Corrections is a political narrative game built using Unity that looks at how good people can become complicit in tyranical systems and terrible acts committed against others. The game is heavily inspired by the quote ““The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote is often attributed to Edmund Burke, though he never said it outright. It is believed to be a paraphrase of something he did say “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
This line of thought provided the concept for our game. We wanted to see if we could get the player to become complicit in contextually terrible actions through mundane interactions that are slowly subverted into something hideous. When looking for modern historical examples to help create a frame with which to present this process, I looked at the rise of the Nazi party in pre-World War 2.
The Nazi party is historically known to be a brutal and terrible regime responsible for horrific crimes against humanity. However, they were supported by a large percentage of the German population. This does not mean that every German in the 1940’s was inherently evil. They were indoctrinated into the regime by a long process of subversion, that ended up with the populace supporting a fascist political party.
Our aim with Corrections was to see if we could get the player to become complicit in contextually terrible actions through mundane interactions that are slowly subverted into something hideous through the repetitive actions of the player. This takes the form of sentencing criminal cases within a government agency setting. By changing the meaning of those actions over time, we wanted to create a scenario where the player is doing what they are meant to be doing within the game, but what they are doing becomes morally wrong. Giving the player agency over whether they choose to succeed in being good at the game but morally wrong, or fail at the game but be morally correct, we wanted to engineer a situation that is unwinnable to participate in, much like regular people working in totalitarian systems.
In order to place emphasis on how a people can become part of a totalitarian system gradually through indifference and lack of action, we knew we would need to achieve two things:
- A repeatably mundane action that would be compelling, but also not completely bore players.
- A narrative that portrays a gradual societal transition into totalitarianism that would allow the player to keep detached yet complicit in propping up the system
We had a clear idea of the individual mechanics needed to create Corrections early on in development. We knew the central premise would around sentencing people within a totalitarian setting, and that we wanted to make players participate in terrible things but in a detached and mundane way.
To achieve this we are utilising four core systems:
- Performance reviews
By utilising these systems together, we are able to tell parts of our narrative through each seperate mechanic.
Our initial prototype was solely focused on the sentencing and case aspect, and did not have any narrative elements. There are several components that were developed to ensure that players could have a continous stream of new cases. Core to this is the procedural character generator. This allows us to create hundreds of thousands of unique characters in seconds, ensuring no two cases are the same. The system generates a characters names, age, and gender, which can then be pulled into the case system to generate cases.
In order to simulate a work week, we developed a comprehensive date and time system that lets us trigger events at dates and times of our choosing. At the start of each work day we construct a workload of cases. When generating cases, characters are pulled from the generated list and put into a case data structure along with a randomly generated collection of crimes. Each crime has a value, and by adding these values together we get the expected punishment value. When players select a sentence, the value of their punishment is then checked against the expected punishment value to see if they have punished the character correctly. We built out functionality to allow for the injection of story cases linked directly to the news and email delivered story elements, but did not get a chance to fully realise this element of gameplay.
With the construction of the case system, we could begin to construct our narrative mechanics. We have kept these modular throughout our development process. This meant we could implement and drop mechanics based on the time constraints we we given. Our UI has remained consistent since we decided our direction, and was implemented early on with very little change to its design.
The tabs on the left allow easy navigation of the case, news, performance review and email sections. By clicking on a tab, the content area changes. We show the date and time at the top so that players can perceive the passage of time easily, and understand that the narrative occurs over many weeks and months. We also designed the narrative to be chapter based, and these chapters change elements around the UI and narrative, such as changing the severity of sentencing options. Later in the game, the sentences get suspiciously over the top, and your colleague is also sentenced with outlandish crimes. This hopefully conveys to the player that the people they are sentencing might not be as criminal as they seem.
The news section was the second of our core mechanics to get implemented. It allows us to post news headlines that are essential to our narrative, but also allows us to post general news. This serves two functions, we provide the player with essential narrative developments but also obfuscate these early on in the game. Our reasoning behind this was that it is very easy to look back and see key events in history, but to the people living at the time without the power of hindsight, these events may have appeared mundane and be easily missed. As time progresses, you can see more and more propaganda and government control slowly creep in. Key news is authored to go out to the player at set times to tell the story, and general news is selected from a random pool of news articles to cushion it. We made the system designer friend so that we could change the story easily if we were to make changes.
The email system is our human element, to give a more graspable layer to the story. You get emails from colleagues, family and the ministry to provide details to the changing environment around you. Emails operate on a very similar system to news. We utilise the date and time system again to send out emails at specific times, and to tie these into narrative events featured in the news. The system currently in place is its most basic iteration, and we had discussed expanding it to include the ability to respond that might raise and lower suspicion of you within the ministry as well as a larger array of characters. This had to be scaled back due to time constraints however.
