February 26, 2014 7:00 PM | Staff
As you wait in line at the supermarket, you always see them: Women's magazines, always with questionnaires designed to help readers improve their lives. There's an implication there: One could become the perfect woman.
But is it even possible? Lea Schonfelder and Peter Lu decided to explore that question in the possibility space opened up by game design with Perfect Woman -- a game that aims to expose the tensions inherent in trying to achieve goals while living a life that balances everything that's asked of women in the 21st century.
As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series of interviews with finalists, we chat with Schonfelder and Lu about the evolution of Perfect Woman's concept and game design.
What's your background in making games?
Lea Schonfelder: I studied at the school of Art and Design in Kassel, and graduated in animation. I never was much of a player before. But during this time we made some experiments on interactive animation; that quickly led me to using game like mechanics for artistic expression.
Peter Lu: So like... Wow, almost ten years ago, I played a little game called Cave Story. After that, I said, "Screw the game industry!" and became super determined to acquire the skills and experience to be a game developer.
Actually, I was studying math pretty seriously in school while making (mainly programming) games on my free time. I churned out game after game, experimenting with both artistic and commercial endeavors. Well, that was kind of a long time ago. These days I dawdle around and maybe work on Perfect Woman every now and then. It's sort of a matter of perspective though ;).
What development tools did you use to build Perfect Woman?
PL: We're using Unity 3D right now. This turned out to be the right choice for its ease of building to multiple platforms. It was also a bad idea for many, many reasons. I ended up MacGuyvering several features in Unity and .NET to get around several restrictions in the Unity 3D engine. For now, we're using ZigFu to handle all the Kinect interfacing.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
LS: Peter and I started working on Perfect Woman during a residency I did at UCLA Game Lab in fall 2012. After I came back to Germany -- I'm studying at Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg as graduate student right now -- I registered Perfect Woman to be my final thesis. Some other students from my school, as well as UCLA, joined our team.
I've been constantly working on Perfect Woman since then -- on art, on game design, but also on research on the topic of perfectionism, on press stuff, and whatever needed to be done. Over such a long period of time, of course you sometimes need distraction as well. So I also worked on some smaller games on the side.
PL: I'm pretty chaotic when it comes to time management but somehow things get done. It's hard for me to say what percent of my time I spend working on Perfect Woman, but it is my top priority.
How did you come up with the concept?
LS: It was at UCLA, in one of Eddo Stern's events. I had come to Los Angeles for the residency, as mentioned above. My boyfriend would come with me and I was very happy about it. He works from home and wasn't part of any program, though. We wanted to spend time together and experience this, for us, new country. But I also liked being at university and participating in all the events that happened there.
As in the game, I felt torn apart between my private life and my professional life. I felt that I had to succeed in both aspects, but I also somehow felt that it was going to be nearly impossible. Making people feel this conflict physically, which is possible through the Kinect controller, seemed to be the perfect metaphor.
Can you talk more about how magazine questionnaires led to a game design -- what steps did you take from concept to execution?
PL: That was certainly the original inspiration for the game. About a year ago the game defined some choices to be more "perfect" than others. This was the concrete realization of us wanting the player navigate between ideal choices (perfectness) and reality (difficulty).
Eventually we realized hard-coding perfectness was entirely superfluous. During testing, players were simply choosing the characters they wanted to be rather than reading into the game's arbitrary definition of perfection. Removing this "feature" was the single most important change we made to the game. Now the satire is in the context of the game, not the game itself. The game itself now is just meant to be fun -- kind of like a magazine questionnaire, eh?
Why did you go with Kinect/pose-based gameplay? Accessibility, communication of message or ideals, or that and more?
PL: I thought making another Kinect game (I made one just before starting on Perfect Woman) would be a terrible idea, but Lea managed to convince me this game would be pretty simple to make. I was wrong on both counts.
LS: I didn't try to convince you that the game was simple! As I already mentioned above, using the Kinect was just necessary to bring our "message" across. People should physically feel torn apart between too many poses representing too many aspects they want to be perfect in.
A pro side of the Kinect is definitely that it works really well in festival environments: People don't need to touch a controller, they just come in and begin to play. Additionally, it attracts many people around -- they want to look at who's dancing there. As the game is right now, we cannot approach a larger audience at home, because of the effort to put it up, unfortunately. That's why we'd like to get the game on Xbox: to enable more people to play the game at home.
Can you describe how the "life narrative" aspect of the game works, and why it's important?
LS: Peter actually invented this part of the game, and it's essential for the whole concept of the game. At each stage of your life, you can choose between four different lifestyles. So, for example, at age 45 you can choose between being a belly dancing teacher, a rich wife, a burned out woman, or a whale hunter. These four choices are always the same for that age.
Now, what changes is the difficulty of the performance connected to them. And this difficulty is determined by the life you lived so far: If you have been a terrorist before, the whale hunter will be easy to perform, because you're already used to unethical actions. If you were a princess as a kid, the rich wife will be easy, because it fits you as well. But if you would have been a street kid before, that option would be really hard to perform for you now.
Now the important thing about that mechanic is that within that system it is almost impossible for the player to always live their "perfect life." It may be okay for a while, but eventually your life history will catch up you and will have a real conflict with all the different aspects of your life that "need to be perfect," such as work, family, friends, individuality, health, to name a few.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
PL: I'm personally rooting for Dominique Pamplemousse because it has so much personality. I'm also quite fond of Stanley Parable -- its meticulous design and attention to detail gives the satirical nature of the game a narrative of its own. Finally Jazzpunk, which I have yet to try, looks just delightful.
LS: It is a great honor to compete with games like Luxuria Superbia, which I really enjoyed because it made me feel so relaxed, Papers, Please and Dominique Pamplemousse, which I admire because of the same reasons that Peter mentioned.
I also especially liked one of the honorable mentions in the student contest: Ladylike by Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, David Coss and Winnie Song. It is a really delicate game about a conversation between mother and daughter with great writing.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
PL: I've seen indie games just flat out explode in popularity since I started make games. The quality has certainly gone up and now it's exciting to see popular genres coming out of indie developers. This isn't much of a surprise considering gaming hardware has pretty much stagnated since last gen, but for some reason developers still can't seem to solve the mystery to the zombie apocalypse.
I think in terms of innovation and creativity though, most indie developers, including myself, struggle to break the mold of established conventions in games which I think is still quite restricting (amazing as it is). Sometimes it's really the non-gamers that make the most interesting games (looking at you, Lea).
[Christian Nutt wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]