June 1, 2014 5:30 PM | John Polson
Towa Towa and Escape The Cage developer Aaron Oldenburg is making a "game created through documentary process" called Cachiche for PC, where the player is an outsider trying to make sense of reality by taking pictures and learning about the photo contents by talking to people. The game is slated for a Fall 2014 release and is inspired by Aaron's interactions with a brujo ("sorcerer") in the desert suburb of Cachiche, Peru; a town that was founded as a refuge for witches during the Peruvian inquisition and is where descendents of witches still live today.
Aaron has publically shared that his goal with Cachiche was to take elements of documentary design and "open them up to the unknown by putting his stories through the blender of procedural story generation." This stems from an interest in "playing with the inability of traditional documentary to tell a genuinely objective story and a desire to make a narrative that I was familiar with become constantly new and changing."
The game promises surprises to be revealed in photos the player takes, as well as in the stories the NPCs tell of those photos. Aaron described to me that this photo-storytelling gameplay has turned into kind of a conversation mechanic in-game.
"You approach an NPC and show them your pictures, then initially they will say things that I've written, or translated from an interview (in which case you'll hear the interviewee speak as well), based on what kind of object is in the photo. When they run out of phrases, I have partial-sentences that randomly combine based on what objects are in the photographs, that make grammatical sense but sometimes make the character sound like they're describing a dream."
He said a playtester liked "assuming a lot" about what the character meant, because even though the initial phrases are hard coded, depending on the objects it finds in the picture, the player often has to bridge what is represented in the photo and how the character describes it. Eventually these phrases will be divided up between different characters based on their personalities, which are based on people Aaron met.
The player will keep a journal of the photo descriptions heard, and the game will suggest how the narrative can move by using photos to compel certain characters to speak and possibly to show new parts of the town or trigger events. "I'm experimenting with prodding the player without laying out explicit goals and also beginning with subtle rewards, such as the ability to explore new areas. I'm interesting in compelling the player through curiosity, since those were my own motivations, and looking at different ways to provoke that."
Aaron currently feels this experiment will be more game created through documentary process than game that actually is a documentary. "I like Werner Herzog's pursuit of the 'ecstatic truth' which requires a certain amount of fabrication, and feel like it's easier to get at essential feelings and experiences through taking a certain amount of artistic liberty.
That said, he really likes the documentary process. "I love forcing myself out of my comfort zones, into other countries and languages and into other people's lives... I think reliving the memory of that makes it a lot easier to spend a year of my life in front of a computer.
"Since I returned from the Peace Corps in 2003 I've been trying to reconcile these two halves of my life, the volunteer and the game designer. When I went to Guyana to do a short documentary video on Jonestown in 2010, I realized there were ways to accomplish both with one project. So that was why I decided to begin using documentary processes to create games, beginning a year or two ago with Towa Towa, where I went up to Queens, NY, to harass Guyanese bird racers in an unsuccessful attempt to get interviews and make a game out of it (the interviews were unsuccessful, I still made a game)."
He described the larger game context as one of a changing narrative, things going on that the player struggles to figure out and things that are perhaps foreshadowed in the photo conversations and those conversations that the player eavesdrops on. "The player is an outsider trying to make sense of reality by taking pictures and talking to people, but both reveal that there is another reality going on underneath the surface. There aren't any ghosts in the game, just an alternate human reality."