Monday, October 17, 2016

Five or So Questions with Marc Hobbs on Eden

Today I have an interview with Marc Hobbs on his current project, Eden, which is on Kickstarter! It sounds like a lovely game to explore a story of growth, and I hope you'll enjoy what Marc has to say.
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Tell me a little about your project. What excites you about it?

Eden is a story game for 3-5 players about learning of good and evil from talking animals. During play, we first choose the animals we want to encounter during the game, and then create a unique map of our version of Eden. Next, players take on the roles of the second generation of humans after Adam and Eve. Each human character is special, because they have learned a skill and a lesson from their favorite animal, both of which inform how that character behaves. Player characters also have deep connections to each other--your character has helped the character on your left and harmed the character on your right, creating a really tight, interesting bond in both directions.

I'm excited about this game because it does two things really well, both of which are super fun: first, playing as an animal is just a blast. It's fascinating to watch complete strangers, without any guidance or coaching, act in perfect unison when playing a herd of horses, or a pod of whales, or a murder of crows. People just seem to naturally know what certain animals would say if they could talk. Second, the game traces the moral growth of an innocent person in a way I find really compelling. Player characters basically have two choices as they learn and grow (though these are never explicitly stated; rather, they are implicit within the structure of the game): the character can become more and more similar to their favorite animal, like a beast, or they can embrace their humanity and develop a nuanced moral code, like a person. Every possible blend of these two roads can occur in the game, and I've seen so many interesting twists in all the sessions I've played. So those are two things I really like about Eden.


What inspired you to create Eden?

Back in 2011, I played a story game called The Quiet Year with some close friends. The game takes place in a small post-collapse society, but the specifics are up to the players. We decided that we wanted to explore a Biblical paradise, so we set the game in post-Fall Eden. What resulted was a fascinating exploration of the morality and idiosyncrasies of the creation story. I decided after that to start working on a game that would touch on those kinds of topics. I was still pretty new to story games at the time, so the project went through quite a few iterations before it reached its current state, but overall, the inspiration came from just one session of another story game!


Why did you choose to have animals be the ones to teach the humans, instead of angels or other creatures?

This is a really great question! There are a number of reasons. First of all, I wanted the game to be about earthly life: animals and humans only. This is because when players take on the role of celestial beings like angels, there's a tendency to get bogged down in understanding their behavior and culture. What do angels act like? What do they care about? The game isn't about these questions, so having players get distracted by them is detrimental. Keeping the focus on animals and humans makes sure that everyone is directed toward what matters and what will create fun gameplay.

Secondly, I realized (albeit after many versions of the game that included the Devil in the form of The Serpent) that having supernatural beings in the game changed the dynamic of power dramatically. Angels and demons have nothing to lose in their interactions with humans, and are never in any true danger. They are so far beyond the humans that playing scenes with supernatural characters becomes one-sided; it creates a situation where you play a character who can remove themselves from the action with no consequences, and that can lead to boring or un-fun stories. I think there's a lot of potential for supernatural beings in another game, but not in Eden.

Thirdly, supernatural beings have access to knowledge about good and evil that animals do not, and they have motives the animals lack. An angel already has an agenda: it wants the humans to be good. It also possesses perfect knowledge of what "good" is, and that's a boring story if an angel just tells the humans what to do. Similarly (and this is part of why I took it out), The Serpent wants the humans to do evil; while it was fun to tempt the humans, it created an imbalance because the humans had no guide for how to be good. The animals, conversely, have no agenda; they care about what animals care about, and aren't capable of acting rightly or wrongly. So it falls to the humans (and therefore the players) to interpret the animals' advice and decide how to act--that's the story I want players to tell, and the one that's (I've found to be) the most fun.

Fourth and finally, the animals are much easier (especially for those unfamiliar with role-playing) to play, because you instinctively know how to act like animals. What does a wolf care about? You hardly need to think to start talking about loyalty and the pack and so on. We anthropomorphize and personify animals constantly, and those beliefs / biases / stereotypes come right into the game effortlessly. This makes role-play fun and easy, and provides juicy material for humans to egregiously misinterpret animal behavior or motives.


Has faith played any role in your development of Eden?

I am an atheist, but I used to be a very devout Catholic. I think that transition from religious to non-religious is paralleled in the game somewhat; you have human characters who, in the Bible story, are unaware of good and evil until they break God's rules and eat the Forbidden Fruit. Suddenly they understand good and evil--no one has to teach them. In the game Eden, there is no instantaneous gaining of that knowledge. I suppose I was asking the question, "What if we had to learn good and evil from nature, instead of from a deity or holy book?" Or to put it another way, "If we exist as animals with a feeling of 'moral', what complex social and mental structures do we build to support that sense, and how does that make us different from all the other animals of the world?" It's creation vs. evolution, in a way!


You said this represents the moral growth of an innocent person. Could you talk a little about the moral choices a character might make in the game?
Your character's behavior is based on lessons they've learned from watching and talking to their favorite animal. These lessons constitute your character's moral code--what they see as right and wrong. When confronted with a new situation that falls outside their lessons, you must decide how your character would react to that scenario. This is the basis of scenes during the game. The moral choices characters face are the same kinds of choices we face every day, but stripped of all the complexities of modern life. "Should I cause harm in order to get what I want?" for example, or "How should I treat someone who has hurt me?" Eden is essentially a game about going from a black and white worldview to one with shades of gray.

To give a specific example from a game I played, let's say another human comes upon your prized collection of seashells, and decides to smash them up and put them in her hair. How does your character choose to react? You could try to get revenge, ignore the problem, forgive them, or (as happened in the game) make hurtful comments about her to the other humans, trying to poison them against her. The choice the character made was to avoid direct confrontation, and that was partially influenced by the character's favorite animal--hermit crab, who taught that character to hide from danger (and to always keep track of your shell). Had the character taken some other animal as their favorite, the choice might've been very different.


How did you design the progression of the game with the lessons and rounds? Can you describe this part of the mechanics?

Eden has been in development for about five years. In that time it has gone through extensive changes; the very first version of the game would be barely recognizable to someone playing the current iteration. That said, it took most of those five years to figure out how to make the game consistently fun and interesting. Part of what makes that happen is simplicity, which is deceptively tricky to create. The current way of playing the game resulted from stripping away more complicated mechanics, slowly but surely. Just before the game reached its current (and more or less final) state, I realized that there is a simple progression of play that makes the most sense and is the most fun: learn from animals, try that lesson with humans, revise the lesson, try again or go learn something else, repeat.

My wife is a very talented designer (she made Downfall), but both of us have learned most of what we know about design from our friend Ben Robbins (creator of Microscope and Kingdom). A core part of Ben's design philosophy is to set up some maxims for the game you're making, and then try to orient everything in the game toward those maxims. It is so, so easy to go down a rabbit hole of design--you think of a cool new mechanic, or you try to fix a problem by using a more complex solution, or what have you, and the next thing you know, the game has drifted from what you intended it to be. Having maxims allows you to always aim your design toward what you want the game to be about; it gives you a bullseye to shoot for. With Eden, my maxims were "Talk to animals", "Learn about good and evil", and "Loss of innocence". After five years, I think the game has finally gotten to a point where I'm doing all of those things, and nothing else--which is exactly where I wanted to be.

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Thank you so much to Marc for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading, and that you'll give the Eden Kickstarter a look. It sounds like a lot of fun!

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