A downloadable game for Windows, macOS, and Linux
Cloudwalker is a puzzle-platformer that has players taking on the role of the mythological monkey king, Sun Wukong, as he pole vaults his way back into the heavens. Along the way, the immortal Wukong is pitted against the embodiment of desire itself to overcome his own character flaws and challenge players to question how they define their game-playing goals.
Budding game developers. Typically, 17-20 year old aspiring devs who play mobile games in addition to PC or Console games on a regular basis and have just joined a Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree. Considering my primary role as an undergraduate educator, I have encountered numerous prospective students who are familiar with these types of unethical games. Until we sit down and discuss their history and we challenge them to analyze their actions critically, they don't full understand the ramifications of these design choices and how they can be responsible for those design choices themselves.
Teach players to question what games are asking them to do and why on a critical level.
Initially, some of the core goals of the project were to raise awareness of unethical practices more specifically, cracking open a can and revealing a number of issues related to that subject. In essence, the project now merely incites players to question why they engage at all with games as a whole. Why do you level up, upgrade your character, reach that next level or get those achievements?
This game isn't preaching. It simply wants you to think about why you play.
The Problem and the Need for Cloudwalker
Fundamentally, games involve reward systems through a mastery of a subject or skill. These rewards satisfy the needs of the brain to develop, accomplish, have ownership, satisfy curiosities and provide feedback or empowerment regarding player prestige. Abraham Maslow defined a heirarchy of these needs humans have in a paper he wrote in 1943 called " A Theory of Human Motivation". Many games capitalize on these psychological needs, exploiting players into paying for content, to strip away time-gated mechanics and more in unnecessary ways.
Time gating may be the best example of this. Instead of content being available whenever a player would like it, some things may be "once a day", "once a week", or require a period of time to pass before certain actions can be completed or before content can be accessed. Often, we see business models employing a tactic to skip these day, week or hour-long waiting periods to get right back into the experience. From a business standpoint, this may retain players for extended periods of time who may be paying a monthly subscription fee, it may encourage players to pay one-time-fees by exploiting their psychological reasoning or more. While that will definitely turn a profit, it is far from ethical.
Other methods simply involve elements of chance to limit player success, triggering what is known as a "grind" in the player experience. This involves repeating tasks over and over until ideal or sufficient rewards are earned.
At times, I myself struggle with these models. Many of the games I make attempt to reveal a particular truth or belief about a subject. This experience is no different.
Theory, Content Sources and Design Methodology
Much of the content created for the game was made based on my own experience creating Flash games over the last decade. While not all of the experience I have made represent a "learning" or "serious games" intent, I have created games of a similar nature that strive to teach players about a topic on a human level.
One of the strongest ways we can teach players is through the "game" medium's interactive capabilities. We can catch players by surprise, pair the nature of a game mechanic with a metaphor, or simply provide exposition that may allow them to relate with characters and stories.By playing Cloudwalker, players will be challenged to question their own actions and reasons for continuing to play. It will encourage inward reflection by creating a dissonance between their own interaction with the game and the narrative at hand. Wukong's own character flaws and his eventual growth in becoming aware of them mirrors the player's own expectations about games and the way we tend to expect rewards, admiration and positive reinforcement about everything we do.
This approach is commonly labeled " Mechanics as a Metaphor", and can even be accomplished through visual means. Most of my own research on the topic has been players games that represent this methodology successfully. This can range from thatgamecompany's Journey to Jonathan Blow's Braid. They both use the way the games are experienced to engage the user with key points of interest, appealing to the mind and the multitude of ways we can find learning actually interesting or engaging on a widely understood level.
The subject of the game, Sun Wukong, is an interpretation of Wu Cheng'en's character from the Journey to the West. Wukong, a monkey turned immortal king and disciple of a monk traveling west to obtain holy scriptures, has become the basis for many characters in pop culture over the years. Games, movies and comics all incorporate the character in ways that embody his rebellious attitude, his inner strength, and his impulsive and desire-laden approach to things. Given these character flaws, Wukong was a perfect fit for the Serious Games goal.
In the sequel to Journey to the West, Wukong is trapped by an enemy that can actually be considered a formidable opponent to the invincible monkey king. Qing, a fish demon, represents desire and traps Wukong in his own mind. Through a series of time traveling adventures he eventually overcomes the demon's hold by overcoming his own flaws and becoming more self-aware of his motivations.
By playing Cloudwalker, players will be challenged to question their own actions and reasons for continuing to play. It will encourage inward reflection by creating a dissonance between their own interaction with the game and the narrative at hand. Wukong's own character flaws and his eventual growth in becoming aware of them mirrors the player's own expectations about games and the way we tend to expect rewards, admiration and positive reinforcement about everything we do.
