Impact Games Making Games

Next at Planet Jone

Now that Moonshot Mission has been launched (a sentence no-one thought would ever be written), I’m scratching my moustache like Pablo Escobar, and wondering where to jump into next.

Pablo after completing Moonshot Mission’s True Ending.

Since I’ve anyways decided to dedicate the rest of my waning life to impact games, I think I’m going to be sorting through my kilometer-long list of games with impact links, and post about what I uncover from my bookmark folder. (Not that folder – I’m still talking about impact games here!)

Also, because I rushed to get Moonshot Mission (v.0.9.5) out for the Finnish Independence Day – for the humor value – I actually rushed it out with some bugs and things left unpolished. For example, the very last button to Planet Jone does not work. (That’s why you’re not here, reading this.)

So, even though I do not plan to keep updating Moonshot Mission, I think to appease the gods of OCD, I will have to fix the bugs and declare it v1.0.0 – THEN I can close that case. (Until Moonshot Mission II: The Revenge of the Person You See at the End.)

Moonshot Mission isn’t an impact game, but to get some impact out of it, I figured I’d kick off a small marketing drive to help Ukraine, i.e. probably some sort of a “for each download, 10 UAH will be donated to United24” campaign.

Moonshot Mission is free, but Ukraine is not (of Russian invaders) so that campaign sounds like a match made in … some strange place in my head. Well, we’ll see how it goes.

Ok, ok, but what comes after THAT?

—- an imaginary person

Good, solid question there, Imaginary Person. I’ll answer.

Moonshot Mission did maybe run over the planned schedule by about 10.000%, but it did reach the goal of teaching me the full pipeline of making a game alone, from start to finish, all the way to App Store and Google Play.

So, I want to try to create at least one actual game that I can claim falls under the term “impact game”.

My favorite ideas of mine currently are:

  1. Climate Change Clicker: a cookie clicker variant, where you need to click away every single molecule of extra CO2 for the atmo. The “factories” you’d unlock would be based in the best-in-class scientific solutions in real world, listed for example by the Drawdown crowd.
  2. The Undeclaration of Human Rights, where you, as the malicious Mr. [insert your favorite dictator here], need to individually destroy each article in the universal declaration of human rights.

So. To recap. What’s next: posts where I blabber about my bookmarks, and another 8 years of waiting for a game.

Not to be missed, so come back for updates, or follow on social media for the same updates. The RSS feed is the cleanest, most old-school way to see the updates one additional time. Find all them links from the About Planet Jone page.

Also, write a comment below! About anything. I want to see if the comment system still works, as this site has been up from around 2005 and I have no idea how everything is under the hood. It’s probably housing a family of rats in about 86 generations.

If I don’t get any comments, I will become upset. And you don’t want to see me upset. Because I eat a LOT of ice-cream when I’m upset.

Making Games

A casual note, no biggie

So this game Moonshot Mission was just launched on Google Play and App Store. You could check it out, or not, idk. Might delete later.

Here’s pre-made buttons for you, but don’t feel obligated to tap on ’em.

It’s not like I spent the last eight years just to deliver this piece (or pretty much the whole) of my soul to you. Well I did, but you can just ignore that, no biggie.

Making Games

Moonshot Mission Teaser Trailer released

I apologize that this trailer dropping will break the Internet just now. But, it’s anyways time for us to return to a more simpler way of life. Kinda like in the ending of Mass Effect 3, which everyone loved. (Luckily you can’t verify that claim. Because the Internet is broken.)

Impact Games Saving World

News as Games

For journalism, the glory days of having a viable business model went away as the internet became mainstream. People got used to having news for free, but Google and Meta grabbed all the ad money. The tailspin has become increasingly chaotic, but the hunt for new models is still on.

One potential angle is games as news, and news as games.

Journalism is about uncovering truths and sharing them objectively. Fact-checked nuggets of truth enlighten the people, strengthen free nations and keep unruly powers-that-be in check. There’s common trust. Decisions can be made based on facts.

The bad news is you realize the value of quality journalism only after you’ve lost it, and found yourself living in a society gone insane. A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on, but now even the pants are being flooded with shit by the stevebannons of the world.

Well, bad actors gonna bad, but there’s more: it takes time to find the hidden information, to explain complex wholes, to endlessly fact-check, and wrap all the knowledge into an understandable package. It costs money to inform people, but the people don’t want to pay to be informed.

