Play as Sam’s mom, a single parent who is concerned by her son’s involvement in online Alt-Right communities by clicking on “Run Game.

What I did

  1. Research
  2. Storyboarding
  3. Writing & Editing
  4. User Testing

Duration

4 weeks

Tools

  1. Twine

Overview

Class project for Computer as an Expressive Medium graduate course. Students were asked to select a story, examine it with a critical lens, then create an interactive narrative using critical making practices using Twine.

Design Process

I selected the article, “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right” published in The Washingtonian in May 2019. I selected this story for a few reasons:

  1. Scope: The short article told an amazing story but in a limited amount of space. I thought this would translate well to a 10-minute Twine experience
  2. Critical Lens: While reading the article, I found privileges that resulted in a happy ending. I thought this story would be just as interesting if viewed from another perspective.

In the article, a mother explains how her son, Sam, was groomed to join the Alt-Right through Reddit, and her reaction to his newfound beliefs. While I greatly empathized with Sam’s trajectory, I couldn’t help but how lucky Sam was. His parents were educated, white, and upper-middle class. They had the time and resources to transfer him to a private school to make new friends, offered hiking and rock-climbing trips to de-stress, and were gentle enough to listen to his changing beliefs without judgment. The combination of privileges, I believe, created an empathic and patient atmosphere which allowed Sam to go through this phase at his own pace and express his beliefs to his family. This combination is what ultimately led him to leave the ALT-Right.

Critical Lens

I reimagined this story if Sam’s family did not come from a place of privilege.

Key Questions that led my design process:

  1. What if Sam still faced a traumatic experience, but instead of a patient and accepting atmosphere, he was met with realities that other low-income families face such as scarcity? Choosing between food and rent. Choosing to treat a physically ill child vs a depressed child.
  2. What if Sam’s parents – or parent – did not have access to money, time, or empathy to help him find the “light” at the end of the tunnel? The family has the same amount of care and love for Sam, but does not have the resources to help as they would like. What would then happen to Sam?

Components of the Narrative

  1. To demonstrate the stress of scarcity I wanted to create a timer & bank account. I envisioned the player acting as the parent who has to make daily decisions with a timer.
  2. To add to the stress, I’d like to include a bank account where they have to pick how to allocate their time and money. 
  3. Further, I’d like to show the miscommunication between parent & Sam by having blocks of Sam’s text in black. To illustrate that even when parents are there to help, they cannot fully understand the situation and still have to make decisions. This further pushes the gap between parent & child.

Below are the initial drafts of the storyboard using pen & paper, and Twine. I mapped out potential levels in Twine, and general plot points. Two pages of notes, however, gave me quite a bit of work for a project intended to complete in under 10 minutes.

In addition to mapping the story, I wrote the narrative, code, and choices that would be available on each module.

Iteration & Adjuments

After a critique from my professor, I decided on key features for the story:

  1. The story would focus on a single-parent family, where the mother is extremely limited by time and funds to help her kids. While she understands her son is experiencing depression due to a traumatic incident at school, she is limited in her ability to help. 
  2. Illustrate the real experience of how people react during conversations and what they think. What one thinks and says rarely aligns and I wanted to illustrate how impactful that is in stressful situations.
  3. To further illustrate this complicated interpersonal relationship I wanted to show both the mother and Sam’s perspective. The beginning of the game if from the mother’s perspective. Mid-way through the player will act as Sam and will make decisions based on their earlier actions.
  4. Scarcity will be demonstrated through a bank account, emotional energy (mom) & anger level (Sam). The player’s actions impact the mother’s bank account and emotional energy, which affects how she can help Sam in the future. I focused on emotional energy instead of the timer as I believe emotional levels impact interpersonal relationships more so than time.
  5. Using if/else statements, I coded the story so Sam would remember how his mother spoke to him in the past and would retaliate according to his built anger level. When the game changes to Sam’s perspective, the player can see the situation from his point of view and see how previous conversations can have lasting impacts.

User Testing

After a round of user testing, I learned the story needed to be concise. While the players liked the content of the story, it was too long. There were too many buttons, variations, and text. I went back to the storyboard and cut unnecessary scenes and made the storyboard map as short as possible. Below are sketching with the revised storyboard.

Final Design Stages

Once the plot and dialogue were completed, I added visual & audio elements to add to the ambiance of the story. The background color & audio change depending on the character’s perspective. Below are a few screenshots from the game.

The interactive narrative has several endings, depending on how you navigate conversations throughout the game. Experience it yourself by clicking on “Run Game.