Splash Jam (part 2)

101 jammers, one cruise ship and 1,043 miles of Norwegian coastline – this is part 2 of my Splash Jam recap, recalling a long weekend aboard Hurtigruten’s M/S Finnmarken, travelling from Tromsø to Trondheim. Part 1, recounting the jam itself, can be found here; this post focuses instead upon the game we made, entitled Ardo.

Hello Stranger

  • Game design & UI assets: Gemma Thomson (UK)
  • Programming: Skully Brookes (UK)
  • Art: Rikke Jansen (NO)
  • Sounds: Bendik Høydahl (NO)
  • Music: Almut Schwache (DE)
  • Demo download available at Itch.io

Ardo began life during the ideation process at Splash Jam’s kick-off event in Tromsø. Although I almost always start game jams with a fresh idea – generated organically within whichever group I join – the jam’s theme of ‘beginnings’ was the perfect match for an idea I’ve been musing on since shortly after I moved to Sweden. My pitch to artist Rikke and coder Skully involved two key elements:

  • engage with a new and foreign culture by learning their language and mannerisms;
  • manage your social/cultural anxiety, which fluctuates based on how well you engage with others.

From the beginning we realised it would be an ambitious project, and we sought to abstract the idea reasonably heavily.

Firstly we scaled down from having a contemporary, human level of glyphs (i.e. an alphabet of 16 or more characters) to focus on a game controller. The game would focus upon the four Playstation face buttons, modified by using the left and right bumper buttons in order to form diacritics (i.e. extended or shortened vowels), as illustrated below.

Ardo (glyphs)
The player can hold the left and right bumper buttons in order to add diacritics to the face button glyphs, represented by a solid line above or below each glyph

The right analogue stick was also chosen to provide a gesture input. Should a villager perform a customary greeting with arms raised in a  given direction, the player would have to respond in kind so as not to cause offence. Unfortunately this feature was dropped due to Splash Jam’s uniquely nauseating night-time environment: the open, choppy sea.

The game’s interface also took a hit insofar as the original concept involved having a top-down, isometrically-drawn representation of a town or village. The player would negotiate this small settlement with its alien-looking architecture in order to make journeys to and from the familiar enclosure of their apartment. The idea was to encapsulate the way buildings tend to vary wildly from one culture to another, and also to draw visual cues between the shape of a building and its purpose, reflected in the hats worn by townspeople. This architectural variety was in enough evidence around the towns at which Splash Jam called, constructed as they were from different materials and in a different style than shops on British or Swedish high street:

What the game does manage to present is a small vertical slice of the intended language input. Using the aforementioned button presses and glyphs in combination with audio and visual feedback, we presented a couple of quick scenarios in which the player would have to try and interpret what is happening, and react in a manner which wouldn’t cause a fatal dip in their social confidence (a state which would be resolved by returning home for the day).

The work of creating these scenarios came in a few stages:

  1. Assign each face button a glyph, and create a sort of dictionary in which one or more glyphs describes a word or idea.
  2. Construct social scenarios around these words and ideas in which each sentence is given as much context as is possible. For example, the first phrase the player encounters is a greeting like “hello”, and the NPC waits, expecting a greeting in return.
  3. Slowly attempt to escalate the presentation of each word and idea, but also ensure that they can be broken down so that, in later social encounters, the player might identify parts of the sentence they do understand in order to arrive at the general gist.
  4. Create a phoneme for each glyph, allowing syllables to be chained into distinct words and sentences. This was undertaken by Rikke Jansen, whose voice was then modified and applied to the player character.
  5. Develop a few easy-to-read icons which represent NPCs’ confusion and delight in how the conversation is going. This was a relatively late addition to our game once we’d playtested some basic input, and one of few areas in which we relied upon symbols which are ‘western’ in origin.
I developed "Ardo"'s dictionary using analogues for the Playstation controller's face buttons, with one word per sentence occupying each row
I developed “Ardo”‘s dictionary using analogues for the Playstation controller’s face buttons, with one word per sentence occupying each row

As an amateur linguist, I’d have to admit that the ‘level’ design for this game was a dream opportunity. It’s natural for a game designer to become fascinated by the dissemination and teaching of information. However, as someone who’s also learning Swedish (albeit in fits and starts) and has a penchant for rhythm-based actions, I had perhaps the most fulfilling game experience I’ve ever had assembling this codex of physically-driven language.

