Button’s Journey (Narrative and Sound Designer)

I did the narrative and sound design for Button’s Journey, a game for the Kinect 2 that was developed in two weeks by a five person team as part of the Building Virtual Worlds course at the Entertainment Technology Center. Working on this game helped me truly understand both the value and difficulty of simplicity. In the game, guests play as a button who has been blown out of its home and away from its love by a fan and must navigate the outside world in order to return. It looks like this:

The biggest design challenge for this game was keeping things simple. Even when coming up with the basic story we tended to get bogged down by details we liked instead of settling on a core narrative. Finally, when we knew we wanted to use buttons but did not yet know what the story would be, my teammate asked me “What is the simplest story we could tell about these two buttons?” and I answered, “One of them wants to get to the other but things are in the way.” From that point on,¬†we committed to keeping the story, and by extension the game, as simple as possible. As our narrative designer, I established a requirement that any new element had to support and enhance the story without distracting from it, and following that guideline effectively prevented us from adding too many random elements.

An image from our opening sequence – the button rolling across the table.

There were two moments in the game where the level design presented narrative challenges.The first was getting the button out of the tailor shop in the first place. The first draft of the story had the button getting knocked into a garbage can, taken out with the trash, and then falling next to the dumpster when the trash was dumped out. When we playtested the game, we discovered that guests were not understanding that series of events at all, and that it was far more complicated than it needed to be. After than we knew we wanted to change two things: we wanted to simplify the whole sequence, and we wanted the reason the button ended up outside to have something to do with the obstacles it faces on the way back. The most popular obstacle during playtests had been the vents that nearly blow the button off the roof, so I rewrote the beginning of the story to have the button blown out the window by a fan. That version was far easier to understand and ended up being quite effective.

The second moment that presented a narrative challenge was getting the button from the ground to the roof of the neighboring building. Our first iteration of the story had depended on the button seeing the surrounding landscape, so I had written the story to get the button up high rather than simply having it cross the street. We ended up removing the part of the story that required being up high, but we liked the fact that it made the gameplay more about balance and steering (trying not to fall from the edge of the roof) than about timing (dodging cars to cross the street) which we felt was more suitable for the Kinect. That meant that we still needed a way to get the button up to the roof, so I wrote in a bird that would grab the button and bring it to its nest on the roof about one third of the way through the game. Having the bird grab the button there actually turned out to be an even stronger moment than we had anticipated, because the bird grabs the button just as the tailor shop is coming into view for the first time and puts the button even further away.

The button is carried away by a bird after getting close to the tailor shop for the first time.

In addition to being presented to our professors and classmates as part of the Building Virtual Worlds class, this game was showcased at the ETC Fall Festival in December 2016, where family, friends, alumni, and industry professionals would be invited to come and experience this and other ETC projects. As part of the festival, each team was given a room to set up for their world. My team and I themed our room to look like a tailor shop and the street outside. This created an excellent opportunity for me to take advantage of my staging, construction, and prop making skills in designing and implementing our theme.

The Button’s Journey team in our room for the Fall Festival. From left to right: Beizhen Hu, Peilin Li, Griva Patel, myself, and Daniel Hua.

When it came to decorating our room for the Fall Festival, the primary challenge was arranging the play space in such as way that guests could watch the person playing without being picked up by the Kinect and interfering with the game. To accomplish that, I suggested that we use the back two-thirds of the room as the play space, with the screen and Kinect perpendicular to the doorway, and then use the front third of the room as a viewing area. To keep the guests in the viewing area from wandering into the play area, I built a large window frame that blocked the play area, leaving a gap for a single guest to enter the play area at a time. The doorway into the room and the opening into the play space were on opposite sides of the room to make it harder for guests to accidentally walk straight into the play space when they entered the room. To make the whole room fit with the theme of our game, we used props and decorations to make the play area look like the tailor shop and to make the viewing area look like the neighborhood outside the shop, so that guests watching the game seemed to be looking into the window of the shop. You can see the results below.