MDS Students Design a Game That Makes a Difference

Media Design School (MDS), located in Auckland, New Zealand and a member of the Laureate network, has an incredible 18-year history of preparing design, animation and gaming students for careers in their fields. In 2015, MDS was ranked among the top three schools in the world providing VFX/Animation and Game Art qualifications, and their students are proving that an MDS education truly does make a difference, in more ways than one.

Ever since second year MDS Game Development students Annaliese Bevan, Poppy de Raad, Isabelle Dela Torre and Jose Fernando Gracia uploaded their game, Robin, to itch.io, the internet has been full of praise as to how it handles the topic of living with the effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Below is an interview conducted with the team about the inspiration for the game, the production of it, and how much the response to the game has surprised them.

The idea for Robin first transpired during the ethics component of their People and Games module of their Game Art and Game Programming degrees. During the previous year, Annaliese had experienced some health-related issues that led her to research CFS and something called the Spoon Theory; an analogy explaining the ways in which people with chronic illnesses have a certain amount of ‘spoons’ to use during a day and how once a person has used all of his or her spoons, they must rest until their spoons are replenished.

Annaliese says that, after reading these stories, she was immediately struck by the lack of understanding that people dealing with CFS experience “…not only from their loved ones, but even from doctors.” This motivated the team to select CFS as their area of focus because, as Annaliese says, once the team had also investigated CFS, “we all decided that, if done right, it could mean a lot to those people.”

Robin took just over a month to complete and, so far, the game has been profiled in the UK’s The MirrorRock Paper Shotgun; Play Nice Play Now; and a myriad of other publications, all of whom have praised the way in which the team have handled a subject matter of such a sensitive nature.

MDS: Where did you get the idea for this beautiful art style?

AB: The art style in Robin is a mix of styles used by some of our favorite artists. The 3D art style was inspired by Chelsea Saunders low poly work which features simple models with bright pastel colors. Both artists (Annaliese and Poppy) were fans of her work before the project so we decided to use her for inspiration when it came to building the room that Robin takes place in.

The 2d art style used in the illustrations during the start and end of Robin are inspired by Olivia Huynh and Louie Zong.  Flat colors and minimal shading was used in order to save time and give the illustrations personality.

MDS: What was the most challenging aspect of creating the game?

AB: From a technical standpoint – it really was about deciding how much we could put into the game with the one month we were given. We held several meetings discussing the size of Robin’s apartment, the many things she could do in her daily life, her friends and family, etc. Compared to our initial vision of Robin many things had to be cut because of the time constraints – although there were many things we added that we hadn’t expected to!

Given that we had to play the game multiple times to make sure it wouldn’t break, balancing the game in a way that is representational of struggling with fatigue – we had to keep its tone serious without getting too worn down ourselves! The text at the end of each day used to be a lot grimmer.

MDS: What was the most rewarding aspect of creating the game?

The community response has been incredible. People have been sharing it all over social media for the purpose of educating their friends and family on the illness, which is exactly why we made the game. Some have personally contacted us saying it made a difference to them – that it has helped them. It really can’t get more rewarding than that.

MDS: Are you pleased with how the game has been received both by the gaming community and the CFS community?

AB: Very much so! Overall the CFS community has been by far the most positive, and there are definitely overlaps. Many in the gaming community learned something new, and were thankful for that. We’ve gotten a lot of advice, and gotten to read a lot of testimonials from people’s experience both with the game and the syndrome itself. It’s been an incredible experience.

MDS: What do you think is the most common misconception about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

AB: Many people don’t believe it is real, or is exaggerated and the sufferer is just “lazy”. Some people have even said it is a luxury to sleep so much, or to stay at home “relaxing”. But they don’t understand it isn’t a choice, it’s a real condition. People suffering from this syndrome really need the support of their friends and family as they adapt to each day’s challenges. And when that support group doesn’t seem to “get” what you’re going through, it can be very frustrating and make dealing with the syndrome more difficult.

MDS: Where to next for you as a team? Are you going to continue developing games together?

AB: We hope so! It’s all up in the air right now. The nature of university projects gives everything a certain air of unpredictability, but everyone in the team really works well together! So a new game coming from us in the future is very possible.