For more information please visit the website mononoaware.games
Mono No Aware is a long-term project that began as a Masters/Thesis project and paper at Drexel University, but has now grown into a full-fledged indie game.
The concept of the game was to represent anxiety and depression through gameplay, art, design, and narrative. To do this I looked at research on Anxiety and Depression, including talking to experts in the field, looking at papers in scientific journals, and online blogs about personal anxiety experiences. Unlike a “serious game” this project was intended to be targeted towards a more general audience of people who experience anxiety in their daily lives.
My responsibilities on this project:
- Game Design
- Prototyping (Paper and digital)
- Game Design Doc
- Playtesting / Surveys
- Finding meaning in the gameplay to help display the narrative
- Pixel Art
- Background Art
- Customizing Particle Effects
- (James Firnhaber is the artist for the Key Art – http://www.jamesfirnhaber.com/)
- Integrating Plugins
- UX and interaction
- Settings / Options
- Music and Sound Design
- Writing / Narrative
- Interactive Elements (Fake Twitter)
- Character Dialogue with branching elements
Game Design and Prototyping
Mono No Aware game went through many different iterations before its current form. With the research on hand I spent a lot of time trying to nail down the game’s purpose. This is where the idea for focusing on the main character struggling with anxiety and depression formed.
In researching games that dealt with similar themes, I found many games that used horror as an abstract way to describe someone struggling with mental illness. The initial design prototypes of Mono No Aware were also very abstract and included some of the following:
- First person game where the player is stuck in a spaceship with an unreliable narrator feeding you false information
- Mesh deforming geometry revealing secrets
- This prototype and design ended up being incredibly time consuming and I had a specific deadline to hit. Because of that I needed to simplify the design
- Mesh deforming geometry revealing secrets
- A game where you are chained to the middle of the world and must collect gems to increase your reach
- This game has a lot of elements still in the final product, however parts like the chain were very expensive for most computers to handle.
- A narrative exploration game where gems appear when narrative progresses at the top
- This is where the conversation and gameplay combined concept came into play. This is something that is also used in the final game.
As these ideas progressed it became clear that the game would have a focus on exploration and self-discovery along with a gameplay mechanic that would intertwine with the narrative to tell the story. At this point in the process however, there was no direct link between the two in the gameplay. The simultaneous narrative and gameplay in the last prototype was the closest to something unique.
In doing research on both game design techniques, specifically the concept of flow, along with research into anxiety and mental illness, I found that some of the symptoms of each overlapped. That is exactly when the gameplay began to have a purpose and the initial prototype came to be. To enact flow, the game needed to give a player easy decisions constantly. In looking at Tetris, this is done by having the blocks fall down, giving players only a few seconds to make a decision and continue. Instead of focusing on fitting blocks together, this prototype forces players to focus on quick changes of movement. Players must decide what direction they want to move, with only a second or two to decide. This created an aesthetic in the player that perfectly matched the sensation of anxiety, but in a way that wasn’t so stressful it wasn’t fun to play.
This along with the element of exploration from the previous prototypes combined to create the gameplay as it is in its current state.
To create the game I incorporated a few plugins to help speed up production using the Unity game engine. The rest of the game is all original programming.
- Koreographer – In order to help make sure the blocks were all synced perfectly I used the plugin Koreographer to help keep all actions on the beat.
- Text Animator – To increase empathy and emotion of the various characters I used Text Animator to help highlight emotion in text
- Rewired – To help make sure input worked across many devices I used Rewired to help create and map controls
- Ink – I used Inkle/Ink as backbone of the narrative. This is where I created the scripts, branching dialogue, etc
- Panel Gameplay – To give variety in each play-through each panel randomly generates a maze for the player to navigate. As the player goes through, the script checks the block the player is about to move to and decides an action from there. Using just colliders caused issues such as missed or late collisions
- Dungeon exploration – The exploration in the dungeon needed to keep players invested but also not just point the way. In order to do so we used mechanics from mobile games and reward psychology to feed players enough dopamine to keep them going. We also used this later in the game to help figure out how often shards break off of the gems. The gem manager also helps keep track of what panels have been activated and finished so that the Save system can load the game correctly.
- Enemy locations in dungeon – In the dungeon, to make it easier to build levels, all the designer needs to do to create an enemy area, is drag over a prefab and edit a polygon collider. The enemy will automatically keep track of themselves inside of the collider and randomly appear at some point inside.
- RPG – The RPG system has multiple different stats that effect how proficient you are in the various RPG enemy encounters such as Attack, Player Level, Anxiety Defense, Heal Strength, and Anxiety Lower rate. These interact with the enemy values and AI in order to make them challenging, especially when more than one appear at a time.
- The hundreds of dialogue lines have been painstakingly edited and playtested by people with and without anxiety.
- Many users who submitted surveys said the game did a good job of balancing comedic elements, fun gameplay, and talking about real world anxiety.
- Around 100 Barks were written for the RPG so that players could get hints at what to do, a better sense of June’s mentality, and positive reinforcement to the player.
- 200+ Tweets from various different fake publications help give a sense of June’s character
Papers and Conferences
This game was presented at CHIPLAY 2019 in Barcelona as part of the Student Games Competition
To see the whole thought process behind the game design, story, and how the gameplay interweaves with the narrative check out my Thesis Paper or the Presentation Slides
The game is currently still in development for release in 2021. Check out the demo and give feedback through itch.io below!