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Wed, Feb. 6th, 2008, 11:02 pm
Thing A Day 6: Austen Meets Assassins

Having recently read Pride and Prejudice, and thinking of the Emily Dickinson game design challenge, I thought my creative act for the day would be sketching a Jane Austen game design.

Fortunately, I’m relatively well equipped for this. I love Austen, and this is my fifth or sixth reading of the book (though admittedly I’ve read most of her other books only a couple of times). Even better, I recently watched Regency House, a more-or-less reality TV show in which ten adults go “back in time” to the Regency period and try to mate-and-date. (It’s actually kind of a Jane Austen LARP. Seriously, people, go and watch it!)

The show emphasized just how little opportunity men and women had to interact meaningfully while choosing a mate. You were expected to be in public the bulk of the time, and your behavior was seriously constrained by etiquette at ALL times. This was cool to see visually, because as I was re-reading the book it made that aspect of the story really jump out at me. With the Jane/Bingley storyline, for example, you realize just how little opportunity they’ve had to truly speak to each other, and it makes his behavior later in the novel much more understandable.

But, in any case!

This game is a computer game. I imagine a single play-through would take about 45 minutes, so it’s a semi-casual game. The goal is, in those 45 minutes, to take a character and get him or her appropriately married! Over multiple plays, you would develop a “stable” of characters you have married off, more or less successfully.

Your overall success at the game is judged by the well-being of the characters you’re married off, with different measures of competition including rank, money, happiness, children, and the like. You can submit your character stable to a central server for scoring, or create badges to show off your characters. There would also be tools for supporting fan-fic and fan-art about your favorite characters, to give the biographies texture and meaning beyond just stats and scores.

However, the core of the gameplay would be taking your character to a country house party to get married.

First, the player creates a character. The player can choose a male or female character, and customize their appearance to some degree. The player receives some number of characteristics which are fixed and randomly determined, such as rank and money. The player can choose personality characteristics for their character, which will affect their compatibility with potential mates. Some personality characteristics, such as optimism, may also affect the character’s overall happiness even with an unsuitable spouse.

Play is divided into seven “days” of three phases each. On the first “day,” the character arrives at the country house. If the character is not married by the end of the last “day,” they are doomed to be unmarried forever. (The mechanics here are assumed to be the same for male and female characters, although women generally faced more severe consquences for not marrying, and their period of eligibility was shorter. This element requires further consideration before a mechanical distinction will be made between men and women.)

The first phase of each day is the daytime events. Men and women are separated, with men outside the house and women inside it. Occasionally groups of women may venture outside, but woe to the unchaperoned woman who wanders around the woods! Similarly, men dare not venture inside without a specific purpose. Day lasts for three minutes.

The second phase of each day is dinner. All characters are present at dinner, and the phase lasts for one minute.

Finally, the third phase is the post-dinner socializing, with both genders present. The post-dinner phase lasts for two minutes.

During each phase, the goal is the same, though the details of the mechanics differ. The goal is to discover the true nature (i.e. rank, money, personality traits) of the marriagable characters in the house, while keeping your own propriety score high. The game is about showing what you wish to show, while concealing what you wish to conceal, and seeing what others wish to conceal.

The player has a set of actions available to them, which range from “Observe” (which allows the player to understand the meaning of, for example, a gesture with a fan) to “Flirt” to “Pull rank.”

Every action impacts NPCs differently depending on their social status and personality variables. For example, flirting with a “Staid” NPC might lower your desirability to them, but flirting with a “Adventurous” NPC would increase it. As your desirability rating is what determines whether your offer of marriage will be accepted, it is important to increase your desirability with the NPC you desire to wed. An NPC whose rank or wealth is above yours will require a higher desirability rating to acquire than someone who is your social inferior.

Each action also reveals information about the NPC in question to the player. For example, a “Flirt” action would reveal one personality characteristic of the NPC. A “Gamble” action would reveal something about the character’s wealth. This information is for the player to use in choosing whether this person is in fact a good match.

Finally, most actions also have a cost in propriety - if “society” witnesses it. Losing propriety impacts one’s desirability for ALL NPCs. The most useful actions can only be performed alone with an NPC of the opposite sex (or while the NPCs are looking the other way), if one is not to lose a great deal of propriety. Other actions will only bother certain categories of people. For example, young NPCs will not mind seeing you flirt, but if you are caught by the party’s hostess, you will certainly lose a great deal of propriety. The more important the NPC who catches you, or the more inappropriate your action, the more propriety you lose. Different actions, are, of course, more and less inappropriate in different phases of the game. Gambling at dinner is completely unheard of, while it is not unreasonable to make bets over a friendly game of loo.

From moment to moment, the player must be paying attention to what is going on around them, which NPCs are looking at them, which potential spouses are available to them, what actions will bring them the most benefit, and whether they can make a good match. Think Austen meets Assassin’s Creed!

This atmosphere of highly civilized paranoia is, if not traditionally Austen, precisely the Austen effect that I am looking for!