Making Games Is Already Hard, Now Make One For Kids About Death

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Posted by patrickklepek (2204 posts) -
This is the last thing your character sees in The End before the "game" part kicks into gear.

The End is a game about death.

In a sense, that's not really a bold new concept for video games, as most of them predicate challenge based on the player's ability to avoid death. But games are only beginning to explore the emotional spectrum, and that includes having a grounded conversation about what happens when life is over.

It's hard to imagine a few video game characters having that conversation, let alone one within a context where the game's suggesting these large questions in a Flash-based platformer aimed at teenagers.

The End was funded by UK broadcaster Channel 4 and commissioned to developer Preloaded. By UK law, the broadcaster is required to produce a portion of educational content for 14-to-19-year-olds.

In addition to some decent platforming and puzzle elements, the art style is pretty great, too.

C4 Education is a subdivision of Channel 4 at large, and while educational content was previously piped exclusively through the television, that changed in 2008, when the budget was applied to experimental games funneled to the web, mobile, and other places. The idea was premised on the belief that crowd was playing around on the Internet anyway.

Preloaded had worked with C4 Education on other projects--1066, Trafalgar Origins--and when some research appeared showing a lack of religious knowledge amongst teens, an idea gained traction.

"One thing religion does very well is provide a narrative to death, a support framework which gives answers and reason," explained Preloaded senior producer Charles Batho. "The End sets out to level the playing field, presenting a variety of views about life and mortality from famous thinkers of our time. It's not a non-religious game, just philosophical."

The End doesn't pitch what happens after death, it takes place moments before. After designing a character, the game boots to suburbia. Your character looks up--it's a meteor! From there, the game plays upon life flashing before your eyes in the moment before death. What happens during the "game" part is an exploration and reflection on the meaning of death.

The End was originally dubbed "Afterlife" internally, but the name was ditched, as it was feared that would imply too much about what may or may not happen after life. More ambiguity was needed.

Unlike a first-person-shooter, there's no outline for how to make a game like this, no blueprint to follow. Batho and his team decided the best way to understand the target audience was to talk to them.

"For this project we talked to groups of kids in the age range of 14-19 about death and imagery around death before we started any production," he said. "In one memorable early exercise we asked them to draw their ideal funeral. Some of the work produced was extraordinary. We also tested early and throughout production with little digital or paper based demos of each element that became part of the final game. It's hard work, but this face-to-face time is hugely influential in the end product."

If you've played a Puzzle Quest game before, you'll be right at home with The End's take.

As it turns out, The End isn't an awful platformer, either. It's not Super Meat Boy, but given what one expects from a piece of educational software, it doesn't totally distract from the rest of the experience. You can skip past most of the platforming if the floaty physics bother you, and instead get into the heart of the gameplay, in which a numbers-based puzzle game infused with a bunch of unlockable powers. It's a little like Puzzle Quest, with some light math sprinkled in.

Making sure the "game" part was worth playing was important to the team. Consumers, especially teenagers, have a million distractions in today's digital world. Being exposed to mediocrity would likely result in them closing the browser window, making the exercise pointless.

It's hard to imagine talking about death without religion. Almost every conversation about death is discussed through the prism of religion and the implication of belief, but giving credence to one belief would have sent Preloaded down a rabbit hole.

"If we had introduced a Christian interpretation of death, then we'd have needed to balance it with the Islamic interpretation, and every other religion, which would have skewed the game and taken it in entirely different direction," said Batho. "So we side stepped religion entirely. What we tried to do with the issues associated with each death object was provide ideas that could emotionally support a person if they had suffered a loss, which is what many religions provide to those who believe in them."

After defeating each stage's "boss," the game asks a question. You answer options are "yes" or "no."

  • Is it possible to be happy simply living in the moment?
  • Do you want to live forever?
  • Would you still be yourself if your mind was put into another body?
  • Should people be able to choose how they die?
  • Do other people’s memories mean that we live on after death?

