Sunday, April 21, 2013

Words and Pictures in Pet Society

In the first year or so of Pet Society, I was struck at how much the designers of the game avoided using words in the world of the pets and the game interface. Once you got into the game to play, you were immersed in an environment of pure visual images. Working as a technical writer, I'm accustomed  to looking for opportunities to convey information clearly in a strictly visual way, so an international audience isn't at the mercy of text being translated at all,  or translated clearly and correctly. Pet Society practiced that in an amazingly effective way.

There was text in a few parts of the game interface. I'd occasionally switch to French (which I largely understand) or other languages and see that the creators of the game were very rigorous on translating any scraps of text they included. In French, even the name of the game changed to "L'association des animaux". Also, the text they wrote had a style that added to the character of the game. I was delighted to see "You are one lucky pet" whenever Scoop received coins each day.

For a long time, nothing you earned or bought in the game had a word on it. I forget what item was the first to break that rule, but it got my attention when it happened. When you visited another pet's home, you didn't see words with one exception. One thing you could buy in the stores for 50 coins each were the white squares, each with a letter on it in black, cartoonish lettering. You could place these on the walls of the pet's rooms to communicate a message in words. Most often, these would present the name of the pet proudly. In other rooms you'd see more extensive statements, sometimes expressing a dislike of some aspect of the game. In any case, the words you saw in a pet's room were a personal communication the pet's owner had chosen to place there, 50-coin square by 50-coin square.

In two other ways Pet Society was rich in opportunities to express yourself in words to other players and the Facebook world at large. You could write a status for your pet, and it would appear on your own Facebook page, with a link so someone reading it could go play Pet Society. Also, you could send a short letter within the game to another player among your friends, and even to the unknown creator of a pet you met in the Cafe. Many games lack a way to communicate in your own words with other players, but Pet Society incorporated this feature into the fabric of the game. Of course, you had to wait for your pet to take a break from doing important plushie rearranging before opening the envelope, thus enabling you to read the message.

One of the most desirable new items when it was offered was the message crawl bar, which could present a longer message that would stream across that area in a room. This was originally intended to echo the pet's status message that appeared on your own Facebook wall, but that became decoupled, I think after the Playfish designers saw how players were using this feature extensively and creatively. Some messages would sometimes explain something about the scene arranged in that room. Other messages expressed jokes, thanks to other players, inspiring words, prayers, or news about the player's own life. Sometimes the messages were in memory of a deceased family member, friend, or actual pet.

In Pet Society, each player's environment can absorb a lot of that player's personality and accumulate a lot of meaning and memories for them and their friends. The words that players place inside the game are a clear way that each brings something creative and builds something wonderful and moving out of nothing. That's just one facet of what makes this mere virtual pet game so important to many of us.

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