I’ve had several attempts at writing an article like this. I’ve probably put too much of myself at stake in this game, so much so that it feels especially important I communicate what this piece means to me.
Playground is a minimalist social simulator. It’s a game about social systems, unclear rules, impenetrable and obscure codes of conduct, sometimes hostile social environments, the difficulties of finding and making friends, childhood, and loneliness. You play as a nondescript white triangle in a world of other nondescript white triangles, navigating a playground in search of social interaction (styled as ‘minigames’ within this game). The interactions are deliberately tough and frustrating, involving behaviours you simply can’t keep up with/deliver, and involving ‘rules’ that aren’t made clear to you as a newcomer to these social settings. As such, this game is about the experience of feeling alien and the seemingly-futile struggle not to be (to do what is expected of you). Most of the people in the playground just look at you questioningly when you approach them without cause, but on occasion you’re able to join in.
The first of these interactions (‘Speak’) is with a lone child in the playground; you attempt to speak to her, to respond quickly and appropriately within a given time-frame. But talking is awkward and uncomfortable — quite literally the player will need to hold down multiple keys across their keyboard simultaneously in order to reply. Failing to reply leaves her feeling offended, feeling blanked by the player, and if/when the player fails to respond she will simply express her disappointment and leave. At its core, this is a game about the difficulties of connecting with another person, expressing yourself to them, and about the sense of disappointment that comes when you’ve been unsuccessful at doing so.
Like all of the games in Playground, it’s fairly minimal — I use non-human-readable text within the game (a symbol-based font, like emojis but often less precise) — and communicate feedback via ellipses, question marks, and (immediately when the player fails) distinctly negative feedback: a high pitch sound, camera shake, and the other avatar turning red. It’s harsh but inevitable feedback from the game. I really wanted to give a sense of social failings (misspeaking, missteps, and misconduct) in the way I experience them — this visceral, gut-response; the realization your words are out there now and you can’t take them back, even if they’re not what you really meant. I also use this feedback in my final game (‘Talk’) but not entirely in my second (‘Play’), as my feelings towards these failures are slightly different (as I’ll get into shortly).
The second of these games is ‘Play’, a hopscotch-style memory game in which the player tries to replicate the effortless movements of the other players. This seems simple enough, but the difficulty ramps up aggressively, with players generally failing around the second or third round. The other children just look at you questioningly when you fail to keep up, as if it were all totally self-explanatory. This becomes especially frustrating when the other children seem to start breaking the rules around round 3: now they mirror each other’s movements along the tiles, making it unclear as to whether the player should mimic the first or second player, or do some other as-yet-unperformed sequence. What I was hoping to communicate with this game was perhaps a little more abstract — a sense of unclear and potentially unfair systems, in which expected behaviours are just assumed to be self-evident by longtime members of a group. As such, the group (and game) is somewhat hostile to outsiders. It closes off to the player, and like all of the minigames (as with a lot of our first-time social interactions I feel) reattempts aren’t permitted. A first impression is always, cruelly, the first impression. Perhaps its memory can be eroded with time, but I don’t think it can ever really be uprooted.
The third and final of these games is ‘Talk’, a short group conversation simulator. Of all the games, this one probably says the most about me (to me at least), and I feel needs a more extended explanation. The first two games are generally more inspired by my experiences of social interactions around junior and infant school, whereas this game comes more from what I started learning around secondary school (specifically around Year 9 and 10 in the UK). For various reasons I needed to leave my friend group at the time and enter into a new one. This was a huge transitional period in my life, and by far the most difficult part of it was learning how to interact within this group and learning what to say. The friends I made around this time generally recall how I just ‘appeared’ around this time, and how I spent several months saying very, very little to anyone. I felt indescribably alien, just watching and listening and taking mental notes of everything about the way this group worked: the modulations and inflections in people’s voices, the timing between jokes, appropriate and inappropriate topics of conversations; things which landed well, things which fell flat on their faces. I had to learn, through oftentimes painful trial and error, what to inject into conversations and when: something cynical? something optimistic? something anecdotal (too personal?)? something a little different? ‘Talk’, then, is all about communicating this experience.
In this game, the player joins in on a group conversation, listening to and reading what the other players are saying — trying to make sense of it — and then make appropriate contributions. A user interface prompt appears, directing the player to use their directional keys to select from one of four options: a smiley face, a speech bubble, a thumbs down, and a lightbulb. These are designed to loosely represent optimism, anecdote, cynicism/sarcasm, and contributing ‘something original’ or more nuanced. The other children respond either with laughter (approval), negative feedback (the same as in ‘Speak’ but multiplied, signalling disapproval here), indifference (‘…’), or confusion (‘?’). As such, the game is designed to simulate the experience of making contributions to a group which either land or don’t land in various ways. It’s about trial and error, and about complying with social norms in order to fit in and be well received. As with ‘Play’, the group doesn’t communicate these norms, rules, or expected behaviours — the player has to grasp them by intuition and observation. In this case, a breath of optimism is appreciated by the group while anecdote and cynicism are generally fitting; ‘something original’ is never approved of and sometimes deemed wildly inappropriate. In short, it’s a game about being expected to contribute when you have no idea what is appropriate or inappropriate to the group in question.
