Welcome to part 3 in my Amnesia Fortnight 2014 series. We're gonna jump right into this one, as we've got a bit over 2,000 words to get through.
Prototype 3: Dear Leader
Dear Leader was lead by Double Fine veteran Anna Kipnis, who has worked on such great titles as Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Costume Quest, Once Upon a Monster, The Cave, Spacebase (originally a prototype from a previous Amnesia Fortnight, now being developed into a full title), and is currently working on Broken Age.
Dear Leader is a social management game, set in a post-revolution republic. It's a social satire of despotism with the look and feel of WW2 Russian propaganda.
Growing up in the U.S.S.R., Anna Kipnis was able to bring an insider's perspective on a type of government many of us find foreign, and usually demonize.
Going into Dear Leader, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it. I'm pretty hit or miss on social management games. Some of them get way too complicated, moving away from feeling like games and more like work. While others end up being shallow, and simply exercises in clicking the right buttons and waiting a set amount of time before you need to click them again.
Hitting that middle ground of being close enough to simulation, while still feeling enjoyable is tough.
Not only does Dear Leader have that balancing act to play, but it has to also deal with commenting on real world social issues through satire, without going so far into farcical that its message is obscured.
Add to all of that, giving the player the choice to act as a benevolent or tyrannical leader, and having the ludonarrative shift appropriately with the embedded narrative.
The Dear Leader team had a lot to take on in the two weeks they had.
The game takes place entirely in your office.
You're able to step out onto the balcony, and see The People cheering for you, as well as see the growth of your nation as you work to rebuild it after your revolution. You can switch on the radio, and listen to music and the occasional news report about your nation.
But the actual game play here, happens right on your desk. The intercom on your left will beep at you from time to time, as the buttons flash, indicating that one of your advisors has information for you.
You will use this information to dive into the two books in front of you.
The book on the right is your Edicts book. Here, you are given a number of different forms to fill out to help shape your nation as you see fit.
Some early forms include what The People will refer to you as, drawing a custom seal for the stamp you use to authorize your edicts, and deciding who to assign to certain positions within your cabinet.
As you progress through the game, your advisors will inform you about new developments within your nation, leaving you new forms to use.
You'll be tasked with such things as deciding what routes your Minister of Development will focus on while rebuilding after your bloody revolution, planting surveillance on possible revolutionaries who may rise against you, as well as calling for the arrest and even the death of certain people through public execution or assassination.
Your decisions in the matters you're presented will influence how The People feel about your rule, as well as your cabinet members.
The other folder on your desk is the Reports folder. It contains news, transcripts, directives, and reports. This keeps track of what has been happening throughout your nation, the conversations you've had with your advisors, the directives you have issued, and the reports you have requested.
All of the information contained within the Reports folder will help you make informed decisions on how to next push your nation forward.
The gameplay within Dear Leader does feel a little lacking to me. It may be that I've tried to play through the game a few times, each time hitting a seemingly game stopping glitch (more on that later), so I may just be annoyed by it at this point. Once you've established who your advisors are, and what sorts of things your nation will start to develop, the game feels a bit repetitive. I found myself in a bit of a loop of requesting surveillance reports on people, and dealing with them one way or another.
The only real variation to this I found was when I had to deal with revolutionaries, or traitors within my cabinet. But even then, I did the same thing. Request surveillance, read reports, determine if I wanted to run a smear campaign, imprison them, or have them killed.
Aside from this gameplay loop, my only respite was the occasional decision on what to have my Minister of Development work on next, what propaganda message to push to The People, how to address the alliance of other nations (which I couldn't seem to join in), and dealing with my daughter.
This is where this game is truely interesting, to me.
As Anna Kipnis said in one of the early videos documenting Amnesia Fortnight 2014, "...games that have been about Russia, especially with the Cold War, it has always come with this sort of like funny caricature from an outsider's perspective. There has never been a caricature from an insider's perspective. Where they can represent Russia the way it actually was to those people, and yet still have a sense of humor about it..." "...what is it like to be a despot? Why're these people such jerks? Did they start out that way, or were they always like that. What lead them to thinking that way. What must it have been like to rule a country like Russia?"
For me personally, I never had any awareness of the Cold War. I was born at the tail end of it, and I honestly can't remember hearing anything about it except in movies that I watched later in life.
