I have spent the past few months designing a game called “Afterlife” to tackle a subject I’ve been exploring for many years now. That question has been: Who am I? Who are we?
I started the game more recently as a way to combat my mental illness and to deal with my disillusionment and separation from society that led to my ostracization and self-imposed exile. It was largely a coping mechanism and a challenge to design a game that encouraged me to work away from my desk. So instead of programming a game I began focus on building a game that you could hold in your hands and carry with you, one that I hope could even be used a tool for psychologists.
Who am I?
To date, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of self. Who am I?
- Am I who or what you tell me I am?
- Am I who I tell you I am, even if this is true or I don’t know?
- If you don’t believe I am who I say I am do I have to go out of my way to convince you that I am what I am?
- What if I convince you of a lie?
- What do I have to do to prove to you that I am this?
- What if you don’t believe the truth?
- If I show you I am this, will you reward me, with love or some other way?
- How does me being who I am help or hinder me from achieving the things I want?
- What do my actions reveal about ‘who I am?’
- Can I create the ‘me’ I want to be?
- Does this creation make me, me?
- Am I my ancestors, my mother, my father, God?
- Am I my role, my marriage, a daughter, a father, a lover, a friend?
- How do I behave to show you I am these roles?
- What happens if I don’t behave in accordance to my roles, what do I lose if I am not what society says I should be?
- Am I, my Ego, my I?
- Am I my abilities, ex. Logical Brain vs. Creative Brain, Left vs. Right brain?
- Am I what I do?
- Am I my values?
- Am I how well my relationships are doing, how my family is?
- Am I my clan, tribe, culture, country?
- Does this I change or remain constant?
- Can I become someone else or make you believe I am someone else?
- And if I am not my virtues, values, roles, these ever-changing concepts: Then what am I?
These are questions I’ve played with time and time again social constructs and concepts, the ever-changing ‘I’. I’ve read article after article, child developmental and attachment patterns, psychology after psychology book. I’ve done tests for self-discovery, personality tests, I’ve gone on in search of my purpose. Who am I, and what is my purpose in life? Is my function my purpose? My pen’s function is to write, but I can decide what its purpose will be, the bridge to an umbrella. My function is to reproduce but my purpose is anything I choose to do with it.
In some cultures Who am I is known as God, and in other cultures who am I is Nothingness from which all life springs. In some worlds who am I is “Ego”, it’s personality there’s even a shadow self, and others it’s just what our DNA says we are.
We spend a lot of time ‘covering up’ our “I”, who we are. Distracting ourselves with television, roles, relationships, sex, make-up. Burying ourselves into conditions. “I am my family, I am the success of my children, I am a Scientist, I am a Wife, I am Good, I am bad.”
Sometimes we ask superficially who am I? We do a personality test here or there and decide, “I” am an introvert, an extrovert, an INFP on the myer-briggs scale, a #4 on the enneagram. I’m a Pisces or a Cancer, a Gemini. I’m a Father, Lover, Bitch. I’m a writer, an artist. I am what I do.
And if you lost all your memories, if you lost all these things, what would you be? If you stopped running, if you abandoned everything even your own thoughts, who would you be—are you your thoughts? Your memories? What if you forget them? Then who are you?
This question is exactly what this game attempts to explore.
What is Afterlife?
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything but about unbecoming everything that isn’t you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
Afterlife is a card game about self-discovery. It’s a game of ungrowing. It’s a game that explores who you are by stripping away all the things that you are not. In most games you play with the goal of creating yourself into something. There are even a few games where you play in accordance to your beliefs and values and have them tested such that you build yourself into the person you are working to be.
Afterlife works in reverse.
In Afterlife you and whoever is playing with you have each died. Players create what is called a “Legacy Deck” this is similar to character creation in which you select the things that have made up what you left behind. Your personality traits that gave you trouble or aided you in life, roles that you lived, things or people you’re grateful for, even things you were ungrateful for, regrets. The legacies are divided into 6 categories that correspond with 6 different gates that have a series of challenges you will be passing through.
There are 6 levels or rounds also gates that the player has to play. Players will use their legacy deck to get through each of these challenges that test their values in the areas of: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Spirituality (Your Outlook On Life).
These scenarios that are encounter are there to test the player’s legacy, beliefs and values. Consequently players can have their experiences translated into Karma Points (which are divided into Baggage and Legacy points), when they pass through the gate these points are transmuted into Wisdom Points once they let go of one of their 6 items that they are traveling with.
The goal of the game is self-discovery. The underlying concept is two-fold: that you can create whoever you want to be, but that what you create is not you.
You discover who you are by invoking or devoking your gifts, hindrances, roles, guardians, etc. and by reflecting on what those mean to you, how you’ll use it in a scenario and the affects it’s had on the world around you including yourself. So you can invoke bravery a gift or virtue, or you can take a vice/hindrance that you want to overcome and you can place it upside down to show that you are invoking it, or you can devoke it placing it upside down.
You have to use the card 6x’s to remove it. Alternatively I have thought about taking the gifts and hindrances deck and making them a single card that you can flip upside down or vice versa.
Right now there are 6 Gates and challenges.
- Gate 1, introduces the main environmental condition and setting that you’ll face.
- Gate 2, introduces the main social condition and or reoccurring NPCs that you’ll face (2-5)
- Gate 3, introduces a personal challenge or situation that you are in that will affect you (3-5).
- Gate 4, introduces how you work together with people to solve problems (example bringing person from Gate 2 and/or 3 to justice), to solve the mystery. Here players come together to solve a problem that was introduced in Gate 2 & 3.
- Gate 5, This is what you do to others in response to what has been done to you, when faced with the demons you encountered in Gate 3 and Gate 2.
- Gate 6, introduces your ability to heal and your outlook on life after events that occurred to you.
Gates are essentially the challenges, the levels, you have to pass, and they are colour coordinated as well. By the end of the game players should have explored and peeled away all of the things that are ‘not’ them to face what’s left at the end.
Where did Afterlife come from?
I designed the original concept of “Afterlife” while I was in Game Development school sometime during 2013 or 2014. During that time I was struggling with depression and had the idea of a game that could help you discover who you were.
For one of my assignments we had to take a traditional board game and recreate it. I chose the ancient Egyptian game Senet. In my research of Senet I was fascinated by what the game represented, a spiritual journey through death. I love Mythology and the idea of passing trials in a game to get your heart weighed seemed awesome. I also loved death and studying the different mythologies people have when it comes to the afterlife.
In one culture Mesopotamia there is Irkalla, and the story of Inanna-Ishtar and her descent into Irkalla the realm of the Goddess of Death, Ereshkigal. In it Inanna must pass through each gate of the underworld one at a time to reach Ereshkigal the goddess of Death. At each gate she is asked or told to remove an article of clothing, until she reaches the final gate, removes her final article of clothing and is finally standing naked before the Goddess Ereshkigal herself.
I read a wonderful interpretation of this, that this journey was about the Goddess stripping away all the things that she was not, to reveal who she truly is underneath at the core.
In Ancient Egypt or Kemet, the Goddess Ma’at weighs your heart in the underworld, and you travel through a river, there is even a risk of being devoured by the crocodile Ammut. At least if memory serves me correct, it’s been a while and I am a bit rusty in my mythology.
Taking the ancient Egyptian game Senet, I created a board game divided by colour into regions, with a deck of cards. Each area had a gate at the end of the trial. Throughout the game there was a risk of being devoured by Ammut in true death if you failed to pass, and at the end your heart would be weighed and what would be done with you based on your previous actions were decided.
I had only one week to put the game together, so it was incomplete. Later I would try to build on the concepts of that game in a Table-Top RPG I was designing called “Sanctuary”. Because I had never played a table-top RPG I went off to find a game, and ended up sucked into an RPG world for 3 years where I ended up in a tornado of a relationship. When that relationship finally ended I remembered what I had gone off to do in the first place and picked up the game where I had left off after a slight detour.
More recently I read the book “The Four Agreements” and listen to Philosophers like Alan Watts talk about “Death” and the idea of ‘symbolic death’. In this way “Afterlife” represents symbolic death and resurrection from which we discover who we are, we empty our cup of those ideas, and we decide what we want to be. And what to do with this knowledge.
What are my hopes for the game?
Currently the game is still being designed and tested. My hopes however are that the game can help people on their journey of exploration and self-discovery; and that it can be used not just as a self-help tool and a get-to-know you tool for people on a more intimate level.
I also hope that it can be a useful tool in psychology, among close friends, or even individually as the game is designed to play with 1 person at minimum.
I’d like to see more games created as a tool to help and encourage people to think and look within themselves, to ask questions about the things they do and the affects they have on the world around them, and this is the first game that I’ve created that has entered in the gameplay testing phase and is not just stuck in the development loop.
What Are the Challenges in creating this game?
Depression & Lifestyle Changes
Depression was a constant challenge for me. Unlike my previous game Winter solstice which was a game I was programming in Unity this game actually helped ease me through my depression and was a comforting journey. Working on it and researching for it helped distract me and ask me questions in my own life and deal with that constant theme. I had also gone through a pretty intense but necessary break-up with someone who had been my focus for the past 3 years. The finally straw came when I lost even my “Hope” that we could ever get back together and work on the things that had gone wrong. This was impossible to fix she said because the fact was she didn’t love me and was tired of hurting me because of that. This led me to realize that I had lived most of my life looking for Hope in people and things, Hope that life could get better. And when even that symbolic representation of Hope was gone, I was left with the question. Who am I without hope?
Even in the game I entered a part where I couldn’t go on with it because the loss of my love wearing her face was standing in the way. And so getting over my love became part of the game, facing it and letting it go. Consequently designing the game helped me get through my depression and working through my depression helped me with the game, as the game is designed to ask questions about who we are when we lose something that is important to us or leave it behind, and who we are underneath the surface of us that keeps changing.
Managing Bipolar Lows
Bipolar lows triggered in response to loneliness and break-ups were an added bonus challenge, worse than the depression were suicidal bipolar lows that got really bad. There was just no way that I could work during my intense lows. I could try but some days I could only just open up the word document or walk around with a piece of paper and stare. I had to cut myself a lot of slack here. I tend to cope with depression and bipolar lows by finding meaning and purpose in spirituality and Love. So I read a lot of books, during these moments there was not much of anything I could do and at times I feared that the game would never get finished.
Creative Blocks & Design Mechanic Challenges
Another challenge were roadblocks like, how do I create a game that asks people to be introspective and look within themselves, that challenges players to ask the very basic question: Who am I without this part of me? In the game everything that you think you are is represented as an article of clothing or some other object and you leave it behind at the end of each gate. Before and After actions and after passing each gate you ask a series of some of the most basic questions. You ask why you are doing what you are doing? What do you hope to achieve? Did it have the effect you wanted? Who did it hurt and who did it help, and did you care? and so forth.
Because the game is meant to be a tool creating tools within the game mechanics that encourage self-reflection in a fun and creative way has been a challenge as well as creating an introspective game that successfully helps the player realize what they were doing and how to arrange and present that is and continues to be a challenge that I continue to chip away at each day.
To tackle some of these mechanics I began researching to see what popular games were out there, were there any games close to mine, how had they done it, and what features could I try to incorporate into my game, what were already like my game, and how could I keep it simple with minimum to no artwork.
I began researching popular card games like Uno, Cards Against Humanity, Apples to Apples, Incan Gold, Monopoly (card game), and Life (card game).
I researched RPG Card Games and began looking into things like Deck of Fate, Despair Decks, and explored mechanics like that of Tarot Decks and the Witcher game.
I studied various table-top RPGs too to look into some of the systems that they had: DnD system, Fate, Call of Cthulhu, Freeform diceless systems, Burning Wheel (recently discovered), Pace RPG, and mutants & masterminds.
The goal was to take the things that worked, leave out what didn’t. I also had to figure out if players would interact with each other and the environment and how, and am still working on those details. A rule of thumb for myself is if I can think it, it’s been created so I go on a search for finding similar games and discovered Burning Wheel.
Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery Tools
I read self-help after self-help book, self-discovery tools, reviewed psychology tools, techniques, methods, Buddhism and so forth trying to narrow down some methods. I also explored challenges and disasters and situations that would best reveal or cause us to reveal ourselves under stress, and began compiling a list and the mechanics in which that list could be used and how.
One of my goals is to keep the game as simple as possible while also being fun. My target-audience isn’t your everyday typical RPG gamer who want to level up and kill things. It’s primary targeted towards people who would be interested in games on a therapeutic level. Because of this my goal is to add elements I like from some of the complex games but keep it as simple as possible. It’s because of this I’ve tried to figure out is this an RPG card game, a card game, or a table-top RPG with card elements? I’m still working on narrowing down how to categorize it.
Budgets, Time, Scale & Medium?
Another challenge for the game was figuring out what my budget for the game was and then trying to decide what type of game this would be. At first, the game was going to be a board game, but the time of developing the board and the art that went into creating it, and then the fact that I didn’t know how to divide the cardboard into 4 squares to fold up and so forth just added to the challenge, cost and development time.
I began researching popular card games like Cards Against Humanity and their method of using print-to-play for free and offering another version that could be brought. This seemed like the most cost reasonable. So I removed the board game altogether and focused on cards.
After that it was trying to figure out how to keep the card game cost and scale down and manageable.
Balancing Marketing & Creation
Balancing Marketing while also creating the game was another challenge as a sole developer. My goal became creating the basic game and mechanics of it, to test it, and then get a playable product. Currently my strategy for marketing involves getting a playable product, asking a few people to test the game including psychologists, listening to feedback, tweaking and doing a kickstarter to gauge interest. I still have much to research here, but I can’t Market and Create at the same time. This post is a sign that I’m almost ready to begin presenting a product that players can test and marketing will begin once I finish narrowing things down.
Another challenge has been balancing this site and my overall goals and blog and separating it from my game content.
Closer To The Finish Line
It’s been a long and painful few months in game development, but I am so close to getting a playable product out there. It’s truly been a journey. The fact that I am able to write this post is a good sign that things are coming along and almost ready to be presented to the public for testing.