The performance review is part of the case sentencing loop, and is aimed at giving the case sentencing gameplay more engaging. We track the average amount of cases completed, as well as whether the player is marking cases correctly. Their performance is given a rank between A to F, and dropping below an F can trigger a fail state later in the game that sees you sentenced by the totalitarian regime in the same way you were sentencing others. This system was developed simultaneously to all the other systems, as we pull in the player metrics, and use them to not only calculate performance, but also to calculate a suspicion rating. If you hit certain suspicion ratings, narrative elements may be triggered depending on which chapter of the narrative you are on. These range from a warnings from your boss about your performance, to suspicion based threats depending on the narrative chapter the game is currently set to.
The conclusion to the game was one of the last parts to be implemented. The games end states are triggered under two conditions. If you drop below F rank in the later chapters, you become an enemy of the new political party, who is now deeply suspicious of you. This state then generates random and fictious crimes. The second end state is triggered if you reach the end of the narrative. The totalitarian state is toppled, and you are arrested for crimes against humanity. A list of your victims is then presented to you, and the suffering the received from your actions in sentencing them.
Developing these systems was by and large a straight forward process. The bulk of the difficult came from tying these different mechanics together cohesively in order to tell the story we wanted to tell. The interdependency of each system required frequent testing and iteration, as the systems have to constantly communicate with each other to trigger events and track the players actions. The performance and suspicion algorithms proved very difficult to balance, and I believe there is room there for significant improvement.
PLAYTESTING & FEEDBACK
Testing this project was hard, as we did not have our narrative elements implemented in early testing, so we were testing individual elements for a long while. One area that we worked very hard to test and iterate on was the actual action of sentencing cases, as this would be the core interaction of the system. Through this we managed to streamline the interaction of sentencing cases. Notable examples of the many changes made included removing having to scroll down within the case to sentence the character. This was originally implement to increase the time it took to sentence cases, to make the process more involved and to cause stress when trying to mark cases very quickly. This was found to be a negative element within the design, as players did not like having to scroll, and some players didn’t even realise they need to and were soft locked upon starting the game.
Other notable elements changed in the case system was the need for more feedback in order to make the sentencing feel better. We added in a moving ‘sentenced’ graphic and sound effects to make the process feel more tactile, as well as a short fade transition to emphasise the changing to a new case. We received feedback asking to include a bigger sense of weight and repercussion to sentencing, but were unable to add more mechanics so late in development that would have allowed this. Repeated testing of the core loop left no doubt that further iteration is required to make the game more engaging and fun.
We were not able to fully test the game with its narrative elements until late in the development cycle, and so we did not get a chance to iterate on how we deliver our narrative as much as we would like. Some of our wording in emails and news elements gave the impression of alluding to mechanics that had not been implemented, and could be seen as confusing elements. These issues were easily rectified thanks to the designer friendly nature of our systems.
Sound was also a big factor, as without any audible reinforcement to actions, they did not feel engaging and a bit bland and boring. By adding audio to key interactions like scrolling, notifications and pressing the sentencing button, we made a solid start at rectifying this. Adding music that changes to become more menacing in the later chapters, we have started to create an increasingly oppressive atmosphere within the gameplay, that helps convey the changing tone of the narrative and tie everything together in a more cohesive way.
Some players were getting stuck as to how to interact with game. We wanted to have the gameplay easily understandable even if we were not there to explain how it works. A tutorial was added to explain how to navigate the games UI and the purpose of each tab. This really helped to counter players getting lost early on.
We also had to make significant changes to the narrative, as the original pacing led to a 40+ minute game that just didn’t have the core loop compelling enough to drive it. Players would play for a fraction of the narrative. By reducing the time between key narrative elements, and shortening the days between each chapter, we managed to streamline the narrative into something more manageable.
This game contains the core of what we set out to achieve, however to hit our deadlines some elements had to be stripped back. There are several areas that could use further expansion, most notably the core act of sentencing cases. We spent a lot of time looking at the case system to see how we could create a compelling loop that would not bore players. The system currently in place works, however we wanted to deepen these system to create a more meaningful process. Extra details such as case notes were programmed into the game to some extent, but due to time pressure, the amount of content that mechanic would need and the lack of time to create a meaningful procedural system to populate the cases correctly, we had to leave that element out.
Likewise, I believe we have the core components of our narrative in place. The pacing is not how we originally intended it, but we could definitely expand that out again once the game has a core loop capable of keeping player engagement for longer stretches of time. We could also further the narrative elements and deepen some of the mechanics we have by re-introducing cut elements such as more involved sentencing and a more interactive level of story.
Ultimately we achieved what we set out to achieve, and I think our message with the game is clear. Indifference and detachment can lead to people being complicit in actions the know are morally wrong, and that becoming part of a reprehensible system can happen gradually in a mundane way.