These aren't exactly easy questions to answer on the fly, and reminded me of the moments I'd fiddle my thumbs in the equally contemplative Catherine. Catherine's more concerned with the complications of sex, love, and growing up, but the personal implications are nearly as profound, and while I didn't spend as much time mulling my answers, I did try to answer honestly.

The "Death Dial" maps the choices you've made during the game to provide some perspective.

The answers inform a "Death Dial," which maps your responses and tries to provide context. It's based on the famous Political Compass, often used to gauge where a person falls on the political spectrum. My answers put me near with theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. I'll take that.

"We hope to inspire and inform players with new ideas that can help them deal with the advent of death in their lives, however spiritual (or not) they may be," said Batho.

It wouldn't be surprising to learn players were blowing the questions off, but with message board threads with titles like "What happens if u answer a question wrong?" in a game where there are no wrong answers, it appears the team succeeded in getting some players to think.

"We tested an early demo of 48 questions with users and they responded well," he said. "We tried to keep the questions easily understandable but also give them some 'weight.' For some younger players they've not really been introduced to questions like this before. 'Weird but interesting' and 'It really makes me think a lot about things I normally wouldn't' being common responses."

Making games takes time--a long time. The idea of working on a game about such a morbid subject, especially one that's so hard to talk about, sounds rough.

"We did all learn a lot about our own views about death and how they contrasted with each other," said Batho. "When that debate began, we realised we were on to something really solid. The issues are heavy, but we deliberately wanted to juxtapose this with a pure-play, fun game experience. Once the game design was nailed, we were too busy making the game and bringing it all together that there wasn't any time left to feel uncomfortable."

You can try out The End at www.playtheend.com.

#1 Posted by patrickklepek (2204 posts) -
This is the last thing your character sees in The End before the "game" part kicks into gear.

The End is a game about death.

In a sense, that's not really a bold new concept for video games, as most of them predicate challenge based on the player's ability to avoid death. But games are only beginning to explore the emotional spectrum, and that includes having a grounded conversation about what happens when life is over.

It's hard to imagine a few video game characters having that conversation, let alone one within a context where the game's suggesting these large questions in a Flash-based platformer aimed at teenagers.

The End was funded by UK broadcaster Channel 4 and commissioned to developer Preloaded. By UK law, the broadcaster is required to produce a portion of educational content for 14-to-19-year-olds.

In addition to some decent platforming and puzzle elements, the art style is pretty great, too.

C4 Education is a subdivision of Channel 4 at large, and while educational content was previously piped exclusively through the television, that changed in 2008, when the budget was applied to experimental games funneled to the web, mobile, and other places. The idea was premised on the belief that crowd was playing around on the Internet anyway.

Preloaded had worked with C4 Education on other projects--1066, Trafalgar Origins--and when some research appeared showing a lack of religious knowledge amongst teens, an idea gained traction.

"One thing religion does very well is provide a narrative to death, a support framework which gives answers and reason," explained Preloaded senior producer Charles Batho. "The End sets out to level the playing field, presenting a variety of views about life and mortality from famous thinkers of our time. It's not a non-religious game, just philosophical."

The End doesn't pitch what happens after death, it takes place moments before. After designing a character, the game boots to suburbia. Your character looks up--it's a meteor! From there, the game plays upon life flashing before your eyes in the moment before death. What happens during the "game" part is an exploration and reflection on the meaning of death.

The End was originally dubbed "Afterlife" internally, but the name was ditched, as it was feared that would imply too much about what may or may not happen after life. More ambiguity was needed.

Unlike a first-person-shooter, there's no outline for how to make a game like this, no blueprint to follow. Batho and his team decided the best way to understand the target audience was to talk to them.

"For this project we talked to groups of kids in the age range of 14-19 about death and imagery around death before we started any production," he said. "In one memorable early exercise we asked them to draw their ideal funeral. Some of the work produced was extraordinary. We also tested early and throughout production with little digital or paper based demos of each element that became part of the final game. It's hard work, but this face-to-face time is hugely influential in the end product."

