September 1, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Jivitesh Dhaliwal '21

By Claire Wong

Traditionally, when we think of games, they are something we use for entertainment purposes: to reconcile boredom, to bring family and friends together, to pass the time. But what if we used games to understand ourselves better? Game designer and developer, Jivitesh Dhaliwal '21, does just that. Jivitesh uses games and interactive media to provoke an introspective experience for players. He does this by combining new mediums and technologies to unconventionally bring stories to life. His Emmy nominated game, The Under Presents, is a beautiful example that brings together immersive theater and virtual reality — two mediums you would never except to combine — to immerse players into a new world. Jivitesh joins us to talk about the extensive game design process and his journey as an artist.

You have not always been in the games industry. Could you start off by telling us about your transition from a software engineer to a game designer?

My transition into game design happened over three key stages. After graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 2012, I started working with a large team of software engineers at a telecom company writing code for 4G routers. While the work itself was important, it did not feel meaningful to me because it was nearly impossible to see how my work directly impacted people. Around the same time, mobile games were booming in India, and I found it fascinating that someone could design fictional worlds inside a computer program. After digging into how games were made, I discovered the game engine, Unity, and fell in love with it. I started learning how to code interactions and bringing together graphics and sounds to create virtual worlds. However, I was still thinking like an engineer, about how to get from A to B in the most optimal way possible. Design, on the other hand, asks why. Why A and B in the first place?

The deeper I delved into Unity, the more I realized that while I knew how to implement ideas, I needed to become better at understanding why these ideas would matter to my audience.

My next step towards becoming a game designer happened when I started reading Prof. Tracy Fullerton’s book, The Game Design Workshop, and thoroughly enjoyed doing all the design exercises in it. The creative freedom that comes with being able to design felt very fulfilling to me. In a moment of reflection, I felt that I too could become a game designer. I left my job and started working on my first game, The Bookcase, out of a library in my hometown, Chandigarh, India.

The final stage came about a year later. I was still working on The Bookcase, and was reading the ancient Greek philosophical book, Meno by Plato. In the book, Meno asks Socrates what Virtue is and how we get it. Whether it is taught to us or if we’re born with an innate understanding of virtues like kindness, justice and love. Socrates’ answer was that we start with a belief about a virtue. However, it is through experience that we truly understand what that virtue means to us. For example, I may think that stealing is wrong, but if my child is hungry for days and I steal an apple to feed my child, would I still think stealing is wrong? The more experience we get, the better we understand ourselves. This idea made me realize that games can be a sandbox of experiences, where we can push players to confront their own beliefs and gain a better understanding of who they are. It felt like a fulfilling career to pursue.

You were a designer for the games For All and Fall for Grace during your time at USC. How did projects such as these prepare you for your career today?

In the case of For All, we were given the design prompt to create a game centered around the value of “liberty.” This exercise taught me that games can be fun and meaningful. Seeing how much our game impacted our players made me realize that the actions players perform in games could be tied to a theme giving the game a deeper meaning and emotional resonance.

Fall from Grace is a first person, narrative based VR game in which you play as a computer virus designed to sabotage the creation of a vaccine for a deadly pandemic in a world dying of overpopulation.  I wrote the structure of the narrative in early 2019 and started production in May 2019 with a team of 20 talented designers, artists and engineers. Imagine our shock when a few months into production, we were plunged into a real pandemic!

This game taught me the importance of developing a strong narrative conflict first and designing everything- from characters to game mechanics and lighting around the conflict. It also was a great lesson in directing a large team and producing a long term project- skills that are indispensable in the real world.

Both these pieces helped me develop my own voice, which is something I feel I would have struggled with, had I not come to USC. Identifying my voice helped build the foundation of my career.

Games are powered by strong narratives and your work always surrounds a story. Why do you think it is important to develop games and interactive media that are emotionally resonating?

I believe that stories let us experience lives outside of our own. These stories allow us to see possible outcomes of situations and experiences that we haven’t encountered before. I feel that when a story is emotionally resonating, the lessons it is trying to teach stay with us much longer. This becomes even more important for the kinds of games I aspire to create-- those that are designed to make players think about why they’re doing what they’re doing. My hope is that if players ever find themselves in a similar situation, they will have a deeper understanding of the emotional impact of their decisions.

You are consistently developing games that provoke introspective thought and emotion. Where do you find inspiration to tell these stories?

Philosophy is probably my biggest inspiration. Works of great philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Henry David Thoreau to YouTube channels like The School of Life have helped me understand problems from an individual’s perspective. Coming up with ideas then becomes easier-- take an emotional conflict and develop a narrative based on a theme. The permutations and combinations are endless!

