Goat Game at NarraScope

In July 2022 I spoke about Goat Game at NarraScope, an annual conference celebrating narrative games. My slides and (slightly edited) transcript are posted below. A recording of the talk can be found here.

Beware of spoilers ahead!

Thank you so much for joining me today!

I’ll be speaking about Goat Game: A Hollow-Horned Rumination, a hyperlink-based game I made about the psychological toll of navigating ethical questions within an institution. You might remember it if you were watching IFComp last fall. Goat Game was my Senior Degree Project at RISD, and this talk was adapted from my thesis paper.

What I want to share are the ideas of “affective storytelling” and “ethical artmaking”, which are terms that I am using broadly to describe the two major principles that ended up defining my creative process.

Some background info:
I am a graphic designer currently working in children’s book publishing. I started this project while taking a class about trauma, but I went to school for Illustration and Literary Arts + Studies. So although I have been interested in game design, ethics, and trauma for a long time, I am not by any means an expert in these fields. My area of expertise is visual communication, making pictures and pairing them with words strategically to make my audience think and feel a certain way.

I feel as an artist that it is never my place to tell another artist what to do. There is so much art in the world which is both completely antithetical to what I’m about to say and equally valid in its own way. The strategies in this presentation were developed for a project that took an audience-first approach and attempted to validate the experience of readers who have gone through something difficult or traumatic. I hope that is the main context in which my ideas will be applied.
A brief summary of Goat Game: you are an entry-level researcher working at a biotech company in a world where everyone is an anthropomorphic goat. It is revealed through a public scandal that there is some shady stuff going on, and the game is about how you and the people around you react and the impact it has on your relationships and morale.

It is inspired by an event which happened to me and a group of coworkers, and I made this game as a way to help us process it.
Here is a screenshot of the gameplay and of my Twine map so you can get a sense of the mechanics and structure. You navigate the game by clicking on the purple links, and it takes you through a pretty linear story.

You make choices throughout the storyline which distribute points to these three categories at the bottom of the screen: work, social, and opportunity, representing your affinity with your company, public opinion, and your own material interests. Depending on your point distribution at the end of the game, you’ll be taken to a different ending. The row of asterisks at the bottom right of the screen tracks which of the endings you’ve found.
So the event that Goat Game is based on, it happened while I was working a summer job, and afterwards I returned to school all worked up about it because I wanted to make something about it but didn’t know how? And I happened to have already preregistered myself to be in this class, Art & Trauma, which ended up being the perfect framework for tackling the themes I was thinking about.
These are some of the texts we read for that class: Unclaimed Experience by Cathy Caruth, Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, and Empathic Vision by Jill Bennett.

The key takeaway I got from Caruth was, trauma is deeply individual, cyclical, and inherently unknown to some degree, so you can’t treat it as you would a typical topic. Understanding and communicating a traumatic experience can only happen with humility and an acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Sontag writes about the misconception people had that war photography would move viewers to work towards world peace, and one of her main points is: exposing people to the suffering of others is 1) harmful to those who are already traumatized and 2) can backfire on spectators by making them desensitized rather than empathetic.

Bennett, sort of in response to this, writes, focus on the affect of the piece, the emotional core. What actually works in an artwork to create empathy between the subject and the viewer? And she suggests that using narrative is more powerful than simply depicting what happened.
So here are the principles I formulated for myself based on my reading of these texts. Affective storytelling: establishing empathy for the subject by recreating their emotional experience in viewers instead of taking advantage of the topic itself for its shock value. Ethical artmaking: prioritizing support & healing for contributors & viewers during the creative process.

The first is about creative choices and second is about interpersonal choices, which I believe go hand in hand. If you’re working from life experience and especially the experiences of other people, which I wanted to do, you have to establish that trust and care first, which in itself can be transformative.

When I began this project in earnest, the first thing I did was set up interviews with my coworkers to hear their opinions on the event and gather inspiration for what they thought my project should do. Since I was working on it by myself, I wanted to take their perspectives into account as much as possible. But speaking with them also became a therapeutic process for me. (Here is an interesting paper on best practices when interviewing for design research.) For me, this happened for two reasons. The first is that it’s incredibly validating to talk with people who understand what you have been through. I noticed that the coworkers who had a strong social circle to turn to tended to have a more optimistic outlook. The second reason is that seeing my friends’ rationales for their vastly different reactions to the event made me realize that it was less important whether I was having the “correct response” as an individual than whether I was thinking about how the systemic issues needed to be addressed. These revelations were what I really wanted to translate into the playing experience.
Here is a list of games that I learned from as I was making Goat Game:
Papers, Please, This War of Mine, The Yawhg, Signs of the Sojourner, and Galatea. All of them talk about trauma in one form or another and in my opinion tell a psychologically compelling and morally nuanced story through their gameplay and/or writing.
Here is a visual for reference.
Now I’ll be going through some themes that I tried to incorporate into my game design process.
Privacy and distance. The first question I often get about Goat Game is, why are they goats? I have narrative reasons for this, but the simplest answer is that having non-human characters made it easier for me to write about what happened.

I also wanted to create a sense of distance from the reality of the event both to protect my friends’ privacy—because consent is important—and to prevent players from identifying too closely with the protagonist. Since trauma is complex and not always explainable, I wanted players to experience and accept a disconnect from the protagonist’s thoughts and choices. I tried to achieve this through show don’t tell writing, having a sparse inner monologue, depicting the protagonist goat in third person, etc.

