Speculative Play: Deep Time and the Onkalo RPG

adventures in gaming, game jams, research


After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.

Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.

I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.

The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.

Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.

(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).

Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.

For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.

Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).


As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.

The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?

As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.

After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.

Crossposted here and here.

Two Weeks, Two Jams: Global Game Jam 2016 and Take Care Jam

critical making, game jams

I’ve been meaning to write for some time now about Global Game Jam 2016 and the Take Care Jam, two jams that took place one weekend after the other (which is why I guess why I haven’t managed to write about them yet, what with the jams and the work I had to catch up on afterwards). I thought that GGJ would be an exhausting all-nighter pulling event (because it usually is) and that I would then decompress at the low-key, care-focused Take Care Jam, but that turned out not to be the case.

I arrived at Global Game Jam on Friday in time to engineer our now-traditional Game Jam Blanket Fort (ever since Pixelles Montreal ran TeaCade, we are in love with comfy time-out spots at our community events – GAMERella had a pretty excellent one, TAG’s GGJ16 location had one, and so would the Take Care Jam, as it turns out). During GAMERella, my goal is to work with a new jammer and help them have a positive first jam experience. Global Game Jam is my more selfish jam – I like to work with people that I already know and trust.

So! There were plenty of people that I knew at the jam, but it seemed like many of them were about to agglomerate into one large group. At a jam, my preference is to work in a team of three or less – maximum four. I find that it’s easier to stay within a manageable scope and to quickly find mutual game making interests. So, after some quick decision-making, I ended up working with Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer for the jam.

THE GAME: “Most Sincere Greetings, Esteemed One”

[You can also read Squinky’s introductory writeup about the game here.]

We scoped with a laser-focus (see what I did there?) – having a two-person team meant choosing our priorities very carefully. Exploring the jam’s theme (“Ritual”) through some quick brainstorming maps and settled on exploring the awkwardness of greetings. We chose to use as much theatricality and physicality in the game as we could, and so we hit on a game where players would be instructed to perform different greetings with one another. We made an aluminum-foil gong as a button using a Makey-Makey and had players wear the Muse headset to help set our stage. Combined with Squinky’s JavaScript/JSON/web dev skills and the Tracery library (link) to create procedurally-generated instructions, how could we miss?

By the end of the first night (we closed up shop at around midnight, having started to jam in earnest around, let’s say…6:30PM?), we basically had a working version of our game…From there, we just kept adding, polishing and giggling to ourselves about all the excellent procedurally-generated content that we were building, and doing our best to put our best foot forward on all of the items that it was possible for us to share on our game’s global game jam page: a gameplay video, a dashing team portrait, a github repository of our code, screenshots from the game, etc.



The great thing about this jam is that I went home to sleep both nights and didn’t feel any time pressure. I really enjoyed working with Squinky – we share similar senses of humour and they are a great jam partner. They’ve also got mad skills – both for making games and cookies! Our game even won an award for our prop-use.

The Take Care Jam, hosted by the Atwater Library in the context of Shanly Dixon’s Cyberviolence Against Women research, and planned and run by Stephanie Fisher and Kara Stone, is proof (much like my experience with Squinky at GGJ) that you don’t have to do a long crunch-filled jam for people to end up with interesting prototypes and ideas by the end. The weekend was filled with food breaks, multiple yoga sessions, and people just chatting and spending time with one another. We still made great things.

My team, which consisted of Nicole Pacampara and Amanda Tom (two people I was very happy to get the chance to finally work on a project with) along with honorary teammate Squinky (who fixed everything for us at the end with their mad skills and who I have already had the pleasure of working with) worked on a project about taking care of ourselves and of other people. The basic idea is that with a password-protected google form (you can see it here but I won’t tell you the password — you can ask for it if you like though – we just didn’t want people to add mean things) that creates a google spreadsheet. Using the spreadsheet as our database, we pull a random entry and display it on the Take Care Teller, which is like a fortune teller except it gives you an encouraging message or advice.

Here’s the current prototype of the Take Care Teller, hosted on Nicole’s site.

As you may have read by now, I’m learning Processing, and the amazing thing about this jam for me was realizing the literacy that learning Processing is giving me in other coding languages, too, just because there are lots of things that carry over. So, I was able to read most of our code that weekend (although I couldn’t have written it — that’ll come later, I hope).

At the end of the jam, after presenting our work to each other, we planted seeds from the Atwater Seed library (Guybrush the cat has knocked mine over already, but I will replant once he’s gone to his forever-home with Squinky — which will be soon!).

So, more on Processing soon…I’ve learned to do weird video googly-doos and plan to finish the book in the next two weeks!



Apple Rumble Available Online!

adventures in gaming, game jams

Hi all,

I’ve been very busy over at Tweed Couch Games with Allison and Zach (we have some sweet dev blogging going on over there), but I wanted to take a moment to remember this game.

So, I never did put this game up online, mostly because it was just a ridiculous bit of fun that I had thrown together on my own during a jam…But then I realized that this year’s pre-jam was coming up, and that the THIRD COHORT (wow, I can’t even believe that the Pixelles Incubator is in its third year!) of the Pixelles are having their showcase this week, so I decided to put up Apple Rumble on itch.io.

You can totally play it now!