If you've played a Puzzle Quest game before, you'll be right at home with The End's take.

As it turns out, The End isn't an awful platformer, either. It's not Super Meat Boy, but given what one expects from a piece of educational software, it doesn't totally distract from the rest of the experience. You can skip past most of the platforming if the floaty physics bother you, and instead get into the heart of the gameplay, in which a numbers-based puzzle game infused with a bunch of unlockable powers. It's a little like Puzzle Quest, with some light math sprinkled in.

Making sure the "game" part was worth playing was important to the team. Consumers, especially teenagers, have a million distractions in today's digital world. Being exposed to mediocrity would likely result in them closing the browser window, making the exercise pointless.

It's hard to imagine talking about death without religion. Almost every conversation about death is discussed through the prism of religion and the implication of belief, but giving credence to one belief would have sent Preloaded down a rabbit hole.

"If we had introduced a Christian interpretation of death, then we'd have needed to balance it with the Islamic interpretation, and every other religion, which would have skewed the game and taken it in entirely different direction," said Batho. "So we side stepped religion entirely. What we tried to do with the issues associated with each death object was provide ideas that could emotionally support a person if they had suffered a loss, which is what many religions provide to those who believe in them."

After defeating each stage's "boss," the game asks a question. You answer options are "yes" or "no."

  • Is it possible to be happy simply living in the moment?
  • Do you want to live forever?
  • Would you still be yourself if your mind was put into another body?
  • Should people be able to choose how they die?
  • Do other people’s memories mean that we live on after death?

These aren't exactly easy questions to answer on the fly, and reminded me of the moments I'd fiddle my thumbs in the equally contemplative Catherine. Catherine's more concerned with the complications of sex, love, and growing up, but the personal implications are nearly as profound, and while I didn't spend as much time mulling my answers, I did try to answer honestly.

The "Death Dial" maps the choices you've made during the game to provide some perspective.

The answers inform a "Death Dial," which maps your responses and tries to provide context. It's based on the famous Political Compass, often used to gauge where a person falls on the political spectrum. My answers put me near with theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. I'll take that.

"We hope to inspire and inform players with new ideas that can help them deal with the advent of death in their lives, however spiritual (or not) they may be," said Batho.

It wouldn't be surprising to learn players were blowing the questions off, but with message board threads with titles like "What happens if u answer a question wrong?" in a game where there are no wrong answers, it appears the team succeeded in getting some players to think.

"We tested an early demo of 48 questions with users and they responded well," he said. "We tried to keep the questions easily understandable but also give them some 'weight.' For some younger players they've not really been introduced to questions like this before. 'Weird but interesting' and 'It really makes me think a lot about things I normally wouldn't' being common responses."

Making games takes time--a long time. The idea of working on a game about such a morbid subject, especially one that's so hard to talk about, sounds rough.

"We did all learn a lot about our own views about death and how they contrasted with each other," said Batho. "When that debate began, we realised we were on to something really solid. The issues are heavy, but we deliberately wanted to juxtapose this with a pure-play, fun game experience. Once the game design was nailed, we were too busy making the game and bringing it all together that there wasn't any time left to feel uncomfortable."

You can try out The End at www.playtheend.com.

#2 Posted by Moody_yeti (369 posts) -

cool

#3 Posted by JacDG (2130 posts) -

I thought The End was a game about love, guess not.

#4 Posted by benjaebe (2784 posts) -

See, these are the kind of articles that make me really happy Giant Bomb picked up Klepek.

#5 Posted by metalsnakezero (2342 posts) -

I like the idea of this game where the subject isn't totally new but how it is being told is the interesting part.

#6 Posted by leejunfan83 (1001 posts) -

good stuff I will definitely check this out

#7 Posted by themartyr (691 posts) -

Interesting.