In the olden times, before the web, we had journalistic programming on radio and TV, and wide selection of quality newspapers, small and large. Subscriber fees help, but most journalism thrived on ads. Now, that money is pocketed by the few biggest tech companies, i.e. the ones with the most expansive ad network, powered by the best machine learning. The moat protecting the ad revenue dug by the few tech giants is too wide for anyone to cross anymore.

As the last of the journalistic Mohicans are fighting to defend the search for truth, every now and then, they have stumbled upon games, and tried to combine journalism with them.

The thinking behind combining games and journalism goes thusly:

  1. People like to play games
  2. Games make gazillions of tasty dollars
  3. Immersive interactivity is a more powerful way to convey information than linear text, video or audio
  4. Bonus: An undefined hope that maybe something unforeseen – but awesome! – will be born when you smush together old and new forms of media (it’s a possibility) (one believes)

Now, that four-step winning formula still remains largely unproven, but what has already been born, at least, is the concept of a “newsgame”. It popped up along with the first manifestation of that genre, a game called September 12th, released by Gonzalo Frasca in 2003.

What makes a newsgame

One way to zoom in to the definition of a newsgame is through newspapery lenses: a newsgame can be a report, an opinion piece, an editorial, or tabloid-style shock journalism.

Even top quality journalism is a balancing act between accuracy and accessibility, but good, honest journalism always gravitates toward objective truth. An opinion piece can be, for better or worse, just your opinion, man, and if you go off the deep end, you’re peddling propaganda and “fake news”, otherwise known as just lying.

The newsgames progenitor called September 12th commented on the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. As a newsgame, I think it hits the sub-genre of an opinion piece. In the game, you survey a middle-eastern market square through targeting cross-hairs, and shoot missiles to try to kill terrorists. But, the missile strikes are not 100% precise, and you end up killing also civilians and destroying buildings, which turns some civilians into new terrorists.

You can’t win the game, and the message is clear, but journalistically simple – which is naturally alright for an opinion piece.

The original newsgame, September 12th, is not widely available anymore, but you can check out a gameplay video on YouTube.

Another scale to define a newsgame is its topicality. Daily events require a wholly different approach than slow-moving complex phenomena spanning months, years or more. Newsgames usually go for the middle or the end of the scale, because it’s technically hard to create a game in a day to be able to react to daily events – excluding the simplest games like quizzes.

A broader view

In the sidelines of the newsgames concept, there are games that aim to inoculate people against fake news by teaching how modern online propaganda works, and, for example, the nifty The Evolution of Trust, which explains how trust among people is created and/or lost. There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram between newsgames and edutainment. Also, some might want to call agenda-driven activist games newsgames, some might not.

Nicky Case’s The Evolution of Trust explains the birth and death of trust in fun 30 minutes. Try it out at:

Backing up further you can completely detach from the idea of newsgames as separate products. The umbrella of newsgames also covers mini-games slipped into text-based articles, with the goal of activating the reader. For example, instead of a static graph depicting the yearly trend-line of poverty, the reader can first be asked to draw their own estimation of the trend, after which the actual graph is revealed. The purpose is to nudge the reader to focus and to think a little harder, while simultaneously providing a fun little challenge.

Games can also just live next the articles, supporting journalism. The classic crossword puzzles are still popular. Before the overabundance of entertainment, for some, they were a reason to buy a newspaper: one might buy the paper just for the fun puzzle, and as the paper lay on the living room table, some of the articles would get read too. Either way, the newsroom got paid and could live to create the next issue.

Media companies are naturally interested in if the side-hustle of games can fund the core business of journalism. For example, one of the oldschoolest paper of them all, the New York Times, has a separate crosswords app on the App Store – and it’s not there just for the love of puzzles.

The future on newsgames is still undefined

During the 2000s, a bunch of newsgames have appeared, struggled and died, and the holy grail remains buried.

The biggest challenge is the fact that making games is work-intensive, as is journalism. Piling them on top of each can double the challenge, but does it double the return and rewards too? Most published newsgames pale in comparison to pure games-for-entertainment, and a slightly scrubby newsgame is unlikely to woo players and/or news addicts on a level that would justify to the effort.

Gamified news can activate and engage a certain group for deeper dives into news – they might spend more time and thought on an article or a topic – but the large masses still prefer to stay on the beach, i.e. newsgames have not been able to draw in large enough crowds of new people willing to pay for the content.

