top of page

Thesis Project:  Fitting Burdens

🤝Team of 8 core members 
🥇 I was the game designer, project manager, art director & UI/UX designer
⏳2 months of production, 6 months of concept & iterations
Introduction

Empathy Through Experience

Fitting Burdens is a narrative 2D organization puzzle game that demonstrates some struggles and coping mechanisms of living and growing up in a Vietnamese household, inspired by experiences of my own and others’ from the same culture.

My intent was to drive empathy, awareness and emotional understanding through a narrative-driven game inspired by the theme of Asian intergenerational & family trauma with a simple core mechanic.
photo_frame state 2a.png
Research
Discussion

Inspiration: The Common Pattern

I was born in Vietnam, during its recovery period from war - a time of rapid economical and social changes.

Growing up, I noticed a lot of gaps in understanding and communication between me and my family, mostly with the previous generations: my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I also noticed
a pattern of behavior and response to childhood trauma caused by a toxic family environment common among people from my background.

Hiding & Compartmentalizing To Cope With Trauma

I posted anonymously on a Facebook group (subtle asian mental health) asking people about their coping mechanisms growing up in an Asian household and received almost 100 replies.

I've found that
hiding and compartmentalization were the most common coping methods and incorporated that in the interaction design of the game.
1.PNG
1.png
2.png
2.PNG
4.PNG
3.PNG
Research: Online Community Discussion - Hiding and Compartmentalization are common coping mechanisms
ezgif-4-d29389f637.gif
Design: Hiding music award because family is unsupportive of music career
Interviews

Narrative Development Through People's Stories

I interviewed my mom, dad and some friends to ask about their lives and relationship with their families. My parents are Vietnamese and my friends are Chinese and Vietnamese. I've incorporated these stories in the game. This is an example of how their stories influenced the design:
My mom was always compared to her siblings when she was younger, and was the least favorite child of my grandma due to her being a female. She was constantly criticized by my grandma every time she made a mistake.
My dad's biggest struggle growing up was being poor. He had to live in a community house and often snuck out to do side gigs and make money to pay tuition. 
My friend wanted to pursue music as a career but faced a lot of backlash from her family as they wanted her to become a doctor. She went to med school, dropped out and pursued music anyway.
ezgif-4-a64ae3635c-1.gif
Constant criticism every time you make a mistake/can't fit an item
Untitled video - Made with Clipchamp (3).gif
The character placing broken items in the trash after argument with mom as she got caught sneaking out to practice music performance and getting insulted/yelled at
Analysis

Narrative Development Through Gameplay & Art Direction

This game has 25 levels in total and is divided into 3 main stages: Happy Childhood, Troubling Teenage Years and Moving On. The narrative is told through the art, audio, gameplay and cutscenes in-between. 
narrative.png
Happy Childhood:
Love and happy childhood memories
Troubling Teenage Years:
Neglect, suffocation and depression
Rebellion and individuality
Moving On: Healing and reconciliation
bag1.png
Earlier level: The character is younger, less academic pressure, can bring toys to school, everything fits in the bag with extra space
bag2.png
Later level: The character grew up, more academic expectations, everything fits in the bag tightly, no space for fun and childhood memories
shelf1.png
Earlier level: The character's family is happy in their home, there's space on the shelf for everything
shelf2.png
Later level: The character moved to relative's house, the shelf does not have enough space for their things, their items are less prioritized and placed lower
Untitled video - Made with Clipchamp (2).gif
The character's attempt of nourishing the relationship with mom was unsuccessful
Different color schemes are used throughout the stages to better convey the mood and narrative. Each color scheme means a different thing, noted above. Each character is also associated with a different color.
Development

Development Process

I designed the whole experience, led a team of 8, managed the project, and directed the art and music of the game. In this section I will show what I did for each stage and aspect of the game.

