The city of Madison is home to many successful video game studios. Raven Software has helped develop entries in the “Call of Duty” series, while PerBlue signed a deal with Disney to make mobile games for the media juggernaut.
For those who aspire to work in the industry, UW-Madison’s Game Design and Development club gives students the opportunity to make games of their own.
Founded in 2015, the club holds meetings every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Room 131 of the Teacher Education Building. At the beginning of each semester, there are initial meetings to introduce new members and pitch ideas for projects. A typical meeting begins with Noah Kliemann, the club’s industry chair, going over recent events and upcoming game releases.
The group also has social events, art workshops and guest speakers. Last semester, Dan Norton from Filament Games came to talk about how his company uses the medium as an educational tool.
The Game Design and Development club creates games using engines like Unity and GameMaker, both of which are free to use. Other available resources for students include access to lynda.com for video tutorials on these programs.
The club currently has five projects in development, with one of them being “Protagonist.” It’s a title that draws influences from games like “Undertale” and “The Stanley Parable.” UW-Madison sophomore and Game Design member Savannah Mann is the project’s leader.
Featuring morality-based decision-making that caters to different playstyles, Mann said, “There’s four main routes, and each one reflects how people play games.”
For certain presentational aspects, she took inspiration from Supergiant Games, the studio behind “Bastion” and “Transistor.” The company’s newest game “Pyre” has music layering where the songs change as you navigate levels. With the help of coders, Mann was able to implement this concept into “Protagonist.”
The project has been in development for roughly two years: In that time, many members have come and gone, but their ideas have remained with the game.
“That’s where the club mentality comes in,” Mann said.
The brainchild of more than 20 people, “Protagonist” has culminated into one cohesive project, and the game has benefited greatly from it. While still in development, the project’s team released a playable demo last month that’s open to the public.
Along with the club, the Teacher Education Building is also where you’ll find classes from UW-Madison’s Game Design department.
Students of sophomore standing can take CURRIC 357: “Game Design 1” and CURRIC 277: “Videogames and Learning,” the latter of which focuses on elements and social issues related to games — it also fulfills the Comm B course requirement.
Professor Aliah Darke, who teaches CURRIC 277, is a game designer herself. This gives students the chance to learn from those who have experience working in the video game industry. The university recently approved a Game Design certificate, but the finer details of the curriculum are still being finalized.
Video games can still be a way to have fun — that much hasn’t changed. But what has changed is the definition of what a video game is. In addition to being forms of competition, many are now works of art.
Today’s developers have elaborated on aspects like narration to tell stories we haven’t experienced yet in other mediums.
“There’s so much that can be done in a game that can’t be done in stories,” Game Design board member Cindy Prentice said.
“If you read about some tragic event that happened in history like Hurricane Katrina, it’s awful, but it’s just statistics. You might read a couple stories of a person’s recollections of what happened, but if you’re playing a game with a character who’s physically there on one of those houses, looking for food and terrified — that is a completely different experience.”
Just like movies and music, there are many components in a video game: The main difference is that the first two are passive rather than active experiences. This unique level of interaction is why movies based on video games tend to be less than adequate, as directors are tasked with turning the dynamic moments of a game into a static, two-hour film.
According to Prentice, the interactive nature of video games is what makes them more personal to us.
“The actions you make change the experience for you, so no matter how the story is set up, it will be different for every person.”
This personalization can resonate deeply with college students, as some of today’s games contain commentary on politics, sexuality and even mental health.
With each new generation of video game systems, the graphics in games have only gotten better. As developers become closer to achieving photorealism, this level of fidelity will pose challenges in the way of art design.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see how [graphics] continue to be new and innovative,” Game Design board member Kaitlyn Brayer said. If anything, developers will have to be more clever to ensure that style isn’t sacrificed for lifelike visuals.
As for the future of storytelling in video games, Prentice predicts a return to immersive and grounded experiences, with less titles breaking the fourth wall and being self-aware.
The mainstream press often stigmatizes the medium, claiming them to be addictive and harmful to society. Much of the conversation is about what video games can and can’t be, but doing so keeps us from seeing what they already are.
With groups like UW-Madison’s Game Design and Development club, students use video games to play together, create together and share together.