Today, the hope lies in technological advances that bring about new innovation.

The problem of low resources can be helped by the advances in AI-generated content for images, videos and 3d models. Text generation can enable creating branching and more personalized narratives. New low- and no-code tools will empower technically impaired journalists to gamify their own creations. VR and AR will be utilized for immersive and contextual reporting in a way that has thus far been impossible.

Due to the technological convergence, I see a new dawn of newsgames rising, just in time to defend democracy in trouble.

Some examples of newsgames to try out:

The Uber Game, depicting the life of a gig worker, is considered to be the one of the more successful newsgames. [Link]
The New York Times has experimented with gamified news, like making the readers guess the political views based on the content of real fridges. [Link]
Endgame: Syria was a game that intended to explain the Syrian civil war, but was stomped on by Apple, and eventually forcibly stripped down to a generic Endgame: Eurasia. In the end, the developer felt that it’s not a newsgame anymore, just a game.
Can You Travel from Glasgow to London as a Wheelchair User shows how that journey would go for you. A humorous and informative multiple selection game from Buzz Feed. [Link]
The hard life of working for a tech giant is covered also in the The Amazon Race, published by ABC News. [Link]
Another New York Times experiment had readers draw trend-line graphs. [Link]
With a dab of gallows humor, Bad News teaches people how the fake news propaganda works. [Link]
Impact Games Saving World

Pixels against Totalitarianism

In vogue today: truth-twisting, hate-mongering, intolerance, and demagoguery. If left unchecked, they’re a sure-fire combination for dark times. To turn back toward the light, we need to remember the history of evil – and there are games for that.

Defending and spreading the truth leads to a better world for all, and impact games are well suited to do just that. Games can empower understanding when they make a conscious effort to be meaningful.

The union of audiovisuals and interactivity, when successful, makes learning about our shared reality more enticing and, I do believe, holistic.

All games teach you something: “The button makes the mustachioed plumber jump” is likely only relevant inside a certain game, but “exactly how deep, overbearing and multifaceted is the suffering caused by totalitarianistic systems” has meaning. Meaning for the real world, meaning for humanity.

Flirting with fascism has become disturbingly normal in the west. In China, the government is already running concentration camps. Russia went straight off the deep end and viciously attacked and brutalized Ukraine.

Forgetting history makes us repeat it, so let’s fight the onset of that dementia while we can.

From power fantasies to stories of powerlessness

A twisted hype for totalitarian rule kicked off the Second World War. In games, that time is usually handled through the pixely iron sights, by virtualizing battlefields, putting you in the shoes of a heroic soldier in glorious firefights. War is an easy context for thrilling action games, they’re an easy sell. Shooting at skull-adorned hats and swastikas do not call for rationalization or deep thought.

The evil of totalitarianism is not limited to war of aggression, nor the ramifications to bullet holes and explosions. In the backstage of the theater of war we destroy truth, liberty, diversity, and in the end, humaneness. Regular, good people are sucked into a maelstrom of suffering without end.

The horrors of Nazi Germany begun slowly, and ended even slower, if at all. This enduring pain is the topic in today’s double-feature of games Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn. They both are award-winning indie games – one from Germany, one from Norway – and complement each other with their chronology and the subject matter.

Darkest fades in early 1930, when Hitler is just about to seize power. The game depicts the resistance of decent people during the ever-increasing desperation. The events of Lebensborn happen a bit later, in a post-war Norway, and it deals with a misguided retaliation on innocent children and their caretakers.

In both of the games you play the oppressed underdog. The games are similar in how they make you experience a desperate state of humanity without power, where only grit and hope against logic can compensate for the utter lack of options. What you gain as a player is a better recollection of the insanity of our not-so-far past.

Through the Darkest of Times

Paintbucket Games, HandyGames (2020)
iOS, Android, Xbox One/X/S, Steam, PS4, Switch

Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.
Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.

In case you weren’t particularly taken with Hitler and the national socialist party in Berlin in 1933, you probably were quite alarmed. This maximally stressful situation is what Through the Darkest of Times is about. The indie-powered game has you running a small resistance group consisting of ordinary people, trying to keep the hope alive through what feels like the end of times.

The gameplay consists of tactical decisions on the Berlin map, where you manage the resistance group, sending them on missions. The map phase alternates with small, well-written story events with a choose-your-own-adventure vibe.

