Game Proposal, First Pass

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Book of Fame" Project Team
University of Toronto

SYNOPSIS: The Old Books, New Sciences project team at the University of Toronto wishes to leverage its relationship with the major libraries of the international scholarly community to produce an edutainment video game built around the issues and questions raised by the transition of archival research into the digital environment. Imagining a Life is Strange meets Ace Attorney video game in which players may interact with three-dimensional reproductions of manuscripts and solve puzzles to resolve a cybercrime narrative, we intend for this software to provide easy and innovative access to otherwise inaccessible rare book collections around the world.

PLOT: Margaret Atwood1 has written and donated a new Canterbury Tale to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, which is in the process of digitizing its major collections for online libraries. During an experimental test-run of the digitization algorithm on Atwood's archives, a hacker group - working with the digitized consciousness of Geoffrey Chaucer's close friend and retroactive nemesis John Gower - injects a virus into the program that deletes all records of the Atwood Tale from the Fisher while copying and scattering fragments into other major digital libraries around the world. Gower, enemy of literary transmission and all things authorial, further disrupts the Fisher's preservation efforts by inserting his own variants of the Atwood Tale into these digital archives to thwart any researcher's attempt to reconstruct the original text.

Responding to the public's cry for help, the player is tasked with investigating the crime scene and tracing the digital fingerprints in the Fisher's archives to discover where Gower has hidden the fragments of the Atwood Tale. Atwood and LeVostreGC appear in the digital archives and function as NPC companions to the player, offering hints and helping to stabilize corrupted text. The player uses a computer terminal inside the Fisher's reading room to "jack in" (ala Gibson's Neuromancer) to digital libraries around the world and remedy corruptions in their manuscript data. After debugging the corrupted manuscripts by solving puzzles and completing mini-games, the player acquires fragments of the Atwood Tale that can be restored to the Fisher's digital archives and used to reconstruct Atwood's lost Canterbury Tale.

1 Please note that this is a work of fiction. All names of real persons that appear in this narrative pitch refer exclusively to fictional characters within the storyworld of the proposed video game and have no relationship to the lives of the actual people.

PRECEDENTS: We are envisioning a first-person point-and-click adventure game in the vein of recent titles like Life is Strange, Gone Home, and Heavy Rain. The puzzle and investigation mechanics will draw from series such as Ace Attorney, Zero Escape (see 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors), or even the Carmen Sandiego educational computer games. The mini-games that take place within the manuscripts themselves will draw from a range of puzzle genres including logic problems, countdown timers, I-Spy/visual recognition, clicking objects in the required order, and so on. The Professor Layton series is a great reference for such gameplay.

MECHANICS: We want the player to be able to maneuver inside three-dimensional renditions of major Western manuscript repositories (such as BL, Bod, Houghton, Beinecke, BnF, Vatican, CUL, Huntington) and utilize point-and-click functions to fully interact with books, bookshelves, and other archival materials. The Fisher library will serve as a "hub" map connecting all of these libraries by means of a "quick-travel" computer terminal. While we would like to make these libraries as detailed as possible, players should be restricted to a small section of the library (such as the reading room) to keep the narrative focused. Players must be able to pick up and place objects around the room: for example, the player might wish to take two or three books from the bookshelves and place them open side-by-side on a reading table to compare features.

If the player chooses to sit down with a book on a reading table, the game will shift into an "investigation mode" that enables him or her to open manuscripts, leaf through pages, zoom in and out of pages, rotate objects, place notes, and perform other research functions. Within this investigation mode, the player may click on suspicious areas of a manuscript and initiate mini-games to uncover clues or debug corrupted manuscripts to restore them to their original form.

A very basic example of how such mini-games might play out is as follows: while investigating a manuscript, the player notices a corrupted word bouncing around a page. When clicked, the word inserts itself into a sentence in which it does not belong, causing the entire body of text to fade out of focus. The player clicks repeatedly on the body of text to bring it back into focus and locate the word that doesn't belong. Once the player clicks on the corrupted word enough times, it jumps off of the page and evaporates in a blur of ones and zeroes.

Having extracted the corrupted phrase and solved the puzzle, the manuscript reverts to its original state and reveals a fragment of the Atwood Tale. The player returns to the Fisher library with the Tale fragment and restores it to their digital archives. Once the player has acquired enough fragments from various libraries, he or she can begin to reconstruct the Atwood Tale by rearranging the pieces upon a blank manuscript page. Points may be awarded for more logical or interesting arrangements of the text. There are no role-playing stats that affect gameplay, though an inventory screen may be useful for tracking clues and manuscript fragments. The game is won when the Fisher's digital archival program recognizes that the Atwood Tale has been restored to its original form, or when the digital Margaret Atwood says so.

AESTHETICS: We would like the Fisher library and other libraries to be reproduced as photo-realistically as possible, but there is no need to push polygons beyond the small interactive space. We may consider texturing inaccessible areas with photographs rather than fully modeling them. We should prioritize the detailed modeling of manuscripts and other archival objects above all else.

It would be ideal to develop an algorithm that can model three dimensional pages from IIIF manuscript images, identifying holes or damaged sections and modeling them accordingly. These same images should be used to texture the models with respect to their size and shape as described in their codicological records. Should this prove to be too complicated, we might consider assigning standardized textures to manuscripts depending on the material and dating of the paper used, which would allow for some strategic asset reuse in places.

Little to no original concept art will be necessary as we will provide photographs of the libraries and artifacts to be rendered. Our project team will handle the recruitment of writers and provide the game's script. The libraries do not need to have music, though we may consider integrating music into the manuscript puzzles. Sound effects will be needed for opening books, taking notes, and turning pages in addition to science-fiction computer SFX to compliment the cybercrime narrative. We aim to have non-player characters fully voiced but expect the dialogue in the game to be minimal, with the majority of the narrative occurring at the beginning of the game. Perhaps the game might end with a voiced reading of the reconstructed poem.

SIZE: This project is more comparable to an indie game rather than a modern AAA video game. Most work will go into creating a large and comprehensive database of individually modeled manuscripts that the player can open, read, and interact with. We would like there to be some degree of variety in the puzzle mini-games that represent the corruption within the manuscripts.

PLATFORM: We are presently targeting a PC release with the possibility for mobile editions at a later time. We would love to integrate compatibility for virtual reality headsets in order to bring consumers as close as possible to these digital archives and their unique artifacts.

MULTIPLAYER: While this is intended to be a single-player experience, it may be interesting to integrate twitter feeds or other social media into the game in some capacity to simulate a community of players asynchronously working together to restore the lost Atwood Tale, offering one another opinions and suggestions as to how they believe the original poem might look like. A recent interesting precedent for this kind of "loosely connected" social experience appears in  Xenoblade Chronicles X.

GAME FLOW: A map detailing the progression flow of the proposed game.