What is special about games allows you to tap into stories unlike traditional mediums such as film and television?

Movies and Television are (generally) passive storytelling media. Passive storytelling is very powerful-- it allows the director to have complete control over the audience’s emotions.  Games and Interactive Media, on the other hand, are the only art forms that can alter the art itself based on the audience’s interaction with it. This means that two individuals with their unique experiences can be given different versions of a story in the same experience. Imagine a storyteller that understands which characters you love or hate and incorporates that into the stories they are telling you. A storyteller that knows when you’re at the edge of your seat, how emotionally impacted you are. We are still in the early stages of understanding how to combine interactivity with storytelling, which is what allows me to be experimental with how I tell stories.

What is something about the design process of games that players often overlook or under-appreciate?

Games are notoriously hard to balance. Any actions players can take need to be tested over and over in several different scenarios so that players don’t end up using too much of one particular action and driving the fun out of the game. Players will generally find ways to perform actions that game designers didn’t anticipate them doing, so most game companies try to bring in new play-testers frequently who can look at the game with fresh eyes and show designers how they interact with the game. 

The Under Presents is a beautiful Emmy-nominated game that blends immersive theater and virtual reality. Could you describe your experience designing a game that utilized both live actors and computer graphics?

I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the team at the independent game studio, Tender Claws, which developed The Under Presents. The idea is a brainchild of directors Samantha Gorman, also an SCA alum, and Danny Cannizzaro. The experience is set aboard a disaster stricken research ship called the Aikman and lets players manipulate time to uncover the secrets of what befell it. Players follow stories of characters aboard the ship and can visit ‘The Under’-- a performance stage with live actors. Tender Claws collaborated with actors from PieHole, a New York City-based experimental theatre collective. The characters’ narratives are motion captured, but in certain instances, we swap the pre-recorded motion capture with a live actor taking the player through their character’s narrative. Our players’ sense of wonder when they saw characters react to their actions in VR when they weren’t expecting it was heartwarming. From a design perspective, we needed to figure out which moments the live actors should get swapped in, the kinds of interactions players could have with the actors, how much time an individual player could have with the actors and how to prevent harassment in the game. Solving these design challenges was thrilling to say the least!

With the ability now to combine different mediums to create a single piece of work, what advancements do you hope to see in the future?

The most important technological advancement that I am looking forward to is the ability of interactive media to understand natural language. I have been talking about how games are the only art form that can change itself based on the player’s interactions with it. However, the interactions that players can currently have are still very limited. For example, most players use a game controller to play a game. The buttons on the controllers act as individual words. For example, buttons that stand in for the words ‘Jump’, ‘Run’, or ‘Attack’. The vocabulary currently afforded for the communication between the players and the game is severely limited. This is slowly expanding with media like VR, where the player’s body language can also become a part of the input. However, I feel that the real revolution will come when instead of using a very limited set of words, we could use sentences to express to a game how we feel. That would be a beautiful two way communication between an art piece and its audience.

What is your favorite project you have been a part of?

I have been very fortunate to work on some incredibly interesting projects, but the project that means the most to me is my first game, The Bookcase. I worked on it for over two years, working 14 hours a day, six days a week out of a library on a very limited budget. It ended up being a complicated mobile strategy game that takes over four hours to play. Unfortunately, it was a failure as a game but while working on it, I learned how to compose music, make 3D art, become a better game designer and developer, and to discover my mission in life. Even though I was never able to completely finish the game, it brought me all the way to Los Angeles from India, and gave me the opportunity to work alongside some of the greatest game designers in the world. It was simultaneously the most challenging and the most rewarding project I have worked on yet.

What are your words of advice for those who are seeking to create change in the world through media?

After you have written your narrative, go back and re-evaluate the themes of your project. Your work will always have a theme, whether you put one there consciously or not. Think about what those themes are and why they matter to you. Then turn it up a notch and embed it into the conflict of your narrative. Give your audience something to think about.

If the nature of the change you’re trying to bring about requires participation from your audience, provide them with a concrete action they can take. If you are making an interactive piece, add a button that takes your audience to where they can contribute their efforts. If you are using film, let your audience know the easiest step they can take to get involved. Make it as easy as possible for your audience to go through with the action you want them to take.

And finally-- your projects need to see the light of day in order to become impactful. It's really hard putting our creative pieces out there, but the world will be a better place with your work in it for everyone to experience!