Everything I heard about World War 1, 2 and the Cold War was so far removed, that it seemed as if it had happened centuries ago, for all I could tell at the time. My experiences of them weren't simply from the outside, but so far removed that they weren't anything that really mattered to me. Weren't anything I ever thought about when I was younger.
All that my media intake taught me was that all Germans were Nazis (whatever those were), all Russians were communists (whatever those were) and the leaders of each country were super villains bent on capturing the ark of the covenant, or had to be stopped from launching nukes at the US by Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. There was no mention of how the people who were forced to live under the rule of these super villains actually were, how they were even human beings who could just as well be bystanders of the events of their country, as much as I was of mine. Nor were there any ideas of how the rulers of these nations were anything by horrible tyrants.
Everyone has those thoughts of 'if I were in charge, this is how I would do it'. Dear Leader gives an interesting perspective on that idea. Yes, you get to make the decisions on promoting education, art, science, war, agriculture, etc. but you have your advisors that have their own opinions and ideals, and may make it harder for you to follow your vision. You have millions of people that could very well revolt against you, as you revolted against the leader before you and the outside influence of other countries you have no control over, who may very well wage war against you simply because they disagree with your choices. Then you have your own life, your family, which may suffer as you sacrifice them to attempt to bring your country to what you've always dreamed it could be.
Or you could just be a tyrannical asshole and kill everyone.
The simulation of all these social dynamics, the emotional toll that the role of a despot could take on you, the decision to sacrifice your family, or your country, is a very interesting one. We've all played games like Civilization, Warcraft, Age of Empires. In those games you play the role of a god, and the only consequence of failure is losing a part of the objects you've built up, or losing all together. There is no emotional impact to ruling over your people. You are so far removed that none of them matter.
Dear Leader shifts you from the role of someone who is at the mercy of the system, to being the one who is the system, but shows that even when sitting at the top, there is still a struggle and you are still inevitably powerless.
If Double Fine decides to develop Dear Leader into a full game (which they should), I think the ideas presented to us in this prototype could really be expanded upon in interesting ways, making your decisions feel even more important, impactful and difficult than they already are.
The art style of Dear Leader is beautiful. It perfectly captures that look and feel of Russian propaganda posters, which was a beautiful, horrible and interesting art movement. It makes me wish there were more places to see within the game, just so I can see more of the amazing artwork.
The sound design of Dear Leader is also brilliant. From the unintelligible mumblings of your cabinet members, to the heavily distorted voice of Anna Kipnis reading the Double Fine NDA agreement, used as the various news reports. It's spot on with that feeling of a totalitarian government.
Now, I didn't "finish" Dear Leader, if there even is an "end". I tried to play through the game a few times, but kept hitting glitches. At one point, my in-game cursor stopped working and I wasn't able to properly examine important information. During my other attempts, I seemed to get stuck in a glitch where no matter what I did, no new events popped up, so I couldn't progress the game any further.
So, my impression of the prototype isn't of the entire thing, only the amount of it that I was able to play. But I get where the game is going, what the message they're trying to present is, and I love it. I want to see Dear Leader fully developed and expanded upon. I want to be able to make choices between caring for my family and caring for my people. I want to be able to negotiate with other nations, so I am able to try to bring my own to the vision I fought so hard for. I want to experience the internal conflicts within my own cabinet, and be forced to make difficult decisions on how to deal with them, and feel the social impacts of those decisions.
This game presents such a great view of how the internal workings of a totalitarian government could be, while at the same time forcing you to look at yourself, and question your own moral and ethical beliefs.
The Dear Leader team deserves high praises for tackling such a big subject, in such a short amount of time, and managing to pull it off so well.
What are your thoughts about Dear Leader? What sort of choices did you make? What choices did you struggle with? Would you like to see Dear Leader made into a full title? Let me know in the comments!
We're almost done with the prototypes from this year's game jam. I want to remind everyone that there's still time to pick up the games for yourself from Humble Bundle! You can pay what you want to get the games I've reviewed so far, and you can get Pendleton Ward's game by beating the average. You'll be supporting the Child's Play charity, as well as helping support great creative pieces of art.
My next piece will be the final title of this series, Little Pink Best Buds by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. Depending on its length, I may do a wrap up in the article, or I may do one after.