I recently stumbled across the blog Alice and Kev (1), and it’s quite the experience. The author, Robin Burkinshaw, performed an experiment with The Sims 3 where he created a two homeless characters, a father and daughter, with some interesting character traits and followed them throughout their virtual lives. He blogged the results and created a deep and engrossing story along the way. I strongly recommend reading all of it before reading the rest of this post, as it does contain spoilers. You have been warned.
It becomes apparent quite quickly that this is a serious piece. While there is comedy, to be sure, the drama surrounding Alice and the people she interacts with takes center stage. Her story is tragic, uplifting, and poignant. It’s the story of a girl who got the short end of the stick of life and tries to make the best of it.
We first meet Alice as a young girl, clutching her teddy bear in the park where she and her angry and emotionally abusive father live. She has a hard life, living off of free food at school, and whatever she can scrounge up. She never get’s a good night’s sleep and is always exhausted. Everyone she meets looks down on her with disdain. Her father, Kev, is mean to everyone he runs into and takes pleasure in other people’s misery, including Alice. Her only friend in life is her teddy bear.
As time goes by, Alice grows older, but her condition in life stays the same. She wants to succeed at school, and certainly tries, but life has other plans for her. Various people enter and leave Alice’s life, but never someone who truly cares about her. In one especially memorable moment, she goes back to the playground she frequented as a kid, and breaks down in tears.
Despite everything that has happened to her, she wants to be a good person. At one point, she gets a part time job working at a supermarket. In a surprising move, the first thing she does with her new found money is to donate some of it to charity. This display of utter selflessness is truly amazing, and what is especially surprising is that Alice made this decision without the player’s input.
Much of her life is dedicated to feigning off hunger and exhaustion and avoiding her abusive father. She sleeps wherever she can for as long as she can, which is usually way too short. A few people are nice to her, allowing her to sleep on their couches or beds for a while. This niceness rarely lasts, but even just a token gesture of niceness is enough to raise her spirits. One day she gets a promotion at work, and she becomes ecstatic! Never before has something unambiguously good happened to her, and it made me intensely happy to see her so happy.
One day, Kev finally opens up to Alice. They have a real talk for what is perhaps the first time. They talk about their lives and each other. Alice feels for him, but still can’t bring herself to forgive him. Nonetheless she stays by his side for the rest of the night. The next morning, Kev has passed away. Even though she hated him, he was the only family she had and now she has no one left.
The story ends with her contemplating the loss of her father, but the beginning of her adult life. She is finally starting to succeed. She is no longer the helpless little girl she once was, and, although her life is still hard, there is hope.
What really strikes me about this story is that it was created using a simulation game, The Sims 3. This is a game that is unscripted, and contains no real dialogue. Players have some control over the characters in the game, but it’s not direct control like in most games. Sometimes the characters just do what they want to do. It leads to an interesting situation where the player is both the artist and the audience. Robin was creating the story as he was experiencing it. In an interview with GameSetWatch (2), he talks about this phenomenon:
“I was trying to help and guide them, but I also wanted to see the effect of the personality traits I chose for them. So if they started to do something on their own, I would let them finish, even if I was about to command them to do something else. Sometimes I would guide them towards a situation, then let them take care of the details. Other times, they would set something in motion, then I would start giving commands to carry things on along the same lines.”
I think that this dual role of creator/observer is something that is, for the most part, unique to video games. While yes, there is some modern art pieces that rely on audience involvement, it’s pretty niche and just not quite the same. The interactive nature of gaming engages the player in ways that other art forms simply cannot do. This is what gives them their immediacy, and are why stories and concepts that would be simplistic or dull in other mediums, such as film, are so engaging in games. This topic was recently covered by the video blog Extra Credits at The Escapist (3), and I highly recommend watching it. Gaming has just recently started exploring more serious issues, and the “drama” genre is very nascent. A game that has the subtly and complexity of some of the great films could be a truly ground-breaking experience, and it’s something that I think will happen within our lifetimes. I, for one, can’t wait.
(1) Burkinshaw, Robin. “Alice and Kev.” 2009. Available: http://aliceandkev.wordpress.com/
(2) Denby, Lewis and Robin Burkinshaw. “Column: ‘The Magic Resolution’: Hope Through Homelessness.” GameSetWatch. 24th October, 2011. Available: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2009/10/column_the_magic_resolution_ho.php
(3) Portnow, James, Daniel Floyd, and Allison Theus. “The Role of the Player.” The Escapist. 16th June, 2011. Available: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/3555-The-Role-of-the-Player