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CAMD Faculty Member Creates Game Exploring Choices and Morality During War

Brandon Sichling

Brandon Sichling, Visiting Lecturer of Game Design, is releasing a new game called The Beauty of Poppies. The game is a 16 bit retro-style role playing game (RPG) set largely during the American war in Afghanistan.

The game itself is less focused on combat and exploration, and instead focused on making decisions based upon the world of the game. The game is designed in the vein of Always Sometimes Monsters which was also made in RPG maker, which is a program used for making simple role playing games– and lends itself well to this decision-based style of game.

The Beauty of Poppies is unique in that it is not based in a high fantasy plot. It finds its home in the urban fantasy and new fantasy sub-genres, making it truly individual.

The opening screen of the game.

“It is a game about ethics and decision-making, designed not to reflect what the ethics and values of the player are, but to reflect what the player assumes other people’s values are,” Brandon said.

Confusion at these moral shifts is inherent in the game because, in Afghanistan, the enemies themselves shift. Some Taliban are also Afghan Police trainees Americans work with, which makes them part enemy and part ally. These shifting objectives are a common issue in war because morals change based on who the enemy is and how events play out. The rules of combat are not always the rules of the world, and Brandon seeks to explore that division.

Brandon and their team have been working on the game for about a year and a half. The initial momentum was slow because of class scheduling, but with the help of CAMD student Ryan Maloney, the team started to come together and make progress. Now, the fully formed student team will help make the game a reality.

The game is going to be exhibited at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games (CTFIG), from July 13-15 in Hartford, which is also part of a larger festival entitled Connecticon. The game is also pending an exhibit at Boston Festival of Indie Games (BFIG).

The process of preparing a game for exhibit at a festival is a time consuming one.

“Mostly, it is preparing a more robust build of the game,” said Brandon. “Right now, we have about 10 minutes of solid game play for people to enjoy. We have some decisions, some combat… a nice sampling of the game’s mechanics. We are also getting promotional materials ready so that once people see the game, they don’t just forget about it.”

Brandon looks at their game as having a longer time line ahead, similar to an art piece being prepared for exhibition. There will be more festivals for it to be submitted to and the game can exist in a more artistic corner of the Steam marketplace, a digital distributor of games and other programs. Brandon’s main goal is to position The Beauty of Poppies for long term success.

The game is slated to be complete by the end of the summer. The festivals are a key part of development and allow game creators to test the game mechanics and reception in real-time before fully releasing the game, while also providing quality advertising.

“Once all of the mechanics are in place and the writing is in a good place, it will not be too difficult to build it,” Brandon explained. “This is a very front heavy game; there aren’t that many kinds of environments to build. Thus, once the front half of the game is made, it shouldn’t be too labor intensive.”

In fact, the depth and value of the writing is one of the game’s special features.

To properly represent the areas and time of the story, Brandon had to do a lot of research. For the past few years, Brandon has been working through material that focuses on the region, like Green on Blue, the second season of Serial, and the Taliban Shuffle, which the 2016 American biographical war comedy-drama film Whisky Tango Foxtrot was based on. Brandon researched every story of the area available to make the most authentic story possible. Brandon also has a personal connection to the material; their younger brother did two tours in Afghanistan, and his experience about being stationed in Camp Leatherneck was valuable.

A screen shot of the game’s camp environment.

It was one of Brandon’s brother’s stories that got the premise of the story started. It  was about a poppy farm right outside Camp Leatherneck, and the camp’s waste was being funneled right through that farm, which then benefited from it. Brandon found the idea of “whoever is willing to tolerate America’s intrusion are those who will get ahead” compelling.

“There is no more perfect metaphor for dealing with imperialism,” Brandon said. “To examine subject matter of this scale and depth, there has been both a lot of primary research and secondary research put into the process.”

Of course, this research isn’t easy.

“The biggest thing I’ve had trouble with is getting ahold of people who are scholars for the region or, especially, Pashtun people,” Brandon continued. “I have been reaching out to community groups and research groups but haven’t gotten a lot of response back which has been kind of frustrating. I want to accurately show their views and expressions. I don’t want to critique militaristic imperialism while practicing cultural imperialism.”

There are also some mythological twists in the game. The farmers serve as a representation of the god Odin in disguise and the Private Military Contractors serve as a symbol of the goddess Athena. The specific characters of Odin and Athena are disguised to represent different views on justifications of war in the story. Brandon saw the story they are telling as having the potential to span many genres. They have used their research to do this in a respectful and well informed way, which combines different cultures and religions to make a more colorful and complete game.

This complex relationship between reality and fantasy is just one of the tensions Brandon is dealing with as a researcher and artist. This tension strongly correlates to the game’s central themes, in which Brandon asks the player to look at what happens to a space when the western world enters and changes or controls it.

An icon of Brandon made for them by a talented student artist.

If you want to see more of Brandon’s game, the website will be done within the next few weeks, so please check back for that. Good luck to Brandon!