Note: We’re going to talk in depth about our thoughts while designing this game, which will likely affect your experience of it. We highly recommend playing it first if you have any inclination to do so: Life Game – Childhood & Teenage Years (itch.io)
What is the game about?
In Life Game: Childhood, you play a series of microgames which evoke things you might play with as a child, and prepare you for the abilities and activities you will encounter in the later years of Life Game. All controls are handled via mouse. There are 5 microgames, which widen in scope and complexity the more times they’ve come up. Each microgame you play represents a ‘year’ of life – after thirteen of them you will enter the Teenage Years. At first, the games are very narrow, goalless, and randomly selected. Later on, you will be able to choose which game you’d like to play, and they become less sandbox-y and more goal-oriented.
The 5 games are: marbles, an ‘I Spy’ equivalent, playing notes on a piano, moving around a simple obstacle course, and buttons which you can poke for a variety of effects. While there is a few seconds’ break between microgames, there is no pausing, and the entire Childhood takes roughly 4-5 minutes to finish. Time halts for no child! Your Childhood experience then leads directly into the Teenage Years.
Out of all the games we’re showing, this is the least ambitious and most reasonably scoped. It still could have used a few tweaks (how late you encounter goals, refining the actual microgames), and would have been polished more if we continued development on it, but it does the job of acting as the starting point for Life Game.
Thoughts, Goals and Inspirations
Flo: Childhood is a prelude, teaching you certain basic controls and concepts you will be able to use later in the game. We wanted to get players into it without much guidance, letting them play around and feel their way through the short sections. We hoped the activities would feel like the kinds of things one associates with childhood!
It’s probably not surprising that Childhood was inspired by Warioware. Our version is more gentle – the games last a little longer, with no goals at first, and no penalties for failing them later on. Warioware’s break screens were a good fit, and I used them after every game. They gave players a break while ‘grounding’ the experience – the break screen changes to show time passing and the player getting older. Apparently, to me that means going from cookies and a sippy cup, to orange juice and a sandwich, to hot chocolate.
Going from sandbox-like games given to you, to choosing what you want to play was something we wanted to capture, as part of our experiences growing up. Each year (represented by one microgame) things get a little harder and more interesting, whether because you’re focusing on what you like, or you’re trying out something new. Whatever you practise the most as a child will become the starting point for your teenage schooling, as none of these skills are lost, but rather have different uses later in life.
When we picked Childhood back up in 2021, very few things needed fixing, but the game was entirely silent outside of the piano keys. I trimmed two songs from Freesound to fit the twelve-or-so-second loops of the minigames, which makes it feel a little more complete (and gives you an audio cue when you’re running out of time). I also added sound effects to the poking minigame, since changing colours wasn’t quite entertaining enough on its own. Now it should sound more like the buttons on a kid’s toy!
Des: I was interested in a few overarching concepts in Life Game – matching game structures to broad periods of a life, as well as matching different game types or activities to life activities or a sense of identity. In hindsight, something like Spore is not a bad comparison point, but I honestly wasn’t thinking about it at the time. For game design nerds, I loosely had in mind a ‘micro – macro – meta’ representative structure for Childhood – Teenager – Adulthood, respectively. Childhood was the ‘micro’ – the moment to moment gameplay that would recur across Life Game, absent from much broader context.
Each of the microgame types is meant to be evocative of both a game type and an identity (loosely). For example, I Spy was meant to capture hidden object gameplay and link to people who spend a lot of time observing their surroundings and noticing things. This really comes into its own more in the Teenage years, but hopefully people are drawn to the Childhood games that they enjoy or are interested in exploring.
I also wanted to mix random factors with personal choice in creating a ‘life story’ for the player. For Childhood, it was going to be the beginning of the game, there had to be ‘learning’ by the player without a lot of context, so I thought maybe the player could learn like a child – being thrown between different kinds of things (a yard to run in, balls to slide around, buttons to poke) with very little context, and letting them ‘play’.
We wanted a brisk pace, but we also wanted Childhood to be fundamentally unskippable. As a kid you have very little control (you get to choose your activities some ‘years’ in) and I hoped that having some time where you had nothing to do but interact with the things in front of you would inspire the player to just ‘play’. Then, as you encounter the same things over and over, the scope expands (more balls, bigger areas, different effects), and eventually you are assigned goals (slide this marble to that point, find these objects in the scene, race from here to there). Often in games, you want to give the player a clear objective, but I felt like that wasn’t quite right for really early childhood, and I wanted to explore the feeling of being goal-less in a tightly confined space, bringing in objectives only later after they’ve been free-playing for a bit.
Also in line with not having a lot of choice as a kid, in the beginning, the activities presented to you are random. You can choose later on, but the ones you get thrown at early might nudge you more towards them or away from them, thus leading to knock-on effects in the Teenage years. If you spent your early years learning piano, do you double down on that when you have a choice and get better and better, or do you avoid it in favour of shiny new activities? I was careful to ensure neither lead to ‘advantages’ in the teenage years.
One thread through all of Life Game was that we wanted it to be playable on touch devices. This was both for accessibility to a wider audience, and because it forced us to think of the controls in relatively simple terms (which also makes it more intuitive and simple for more people). This is tough for me, because I always design with an imaginary controller in my hand, and considering the wide variety of game types we were trying to represent under a single umbrella. Joke’s on me, though – the game never ended up on touch-devices, so it is all mouse clicking, and occasionally that gets in the way, but overall it was an interesting and useful challenge with meaningful (and hopefully enjoyable) results.