“The voice in your head is not always a truthful guide, and the journey of fighting your fear starts by making the choice to question your own narrative.” – www.guidethegame.com
You are Fia, a baby phoenix just born back into the world from a pile of ashes. Lightning strikes the tree you call home and you fall from your nest, only to awaken flightless and alone on the forest floor in thick darkness. A mysterious orb of light floats towards you and urges you to follow. It is a friend, it seems. It will take you to safety.
You take some cautious steps forward, the orb of light illuminating your way. Then the light urges you to jump across a wide chasm. “You will make it,” your guide says, stoically.
You take a running leap, but miss the ledge and fall down, down, down into a world of dead ends, shadows, and ever-vigilant eyes. Maybe your guide isn’t so trustworthy, after all…
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This is the introduction to GUIDE, a puzzle platformer about anxiety and the value of challenging the fearful voice in our heads. Made by University of New Brunswick alumni Rebecca Goodine, Elliot Coy, Jade Yhap, and their teammates,* GUIDE won second place in the international student design competition for empathy games that iThrive Games co-hosted with Games4Health in 2016.
GUIDE was a standout among the submissions owing to its charming art style, unique mechanics, and compelling theme of questioning the inner voices that keep us stuck. Since the competition, the team has had time to build on the original concept, so we checked back with them to find out how GUIDE is coming along and what’s next for the intriguing empathy game.
Michelle Bertoli: What inspired you submit an entry to the empathy design competition iThrive co-judged with Games4Health? Why does empathy in games matter to you?
GUIDE Team: We were approached by one of our professors (and now team member), Jeff Mundee, with the collaborative iThrive and Games4Health empathy competition. The theme was immediately intriguing, as it stood out from a lot of other themes in similar competitions at the time, and it also aligned with our personal design and research interests. We wanted to design a game about social anxiety because it was a condition that had affected us and people we knew. Empathy was an important vehicle through which we could address the issue of social anxiety. GUIDE attempts to prompt empathy in an experiential way, but also can be a catharsis for those who identify with anxiety.
MB: Why is it important to you to give players a window into how social anxiety feels?
GT: Social anxiety can be a very isolating and internal experience, and with GUIDE we wanted to show that struggle in a way that allows players to relate to Fia and these very personal battles. Our goal is that the game allows players to reflect on their own struggles, or helps them better connect to a friend or loved one with social anxiety.
MB: GUIDE encourages players to question the internal voices/narratives that keep them stuck in fear. How does this contribute to empathy?
GT: The internal voice or narrative is represented in GUIDE by a small light who leads Fia through the game’s forest. The AI for the Guide hovers towards geometry the player needs to see to progress through levels. This light from the Guide, like the thoughts in our heads, “clearly” illuminates the path the Guide wants us to follow. However, over the course of the game it becomes apparent that the Guide is not always right, and the player should start to question the Guide, since there are other, sometimes better, roads to travel. In this way, GUIDE players must begin to acknowledge the perspective of others and how it differs from theirs.
The eyes that hide from the Guide’s light in the game represent social anxiety. Players feel like they are being watched and may be able to empathise with Fia’s fear. They can start to relate to how people with social anxiety feel like they are being scrutinized. Players also learn that the voice of the guide is an internal voice, like the voice in their heads that can sometimes lead them astray.
MB: Why is it important for teens and young adults to challenge their own internal narratives?
GT: Teens and children are bombarded with messages from all angles, and at such a vulnerable life stage, it is important for them to know how to question the ways they think about themselves. We hope that our game can be used as a springboard for learning such self-improvement skills.
MB: Fia can flap her wings to light fires and burn down obstacles to move forward. It’s a really fun and unique mechanic! Where did you get that idea, and what’s its significance?
GT: It was important for us to represent Fia’s internal journey through external and player-visible mechanics. As Fia progresses in the game and learns about herself, she also gains greater control of her phoenix powers, like fire and gliding.
