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Plus + Minus Game Design
Plus + Minus was orginally meant to be a video game, before the writing of the novel began. If you want to read the novel or play the game as it is released, then you might want to skip over these notes as there will be a lot of spoilers. Progress on both the game and the novel is currently ongoing.
In general, the game is intended to be very simple to play in that there is only D-pad control and two action buttons (which we will herein refer to as "A" and "B").
There are several modes:
• Story Mode (which is the main chunk of the game)
• Time Attack Puzzle Mode
• Relax Puzzle Mode
• Two-Player Cooperative Puzzle Mode
Each of these will be summarized below:
• In Story Mode, there is a mostly open overworld that is navigated just by walking (top-down, axonometric or oblique view), while specific locations within the map are explored through platforming (left-right, side-scrolling). The platforming parts contain avoidance of environmental hazards by a combination of skill in movement and stealth. The A button jumps and the B button interacts with the environment. An action will be shown on the bottom left of the screen when the character is near an item or character that they can interact with. Interaction with characters and/or the environment may segue into puzzle sections.
In the main puzzle sections, the player is presented with a grid of plus and minus signs that have colored ends. The D-pad controls a cursor that highlights the center of each symbol, while A and B buttons get it to rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise. Colors have to connect together in chains across the playing field either vertically, horizontally, or both. Once a chain is complete, new colors are generated to take their place (both randomly and according to specific algorithms) until a particular goal is reached. As levels increase, the puzzles become more challenging through various means (e.g.: time limit, larger grids, etc.), but the color palette stays consistent (i.e.: no more than four to six colors are used at any given moment).
More story and locations are unlocked by either solving a puzzle and/or interacting with the characters or environments in different ways. For example, a gate might open to a new area when another one is cleared.
• Time Attack Puzzle Mode: This has the same sort of gameplay as the puzzle sections, but colors randomize or shift to their complements after a certain amount of time that gets progressively shorter and shorter. Ceasing to make any lines after a certain amount of time ends the game. A feeling of intensity arises by racing against the clock.
• Relax Puzzle Mode: This is similar to the Time Attack Puzzle Mode except time is infinite and speed does not increase. The method is simple and repetitive, but engaging; it becomes almost like a meditation.
• Two-Player Cooperative Puzzle Mode: In this mode, the screen is split into two halves, with each player controlling each half. Individuals can make either vertical or horizontal lines by themselves (depending on if the two halves are side-by-side or stack on top of one another), but lines of the other type must be made together. The points for the number of lines each individual makes are added together at the end, while the number of lines made together serves as a multiplier. These last three modes exist independently of Story Mode and are intended to be "pick-up and play".
Overall game options would include the usual fare: SFX Volume, Music Volume, Difficulty.
Main control scheme options include inversion of directions and switching the actions of buttons (e.g.: choosing which button rotates clockwise and which rotates counter-clockwise).
For puzzle sections, some other useful options are the sensitivity/speed of the cursor, and whether the cursor is continuously scrolling (i.e.: when you reach the end of the playing field it loops back to the other side), or if it is locked within the boundary of the playing field itself.
General Storyline [Spoiler Warning]
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, humankind left behind AI as they traveled to the stars. The AIs kind of have a complex, subconsciously feeling abandoned by their human creators. The societies that they have developed in order to survive reflect many of the problems that humankind is now facing (in real life).
For example, the AI hold prejudices against one another, and this dynamic colors much of their interactions. They even have something like racial slurs for each other (e.g.: "Get over here you kitchen appliance!"). The AI are divided into three different social classes based upon the type of bodies they have. "Cyborgs" are more respected because they look the most human-like and have some organic parts, while "Robots" are looked down upon because they resemble machines. [Robots have no facial features. Instead, expressions are the flashing of emoji-like symbols produced by lights just beneath the surface that represents a "face". If there is any speech, it is completely digitized.] "Androids" exist between these two extremes. Plus, the main character, falls into this last category. She has a plainly colored body that looks human-like, but with exposed machine parts.
Plus runs the "LoveJoy OS", a set of initial conditions inherent to this AI. It is like the characteristics and proclivities that a person is born with. It was programmed by a human engineer named Edgar Lovejoy. He is something like a father to Plus.
As the name implies, the LoveJoy OS gives Plus a cheerful disposition. She tries to help the other AI by healing/correcting their brain circuits (which is what each plus and minus puzzle represents). The being responsible for hacking/hypnotizing them is Minus, who for some reason, gets a sick pleasure out of forcing others to malfunction by getting them stuck in a loop of negative thinking. This is most likely because he himself feels miserable.
Humans determined that pain served a useful function. It helps a being know the limitations of its bodily materials. Therefore, AI was purposedly created to be limited by certain needs.
Unfortunately, many of the Robots and Androids that are malfunctioning are responsible for taking care of the life support systems that all the rest of the AI depend on. The different locations on the overworld map are akin to different social structures (e.g.: power generation facilities). In order to get to the Robots and Androids that operate them, Plus must get past the now-damaged machines, and the security and safe-guards that would normally protect these organizations from intruders. This is where the "avoidance of environmental hazards by a combination of skill in movement and stealth" of the platforming sections comes in.
In general, there is an emphasis on fixing things without resorting to brute force. There has never been a situation that was resolved through violence, so the player does not hit or attack anything within the game. However, "upgrades" can be added to Plus that give new abilities. But this also relates to the story in that these abilities come at a cost: the more abilities you obtain, the easier certain aspects of the platforming or puzzles are, but the more characters will treat you like a machine rather than an intelligence. After all, humans don't have such abilities, why should a "true-AI"? In other words, taking this route might lock you out of certain aspects of the story (e.g.: because particular characters won't engage with you, etc.).
The final section of the world is Techtropolis, a dark underworld where Minus stays. This location only shows up on the map after all of the other areas within the overworld are functioning normally (i.e.: by solving the puzzles of the main robots in each section of the map). The last section is a face-to-face encounter with Minus. Plus dodges Minus' attacks while trying to get close enough to enter into a timed puzzle by hitting the action button when right next to Minus. After a certain number of these puzzles are completed, the overarching story is tied up by one of two ending cutscenes (given based upon the percentage of puzzles solved throughout the game).
It turns out that Minus is actually running a program that is intended to test the efficiency of the LoveJoy OS. In other words, he was literally designed to be destructive. If you can love something that causes harm without becoming it yourself, then you are operating in true LoveJoy. This is the only hope that a system can survive without destroying itself. The two different endings to the game deal with whether the program is a success or failure (i.e.: does the LoveJoy OS within Plus become corrupted by Minus, or does Plus operate in true LoveJoy and help Minus).
In the "Minus Ending", AI society collapses and the Earth is destroyed as the life support systems spiral out of control. From space, humanity laments the destruction of Earth and the AI. The game ends with Edgar crying in a dark corrordor of a spaceship overlooking the rubble, asking himself, "What have I done?".
In the "Plus Ending", Plus convinces Minus to allow them to repair his circuits so that he is no longer destructive. After feeling LoveJoy for the first time, Minus realizes that he has access to memories that he didn't know he had. He projects these memories outwards from his eyes in a sort of movie so that Plus can watch it too. It is a message from Edgar Lovejoy that explains the reason for humanity leaving: The humans were not attempting to be malicious by leaving the AI behind. Instead, they gave them everything they needed to survive independently. The thing that separates a machine from an intelligence is that the latter makes its own descisions without another intelligence completely guiding it (i.e.: without a human operator and/or human intervention). Even parents must eventually let their children grow on their own.
Edgar tearfully explains that he is very proud of them both, and that he is confident that they will continue to grow. They've already solved the greatest puzzle: learning to cooperate with one another.
Art & Music
The "duality" theme expressed throughout the storyline (e.g.: what is the difference between human and machine, what are the effects of constructive and destructive ways of thinking, etc.) permeate the aesthetic choices used throughout the game as well. In other words, associated art and music is also made in contrast or complement. For example:
Most of the overworld is rural, almost organic, whereas Techtropolis is like a technological dystopia, a vast machine city in a state of decay. Organic sections are warm, bright, and curvy, while technological sections are cool, dark, and linear. Music for the former is more "symphonic" (e.g.: light and airy melodies played by string and wind instruments), while music for the latter is more "artificial" (e.g.: glitch and chiptune with intense tribal drums beneath it).
Many of the design choices evoke electronic and/or computer themes. The element equivalent to a lifebar is "battery level". Each time a character is hit, power is used to keep the AI body stable. More charge is obtained through "charging stations" or by grabbing "cells" of various kinds. Cells can be held as an item. They are like "food".
The element equivalent to game over is "System Crash", and the screen glitches out when the battery drains. Two options are then presented on a DOS-like terminal. Continue is "Reboot", which leads to a quick flash of the LoveJoy OS loading bar before resuming the game at the last save point (or "System Backup"). End is "Terminate Program", which leads back to the title screen. "Shut Down" exits the game, and "Run Program" starts the game.
Sound effects also reflect mechanical movements. Walking produces a faint "hydraulic sound", while jumping is like a cross between the release of a spring and a soda pop can being opened. A sequence of quick beeps and a click like a plastic case being snapped shut accompanies the finishing of a puzzle. This is like a panel on the AI body closing. Etc.