In Cloudwalker, players control Wukong as he gets from point A to B through a series of chambers. He can move left or right, jump, and use the core mechanic of the game, pole vaulting, to propel himself left, right or up to navigate each level. At the beginning of the experience, Wukong is in a simple chamber and has no idea why he is there. He figures that, given his surroundings, he was kicked out of the high heavens by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, as he has in the past for his mischief.
This informs the player of their initial goal. Get back into the high heavens! Going up becomes the clear way to go thanks to this notion and the level design itself. As players are confined to each room's chamber, the openings signal a path for them to take to exit that area.
Using their movement, jumps and pole vaulting abilities players complete each room at their own pace. Initial chambers encourage an understanding of the game's mechanics and their limitations. The second room, for example, is only able to be completed by pole vaulting up twice. This requirement enforces the player's understanding of the pole vaulting mechanic when trying to reach higher platforms. Through level design it teaches the mechanics.
Eventually, players will enter a new chamber and find themselves face to face with a peculiar character. Teasing Wukong, she reveals herself to be a demon named Qing, though our trusty hero knows she is not to be initially trusted. Quickly, and without any provocation, she gifts Wukong with a new ability: being able to jump twice in the air.
The following chambers mimic the first series of rooms leading to the first encounter with Qing. Here, players exercise an understanding of their new double jump ability and its relationship with the other core abilities. Players use their environment to trigger key totems that open doors, avoid endless pits that reset the level and more.
Then, a new chamber reveals another chance encounter with Qing. The same cycle repeats itself. Qing gifts Wukong with the ability to Dash, then a series of levels follows that play on this new mechanic. It is here that Wukong begins to question the motives of Qing and the motives he first started the experience with. Where is the emperor? Why was he kicked out? Why hasn't he seen anyone but Qing? Where are the emperor's guards?
Before long, it is revealed that all is not as it seems. Qing has actually trapped Wukong in a dream-like world. As the embodiment of desire itself, Qing is exploiting Wukong's own motivations for obtaining power, respect and achieving his goals. These revelations should reveal the player's own bias about their motivations with this game, and others, and cause them to reflect.
From here players use this awareness in an attempt to flee the dream world. Represented by a race back to the very first chamber where the game began, players must travel the game world in reverse. By going down, down and down again through each previously visited level, the very idea of "up" as progress is twisted upside down.
Wukong dismisses Qing and refuses to remain in this world any longer. She proclaims her own desire to defeat Wukong, devour his own master, and claim his power. Then, the screen fades to black...
Players find themselves right where it all started. Trapped in an endless loop, they too can repeat the cycle Qing has trapped Wukong in. Unless they heed the monkey king's own warning: you must exit.
At this stage the player may continue playing. They will repeat the same series of challenges and experience the same narrative as Wukong had been for an unspecified amount of time.
The only way to break out of this cycle is to quit the game itself.
Ouroboros Magic Circle
The Ouroboros Magic Circle, by Professor Carrie Heeter of Michigan State University, reflects a series of game elements that can be used to address serious goals. The following elements are incorporated into the formal constraints, environmental constraints, goals and context that Carrie establishes within this methodology.
Mechanics as Metaphor: Through a play on mechanics and systems players are exposed to real-world issues related to the topic of exploitative reward systems in games.
Personal Reflection: By exposing the player's own bias regarding their motivations for playing the game, the topic is further reflected upon through a Relation to Real Life both During and Post-Game Context.
A Grand Narrative: Through the use of the game's Premise and Characters, a narrative regarding the Serious Games goal is reinforced.
It Isn't Over Until You Mean It: By challenging players to break the deception of Qing through exiting the game itself, thereby breaking the loop of both Wukong and their own motivational inhibitions, players reach an End State that emphasizes the Serious goal.
Values, Fun and Engagement
At its heart the game hopes to appeal to players as a bright, colorful and engaging experience. Through visual stimulus like varied color, responsive controls, particle systems, feedback effects and tile/frame-based thematic context, the game seeks to look, feel and play beautifully.
When it comes to the game's Serious Games goal, I wanted to explore my own struggle with games and moments where I wonder why I am continuing to play. I feel attracted to games that incorporate a grind or some form of repetition as a means to stoke further and extended player engagement. I let it get the best of me at times as well, paying money to surpass time gated content or to provide me with cosmetic items that, in all reality, have absolutely no worth other to appease my own vanity.
All in all, it feels pretty good using an extendable staff to pogo around the environment. In the game's initial prototype, this wasn't there and the game just wasn't very fun. By emphasizing what was, however, I was able to effectively communicate my ideas during further testing and validate that, in fact, I was getting players to think about my goal's subject matter.
Why would you play this game?
Gameplay Breakdown Video oControls
Up: Jump, Double Jump (w/Upgrade)
Shift+Left/Right: Dash (w/Upgrade)
A/D: Pole Vault Left/Right
S: Pole Vault Up
Music by Kevin MacLeod
A Game by Mars Ashton
Extract the .zip's contents and use the .swf executable to play!