Friday, April 3, 2009

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, or All the World’s a Game

Man those girls are dangerous! In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the melancholy Jacque declares, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.”  This is one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines – ranging from prog-rock band Rush to World of Warcraft strategy sites.  To eloquently equate life with the stage is an impressive feat, but there’s an extra layer of meaning when done in the context of a play.  An actor, playing a character, speaks of how all the people around him are actors, playing characters.  The audience leaves the playhouse reconciling this with the world around them: seeing exits and entrances, bit players and marquee names.  Herein lies the potential upside of referencing your medium.

In previous pieces (usually when writing about Jason Rohrer), I’ve addressed the following paradox: to be more than mere “games,” games should acknowledge that they are, in fact, games.  If you want games to be art because they have great plots, go read some literature or watch a movie.   If you want games to be art because they look pretty, go stare at paintings in the MoMA or leaf through TIME’s “This Week in Pictures.”  Games best express ideas through gameplay, allowing all tertiary aspects of design to blossom from the organizing principle of how a player interacts with the game.

For a prime example, look no further than Mousechief’s Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. 

For starters, every aspect of DHSGiT’s visual design suggest a vintage board game, complete with a faded color palette and Monopoly-like figurines.  These tarnished silver game pieces represent various encounters your girls can participate in, from nasty school secretaries to suspicious maintenance men.  A dialogue tree (whose length is one of my only qualms with the game) plays out with cards seemingly drawn from the Community Chest deck: each one appearing with the word “Parley” and then flipping over as the conversation progresses.  The title screen even resembles the lid of a cardboard game box.

While DHSGiT  possesses RPG elements, lacking are longstanding conventions like hit points or levels.  Each character possesses four stats – glamour, rebellion, savvy and popularity – represented by one of the four card suits, further reinforcing the “game” aspect of the design.  These stats directly affect how each girl fares against her opponents.  For example, the rebellion attribute makes a girl better at exposing others’ secrets.  Keeping characters simple does two things: maintains the casual vibe necessary for a world-as-board game motif and allows for clear definition of roles in your party.  One girl may be great at bluffing, but I wouldn’t dare trust her to flirt her way out of a jam.

This stripped down statistical approach is but one of the ways DHSGiT strays from the beaten path of the RPG.  Instead of traditional combat, the girls engage in taunting, flirting, fibbing, and exposing.  As mentioned above, each directly involves one of the four attributes, and each receives its own minigame.  Aptly, the fibbing game resembles poker and the taunting game is a duel of insults and retorts.  The taunting game works particularly well, as you only learn new insults and retorts by having them used against you.  Instead of artificially granting your girls new abilities, they acquire them wholesale from other characters in the game.

Here we see the gameplay mirror the design aesthetic.  Life, for these girls, is a series of games.  Want to convince the truant officer that you should be able to break curfew?  Play the poker minigame and lie your way into a night on the town.  Is the Bully Girl getting in your way?  Trade verbal blows with her until she backs down.  The game adds a new wrinkle only a short while in by introducing the fifth game: Gambit.  Initially referred to as “the game the adults play,” Gambit is a surprisingly deep take on rock-paper-scissors - with some sexual connotations.  Is it always played in a sexual situation?  No.  But the moment your girls learn something only adults should know, there’s a shift in power.  A maturity growth spurt envied by your peers.  If this isn’t true to life, I don’t know what is.

And there’s the rub.  DHSGiT presents a virtual world aware of its virtual nature, and yet, it touches on truth.  Truths about gender inequality, about the potential cutthroat nature of schoolgirls, and about conflict resolution and one-upsmanship.  The specifics of the world – the period, the characters, the plot – support the gameplay in crafting a particular world view.  Simply, that all the world’s a game and all its people active players.