A physical game experience in which the player briefly steps into the shoes of a parent, tasked with completing three different chores in the midst of a set of chaotic deadlines, all whilst their child vies for their attention.

Adulting? is a playable experience which melds WarioWare-style minigames with a physical game-space and control inputs, as well as a real actor, straddling the line between game and interactive theatre piece. You are a parent and homemaker who needs keep on top of your chores; filling in a tax return form, vacuuming, and running a bath. This would be difficult enough, if your child wasn’t also demanding attention for the entire 60-second playthrough.

The game forces players to examine what they prioritise, both inside and outside the game world.

Adulting? was created over two months, by a team of three. It places PC minigames, built in Unity, within a physical space. My responsibilities included game design, programming and UI design.

Iteration: from game jam prototype to full experience

The first build of Adulting? was made by a team of four during a game jam, in response to the prompt ‘overlooked’.

I devised the core concept of the game: the player would have to complete multiple tasks (minigames) whilst trying to pay attention to a story being told by their child. I wanted to make a game that encourages the player to think about what is truly important in their lives that they may be guilty of overlooking; in this case, talking and engaging with their loved ones rather than doing menial tasks.

Central to this initial idea was the belief that the player shouldn’t know what their real goal within the game is; they had to decide what was important for themselves.

The minigames were all designed to be simple to play, as we didn’t want any one minigame to consume the player’s full attention:

  • Doing laundry (by repeatedly pressing a button to put the laundry in the washing machine and turn the machine on).
  • Vacuuming (moving the mouse over dirt).
  • Emptying a bath (pressing a button to reset the constantly rising water level).

The completed prototype ran off separate laptops, with a fourth screen displaying the scrolling story of the child. Playthroughs lasted two minutes, and players had to answer questions about the child’s story at the end.

Post-jam playtesting revealed three main issues:

  • it was relatively straightforward for players to complete multiple minigames at once due to the close proximity of the laptops
  • there was very little encouraging players to complete the minigames
  • all players struggled to answer the questions about the child’s story, no matter how well they followed along.

Three members of the original game jam team continued to work on the project. We had plans to transform the game into a physical installation, solving the first issue straight away by requiring players to run between minigames in a large space, rather than be able to sit next to all four screens at once. We also rebuilt the minigames in Unity and ran them off one PC, allowing for synchronous times and score-tracking.

The addition of scores was an important iteration, as it gave the player motivation to complete the minigames to the best of their ability. We also added loud audio feedback when the player needed to get back to a certain chore. Whilst the hidden goal for the player was to pay attention to the child, the challenge should come from the competing priorities provided by the minigames. In the next iteration of the game we made the chores more challenging, replacing ‘laundry’ with a ‘tax returns’ minigame that required more focus from the player, as well as a more varied set of inputs.

As the chores became more demanding, the player’s ability to interact with the child diminished. We spent most of our design time agonising over how to portray the child in the game. We wanted something that the player could empathise with - a quality that our previous wall of text approach lacked. We playtested a number of options, including pre-recorded voice-over lines and a physical doll that the player had to carry with them, before opting to have an actor play the part of the child.

This option was perfect, as it added a sense of realism to the experience; here was a ‘real’ child that the player had to interact with. The actor would use visual stimuli from around the room (pictures on the walls, and the toys in their play area) to craft different improvised stories that could then be moulded around the responses of the player. The game felt alive. If the player spoke to the child, they would receive a response. If the child was ignored, they could talk louder, or even scream, to get the player’s attention.

We workshopped the game heavily in this state, honing the different stories that the child would discuss with the player and tweaking the minigames to ensure they felt as close to the real chores. In its final form, the game was far more immersive and enjoyable for the player, and the performative aspect meant no two playthroughs were the same.

Upon the game’s conclusion, the player is presented with a score but following that, they are faced with a rhetorical question: ‘But what about your child…?’. We decided to leave the player with that thought, rather than presenting them with actual questions about the child’s story, giving them space to reflect. Additionally, we felt such a rhetorical question reinforces that the game time (60 seconds) has been and gone, as well as has the time to interact with the child.

Feature spec - tax returns minigame

I developed a minigame in which players are required to fill out a tax return form - or at least, an abstracted version of one.

Main aims for feature:

  • Create a minigame which adds variety to the overall play experience.
  • Offer a ‘focus task’ - something that the player can always return to when they aren’t interacting with other time-based games.
  • Introduce a different physical control set-up.

Design considerations:

How do we differentiate the new minigame from others?

  • Tax minigame should require player skill and attention, rather than reaction time, to complete, such as specific key presses rather than wildly moving the mouse.
  • In order to be successful, the player should have to concentrate on what they’re doing, making it harder to focus on the other minigames, thus indirectly heightening their difficulty.
  • The other minigames both only require interaction at certain ‘tipping points’, such as when the bath overflows. In these minigames the player is penalised for inaction. The tax minigame could reverse this, by requiring no ongoing interaction but rewarding successfully playing the game.
  • Minigame could increase score for each player action, rather than having score increase incrementally as long as the game is below the ‘tipping point’. This would reward player action rather than penalise player inaction.

Final design:

  • Traditional tax return form is abstracted into a set of multiple choice questions. Questions are wacky and absurd (e.g. what is your opinion on custard creams?)
  • One question with three potential answers for players to choose from appears on screen at one time.
  • Players choose an answer by pressing a different letter key on the keyboard.
  • These input keys are randomised for every new question so that a player cannot simply rapidly press one of the keys to build up a big score (also differentiates the minigame from others which encourage much more rapid interactions).
  • A new question loads a second after answering the previous question (to again prevent button spamming and also slightly frustrate the player as they fill out the form, like a real tax return).
  • Players are rewarded points for each question answered.