Despite my many years in the games industry I had never been to GDC, they tended to keep us coders locked in dark rooms and fed Pizza so that we got the games out on time. Only the producers and team leads got to go to GDC. This year was different however, I had made enough money on a contract job to be able to send myself to San Francisco and enjoy the delights of GDC. What I found horrified me.
Don’t get me wrong, GDC itself was great, in fact if I have enough money I’m going back there. What horrified me was the sheer quantity of homeless people wandering around the streets of San Francisco. I’ve seen homeless people before, just not on that quantity and also I had never seen that many who appeared to be suffering from some kind of mental illness. I’ll be quite honest - it depressed me.
What I hadn’t realised at the time was that what I was seeing would have a deeper impact upon me that was outwardly apparent. I suddenly found I was expressing my horror through the one medium that I was experienced in – game making.
Just before GDC two others and I organised “Plane Jam” where we encouraged people to make a game on the trip over to GDC. The idea was that we would gather at GDC, judge the best games and then award prizes. It went well and I saw some impressive games. I wasn’t too convinced about my entry but it was worth completing and getting out to the wider world so once I returned from San Francisco that’s exactly what I set out to do. My subconscious decided to step in and do something completely unexpected.
The game started out as a simple arena shooter, a type of game I usually fall back on when making quick small games. Over a week however, and without any great planning on my behalf, the game slowly materialised into something else altogether. Before I knew it my main character in the game was a homeless guy called Dave and the central mechanic was begging for money.
This is going to sound strange and totally implausible but I really don’t know how that happened. One moment I’m working on an Arena shooter and the next I’m working on a begging simulator. This was unlike any game I had ever developed. My first reaction was to question if a game like this should exist. Homelessness is a serious subject and since games are ‘fun’ I ran the risk of trivialising or making fun of it.
It then occurred to me, why couldn’t games be made to make a social statement? Throughout history art has often reflected current social feeling and thinking through the medium of poetry and song writing. Go and listen to the protest songs by Bob Dylan. So why couldn’t the same be done with games, or more specifically this game?
I decided there and then that since my subconscious went to all this effort the least I could do was to follow it through. I worked on the game night and day and eventually ‘So hungry’ was born. It’s elevator pitch reads:
Dave is homeless. In order to eat, to survive he has to beg for money. Not everyone gives.
It’s a game all about begging for money in order to buy food to eat. If you don’t eat you don’t survive. Just like in the real world not everybody gives you money if you beg from him or her. It’s a harsh and somewhat depressing game - if it's a game at all.
It’s not a perfect game but it’s me expressing my desire to shout as loud as I can that the situation I saw in San Francisco isn’t right. Only time will tell if I have done the subject matter any justice and I haven’t just trivialised or made fun of homelessness. What will be really interesting is seeing the reaciton to other people over the game.
What’s really interesting however is the reaction the game has got when I put it up on Steam Greenlight – but that’s a story for another blog post.
You can see "So hungry" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7cfLS7UIwc and follow Byron on twitter: @xiotex