Early Iterations  

Untitled video - Made with Clipchamp (5).gif

Idea 1

  • Game Genre: Walking simulator
    Platform: PC
  • Mechanic: walking, jump, call out, pick up/drop off item
  • Aesthetic: Abstract fantasy world with influences of Vietnam 80s-90s interior design and now
platform gif.gif

Idea 2

  • Game Description: autobiographical platformer game with the theme of family trauma & strained family relationship
  • Mechanic: walk, jump, dodge, pick and drop items, and unlock more skills later on. 
  • See Figma for more level design details
figma.jpg

Final Idea - Early Stage

  • Game Description: narrative 2D organization puzzle game that demonstrates some struggles and coping mechanisms of living and growing up in a Vietnamese household
  • Gameplay: The player drags items to an area and organizes them
    Goal: Place enough items in the right place to move to the next level
  • See Figma for mockups of first 7 levels
Narrative

Narrative Development Process

To understand how the gameplay and narrative were designed fully, please see this Sheet under Story page and this Slide. I've included a snippet here. 
Art Direction

Art Direction, Assets & Cutscenes

Art Direction

The game is set in the Vietnam late 90s-2000s period. The mood for most of the game is nostalgia and melancholy. 
View the full Art Direction Document on Google Slides
Assets

Assets - Items & Backgrounds

I worked with 2 artists to create items and backgrounds for the game. I handed tasks to them on Item Instructions & Background InstructionsThere are individual requests for each item e.g. description, color palette, reference, perspective, corrections, etc.
bg sheet.jpg
item sheet.jpg
Cutscenes

Cutscenes

I also worked with 3 artists for the cutscenes of the game. I provided the initial sketch then handed them to my artists for sketch refinement and filling in primary colors. Then I rendered them in Meitu AI Art for instant shadows, highlights and details. Then I tweaked them in Photoshop and Procreate to get the final desired results and more uniformity. I also used this Sheet to instruct the artists. 
Initial Sketch
Final Version
AI Render
Colored
Refined Sketch

Audio & Music

Audio

I recorded my voice as narration for the game. Sometimes an audio of a character (the mom) speaking is triggered when the player places an item. The audio of the mom praising the main character can be heard in the Happy Childhood phase, and changes to demands, criticisms and insults in the Troubling Teenage Year phase, and finally stops and ends with apologies in the Moving On stage. 
Happy Childhood -  Praises
Troubling Teenage Year -  Insults, Criticisms & Demands
Moving On - Apologies
Explanations and Narration
Audio

Music

The background music was made by my friends. I instructed them through this Trello. Each music piece fits with the mood of the corresponding stage/event in the game.
Happy Childhood - Nostalgia and Contentment
Troubling Teenage Years -  Depression and Turbulence
Troubling Teenage Years - Drama & Dream
trello.jpg
Music

Final Product

  • Audience: including but not limited to any person of Asian background 
  • Platform: PC
  • Gameplay: The player drags items to an area and organizes them
  • Goal: Place enough items in the right place to move to the next level
Impact

Impact

I had a lot of people playtesting my game and watched the full gameplay demo at the Parsons Pop-Up Exhibit and Screening & Performance event. A lot of people came to me to express how moved they are by my game. 

Link to my symposium talk
Link to my exhibit site
"My parents were so against me pursuing my dream and I still did against all odds. I'm no longer in contact with them. Your game makes me feel understood." - Jia.
"Your use of music and audio in the game is incredible. It makes me feel things I never even experienced. I still remember the emotion it brings until now." - Harry. 

Future Steps 

I'm planning to submit this project to any suitable game or design competitions. I'd also fix and polish the game so that I can release it on Steam. Furthermore, I'm hoping to make the game mobile-compatible and release it on the App Store/Google Play. 
Since I was on a huge production crunch to get this project in shape for submission, I sacrificed time for more user testing/playtests. I only had around 3 user testing sessions throughout the development process. I will recruit more people to try playing the game and get feedback for improvements in the next version. 
If you've read until this point, you're a legend. I hugely appreciate anyone taking their time to look through my project. Thank you so much :)
Future

Check out my other featured works: