Game developer Khail Santia found himself surrounded by the pandemic as he worked smack in the middle of a CoViD-19 hotspot in Cebu City.
Santia writes on the preface to the game: “As if in a fog, I felt helpless as the pandemic tore through [Cebu]. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, and perhaps truer, to find a lifeline out of this dark place between helplessness and despair.”
“Games,” he continued, “can make abstract concepts accessible, awaken empathy, and move people to action. Games can allow us to explore the possibility space to not only see but live through proposed solutions and their consequences.”
As founder of indie game development studio Moocho Brain, Santia contemplated creating a game that could make the pandemic more comprehensible to whoever plays it. He could bring lead artist Ramon del Prado in for graphics, and lead composer Algernon Van Peel for music; both of whom have also taught at Silliman University, where Santia majored in Computer Science and Math. The game would be posted online, and it could teach young adults and children on how to deal with what’s happening outside.
According to Santia, the final push to action came from a Facebook post by Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun in Game Design, calling for an interactive CoViD-19 simulation where he sketched the game design that became the starting point of this work. Koster outlined a game that puts players in the shoes of public health officials overseeing communities struck by the pandemic, and simulating the parameters of CoViD-19.
Santia fleshed out the bare framework with data from the research literature, and his personal experiences living under the threat of CoViD-19 to develop the game In the Time of Pandemia (ITOP).
In ITOP, you lead communities through their daily lives during a health crisis. Using the public budget, you purchase testing kits, conduct mass tests, impose quarantine measures, classify stages of the disease, and hospitalize severe cases.
Santia recruited visual artists, composers, and a mathematical epidemiologist to work on the game. Along with del Prado, visual artist Linya Fernandez took up the challenge. With Van Peel, composers Filip Žarković and Jom Ouano came onboard to create the game’s music. Troy Valdehueza worked on the game’s trailer.
UP Mindanao Prof. and University of British Columbia alumna Dr. May Anne Estrera Mata gave detailed feedback on the game during development, a portion of which reads: “It teaches the user to strategize to be efficient in disease surveillance while properly allocating resources. The game interface in itself resembles that of the classical Nintendo games, which brings back fond memories”.
According to Santia, despite working remotely across the country and the world (with Van Peel working from Japan, and Zarkovic all the way from Serbia), the artists and composers submitted their contributions in a span of two days. “When you have collaborators like them, it also fires you up to rise to their level of performance.”
Santia said that to finish making the game, he had to have an unrelenting focus. “However, entering into that focused state could also be difficult when the pandemic keeps banging at your door.” But he prevailed. “As lead game developer, I had to put everything together, while making sure the dance of interaction between player and game remains fluid, harmonious in its many variations.”
After two weeks of coding, testing, and debugging during a game jam (gamespeak for hackathons), Santia submitted the prototype. He then continued to work on it for the next three months, typing out almost 8,000 lines of code for the program to become an interactive functioning system. After finishing and self-testing, he had to test the game for accuracy, as well as effective communication, so he contacted a few people who could assess the work.
Ashley Uy, a tech community builder in Cebu, consulted on the user experience of the game. She said ITOP helps its players understand pandemic response, and how its factors — like budget, testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment — relate to each other. “It’s a much better learning experience than by just looking at graphs,” she concluded.
Gregg Victor Gabison, dean of the University of San Jose-Recoletos College of Information, Computer & Communications Technology, whose students play-tested the game, said, “This is the kind of game that mindful individuals would want to check out. It has substance and a storyline that connects with reality, especially during this time of pandemic.”
Not only does the game have to work on a technical basis, it has to communicate how real a crisis the pandemic is in a simple, digestible manner.
Dr. Mariane Faye Acma, resident physician at Medidas Medical Clinic in Valencia, Bukidnon, was consulted to assess the game’s medical plausibility. She enumerated critical thinking, analysis, and multitasking as skills developed through this game. “You decide who are the high risks, who needs to be tested and isolated, where to focus, [and] how much funds to allocate….The game will make players realize how challenging the work of the health sector is in this crisis.”
“Ultimately, the game’s purpose is to give players a visceral understanding of what it takes to flatten the curve,” Santia said.
For del Prado, the game’s lead artist, Santia is successful in conveying his thoughts on current events through game programming in ITOP. “This tiny game helps give those of us fortunate to stay at home with an internet connection a sliver of an idea of the stress that is happening outside. In the game, you are at the helm,” del Prado said.
When the game was finished and uploaded to online entertainment website Newgrounds, it debuted at No. 3 in the Games and Animation category, and No. 1 in Games of the Day.
A full circle moment came true when Koster witnessed ITOP for himself. “What Khail and the team did was breathe a ton of life into [my design sketch], and really make it their own,” said Koster, who was vice president for Creative Design at Disney, and former chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment.
“I can’t quite put to words how a decade of pursuing a dream culminates in a way in [ITOP],” Santia said. “As we open up restrictions towards the new normal,” he added, “it’s as timely as ever for this kind of game-based communication as it’s designed to help promote observance of health protocols, increase public understanding of pandemic management, and gather additional support for desperate communities.”
Check out the game In the Time of Pandemia through this link [https://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/761595]