When constructing the various word concepts, I wanted to ensure that where possible, the movement around the controller (pictured below) felt natural. For example, a greeting is performed when the player presses the bottommost and top-most buttons in an upwards sequence; a farewell is performed by doing the opposite, closing the conversation down.

We developed for PlayStation 4 controllers at least in part because its button icons are abstracted from the Roman alphabet, unlike 'ABXY'
We developed for PlayStation 4 controllers at least in part because its button icons are abstracted from the Roman alphabet, unlike ‘ABXY’

Where Ardo deviates from my usual approach to tutorials and level design is that it features profound failure, very early on. Failure is a vital part of cultural and linguistic learning, as language in particular is so complex that we inevitably end up internalising inappropriate words or syntax. For many people it is embarrassment which most effectively steers us away from what can become quite a deeply-ingrained ‘wrong answer’. Language-learning is also something which individuals have to take ownership of, in a way that I feel games don’t often tackle.

It is not unusual to expect that the first thing a stranger might say to you is “hello”, and the player is fine repeating that (sidenote: this is exactly how I discovered that “tjéna” is also a greeting in Swedish, despite it not being listed in phrase books). However, a conversation simply cannot happen if all the participants do is repeat each other, and so if the player repeats what’s said next, the stranger will become confused. The intention was to discourage mimicing behaviour early on, and pave the way for the player becoming steadily more able to converse with this singular stranger as the game goes on, by encountering the words they use in a variety of other contexts.

Unlike the stranger in the street, the baker is patient and willing to serve, effectively allowing the player to spout nonsense until they arrive upon the word for bread
Unlike the stranger in the street, the baker is patient and willing to serve, effectively allowing the player to spout nonsense until they either become too anxious, or arrive upon the word for bread

Such embarrassments and failures were also an ideal opportunity to introduce the social anxiety meter to the player, representing their ability to carry out interactions and perform tasks during a day in-game. Said bar fluctuates wildly even over the course of the player’s first social encounter, as we intended for them to be able to visibly claw back confidence in their language and cultural skills just as easily as they can lose it, such as if they manage to say the equivalent to “goodbye” after the stranger leaves them. The amount of anxiety or confidence gained during each encounter was set based on the relative weight of what’s being said: greetings are more socially loaded than chat about the weather, whilst being able to read a conversation and correctly communicate your need for bread has benefits both in the conversation with a baker and for the state of your hunger.

Ultimately that is as far as our demo could reach, albeit with plenty of on-screen animation and audio feedback to make the encounter feel more personable. Expanding outwards from this concept, it would have been my intention to make greater use of physical locations, allowing the player character’s home to serve as a kind of reference point. Be it through allowing the player to collect labelled trophies (of which bread, squaresquare, would be one) or inviting them to make notes on a mounted whiteboard, Ardo would effectively allow the player to recreate the dictionary used in its making, only it would rely as much as possible on context rather than direct translation. It is for this reason that we specifically avoided English or Norwegian text anywhere but the main menu, as it is hoped that the game would be playable across a variety of cultures.

Such changes to the player’s home would also mark a form of progress, as the foreign-looking player character with the weird clothes and furnishings began to adapt their style to something between cultures. It is through this and other, similar ideas that ‘Team Ardo’ sought to create a game which is culturally sensitive, yet paints a deep-rooted and relatable portrayal of a new beginning in a foreign culture. In many ways it was the ideal game to make at an event like Splash Jam, so rich as it was in atypical scenery, with a language and some cultural quirks which meant different things to everyone involved in the game.

Ardo glyph (triangle) Ardo glyph (X)