In the strategic level, you try to make due with very limited money and resources, to keep the resistance from getting snuffed out. You cannot stop the war or the tidal wave of fascism, you only try to survive long enough. The board-gamey strategy side has you collecting money, recruiting members, printing leaflets and trying to keep your people out of jail, and later, out of the morgue.

The history of the Nazi Germany is covered in story bits, where you experience the tightening grip of totalitarianism, events like burning of books, secret police raids and the disappearance of truth, the escalating oppression of minorities and the total inhumanity of the “Final Solution”.

Visually, the game has an intentionally simplistic style, which mostly utilizes shades of gray. It naturally fits the theme, but also tells a tale of a small team with limited resources.

Regardless of the modest audiovisuals, the game manages to tell a gripping story of normal life suffocation under Nazism, and the slow creep toward inhuman totalitarianism. The choices you have to make during the historic events from the summer Olympics to the Night of Broken Glass, is a good way to instill empathy toward those having to endure unbearable lose-lose situations.

The game is available on nearly all platforms. I played through the game with iPad and iPhone, because the turn-based nature makes it easy to play in small chunks.

A phone screen is a bit too small for comfort, but using cloud saves to switch devices made it convenient to play on the road.

My Child Lebensborn

Serepta Studio, Teknopilot, East2West Games (2018)
iOS, Android, Steam

Screenshot of My Child Lebensborn.

When the second world ended, it did not end for everyone.

The Norwegian developer of My Child Lebensborn have said the genre is a “grim tamagotchi”, which is aptly put. Instead of a cute critter, you try to protect and nurture a small child, orphaned by the Nazi’s Lebensborn project, and now bullied and discriminated against because of history they had no say in.

The grim topic, unfamiliar to me beforehand, discusses a collective trauma in Norway. The mistreated-from-birth children of Nazi soldiers were mistreated also after the war, because the anger against the Nazi regime was unjustly directed to these innocent kids and their caretakers.

In the game you try to find a balance between caring for the child and (lack of) money and time, in a small town where the “Nazi kids” were hated as scapegoats. The game’s story is a moving combination of the stories of real people and events.

The developers hope the game instills more empathy and sympathy than a linear documentary film could, because you actively experience the situation and decisions yourself. The game manages to create massive frustration, as the child you’re trying to raise is bullied by other kids and adults, with you pretty much powerless to help enough. (And, this was real life, not so long ago.)

The game mechanics are based on a tamagotchian “eat, wash, sleep” cycle, enhanced with multiple-choice dialogue moments. The story unfolds through speech bubbles and letters in the mail.

My Child Lebensborn is technically pretty nice, with hand-drawn 2.5d art. Naturally the tamagotchi genre is quite simple to play.

The rare and important content of the game tells stories about the Lebensborn living at the outskirts of society, but it also pushes you to think more broadly about the wrongs stemming from anger and bitterness, and the sad, too-invisible ramifications to innocent children.

It takes about 5 hours to complete the game, available on the App Store, Google Play and Steam.

Low resources in-game and out-game

The lack of “fun” in these games needs to be consciously balanced with the knowledge that the player will emerge more wiser, more empathetic – a more mature person, willing to stand up for what’s right. The dark times have not gone away and will not stay away without the good folk staying vigilant, and taking action.

From a game business perspective, these games showcase the biggest hurdle with impact games: it’s near impossible to reach a perfect combination of truly meaningful content, addictive gameplay and top-quality production value. The ice-cold reason being money – the further you venture from mass market entertainment, the harder it is to earn enough to sustain a large development team.

Deep, tough-to-digest and sometimes uncomfortable content is usually inversely correlated with easy money, so absolute top tier of production value is often out of reach.

In other words, if Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn were to be totally uprooted from our real history and actual events – the meaning – and replanted into the marketable world of Middle-Earth or inside a Pokémon laboratory, they would not hold up against polished, purely commercial game products due to the roughness around the edges.

But, you don’t make these games for money. You make them so the journey of humanity does not get lost in the darkness cast by intolerance, greed, fear and anger. That goal is worthwhile, and that is why we should every once in a while grab a game like these two – even when the Biggest Blockbuster of Fun Remastered (tm) and Eye-Candy Royale (tm) scream for our attention.

Instead of joy, these games instigate anxiety and sadness, but they also enlighten, make you a better you. They help us in reflecting on the past to understand today, and call us to protect the future.