Is life about how you see yourself? Or is it about how others see you?
Bearable is an up-and-coming interactive game that zeroes in on this question. Designed by Kristopher Alexander, a Ryerson RTA professor, the purpose of the game is to focus on three primary components: family, life and happiness.
“You’re gonna have to prioritize those three things as rankings,” said Alexander. According to him, the game is set in an anthropomorphic world where the player is a father, a professor and a black bear.
The player must prioritize the three components in order to maintain a “bearable” facade to their loved ones, friends and coworkers.
“There are a lot of things that can be and will be uncovered,” he said. The role of father, professor and bear are assigned to the player from the start of the game and the player has to overcome day-to-day challenges that are presented to them while prioritizing family, life and happiness.
The player has to maintain a neutral facade to overcome obstacles. This challenges the player to avoid coming across as either “unbearable” or “overbearing” to those close to them.
Unbearable is a state when they can be seen as unpleasant or intolerable; overbearing is when their predominant features make them look aggressive and overwhelming to be around.
Despite this, taking the middleground on these perceptions can have an impact on the player regardless of the choices they make. Alexander is intending to use the gameplay to ask one question: is life about happiness, or is it really just about perceptions?
“Some people think that they need to go through life and be happy all the time,” said Alexander. “If you’re stuck in one emotion all the time, at that point it becomes manic. Could you imagine being happy all the time?”
Alexander also said that the facade is the game’s core mechanic for the player. It allows the player to present a particular exterior of the character and “evade adversity.”
“I’m talking about uncomfortable situations and unfavourable scenarios,” he said. “There are particular scenarios in the game where you are like ‘Oh, I don’t know how to feel about this’ but when you are in the center, you are prompted to feel ‘I guess this is how I get through this.’”
Non-playable characters (NPC) are programmed to remember all of the actions that the player chooses to do throughout the game. The NPC then responds accordingly, resulting in some consequences based on how the player attempts to remain “bearable” and without coming across as rude, intolerable or angry.
Bearable tackles a variety of issues centred on work-life balance. While it may not be obvious to the player at first, it’s core message can be understood through subtle references and the scenarios that the player must overcome.
By using the “facade” mechanic, players can virtually revisit the reality of life’s struggles and develop an understanding of how hard it is to maintain optimism in trying situations.
According to Alexander, players can play in easy or hard mode as they go through each level, which is composed of a different scenario.
Easy mode allows the player to watch their attitude be measured through the meter, though he recommends players use the hard mode for the first time without the meter in order to receive an intense interactive experience of Bearable.
Interactive games: A little bit of something for everyone
Gaming technology has rapidly developed and changed over the last decade. From basic storyline components, improved graphics and updated tech adding to the reality of the gameplay, interactive games are becoming more in-depth and exploring serious themes and topics that relate to player’s real world struggles.
In a chapter of Playing Video Games: Motives, Responses, and Consequences Debra Lieberman at the University of California Santa Barbara states that interactive games are challenging players to solve complex problems through the process of learning by doing.
“Games usually adapt to players’ abilities and keep the level of difficulty in a range that is challenging but not impossible for each individual,” said Lieberman in a chapter excerpt titled, What Can We Learn From Playing Interactive Games?
She also said that players receive feedback on their progress and they are able to see how their choices enhance or hinder the desired outcome. These factors keep players motivated as they invest more time and effort into achieving different outcomes.
Interactive games provide a suitable environment for people who want to take on more decision-making roles because the gameplay is designed to respond to the player’s decisions and actions.
Not only that, but with this environment, there leaves a lot of room for creative scenarios and storylines to take place. Over time, they have developed and improved these elements, yet the storytelling concepts have become more sophisticated and diverse.
In a previous story by Ryerson Folio, Alexander said that COVID-19 is allowing society to realize that there are video games for almost everyone
“[People are asking], ‘Is there a video game experience for me?’ Increasingly, it’s almost impossible to not find [one],” said Alexander.
Interactive games are filling niche areas as they explore deeper topics that resonate with smaller groups of people in the gaming community.
“Let’s say you have a friend or you, yourself, are struggling with depression,” said Alexander. “There are two games I could recommend: one is called ‘Depression Quest” and another one called ‘The Cat Lady.”
According to him, players say they connect to the communities behind these games because people can share the same perspectives about depression.
“Players say ‘I connect with the communities that play these games’ because they experience similar feelings of depression,” he said. “You figure out what you need and you go out and find a game that connects directly to what that need is.”
Alexander wants to achieve that experience with Bearable and he is including components that make the game engaging with players so that it educates people about the struggle of maintaining likeability when identity politics come into play.
The player will go through jarring scenarios throughout the game that would require them to have complete neutrality and maintain a cheerful attitude, despite the urge to react and defend themselves.
Some of these scenarios include dealing with people questioning your role as a father, coworkers feeling uncomfortable with your presence at your job or reflecting on childhood traumas that have made the playable character feel inferior.
All of these scenarios contribute to the need for constant “happiness” and why it is so crucial for the main character to survive life’s struggles by making themselves more accommodating and likeable to those around them.
The mental and emotional toll that takes on a person over time can ultimately lead them feeling burnt out and emotionally burdened. Like Alexander said, being in a constant state of happy neutrality leads to mania. He uses his characters to allow the player to analyze just how damaging this line of thinking can impact the character in the long run.
“Because I’m speaking through the bears, I can talk about this stuff,” said Alexander. “That’s how I stay grounded, it’s just stories. I’m not trying to do anything other than make people think.”