I heard about Train a few months ago and was just fascinated. Vague spoilers follow, and I really encourage you check it out first to really understand the full experience. If you want a good understanding of the discussion and history of the game (with spoilers though!), I’d start with this Escapist article, and the description of her previous game about the consequences of the slave trade.
I laud Breada Brathwraite for her excitement and execution in chasing this project. The most unusual and fascinating part is the switcheroo that people are upset about, how it shapes and warps the game experience for them. It’s significant and meaningful, it makes the game, but that switch-up wouldn’t normally be considered part of the traditional MDA gameplay we design around. Maybe there’s a second class of Aesthetics that the MDA structure doesn’t consider?
Patrick Redding implied as much at GDC (ppt slides) this year, but he was thinking of the interface communication gap between designer and player. He posited that because you couldn’t truly define the Aesthetic in the player’s mind (the way you can Mechanics and Dynamics in game systems), you had to treat it as two separate layers of design, a form of interface design, but also clearly experience design. In a sense, this is the realm that story games are clumsily playing with – crafting a universe that builds inside the player’s head even without a system to manipulate.
In Train, Brathwraite is expertly exploiting that communication confusion between the two Aesthetics layers, deliberately playing with hidden information (in plain sight!) that manipulates the player’s against their game-created mindset. Now, granted, much of game design is a form of encouragement or manipulation, but this is hot stuff. Brenda’s not just critiquing and educating about history, she’s critiquing the manipulation that’s created by game rules, and vividly exposing it to players in a way they won’t soon forget.
Hats off, Brenda. The conclusions raised from our aesthetics implications are rarely questioned by our players, but like any abstraction, they are suspect. We need to accept the consequences and responsibilities of our medium, whether we wish to or not. Players of Train may have learned more about how to see through complex systems to their ethical consequences in that 30 minutes then in any video game yet crafted.