A narrative, 2D-platformer about a moth contending with its social anxiety in the midst of everyday life
Aug 2021 - May 2022
Level Design, UI Design, System Design, Prototyping
Concept and Experience Goal
Social Moth is a narrative platformer where you play as a small moth contending with social anxiety. Set in a close-knit community on the forest floor, the game allows the player to explore themes of mental health, relationships, and finding a sense of belonging.
While playing, the player will understand the intrusive thoughts and worries of the moth, the stress of interaction and overthinking, and the comfort found in supporting the moth’s relationships through healthy boundary setting and honest communication.
Play as Aletris, a moth, struggling through interactions with other community members through dialogue choices that alter their anxiety level. Platform through the area surrounding your lantern home, finding collectibles and helpful friends throughout the environment that will lower your constantly rising anxiety. If Aletris gets too anxious and is unable to find any way to ground themselves, they'll come face to face with a manifestation of their anxiety...
Our goal is for players who have experience with social anxiety to find a comforting and relatable story in Social Moth. For those unfamiliar with social anxiety, the game offers a compelling lens into ways anxiety can manifest itself even in seemingly mundane interactions, in hopes of inspiring more compassion and support for those who struggle with social anxiety.
Game Design Highlights
This is the first published game I worked on as a game designer in a team with around 15 core members for a duration of nearly one year. 361 pieces of the game had been sold on Steam within one month after the game is released.
The followings are some of my design highlights during the production of the game. By applying the "user-centered design" methodology that my UX background brought to me, we designers dug into the problems we found through the weekly playtests with targeted players and iterated our design based on player feedback.
1. Players tend to avoid NPCs when being chased by the monster. But the narrative story with NPCs is the core of our gameplay.
In our initial design, the anxiety monster was always present and constantly chasing players. Although once players trigger a dialogue, the monster's speed drops to almost zero, players still feel too anxious about being chased and treated NPCs the same as obstacles that prevent them from running away.
How can we encourage our players to interact with NPCs and make thoughtful dialogue choices?
We held a brainstorming session within the team and interviewed clinical psych PGD Jeffery Newell at USC to seek a better understanding of social anxiety and methods of treatment. We would like the NPCs to play a more important role in lower the play character's anxiety.
1. We hide the anxiety monster in the moth's head, represented by the icon at the top left corner. The icon shows the anxiety level of the moth, and when it is filled with anxiety, the monster will jump out to chase the moth. By doing that, we can lower the tension of the players while they experience the narrative story.
Anxiety is like a nutrient solution in the bottle that breeds the monster. The liquid level indicates the anxiety level raises or lowers. When the liquid fills 30% of the bottle, there will be a monster "embryo" in the bottle, and when the liquid raises to 50%, 70%, or 90%, the monster grows its size in the bottle, and when it reaches 90%, there will be an animation of the bottle break up and the monster is released. If players successfully lower their anxiety below 90%, then reverse the animation.
After discussion with the art team, we decided to have the head of the moth instead of the bottle so that it can be visually connected with the anxiety of the moth.
Very low anxiety level
Very high anxiety level
2. The moth’s anxiety is now constantly rising throughout the levels. To combat this the moth will aim to gain collectibles from the environment and NPCs around them. Collectibles will lower the moth’s anxiety and mitigate the rise of anxiety. Collectibles in the environment are placed slightly off the golden path to encourage extra platforming, and collectibles will be given by NPCs if the moth is able to fight off their cognitive distortions and choose the more realistic, self-forgiving thoughts during their conversations.
2. Players could not understand why certain dialogue choices increase or decrease social anxiety, especially players who haven't experienced social anxiety.
The initial dialogue system was focused on the behaviors/actions of the moth (what the moth says). Some dialogue choices were too similar to differentiate. Some players did not know the theme of the game beforehand, so they won’t realize that the moth is experiencing social anxiety and everything is related to it. And players who are not familiar with social anxiety don't understand certain dialogue options. They felt confused about why the moth would have such behaviors/actions.
In addition, players could not tell if they have made a good choice or a bad choice. We first made an anxiety meter to reflect the moth's current anxiety level but the players were still confused about whether a high-value means good or low-value means good.
How can we allow players to better understand the dialogue choices, how they relate to social anxiety, and easily recognize whether they have chosen a good or bad answer?
We designers communicated with the narrative team about our ideas of having a new dialogue system focusing on how the moth thinks instead of what the moth says. The moth will decide which thoughts they will have in response to the situations they are faced with. This will highlight various cognitive distortions and push the moth towards having realistic, self-forgiving thoughts in the face of stressful situations.
We also added the logic of the relationship between dialogue choices and the moth's anxiety to the tutorial level.
We changed the design of the anxiety meter to the anxiety "head" icon and used orange to represent wellness and purple to represent anxiety throughout the game. We also made particle trails visual effects from dialogue choice to the anxiety icon to reflect if a choice raises or lowers the moth's anxiety.
Level Design Process
I utilized the iterated player-centric design method which I learned through my UX Design experience for level design.
Paper prototype -> playtest -> Iterated low-fidelity digital prototype -> playtest -> ... -> Iterated high-fidelity digital prototype -> playtest -> ... -> Final build
Level3_Party Scene Level Design Iterations:
What I Learned
Every developer on the team - whether an artist, engineer, audio designer, writer, or producer - is also a fundamental designer. The moment-to-moment decisions they make as they carry out their work have a significant impact on the design of the game. It is particularly important for me, as the one with the title of game designer, to constantly gather design ideas from all across the team, as well as come up with ideas myself. It is vital for me to synthesize the best ideas into a coherent whole.
Holding short brainstorming sessions that engage every member of the team from time to time not only can help get a lot of ideas on the table quickly but also be valuable for developing or keeping on track the team's mutual understanding of the project direction. I found the spreadsheet super useful to evaluate and organize ideas. Giving priorities to ideas or tasks which we would like to implement helps every team members stay on the same page, and contributes to good practice of using the strategy of "concentric development" through our game production.