Tourette Quest - Media, Magic, and Nostrils!

The reaction to my super-dinky "Tourette's Quest" prototype has completely floored me.  For those of you just joining us, a few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about a new game project of mine, where I explore what it's like to have Tourette's Syndrome through the lens of game mechanics.

To put it mildly, people were interested!

Shortly after finishing the article and sending a single tweet to Sophie Prell of the Penny Arcade report (who'd expressed interest in the project earlier), the game was covered on The Penny Arcade Report,,, The Huffington Post,,, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. And that's not including all the tiny sites that just re-post the content!*

*Except for That one seems like a word-for-word reprint of the PA Report article, included in the above list anyway because it's freaking NBC!

Let me put that in perspective. Our last game, Defender's Quest has gotten some pretty great critical reviews and we've been constantly trying to get press for it. It often takes dozens and dozens of tries to get just one review or mention of the game. And that's for a mature, polished, critically-acclaimed, successful indie game. So about 50 to 1 in terms of (marketing effort) vs. (results).

With my crappy 2-week Tourette's Quest prototype, the ratio was more like 1 to 10 in the other direction!

I guess the internet is fascinated with Tourette's Syndrome, so I'm going to keep working on this.  I still have plans for a Defender's Quest follow-up, but given this massive response I think TQ needs some real attention.

So here's where I'm at!

Here's the latest prototype, available now right in your web browser! Go ahead and give it a spin and afterwards we'll talk about everything (Click the picture to play)

It's totally unbalanced and not very challenging yet, there's not a lot of room variety, the exit sometimes spawns ridiculous close to the entrance, etc. I'm working on it. Please use the cheat codes as necessary to adjust the experience to something interesting.

Switching to HaXe

I'd been using Game Maker Studio for the prototype, but I kept running up against my unfamiliarity with it. It was really easy to do simple things, like instantiate enemies, create maps, deal with collisions, etc, but really hard to do complicated things like randomly generate a dungeon or mess with data structures. Furthermore, I wasn't able to really nail the controls in that environment. Seeing as TQ is all about taking control away from the player, the basic controls themselves have to be top-notch.

So, I decided to go back to what I was familiar with - Flash. However, I had been following HaXe for a while, and meaning to learn about it, so this seemed like a good way to start. HaXe is a language very similar in syntax to Actionscript that creates source code for other programming languages as its output. These "targets" include actionscript, C++, Java, Javascript, and more. I installed HaxeFlixel and got to work.

Bottom line: I'm hooked. Documentation is a little sparse, but it's more than good enough to test my ideas out and the flash output seems just as good as writing natively in As3. The C++ build needs constant babysitting and tweaking, but it's cool to know I have a pathway to a C++ port that doesn't involve writing one from scratch.  The main advantage to using HaXe is that I'm not locked in to one platform - I can get a browser-based build of the game by exporting to Flash, and then also get a hardware-accelerated native C++ version, too. At least in theory :)

Now back to the game.

Time instead of Keys

I'd previously been using keys to open doors. Now, I've replaced keys with hours, displayed as little clocks. Opening a door takes 1 hour. If you have any spare hours at the end of the level, you get that many hours of sleep, which reduces your stress. So if you explore all the dungeon, that takes more time, and you have less time for sleep, which means starting the next level with more stress.

I wanted time-management to be part of the resource game, but having it abstractly represented via keys was just too much of a stretch. The time and sleep connection is clearer now, and taking 1 hour to open a door is a little less one-to-one than costing 1 key, but I figure it's not too bad.

New Tic: "Nostrils!"

The new prototype has a new tic, this time a verbal one. Previously, stress thresholds would make your character randomly cough, creating noise that would awaken and irritate nearby enemies. Now, in addition your character will sometimes say the word "nostrils." I plan on adding more words in the future. Since the main character is a wizard (among other things), having verbal tics is a liability - magic is done by incantation, so accidentally saying "nostrils" will summon a "Nostrilok," a man-sized pair of detached nostrils that wanders around the dungeon.

Tics come in regular and "critical" varieties and the warning thought bubble now indicates this. Critical coughs are bigger in radius, and critical "nostrils" summons two of them instead of one.

Spellcasting System

The biggest new change is the spellcasting system. I've been playing with this idea for years and I think TSQuest is a great place to try it out. Basically, you construct spells from modifiers and action words. So, you start with an action word like "fire" which shoots a fireball. You can add "big" to that to make it bigger and do more damage. And you can add "fast" to make it faster. Positive modifiers ("big", "fast") make the spell more costly, and negative modifiers ("slow", "small") make it cheaper.  This kind of similar to the system used in Magicka.

Creating the spell, "Big, Fast, Fire"

You have 7 spell slots in your inventory and can construct new spells at any time from the magic words that you know, and you can equip spells just like any other item. The spell-creation interface needs a lot of work, but it gets the job done for now.

Casting "Big, Fast, Fire"
Here's where Tourette's Syndrome comes in. Each tic ("cough", "nostrils", etc) has a random chance of happening every second, which starts at 0 and increases with your overall stress level. Every time you cast a spell, it checks against this same random chance for each of your verbal tics. If the die roll succeeds, than instead of casting the spell you meant to, it swaps out the action word with a verbal tic.