#8 Posted by BadOrcLDR (178 posts) -

@benjaebe: Agreed.

#9 Posted by Athadam (704 posts) -

I wonder if this game covers what happens scientifically when death occurs, perhaps general information on what your body and mind actually undergoes or if it just specifically concentrates on the philosophy of death. Guess I'll just have to play to find out...

#10 Posted by Tesla (1944 posts) -

Good look Patrick, I'll have to check this out during lunch or something.

#11 Edited by GuyIncognito (445 posts) -

@Athadam said:

I wonder if this game covers what happens scientifically when death occurs, perhaps general information on what your body and mind actually undergoes or if it just specifically concentrates on the philosophy of death. Guess I'll just have to play to find out...

You enter a dreamless slumber forever. The end.

#12 Posted by JCTango (1366 posts) -

@benjaebe said:

See, these are the kind of articles that make me really happy Giant Bomb picked up Klepek.

For sure; these are some pretty interesting articles.

#13 Posted by MadMagyar92 (67 posts) -

Klepek, you have written some of the most fascinating articles on this site. First the article on social anxiety with Aspergers, and now this? Kudos, man. The gaming industry needs more hard hitting journalism like this.

#14 Posted by Crocio (542 posts) -

Teenagers don't understand the concept of death now?

#15 Posted by jkuc316 (981 posts) -

I'm somewhere at that demographic, I guess I should play it.

#16 Posted by ComradeCrash (572 posts) -

I might try this game out. Looks very interesting.

#17 Posted by Theologian78 (36 posts) -

I played this for a while, and found it very interesting. However, some of the platforming elements left me a bit unsatisfied. Still, as an introduction to philosophical perspectives about life and death, it's a really innovative idea.

#18 Posted by Kucheeky (256 posts) -

I like the art direction.

#19 Posted by believer258 (12176 posts) -

Well... I'm at the tail edge of that demographic. 19 about to turn 20. So I guess I'll be giving it a whirl later today.

Not now, though, I've got my life to get back to.

#20 Posted by Lava (672 posts) -

Looks incredibly interesting. I'll have to check it out when I have the time. Great writing as ways P. Klepek

#21 Posted by MrKlorox (11209 posts) -

This is a proper Patrick newspiece. It's hard to believe this and the Ico collection boxart articles are by the same dude.

#22 Posted by Vexxan (4612 posts) -

Definitely interested.

#23 Posted by Cheesebob (1249 posts) -

I TRIED SO HARD AND GOT SO FAR BUT IN THE EEEEEEND IT DOESN'T EVEN MATTERRRR

#24 Posted by WJist (308 posts) -

I've never been interested in philosophy, but man, games these days are laying some heavy ideas on the player. More than "shoot that guy!"

#25 Posted by Somestickguy_ (8 posts) -

I am getting a massive Homestuck vibe from this.

#26 Posted by Qodot (105 posts) -

What the hell is this "death" business?

#27 Posted by Arc209 (102 posts) -

I am glad someone is making this game...just kind of weird to think that by 19 some people have not really thought about death before.

#28 Posted by jmrwacko (2443 posts) -

@Crocio said:

Teenagers don't understand the concept of death now?

Most adults don't understand the concept of death.

#29 Posted by I_smell (3925 posts) -

Teenagers, the internet, free videogames you play on your lunch break... well this is just the perfect environment to stage a philisophical debate about mortality.

#30 Posted by ninjakittyboxrz (46 posts) -

THE ENNNNNDDDDD!!!!

#31 Posted by baron_calamity (240 posts) -

Very interesting. I'll have to try it out.

#32 Posted by blacklab (1594 posts) -

This sort of content really adds to the breadth of the site. Bravo again, Patrick.

#33 Posted by buttle826 (124 posts) -

That was cool. I'm really glad I checked that out. It plays way better than I expected it to, and the puzzle stuff was interesting. Definitely something I'll be coming back to

#34 Posted by Grilledcheez (3957 posts) -

I'll have to try it out later, thanks Patrick!

