A video game reflecting on the spread of fear and discrimination.
Researcher, narrative creator, concept artist, animator, illustrator
For my college capstone I partnered with Peter Mach, Kevin Oh, and Kaitlyn Haygood to create a video game demo titled 7 Horns. I am honored to say that 7 Horns was awarded a commendation for it's message, medium, and execution.
In a few months we were able to create a playable demo, but 7 Horns is still being refined into what will be a fuller gaming experience. I am excited to share the full game with everyone upon completion. Below I will discuss the process of creating 7 Horns, so if you would prefer not to have spoilers I would encourage you to play the demo beforehand.
Due to the pandemic, there was a rise in racism and hate against the Asian community. It was these events that inspired us to bring to light the spread of fear and how it is related to discrimination. As the quarter progressed, our team saw how 7 Horns touched beyond the original intended message and applied to 2020’s current political and social movements.
Okay, But Why Make a Game?
Whether they were habitual players or completely new to the gaming scene, quarantine brought many people to enjoy and bond through video games. This inspired the medium to deliver the story we were compelled to share. Additionally, with video games being interactive by nature, our research supported that they were a great way to create empathy and spark reflection within the player. Fortunately, we already had a cushion of research on the matter from my previous project Press Start.
Additionally, there is a huge reservoir of already existing games we could pull for inspiration. These games included Papers, Please, Night in the Woods, Undertale, Faith, Hollow Knight, Presentable Liberty, Sentient, Silent Hill P.T.,and He Keeps Me Here.
Research During a Global Pandemic
In order to make sure we were telling the right story, we wanted to make sure we had a strong foundation in data. Secondary research was easily accessible, but we wanted to tell stories of real people. That required some creativity during a time of social distancing. We released a questionnaire on various platforms and which ended with a request of a follow up interview. Additionally, we observed people through social media in order to take the temperature of the social climate.
Scholarly articles, papers, research reports, news sites, and social media
20 questions about fear and discrimination for participants to fill out online
Conducted full interviews as follow up sessions to survey participants
The results of this process provided us with this guiding insights:
1. Fear can kind dangerous responses leading people to lash out.
"Those misplaced reactions can lead to the stigmatization of people and shunning daily activities, ushering in a new set of problems on top of a current crisis.” – Lu
2. Fear is contagious.
“I'm very freaked out about what’s happening and a big reason for that is because my dad is a very fearful person... he's like stocked up for the next six months. You know, one person fears on thing and then everybody follows suit” – Participant
3. If a problem is far removed from a person they are less likely to care.
“It seemed like one of those things that wasn't going to affect me. When the impact of the virus became personal, I felt unprepared.” – Participant
4. Media's instantaneous, global, and unreliable nature accelerates spread of fear.
“Due to the global reach and instantaneous nature of modern media, fear contagion spreads faster than the dangerous yet invisible virus. Watching or hearing someone else who’s scared causes you to be frightened, too, without necessarily even knowing what caused the other person’s fear” – Debiec
Weaving a Narrative
Once we gathered data we had to begin creating our story. Our goal was to have a reflection of the current times and struggles, but abstract just enough to create an unexpected and more widely applicable experience. Much like reading a novel, players learn and adapt to gaming worlds through information they are given– anything is possible. Keeping this in mind, we utilized our power as narrators to our advantage when it came to providing the information.
7 Horns follows the player over a 7 day period of living in lockdown. Relying on the radio to inform them of the outside world, the player hears various news broadcasts that may later alter their perception of their loved ones and reality.
The way we chose to portray this story was through 4 major actants.
It may seem obvious, but our first major actant is the player character themself. Using them as a catalyst to explore and reflect on the world within the game is key to telling 7 Horns narrative. The player character's role is as follows: while living inside during lockdown, they must gather information via outside sources and reflect on portraits inside their home. Serving as the blank canvas of the game, their world view shifts depending on perceived information.
Mirroring today's modern media, the Radio serves as the player's main source of information of the outside world. Charismatic, eccentric, and full of exaggeration; we wanted to treat this actant as a character itself rather than just an object. Full of personality, the radio delivers unfortunate news with a tone that shifts as the days pass. Everyone needs a companion when living in lockdown, and the Radio is here to serve.
Portraits on the player's wall display faces of loved ones and serve as a visual representation of the player's perception. They serve as an intractable component that allows the player to explore the story of 7 Horns. As information is revealed to the player these portraits evolve into grim renditions of who they once represented.
Once the player character has finished exploring for the day, they record their thoughts in their trusty journal. The player may choose between written prompts that focus on different aspects of the day's events and are then given a corresponding visual entry drawn by the player character themself.
7 Horns addresses sensitive topics, so we wanted to ensure that we abstracted enough to make sure that we were telling a story without bordering offensive territory. Because of this we knew that representing people through color was not an option. Additionally, we wanted to make sure we didn't lean too heavily into the animal territory, such as Zootopia, because we didn't want the inherent fear between groups to be based in fact (such as wolves actually actually being predators to sheep).
One thing we knew for sure was that we believed that big stories could be told with simple graphics. And, since we had never made a game before this principal leaned in our favor. As the illustrator of the group, this led me to exploring various visual paths.
Focused on abstraction of figures, this style did well with our test audience. While the figures were successful in being unique and lacking connection to real world objects, they struggled in building empathy.
Here I attempted to create designs that were based on animals. But to avoid my previous concerns I made each character assembled of various animal parts rather than having them represent a specific species. This was style was able to elicit a lot of empathy, but did not have the unique staying power of the mask style.
Inspired a bit from Sanrio, this style was mainly an exercise in using cute things for eerie purposes. It went over extremely well with our audiences, but still had the same concerns as the animalish style.
Overwhelmed with positive feedback from the previous styles was fantastic, and ultimately audiences requested we combine them. We kept the form of the masks, but added in more familiar animal features and expressive faces for building empathy. We kept the lineless quality for its clean look and simplicity, but with the addition of small gradients in portraits and the environment. This addition of small colors on top of the generally binary style allowed for us to make more thoughtful transitions from the 1st to 7th day.
Overall I am very proud of what we accomplished as a team, and I'm even more proud of what we are representing. During these stressful times I want to do my part in providing a voice to the discriminated instead of sitting idly by.
So What's Next?
So many exciting things are in store for 7 Horns. This includes revisiting animation and character designs, expanded game play, soundtrack, updated visuals and fonts, detailed endings, new mechanics, and moving the game to an entirely new engine. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy the demo.