So instead of casting, "Big, Big, Fire" you can accidentally summon "Big, Big, Nostrils." Therefore you have to be careful about using magic if your stress level is too high. At max stress you have so many verbal tics that spellcasting becomes almost impossible and you are better off retreating and trying to recuperate.

Nostrils, Nostrils, everywhere!

When a spell "misfires" due to a tic it doesn't cost you any magic, but you have to deal with the new threat in the room. Currently summoned monsters aren't persistent (leaving the room deletes them), but I'm going to try to change that in the next prototype.

If I decide to model coprolalia (involuntary cursing), it will function similarly. In addition to learning new spell words, you can find curse words, in the literal sense - magical action words that do very bad things. So, picking up a spell book with three awesome new spell words might also contain a curse word or two. If you let those words into your vocabularly, then when your coprolalia flares up, the curses will randomly insert themselves into your spell and you'll have to deal with the consequences.

If I go there, I'll try to find some way to sanitize or obfuscate the words themselves.  Kids as young as eight and ten with Tourette's Syndrome are already contacting me about this game, and I expect the last thing their parents want me to do is give them something with curse words in it, especially because I know first-hand that doing so would exacerbate symptoms for kids with coprolalia.

From a gameplay and education standpoint, the only important thing about the words is that they are curse words, not which specific ones they happen to be.  If that makes a small part of my audience cry "self-censorship!" then so be it.  It's a natural extension of how I choose my words in real life to deal with my condition.  The game is heavily data-driven, at any rate, so any purists who want a more "authentic linguistic experience" can just mod their version of the game when it's released. :P

What It All Means

So, a lot of people have been asking me about my thematic approach and what it all "means." I think it's easiest if I start by saying what I'm not trying to do.

I'm not trying to show what it's like for me, Lars Doucet, living in the 21st century in middle-of-nowhere, Texas, to deal with Tourette's Syndrome.  That'd be a very boring game.  My adult life is very stable thanks to my kind and loving wife, as well as a lifetime of carefully constructed rituals and having a safe, controlled environment.  I don't have many tics these days, though all it takes to bring them raging back is to throw me in a different environment.

I'm also not trying to construct some convoluted metaphor for Tourette's Syndrome using monsters as stand-ins for society and nostrils as a representation for childhood angst or the Alienation of Man.  I know enough English majors to know how bad I am at literary criticism, and going for conceits like that creates a tangled mess that often communicates the exact opposite of what I meant.  That said, there are metaphors here and there, but I'm trying to keep things as close to the surface as possible.

What I'm really trying to do is answer this question:

"What if Link had Tourette's Syndrome?"
We gamers have all been Link before: running around a dungeon fighting monsters, casting spells, and swigging potions. Since everyone knows what it's like to be Link, I can use that basic foundation to explain what it's like to have Tourette's Syndrome, simply by giving Link the symptoms.

Ultimately, I'm going for a procedural approach over a literary one. I want to show what the internal experience of a Tourette's patient's mind is like, with the core experiences being: premonition, compulsion, helpless panic and dealing with it.

Most of the time you know what tics you're about to have. This is premonition - you (usually) get a little warning, which is accompanied by a buildup of tension. This is followed by compulsion - tension explodes and you have to release the tic. Lest anyone think this is just a lack of willpower, try to will your way out of having to blink or poop the next time your body compels you.  

I feel like the current prototype does an okay job of modelling those two concepts. In order to nail helpless panic and dealing with it, though, I need to give the player something to do that Tourette's can then interfere with, hence the dungeon-crawling.  So you're Link Leif, in a dungeon, fighting monsters, getting loot, trying not to die. I've intentionally borrowed the visual presentation and mechanical style of The Legend of Zelda, as well as the popular action/roguelike* it inspired, The Binding of Isaac. So for those who think I may be "cloning" or "ripping-off" those games - guilty as charged! :)

*As people keep reminding me, this new genre is technically a "roguelike-like" since we're departing more and more from the original game, Rogue.

Serious Roots

I first had the idea for TouretteQuest years ago, but the original design doc had a more mundane setting. It was a "real-life simulator" where you'd try to go through daily tasks in high school or college and have to manage your symptoms, etc, not unlike The Sims or the super-old Text Adventure, Starfleet Academy.  

I scrapped that idea because it felt boring. I started my career in "Serious Games" research, and with a few notable exceptions, the committees I worked for constantly assumed that to make games "relevant" to our target audience, we had to model their everyday lives, and dispense with usual video game tropes like fantasy elements, power ups, and enemies.  This despite the fact that our own focus group research showed inner-city kids (one of our targets) had a strong hankering for dragons, Naruto, and SpongeBob Squarepants.

I feel like Serious Game designers cut themselves off at the knees with this thinking. "Education" vs. "Entertainment" is a false dichotomy. You can make things that are fun and thoughtful by making a regular, good ol' fashioned Video Game, and then just do some research.  That's what I tried to accomplish with my own games CellCraft and Super Energy Apocalypse. Another good examples is a recent gamasutra article on realistic sword combat. When I looked back at that old TS Quest draft, I saw those old pressures in the back of my mind - "This is a serious topic. Make it more serious."

But you know what? This time I'm the target audience, at least in part.  I actually have Tourette's Syndrome. And you know what's relevant to me? 


*Mic drop*