#35 Posted by TheDudeOfGaming (6078 posts) -

I played it (because of Kongregate badges) I didn't go past 2 levels. It's an interesting game, at least in concept, but i found the gameplay to be boring.

#36 Posted by cikame (1073 posts) -

Death doesn't happen to me very often so i've got other things to learn about.

#37 Posted by Terjay (826 posts) -

Hey, neat. It's a article about some fucking pretentious philosophy/art/öxölklöfför game written by Patrick. Whoopdedoo.

#38 Posted by MEATBALL (3468 posts) -

Excellent article.

#39 Posted by Clonedzero (4196 posts) -

@Terjay said:

Hey, neat. It's a article about some fucking pretentious philosophy/art/öxölklöfför game written by Patrick. Whoopdedoo.

yeah, that was pretty much my thoughts on this. pseudo-intellectualism at its finest.

#40 Posted by patrickklepek (2204 posts) -

Tell me more about this... öxölklöfför.

#41 Posted by RageExpressive (50 posts) -

This is the end...my only friend, the end.

#42 Posted by Deathpooky (1443 posts) -

I also played through some of this before. I found the questions and puzzling interesting, and it's good to see that there was something behind the questions, but really the platforming is pretty terrible. It's like a SNES-era platformer before they learned what made a bad platformer - floaty, unpredictable, and frustrating. I ended up giving up because I couldn't stand slogging through those levels.

#43 Posted by buzztone (47 posts) -

A very thought provoking article Patrick. I'm actually studying philosophy, and the topic of "death" has come into play. I feel I have to check this game out. Keep up the great work GB.

#44 Posted by Flappy (2351 posts) -

I'm part of the demographic that this was aimed towards, so I'll take it for a spin later. Good stuff, Patrick!

#45 Posted by Arker101 (1472 posts) -

Good article Patrick, but I really don't want to play a depressing game. I play games too have fun, if I want to get philosophical I'll go read some books.

#46 Edited by Darth_Furder (31 posts) -

Awesome article, Klepek! Hate to be the Grammar Nazi here, though... in the quotes in the last paragraph, where was used instead of were. This occurred twice. Unless of course they actually pronounced it this way, with it being in quotes and all, then kudos for stellar journalism!

#47 Posted by Splodge (1926 posts) -

@Clonedzero said:

@Terjay said:

Hey, neat. It's a article about some fucking pretentious philosophy/art/öxölklöfför game written by Patrick. Whoopdedoo.

yeah, that was pretty much my thoughts on this. pseudo-intellectualism at its finest.

Fun Fact : people who use the phrase "pseudo-intellectualism" are usually pseudo-intellectual twats.

#48 Posted by Mooseslayer (50 posts) -

Yeah, I hate öxölklöfför games too!! Wait....yeah, I don't know what that means. I just wanted to sound intellectual. Anyway, interesting looking game. I still think after we die it'll be a lot like Limbo.

#49 Posted by Clonedzero (4196 posts) -

@Splodge said:

@Clonedzero said:

@Terjay said:

Hey, neat. It's a article about some fucking pretentious philosophy/art/öxölklöfför game written by Patrick. Whoopdedoo.

yeah, that was pretty much my thoughts on this. pseudo-intellectualism at its finest.

Fun Fact : people who use the phrase "pseudo-intellectualism" are usually pseudo-intellectual twats.

oh thanks, i wasn't aware of that. i'll make a note for the future. no reason to get defensive though.

#50 Posted by patrickklepek (2204 posts) -

@Darth_Furder said:

Awesome article, Klepek! Hate to be the Grammar Nazi here, though... in the quotes in the last paragraph, where was used instead of were. This occurred twice. Unless of course they actually pronounced it this way, with it being in quotes and all, then kudos for stellar journalism!

The answers came back over email, so that was my fault. Thanks.

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