As a phoenix, players go through a transformation before the game even begins, watching in the introduction as Fia burns out and becomes a chick once again. This shows how Fia in a sense is a blank slate; all her experiences are new once again. We want players to recognize that Fia is new, her experiences are new, her actions are new, that she does not know what the world is like anymore and that she has only a Guide to trust moving forward. This shows how someone with anxiety may see the world, that their inner voice may not be so trustworthy.
MB: How does GUIDE’s art design contribute to the emotional impact of the game?
GT: The art of GUIDE is designed to be “storybook”-esque, evoking feelings and memories from childhood. This is designed to help put the player in a state of greater openness towards and acceptance of our game’s metaphors. It also allows them to engage in a form of “dangerous” play. That is, they can explore a stressful situation in a contained environment that provides a level of safe abstraction, “levelling up” their empathy skills by relating to the content in an affectively risky, but not truly harmful, way. Through our research we have found that one way that people can gain empathy is to first experience and simulate those skills in a safe, virtual environment.
MB: You have done some playtesting of GUIDE in after-school programs. What has stood out most to you about young players’ reactions to the game?
GT: The reaction to Fia stands out the most to us. Players have been receiving her well, commenting on how it is cool to be the “bird that can light things on fire.” Players really enjoy playing through the levels using Fia and her abilities, and they seem to think that the challenge/flow state is enjoyable.
MB: You are working to design some curricular materials to accompany GUIDE. How do you envision teachers using GUIDE with their students?
GT: The curricular materials are discussion guides. We believe that the lesson of GUIDE is best received through a short discussion, otherwise a player may misinterpret the message. The vision for GUIDE in a classroom situation would be for teachers to briefly introduce the idea of GUIDE, have students play it, then have a classroom discussion, asking students to expand on what they thought about the message of the game as well as some of the concepts that may be difficult to grasp immediately. GUIDE could also be used by guidance counsellors to help children work through anxiety, by creating an avenue to talk about how Fia may be feeling, and associating her character with themselves. GUIDE is a game first and foremost. It is meant to be a fun experience. At the end of the day, if a child played our game, had fun doing it, and learned a quick lesson on empathy, that’s the best way they could have learned.
MB: What have you learned about designing a game for empathy that you most want to share with other game developers?
GT: We have found it very helpful to draw on our own personal experiences with anxiety in the creative process, as it allows us to connect to what we are making in a tangible way. However, it is also important to research the subject you are interested in to ensure that you are portraying the subject matter in an accurate way.
MB: The current version of GUIDE ends with “To Be Continued.” What can you tell us about what’s next for GUIDE, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of GUIDE’s exposure? Congrats on GUIDE’s acceptance to the Smithsonian American Art Museum Arcade in August!
GT: Thank you! We are indeed excited to be presenting GUIDE at the Smithsonian SAAM Arcade in Washington on August 5th and 6th, 2017. We also were recently featured at the Jalloo Festival of Animation and Games, Congress 2017, and the Women Making Waves film festival.
In terms of plot, GUIDE will be delving into the perspective of a character introduced at the end of the current version of the game: the “Thunderbird.” Players will learn about the background of the Thunderbird and why it is pursuing Fia. They will understand why the Thunderbird seems to be so angry and aggressive, so that they may begin to empathise with the character.
Interested readers can check out our progress on GUIDE at www.guidethegame.com and follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @GuideTheGame.
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*The GUIDE team:
Rebecca Goodine: Team lead, story, level design, and art. For more of her games-related work, please see www.rebeccagoodine.com.
Jade Yhap: Research, story, level design, and networking.
Elliot Coy: Lead programmer.
Jeff Mundee: Advisor.
Virginia Alecia: Art and illustration.
Jordan Roherty: Audio, music, and sound effects.
Nick Tremblay: The newest addition to the GUIDE team, Nick will implement new features and polish the existing game.