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Hanukkah Special — Day Seven | Architectonics

During the fourth, fifth, and sixth day of Hanukkah, we sketched a number of design decisions for the Interactivity, Plurimediality, and Narrativity territories.

Today, we will engage the fourth and final design territory of the Ludotronics paradigm, Architectonics.

Instead of merely covering “story” or “narrative,” Architectonics denotes the design and arrangement of a game’s dramatic structure in terms of both its narrative structure and its game mechanics and rule dynamics.

The idea behind this is that the best possible narrative for a game is a narrative that is expressed through player actions via game mechanics and rule dynamics, as it is done outstandingly in Train and other games from Brenda Romero’s The Mechanics Is the Message collection. Furthermore, game narratives should be open to “player narratives,” and games can also have terrific user-generated narratives without offering a “story” in the first place. Most often, it’s about “story fit”—if plot points from the story development arc or personal growth from the player character development arc need to be delivered and explained in cutscenes and/or through non-player character lectures, then the story might be a good fit for certain game types like action-adventures, but not a good fit for other types of games.

To develop a narrative for our Hanukkah game that is organically linked to game mechanics and player actions, we first have to ask what that narrative needs to accomplish:

  • It has to facilitate a dramatic structure that is compelling, meaningful, and emotionally rewarding.
  • It has to facilitate a deeper understanding of the diversity of the Jewish experience.
  • It has to facilitate a plausible common goal for the coop players, i.e., a Jewish and a non-Jewish child, and a Jewish parent or relative.
  • It has to facilitate an in-game Hanukkah experience that augments the actual Hanukkah festival as celebrated outside the game.

There might be more, probably, but that will suffice for the time being.

Next, we need to know what the players have to achieve, i.e., the game-driven goal of the game and, by extension, its level objectives.

What if the game had eight levels with eight objectives, and it had to be played along actual Hanukkah, i.e., each day during the day before the candles are lit in the evening? Inspired by the use of moon phases in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, we could even go so far as to make the game playable only during Hanukkah (barring players tampering with their devices’ date and time settings). That’s a tempting idea, but it would certainly need some careful market research among the game’s target audiences, to find out if and how such a radical design feature could win general acceptance.

On second thought, let’s go with it! Why would anyone want to play a Hanukkah game in July!

Then, the game needs a meaningful “narrative conceit” that is tied to the eight level objectives. Perhaps something can be done with oil or candles, Hanukkah’s most important prop. What if the player had to deliver, over the course of the game, either Hanukkah candles or small vials of oil to eight Jewish homes or other places of Hanukkah celebration?

With that as a baseline, the game writer would have to create a narrative conceit around which the players have to deliver these special candles or vials each day, for eight days, across different times and places for Hanukkah celebrations. In addition, the game writer would also have to create eight level narratives that encompass the diversity of the Jewish experience and important historical events, and the non-player characters that populate these levels.

Along these narratives, in turn, the game designer, the level designer, and the game writer then have to create physical, cognitive, and empathic tasks and challenges for each level’s “mystery.”

All this, the narrative conceit, the tasks, and especially the mysteries, must closely connect with the game’s theme, “hope,” and present different aspects of hope through motifs, either from our sample set—aspiration, anticipation, expectation, ambition, optimism, enthusiasm, belief, faith, trust, confidence, desire, longing, passion, pursuit, fortune, aim, goal, objective, destination, utopia, chimera, fantasy, pessimism, suspicion, doubt, disappointment, hopelessness, despair, indifference, surrender, apathy—or an extended set drafted by the game writer.

As for the mysteries, ideally, the players can understand and solve them entirely through gameplay, i.e., exploration and player action. Each level should be played and solved in the daytime before nightfall and the actual lighting of the candles outside the game, and each day’s tasks and solutions should lead to cognitively and emotionally rewarding experiences and insights, varying in mood on a well-balanced spectrum from the serious to the whimsical.

But, special attention must be given to days that fall on Shabbat, during which observant Jews not normally use electronic devices. These days’ levels could be “hero days” for the non-Jewish player, who has to achieve such a day’s level objective alone in ways that hook into the narrative not just in plausible, but seemingly necessary ways.

Then, not to forget, the coop mode has to be taken care of from the game writing, level design, and game design perspectives. Here, balancing the role of the children’s characters and the parent or relative’s character is especially important. The parent/relative should always understand the nature of the tasks that the children have to solve, and be able to provide guidance and hints or even a full solution if need be. On the other hand, the game’s rules and mechanics should also restrain a parent or relative from dominating the gameplay and interfering with the children’s playing experience in unpleasant ways.

The narrative conceit will certainly need a fantasy-ish/mythological-ish or science fiction-ish element, not least because the player characters need instant travel across space and time. Otherwise, though, it should refrain from supernatural elements, not only with respect to the nature of the game, but also with respect to its genre style. Mysteries, after all, should be solvable through logical deduction.

To sum it up, each level is an exploration-focused experience revolving around Hanukkah as its focal point. Each level objective is to deliver a candle or a vial of oil to a different Hanukkah celebration, for which mysteries must be solved and challenges overcome. Each level closes with the virtual lighting of the Hanukkiah in a different home or other place of celebration throughout time and space—either during a momentous time for Jews in history, or with a person or family from a distinct Jewish tradition, or both. On days that fall on Shabbat, the non-Jewish player has to master well-embedded solo adventures, after which the other players can join after sunset for the in-game lighting of the Hanukkiah at the end of the level, during or after the actual (real-life) lighting of the candles.

All the design work for this Architectonics territory, to stress an important point again, should try and unify the game’s narrative and mechanical aspects wherever and whenever possible.

Tomorrow, on the last day of Hanukkah, we will wrap everything up and list a few tasks that would, if undertaken, propel our concept into a game treatment that could actually be pitched.

See you tomorrow. Happy Hanukkah!

→ Day Eight

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