About a quarter of the way through into the main design period, I started thinking about endings. As such, I thought about this game as a collection of a smaller games and thought about what the overall package or experience should say. A lot of the endings I like in the literature, films, and games I enjoy are either depressing or bittersweet. I generally like a sense of a devastated or ‘broken’ protagonist, like Sam Lowry at the end of Brazil or Thomas at the end of Blow-Up (where do I go now? what do I do?). I don’t usually subscribe to optimistic endings, and I generally don’t ‘believe’ in closure. That being said, I didn’t really have many doubts about the ending to Playground. To have a game that offers no hope, that only tears opportunities apart, that says the struggle for human companionship, intimacy, and friendship is both futile and endless, would be vastly inappropriate for me as a game designer. I strongly believe there are ethical considerations we should make as storytellers and designers, not to the extent that we always deliver one-note, totally-uncompromised endings, but that if we want our work to resonate with people we should be held accountable for the messages we send out. I don’t want to hide away when players reach the ending; the tone and intended message of my game needed to be clear, even if players end up reading somewhat different messages.
The game ends with the player having exhausted their options. No one seems to want anything to do with them. All that’s left is an empty bench to pass the time until break-time is over. The player hops onto this bench and the camera holds before slowly zooming out. The sounds of children playing continues as the viewer’s takes in the sight of their protagonist, decentred and stranded in this cold, unmoving playground.
It holds on this for a few seconds, until the child next to the teacher finally jumps into life, passing the teacher and approaching the player on the bench. It’s an interaction designed to mirror the first interaction of the game — one triangle being approached by another, simply trying to check in with the other’s feelings.
But this time, for the first and only time, the player is the one deciding whether or not to continue the interaction. The companion asks a simple, symbol-based question (one which the main teacher asks if you approach him), to which the player can select either ‘Y’ or ‘N’. The choice does give you a different ending, but is also in a sense a hoax: the game doesn’t have a ‘bad’ ending, but instead two endings that are optimistic in different ways. ‘Y’ has the player pause before hopping down from the bench, heading off screen with the other child to presumably talk or play some game elsewhere. ‘N’, however, has the other child respond with an initial pause (‘…’), before approaching the bench, hopping up, and joining the player, on their own terms, to see out the rest of the break.
As mentioned, this ending was really important to me. I think the message of the game hangs on it. It’s about that moment, or those moments, when we’ve lost hope; when we feel so utterly alone and certain nothing will ever change or get better. And, I hope, it’s about being proven wrong. Because aside from ethical considerations, I just wanted an ending that doesn’t say something I don’t believe. I think people are a struggle sometimes, and interacting with them can be very difficult for the uninitiated (the process of learning can be long, frustrating, and sometimes cruel), and our efforts sometimes seem profoundly unrewarding. The number of unsuccessful interactions might well outweigh the successful ones by 3:1, but the struggle isn’t in vain. I can’t always pinpoint it, but connecting with other people is just so much of what life is.
I hope this game, despite everything, communicates that.
Presentation and Exhibition
For our Approaches to Play classes, we each gave walkthroughs of our games in front of each other, providing some commentary in terms of the design decisions we’d made. I found showing this work to people to be far more emotional than I’d expected; it was only when I watched the ending sequence in front of them that I realised just how much this game meant to me. This game is my childhood. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to communicate how those years felt, and how interacting with other people often feels to me, but here it was.
I couldn’t have asked for a nicer response from my peers and teacher. I’ve worked on a few games previously, but nothing that seemed to resonate with people quite like this. And I was so concerned this game wouldn’t speak to anyone — that people would just look to each other in confusion or silence until I take the game off the projector and return to my seat. I suspected the presentations of social interactions would come across too extreme for most people — a bit too cruel and visceral — but at the very least I hoped there’d be something here most people could relate to. And I hope the game’s abstraction and minimal human-readable text helps with that, urging players to read into these moving shapes and symbols on the screen, both projecting onto and reading into them (those moments when you misspeak or don’t know how to communicate your feelings, for example).
I showed this game at Goldsmiths’ ‘Push Pop Repeat’ exhibition last week, and while I knew this game certainly wouldn’t be for everyone (‘grayscale with shapes’ and confusion-as-a-desired-play-experience) I looked forward to those conversations I could have with people — people, in particular, who said this game reminded them of something (childhood experience, things they said not ‘landing’ with certain groups, the awkwardness of physical interaction). I also had one lady who said this game might have a lot to say about neurodiverse experience. If it does, that’s lovely to hear. If some of my games feature this sort of experience, I just hope they still invite people in rather than shut them out. I hope this game has something a lot of people can relate to.
I hope it means something to you too.