In order to create a meaningful gaming experience, a team has to exert an immense amount of effort. Aspects, such as the mechanics and narrative of a game, take months — or even years — to become fully realized. While I’ve certainly spent thousands of hours playing video games, I’ve spent little to no time actually creating one, which arguably takes far longer.
Luckily for me though, there are other people in this world who have such inclinations. One of these people is Maya Ziv, an engineering student at Stanford University. Under the academic umbrella of Stanford’s new video game development program, she co-created a stealth-based, science-fiction title called “Access Denied” for both the PC and Macintosh platforms.
Not only has Ziv developed virtual games but she’s also the director of technology for Event Horizon. EH is an organization that hosts live-action role-playing (LARP) campaigns.
Those unfamiliar with LARPing can infer what the activity is largely by the name itself. Instead of using pen and paper like traditional RPGs, the players take on the role of a fictional character themselves. Each player designs a costume and creates a backstory for their character within the world of the game.
Both of these games, “Access Denied” and the campaigns organized by EH, use science-fiction to help drive their narrative. Notably, Ziv is interested in the genre because she enjoys seeing how far technology can reach.
“I mean, I’ve always loved imagining what technology will be able to do because, unfortunately, in this real world we live in, magic isn’t real,” says Ziv, “but technology gets us very close to magic.”
The genre of science-fiction often has a clear moral dilemma presented to the audience through the dramatization of a certain technology.
Within “Access Denied” specifically, the commentary is put squarely upon artificial intelligence (AI). In the game, the player takes control of a small robot who must sneak their way around a spaceship and avoid humans who wish to stop them from gaining autonomy.
Because it’s part of the science-fiction genre, “Access Denied” must give the player a message and a moral as well. In fact, Ziv says “It’s interesting because we wrote ‘Access Denied’ as a poke at the traditional narrative of robot-goes-crazy and robot-takes-over because robots are inherently evil.”
That said, Ziv’s use of the word “poke” is important since the game takes a more comedic approach as to how it tackles the nature of AI. Ziv states, “By inserting the player into this position of the robot, we wanted to ask the question ‘in theory, if robots were to ever become conscious and consume all of human media, how are they going to think we feel about them?’”
Furthermore, the moral of the game’s story points out the dangerous path of fearing autonomous technology. In fact, the negative attitude that many hold against robotics is something that “Access Denied” warns the audience about.
By having the player take on the perspective of a robot, Ziv and the team behind the game hope to imbue a new perspective for those who may feel wary about giving robots a consciousness.
Event Horizon, on the other hand, uses science-fiction and advanced technology to explore social injustices in the modern world. Within the campaigns and universe that EH provides, some players fill a role called the Navigator.
These players, within the world of the game, have a symbiotic relationship with the spaceships they control. Navigators are the only players in the game’s world who can interact and use warp-speed engines. Even though Navigators play a crucial role in the game’s society, other characters treat them as second-class citizens.
Interestingly, because the in-game society scrutinizes the Navigator class, the game parallels issues of classism found in America. It’s essential for players to fill the roles of a Navigator in order to have a functioning society. However, because of their socio-economic status, the bourgeoisie looks down upon them.
Even with all these ideas and messages that Ziv presents in her work, there has to be a story that frames these ideas. Modes of narration found in film and literature are very different from those found in games.
Without a doubt, games tell stories differently from other less interactive mediums. With that in mind, Ziv mentions the important aspect of choice within a game.
“Choice is a tool for connecting to characters and ideas, and it introduces the idea of complicity,” says Ziv. “Whatever outcome comes from this world that you’ve been experimenting in, you, as the player, are complicit in that outcome.”
Ultimately, holding the audience responsible for what happens within the narrative of a game is what separates the medium from things like film and literature.
While a single player experience can offer many choices and outcomes to the player, there are other factors to consider when designing a multiplayer game, such as the campaigns put together by EH.
The organization makes a point to tell their prospective players that there’s an emphasis on finding non-combative solutions for the puzzles and problems presented in the game. Also, EH puts great emphasis on including any and all who are willing to participate, including those with physical disabilities.
Considering how difficult it is to design a game for just one person, Ziv and her colleagues must exert considerable effort in order to create their game to be as inclusive as possible. “The biggest way we combat that specifically is that we wrote our own universe…we have the final say of what is true [in the game world],” she says.
Ziv also explains that if EH used an existing property, such as “Star Wars,” then each player’s knowledge on that franchise “becomes a weapon” that they can use on others in the game.
This isn’t to say that Ziv and the other people behind EH hold a tyrannical rule over their role-playing experience. In fact, the narrative web of EH is woven by everyone involved, including the players. That said, Ziv and her colleagues painted with broad strokes when it came to creating the world of the game.
By leaving out the nitty-gritty details and giving players the necessary tools, the EH team creates a role-playing experience in which the players are directly complicit in what happens within its narrative.
Ziv’s fascinating insights into the world of game development offer a unique perspective about how games tell their stories and how players become personally involved in those stories. At the end of the day, her ingenuity and expertise in the gaming industry are sure to have an impact on role-playing and science-fiction games.
After all, her time at Stanford and her work on “Access Denied” have already been influential in the genre.
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