It Comes in Waves: Designing in a Pandemic about a Pandemic
This post is part 1 in a series of interviews with the developers of the game “It Comes In Waves” - a research creation game set to release in late spring 2021. The goal of these interviews is to discuss the thought and consideration that went into the game, acting as one method of archiving the process, thoughts, and decisions that go into making social impact games. This post is a collection of thoughts gathered from interviews with the Production and
Narrative Team: Courtney Blamey, Lyne Dwyer, and Michael Iantorno.
It Comes in Waves is a game about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the life of Beattie, a long term care worker, through their day to day, the game helps shed light on life for essential workers at the pandemic’s start. This post highlights the challenges and thoughts that went into designing a game about the pandemic while living the pandemic. It discusses the research process behind the game, the method in designing the game, and some of the moments that the designers resonated with or thought about during the production process.
Taking up the mantle to write a game about the pandemic while living it required the team to make considerations for properly researching and portraying its core theme and content. Trying to piece together the chaotic timeline of the pandemic’s beginning:
MI: “The first thing we did was go to journalistic sources to look for A) timelines because the pandemic, if anything, has distorted time quite a bit so it’s very difficult to keep track exactly how the early months went. I mean, just looking back on those days, we went from being in school and hearing something about the pandemic in the news every so often to, about a week later, everything being locked down. So it is very difficult to construct that timeline from personal memory. And B) none of us currently work in the types of facilities we are writing about, so we wanted to find as many first hand or second hand accounts as possible to sort of build out these experiences in a way that”
This research approach helped shape many key parts of the game. As Lyne Dwyer recalls,
LD: “We were really trying to bring in things that actually happened during the first couple of months. For us, these were events specific to Montreal, but this happened across the country. There was a lot of reviewing of news articles. So, even just naming the characters was a reflection of that literature. For example, the main character, Beattie Roberts - that first name is meant to honour a person who was a nurse that passed away during the first few weeks of the pandemic.”
Of course, the players might not make the connection, but the team wanted to reflect the research they were finding. The data collected helped form the narrative by providing insights into some of the actions and moments of the game. For Courtney Blamey:
CB: “I was responsible for coming up with the tasks and we collectively looked for testimonies from frontline workers, which there has been an abundance of since they took to social media by storm especially at the the start of the pandemic. Part of this was to replace speaking with front line workers as they were probably going through enough as it is. So we went with folks who had published their stories. We read a bunch of those, put them into beats[moments] and constructed the story from that”
While the research was one step, the team had to also consider their own self-care when researching and writing. They were living in the pandemic they were reading so much about and as Lyne discusses:
LD: “It was hard to sort of read about it and actively be looking for information about something that kind of just happened to all of us. So there was a lot of pull from real life.”
So while they could pull from some personal experiences such as shopping for groceries, the team also came up with individual and collective approaches to balance the difficulty of writing about the pandemic while living in the pandemic.
LD: “It’s not easy to go through all of that information. Whether we are drawing from ourselves or current events, in either case it is not easy to put myself back - put ourselves back in those first few weeks of pandemic. So working on a small team and the way we distributed the work was really important. For the most part there was a distributed effort across a variety of tasks. I think that was really important. We were checking in with each other, seeing if someone was having a hard time processing the news articles and maybe giving them another task to let them take a step back from that. Those check-ins were crucial. And being such a small intimate team prevented the bulk of the labour falling on the shoulders of one or two people.”
Team support for the game was just as much for mental health as it was for actually constructing the game. The online check-ins helped but they could also place structures in the game to manage personal wellbeing. This was meant to balance some of the challenging situations that might come up:
MI: “There’s a part of the game where you are in line for the pharmacy and someone is not wearing a mask. You have to gauge how important you feel it is to tell that person to wear a mask and that they should be socially distancing and gauge what sort of trauma this might inflict on you, either directly or indirectly. So you have to figure out how to manage your wellbeing in a lot of different ways”
The pharmacy example is meant to resonate with players and show the weight of the simple choices in the pandemic. It is meant to make players feel slightly uncomfortable with either decision they take. While this moment is reflected in other instances of the game, the team made it clear that this was not their goal. From the start:
LD: “We didn’t want to make some kind of “doom clicker”. We don’t want people to come away from this game feeling worse. So there were some steps we took to actively inject something nicer into this. Some warm feelings. Because it is not only doom for us sitting at home here, either. We have to have things to cling to, things to look forward to. So we talked as a group about how we could focus not necessarily on a game about Beattie that is all about preserving Beattie’s health, but make it about support networks and about a community. To show what happens as individual members of this community come together.”
This meant that the team thought about making narrative moments that would reflect this network but also provide solace for the players. In some cases, designing these moments provided a nice reprieve for both designer and player. When asked to reflect on this Courtney highlighted:
CB: “The interaction between Alex (FIGURE 1), who is one of the workers at the care facility who runs the tuck shop. That interaction I really liked because it was like an oasis moment. Because the whole thing is that Beattie clearly has a crush on this person and is trying to be cool about it. And that doesn’t go away because there is a pandemic. There are still emotions and feelings there. I liked writing that stuff because it is sweet. It kinda helped alleviate some of the darker, or sadder storyline. And that is a really big part about this, we did not want it to be a trauma simulator, we wanted it to be real to the truth but not miserable to play.”
However, one of the most salient efforts in the game was the existence of Beattie’s pet cat named Yogi (Figure 2). As Courtney describes:
CB: “Writing Yogi has been really fun and I think that it is part of alleviating that doom and gloom. Because Yogi has no idea that there is a pandemic going on, it is just ‘why haven’t you fed me yet’ and ‘please give me pets’ and I think that has been a really lovely solace from everything else going on. Whether it be when Beattie wakes up or comes home they are there.”
Continuing this, Lyne also discussed the value of Yogi for both players and designers:
LD: “We actually start the game with Yogi and having him at the beginning is great. You wake up and the first thing you meet is this lovely little tri-coloured cat who is hungry and wants you to get up right now. I think that opening the game that way is always a reminder that you have this source of joy in your home and life and Beattie is not by themself and you are not by yourself. [Additionally] I think Yogi is kind of a fun way for all of us to have an emotional support animal throughout the game creation process. Because he is a little bit of all of our cats and all of our dogs, and everyone’s pets have been funneled into him a little bit”
Whether it be cats, team meetings, or moments that spark a smile, the team has actively been combatting the challenges of designing a pandemic game. Thinking through their own support structures prompted space for the game to have moments of reprieve for the players as well. As Lyne said, “it is not a doom clicker”, and the team has taken steps to highlight some of the positives that remain. Yogi and little crushes are minor examples of the thought that designers have for the reception of their game. This project prompted thought about the team’s workflow during a pandemic as well as the play experience of the audience when they encounter it. Tough choices are balanced by moments of solace, something that addresses the mood of the game. Only the designers can discuss the emotional value of Yogi and moments of joy which they hope players will be able to share with them as well.