Use the past to explore the present.
Clear Lake is an exploration adventure game in which the player uses the past to explore the present by means of a mysterious burning torch. Players take the role of the ranger, an old man on the search for a group of missing campers. Use the torch to find objects in the past that uncover the mystery of the present.
When I began designing Clear Lake, I wanted to create a game that showed the main character’s mental state through the creation of a unique game mechanic. I wanted to discover what interactive metaphors could look like and how they differ from visual metaphors found in other visual mediums. I really wanted to add depth to the actions of the player because they reflect the in-game character’s perception or mood of the world.
The content I chose to explore this mechanic was dementia. I began by experimenting with abstract shapes and movements. I strongly felt that memory was by far the most important dementia symptom that needed to be represented. Distilling that into an enjoyable game mechanic, however, took many iterations and hard looks at various games and their genres. The work of Jonathan Blow and Rod Humble were huge inspirations as I began to explore story and meaning through interaction.
The creative process involved the creation of the mechanic and discovering a narrative that benefited the theme of dementia and memory loss. The mechanic ultimately took the form of a magic torch that allowed the player to view into the past. The torch illuminates a small radius around the player allowing them to interact with past objects while in the present. This becomes useful especially when the player discovers fallen trees that block the exit and a bridge that had collapsed. Using the torch allowed a tiny window into the past. This view is very restricted and has its own rules. The longer the player uses the torch, the faster it burns, reducing the circle of view. The window into the past becomes smaller and smaller until it’s more of a hindrance, distracting the player from their main goal.
The setting of Clear Lake is loosely based on the forested areas of southern Ohio. The landscape of small Appalachian towns has changed drastically in the past ten to fifteen years. What used to be lush green forests and quaint small towns have turned into a population of drug abusers due to the opioid crisis. This change from past beauty to modern degradation matched well with the degradation of the mind that comes with Alzheimer’s disease.
The narrative outside of the ranger character involves a community searching for a group of lost campers. The main character, the forest ranger, is part of a search crew scouring the forest for any sign of the lost group. The search party has turned up empty-handed in their efforts. Many folks in the town are starting to give up hope.
The ranger comes across the torch as the player explores the forest. Many objects in the forest have eroded away. Several of the signs are unreadable, beer cans scatter the ground, and fallen trees act as obstacles. A soft purple fire still burns on the end of the torch. A small ring forms on the ground at the ranger feet, radiating from the soft glow of the embers. In the ring, the grass is greener and fresh, it almost smells like spring. It reminds the ranger of happier times.
The ring is too small to explore with. Nearby, a similar purple glow comes from a natural spring. Walking to the spring causes the ring to expand. The entire area within the ring becomes lush. The broken signs are whole again. Tree stumps become large pines. Fallen trees are back upright. More areas are open to the ranger, places the search party has yet to look.
Moving forward through the forest brings the ranger to a small stream, nearly dry. The torch fades the longer he holds it, the land returns to its modern decay. The green shifts back to brown, the stale smell of beer returns to the air. The faint purple glow of another spring calls to the ranger. As he nears the spring, again the torch comes to life, the beautiful landscape returns. The small brook is now a full flowing river. Where it was previously impassable, the old bridge is still solid. The search continues.
Along the way, the ranger uncovers several clues, a shoe, a backpack, and a sweatshirt. This doesn’t bode well for the missing campers. After reaching a clearing, the ranger spots a sagging tent, still no children. He searches the area and comes across a body, it’s been dead for a while. Using the torch, the ranger gets a better idea of what happened to the boy and gathers more clues to the whereabouts of the rest of the group.
With Clear Lake, I hope that players will begin to see the torch as a faulty means of exploration. The torch is necessary but ultimately not reliable due to the fade. The past isn’t always available to the player. I want the spring that causes the torch to burn bright to become a breath of fresh air for the player, that they begin to view the spring as an area of respite. They can now progress with the game and the ranger can move forward.
©2021 Bruce Evans