In all of the games I reference, there’s not much introspection or moral judgment provided in-game, but the player is able to construct moral conclusions about themselves through small pieces of feedback accumulated over the course of many interactions. (Here is an interesting paper about how this is achieved in Papers, Please). So similarly, I’m hoping to use subtle cues to prompt to player to reflect on their choices.
Cycles and repetition. When you go through something traumatic and you’re unable to integrate that experience like you would a normal memory, there’s a tendency to revisit it again and again, which is sort of an unconscious reenactment attempting to make sense of the memory. And I think that phenomenon is very similar to the idea of trying to find the best ending in a game. All of the games that I was inspired by have this cyclical structure, whether it’s on an action-by-action basis or cycles of days or weeks. In Goat Game it was a very deliberate choice to have every ending feel like, oh this isn’t satisfying, this doesn’t add up, let me try again and see if I can do better this time. The word “Rumination” in the title of the game is a reference to that.

I also wanted the main choices in the game to mirror this by being quite repetitive. Because you’re progressing through the story, the stakes and the information you have access to changes, but each time you’re essentially answering the same question: where does your loyalty lie? When it’s your family asking, when it’s your coworkers asking, when it’s the journalist asking, and finally when you’re actually deciding what you want your life to look like.
Flattened moral scale. Goat Game has a bunch of endings. I think when you encounter games like this it’s common to expect various degrees of success and morality, ending up with different love interests, etc. I was inspired by how endings are constructed in The Yawhg—where sometimes you’ll get endings that are totally nonsensical and unrelated to what you did during the game. I find that very realistic and subversive, if not always satisfying. And This War of Mine—where your future quality of life and mental health are closely intertwined with how you treated others during the war.

A key takeaway I wanted players to have was that their choices determined not a moral score but a set of priorities with unique consequences and tradeoffs. This is why an ending where the player invests every point into, for example, the work category, is no more satisfying than putting a single point in every category. The workaholic goat may achieve success in their career but sacrifice some relationships with people who are more socially minded. Conversely, the undecided goat may understand the situation with greater nuance but feel unable to take meaningful action.

I love how secondary characters are used in Signs of the Sojourner—there’s a system of associating abstract shape symbols on player cards with different personalities and communication styles, and because the protagonist has zero or very little dialogue in-game, the people you align your card deck with says a lot about who you are as a character. In Goat Game it’s more implicit, but I did a similar thing of saying this character is purely aligned with work, this character is a centrist, and I’ll write scenes where other characters are sympathetic or hostile to you depending on how your values align.
Structuralism and collective healing. The last reason all of the endings in Goat Game are slightly unsatisfying is that I believe it’s very difficult for individuals to overcome institutional problems. However, each version of the protagonist gains insight about some aspect of the system depending on where they end up.

Goat Game has a secret ending that you can access after finding the other endings in which all of these versions of the protagonist meet in a dream sequence, acknowledge each other’s strengths, and commit to changing the system together. This serves as an invitation for the player to think not in terms of making right or wrong choices in their own lives but rather to work with people with similar ideals and consider what they have to offer to a collective effort.
Goat Game was released at IFComp 2021, where it performed very respectably and accumulated a range of reviews which I think speak well to the strengths and weaknesses of my approach.

Nuance. Exploring multiple points of view without moral judgement makes it possible to have lots of room for nuance. That was something that many of my reviewers pointed out, even if they didn’t like the game overall.

Impact on intended audience. The best way to know whether your project is working is to test it on the people that it was created for. I am proud to say that my coworkers who played the final version of Goat Game either 1) identified positively with the story or 2) thought that it helped them make more sense of the event it was based on. The best review I received during IFComp was from a stranger who said that they both related with the protagonist because they were going through something similar at the time and thought that the process of discovering the different endings made the story a more enjoyable experience.

Entertainment value. The reality of making a game that asks you to replay it multiple times to achieve uniformly unsatisfying endings is that if you are unable to maintain the interest of players, they will get bored before they are able to see what the story is about. I relied heavily on my visuals and worldbuilding in an attempt to compensate for this. Had I been a more experienced programmer, I would’ve included more narrative variation in the central storyline.

Directness and clarity. Prioritizing affect means that your storytelling will likely be more roundabout. Several players who reviewed my game expressed disappointment because I set them up to expect a different playing experience than what they got. It requires careful setup to lead players to the themes and ideas that you are aiming for.

It’s not easy to pull off! But definitely worth the effort when the story reaches someone and they say, I just had a similar experience and this is exactly what I needed to hear.
Before I close, I want to say thank you—
—first to Liz Maynard, the professor of my Art & Trauma class, for providing the space and resources I needed to embark on this project with the thoughtfulness it deserved.

Rachael Dietkus is a social worker and designer who hosted a wonderful workshop on trauma informed design that I was at earlier this month. The paper I mentioned in the first section of my talk was a resource that she shared with us, and her presentation was also just inspiring for me to listen to as I was preparing for this talk.

I’m grateful to my Degree Project supervisors Fred Lynch and Taylor Polites for supporting me as I went through the process of transforming an idea of a game into a playable one.

I want to thank my dad Paul for introducing me to interactive fiction, and everyone at PR-IF for welcoming me so warmly into the community.

Lastly, most special thanks to Aruna, Daniel, Harry, Ivy, and Sam for trusting me with your innermost thoughts about the event which inspired this game. Goat Game is first and foremost made for and dedicated to all of you.
© 2024 Kathryn Li All Rights Reserved