Gnosia (March 2021)

This month I did not play very many games! I finished playing Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (GC), which I had been streaming with friends a couple times a week, but after the credits rolled I decided to take a break before continuing onto the sequel. This left me without a new major project for March, but it gave me plenty of time to dive back into a pair of hobby projects I have been casually chipping away at for years. One is a stealth action game based on classic swashbuckling thieves of the silver screen, and the other is a mystery game adapting some dynamics of Werewolf and Mafia into a single-player narrative form. It has been very satisfying to reinvest my free time into my own imagination, and even though there is a likely chance that neither will leave my own computer, they have reminded me of how much I love the process of making games. 

One thing I played did collide with my side project in a way I find thought provoking: Gnosia (Switch) is a visual novel that shares an almost identical pitch to my mystery game. I was eager to try it out as soon as it was released to see what I could learn from it, so how about I share what I learned here?

First, a brief description of this very strange game. In Gnosia, you wake up from cryosleep to discover that an alien parasite has infected a crew member, and the ship’s computer protocol requires the crew to vote for a suspect to be resuspended. Should the crew vote incorrectly, the Gnosia infected member will murder someone. As a player you can cast suspicion or defend others before everyone casts their votes. Whether you succeed or fail to catch the imposter each round, the game restarts anew with an expanded cast and new wrinkles, such as additional roles. Eventually, the player has a chance to play as the Gnosia and try to commit murders without being suspected by the non-player characters.

These mechanics should sound familiar to anyone who has played the popular party games Werewolf, Mafia, or its digital sister Among Us. These games are typically defined by their intricate group dynamics, which make the simple rules come alive with personal insight and stakes. Why, then, would anyone want to play a single-player version of this system?

Gnosia’s answer to this question is in its characters. Freed from the confines and baggage of reality, Gnosia stuffs its cast with absurd, colorful crew members with interesting personalities. I enjoy playing the game because it is FUNNY. There is an old school grey alien who appears early on, and who insists he is not the alien. Should you believe him? Mechanically, there is no more reason for him to be Gnosia than anyone else, but everyone insists he is human when he looks like the most stereotypical alien possible! This is the type of farcical drama that is only possible in a videogame.

However, my interest and enthusiasm for the game waned after a few hours. I still highly recommend it, but before too long the stakes dissolve. The evolution of the game’s cast and the introduction of new mechanics seem to come after each game resets, regardless of whether you “won” or not. There are vague currency points gained at the end of each game, which can be spent on RPG stats that invisibly affect your ability to persuade the other crew members to vote one way or another, but the system is so opaque that there is no clear reason to invest in one over another. It feels as if the entire game could be scripted to play out events like a visual novel where the choices made don’t actually affect any system behind the curtain.

This is the strength and failure of Gnosia. It is able to script interesting, even hilarious scenes, but unfortunately, even before I saw them through to their end they lost my engagement. This happens because the memories and continuity of the narrative reset after every game (at least at the point I put down the game), so there is no draw to see what long term conflict can be resolved. In “Rules of Play,” a seminal guide for designing games, Salen and Zimmerman propose a model for understanding player engagement. They posit that when players have a desire to see an outcome matched by a respect for the process to get there, they participate happily. If a player wants to win, but doesn’t respect the process, they become cheaters, and when they lose respect for the win, they become quitters. I felt myself slipping through those steps; first I felt like cheating and reading a spoiler synopsis, then I lost even the will to do that, and quit the game.

As for the mystery game I am working on, which initially I suspected could be very similar to Gnosia, I am pleased to discover that we could not be more different in interpretation of the same source materials. My own project is focused on corroborating alibis to deduce the truth from a procedurally generated web of lies — a mechanical process I yearned for in Gnosia. For better or worse, my work is much less concerned with the squishy drama of how people persuade each other to vote. I think persuading real life friends will always be more interesting than the illusion of persuading a computer, but Gnosia makes a very entertaining effort. Most importantly, it does what I cannot — which is write fun characters. Gnosia may have lost my long term engagement due to unclear mechanical stakes, but without those charismatic characters there is no drive to even start engaging. For that reason alone, Gnosia exists and is cool — while my systems may stay on a spreadsheet, the other half of an incomplete whole, until the day I am able to level up. Thank you for the inspiration and the challenge, Gnosia!

Other stuff I checked out this month:

  • Mother 3 (GBA)
    • Revisiting it with a new appreciation for the brilliant small systems that add real-time action to this turn-based RPG.
  • Wario Ware Gold (3DS)
    • One of the central conflicts to this game is solved with a bidet, which more games should do.
  • Cristales Demo (Switch)
    • This demo is so freaking cool and beautiful. I hope they can maintain the time travel high concept across the full game, the potential scope of it scares me as a developer!
  • Speed (Movie)
    • This movie has exceptional game design, and also my local train station.

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