I’ve laid out for myself. The main change is the need for textures on certain objects. By applying rendering filters with a simple white texture, the nursing home appears more from a dream or a memory being recalled than it would have been had I applied textures to everything. My memories of the nursing home revolve around my grandfather while the rest of the space becomes unimportant to my recollection. The colour of the wallpaper or the pattern on the floor are less important than seeing my grandfather and witnessing the effects of Alzheimer’s.
A major question that has concerned me throughout the process is how to ‘quantify’ whether my research is successful or not. While I can not quantifiably answer the question of whether my thesis helps heal trauma in the player or myself, I can qualify the answer through writing down my experience and asking others about their reaction to playing. As such, I’ve taken to keeping a journal of my experience while I’m creating. Writing down my reactions and keeping a record of how I feel throughout the process. This project is a difficult experience for me, currently more from talking and opening up about it, than from the creation of it, but the further I delve into it the harder it will become.
Linking my project to my research has been a challenge for me. When I’m creating something I don’t really think about the process or how I’m being influenced whether through similar projects or by literature I’m reading. Nonetheless, I’ve identified two to three aspects of my research that influence my design practice. Empathy games and critical game design are two such influences. Empathy games are those that tell a personal story, often from the game designer’s life (Albert). Critical game design urges those who do not design games to design them because this allows players to experience more viewpoints and open up dialogues about issues that are not being discussed (Anthropy, Flanagan). The link between the two seems readily apparent to myself, but the they are not pre-existing. Faded Memories is not a serious game, which is to say a game that tries to change perceptions or help a marginalized group, it is a personal game. Critical game design works along with empathy games because they both want people to express themselves through the medium of games. They want those designers to help others understand their experiences and perhaps help them along the way. This is why the final influence of my research, art therapy, is interesting but problematic. Art therapy is a method by which those with traumatic experiences or who need help use art as a means for recovery (Johnson & Sullivan-Marx). Faded Memories is not a game by which the player can play and the goal is recovery. The game is to be played and experienced, but if a player feels any sense of peace or identification with the stories within the game, those are all secondary. It would be nice if my game could help people, but I do not feel that this is the main goal of it. In this way, art therapy becomes two-sided to myself. While the game is not designed specifically for the recovery of others, the process of creating it might help me with the memories I have. Take Maus by Art Spiegelman or That Dragon, Cancer by Numinous Games (specifically Ryan Green), they are designed with the heart and soul of the artist, to tell a specific story, but were they designed to help other recovery? I feel it’s closer to the truth to say that they were designed for the benefit of recovery for their creator, to come to terms with traumas in their lives and make sense of it all.
Currently, I am not on track. I don’t feel I’ve ever been on track for this project since starting it, personally. However, I don’t feel this is a bad thing. It’s helping me to see what is absolutely necessary and what is more of a want. (Perhaps I should start keeping track of a need/want/would-be-nice list). In any case, my plan for now is to focus on the interaction elements in the design. By focusing this way, I should have a ‘playable’ demo by the end of the semester. After that, I will work on polishing elements (ie. work more on the nursing home, grandfather model, smoothness of play, etc.)
I’ve included a link to my updated gantt chart, which I’ve started using a new program to track with called Wrike.
A classmate of mine, @cladinrad, told me about a divergent story controller that can be implemented in Unity for in-game dialogue. It’s been used in games such as Lost Constellation and Sunflower. It could be useful for Faded Memories as well so I’ve been taking a look at it.
So far it seems easy to use but I think the problem will be when I try to implement it after walking in-game between checkpoints. Once I’ve figured that out though, it should be pretty straightforward to use.
Yarn being used in the browser, then brought into Unity:
This post might be longer than normal as I will be talking about two things: my current progress on the nursing home and the shaders I’ve been fooling around with.
Progress on modelling:
The nursing home is coming along well, but it’s taking me longer than I had originally anticipated. This could be because I am paying more attention to details that might not matter, but it could also be because it is a very tedious process.
I do have to admit that once you add doors and little features a space starts to come alive! Before the doors for instance, the space was dull looking – just walls with no character. Now it is starting to come to life.
I’ve been doing a pretty basic tweaking of shaders to see what I can get from basic shaders. While the results were starting to look better than nothing, it doesn’t have that dreamlike glow/blur I think I want. I’ve found a tutorial online (LINK HERE) so I will see what results that gives. I feel as though having the level as completely white, but with a glow or blur will give it the sense of it being a memory. Sun rays coming from the window with dust settling should also help me with this direction.