The Indie Talks: We chat with the creators of Prom Week about their high school love lives.

The Independent Games Festival finalist Prom Week is a simulation like few others. In SimCity, you are responsible for keeping traffic flowing and decreasing smog. The Sims is as much about taking pee breaks as it is about pursuing your life dream. But Prom Week cuts through the clutter and gets to what really makes the world go ’round: the spontaneous emotions and capricious hormones of high-school-aged kids. The game simulates juvenile love, hate, rivalry, friendship, and every other emotion you hoped to leave behind with your senior yearbook in your parents’ attic. 

Fittingly, the game is available on Facebook, a network that, even as an adult, never lets you elude thoughts of ex-schoolmates, caps and gowns, and getting dumped a week before prom. But, as Facebook proves, for every person who wants to forget their high-school experience, there are two or three more who want to relive it, encapsulated forever, like a mosquito in resin, in their glory days. The Prom Week team from University of California at Santa Cruz is composed of people from both camps. We talked with them about their uncomfortable, and/or fabulous, teenage years.

How would you describe Prom Week?

Mike Treanor (lead gameplay designer): Prom Week is a fascination representation of social interaction. I’m not troubled at all by the fact that we are putting these concrete rules on the human condition.

Josh McCoy (lead AI developer): We have encoded a time and place––a slice of social interactivity and social norms––in one small microcosm.

Mike: Prom Week‘s AI is so complex, I’m willing to wager that what we are simulating is much more complex than the way people understand the social interactions in their lives. With 5000 social considerations going on in each character’s head, we are covering a really broad range of facts.

In what ways is this complexity based on your memories of high school?

Aaron Reed (lead writer): I definitely drew on my own terrible experiences. We dredged up a lot of events from our pasts: Embarrassing social situations. Awkward ways to ask someone out. And all the ways that things could go wrong. 

Mike: We did a ton of authoring on the rules, which control the way the characters’ brains work. We would sit around and think about social considerations. For instance, say my friend flirted with someone that I had a crush on. Now I’m going to be a little pissed at my friend. We would have a rule for that. That’s one social consideration. 

Did that happen to you in high school?

Mike: Well, I have to say, I’m married to my high school sweetheart. [Laughs.]

Ben Samuel (lead engineer): There is both positivity and negativity in the game. I had a really wonderful high school experience. Perhaps atypically so. I was homecoming king. I was valedictorian. I won high school. [Laughs.]

Josh: From the sound of it, I think Arron and I lost high school.

Arron: One thing I remembered from high school was the “frenemy” concept. Our system supports relationships in different states, so you can be both friends and enemies with someone. At first, I was like, well, that feels sort of artificial. But as I started writing the situation, the more I started thinking that it was pretty common! Especially in high school, where two people will have a surface friendship, but have deep-seeded enmity between each other. [There would be] dramatic showdowns with lots of drama.

Josh: I went to an abnormally large amount of proms when I was in high school. I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff happen. I experienced my own brutal prom breakup. I went to the prom with this young lady. We were having a great time. Then, we had a philosophical disagreement about religion during the prom dance. Yeah. It kind of ruined that prom!

Mike: Also, we’d write rules where we said, “If people are friends, they are going to be less likely to get romantically involved, right?” That whole friend zone concept. This is something I was very familiar with as I was courting my wife. I was in the friend zone for a good year. [In the game] however, we didn’t want to strictly limit it. Because, I firmly believe it is possible to overcome this friend zone. And I’m an existence proof.  So we were able to create rules like that. Where if something romantic did happen, it would not detract from your romantic interest in one another, even though you were friends. 

How did you get out of the friend zone? 

Mike: It was a gradual thing. If people feel stuck in the friend zone, they should keep their eyes open and make sure the girl is not actively trying to keep you away. If so, you should leave her alone. But if not, maybe she’ll like you––eventually.

Ben: I mean, I think it’s not as simple as Mike spelled out. Sometimes girls send scary mixed-messages! They might be testing the waters and seeing how much you actually like them, and how much you are willing to pursue them. I think that happens sometimes. Not always!

Arron: I think guys just like to creep girls out. [Laughs.]

Mike: See, there are many, many possible prom nights.  

I’m guessing stalking didn’t make it into the game.

Ben: Here’s my prom that didn’t go so hot. For my junior prom, there was a girl that I had a crush on, and I asked her if she wanted to go to prom with me. She said, “Yes!” It started off great. And then the morning of the prom (it was Friday, so we had school that day), she came up to me, and she said, “Ben, I’m feeling really, really sick.” I’m like, “Uh-oh! This sounds like washing your hair for a new generation.” I was really upset. And she said that we could go talk to her other friend Rochelle and that maybe she’d go to prom with you. And I was like “Ugh!” I liked Rochelle, and kind of had a crush on her too. But I was like, “Gosh-darn-it, I asked you out to the prom!” I felt this was a test of my manhood––of how assertive I could be. So I said, “Becky, I’d really like you to go to the prom with me.” Then, Becky sighed and said okay. I felt like I had accomplished something, and also acted like a complete jerk. The actual prom night itself, Becky was clearly sick and exhausted the entire time. [Laughs.

You thought she just wanted to go to the prom with David or somebody.

Ben: Exactly! But she just wanted to spend the night watching TV and sleeping. I did not get married to Becky ten years later.

Nobody is mature in high school. There are a lot of crazy variables going on.

Arron: In high school, if you go talk to someone, and they think you’re cool, that can have so many different implications.

That’s what makes the game believable. It’s governed by rules, but it also has a lot of unpredictability. 

Mike: Not to get too technical again, but… There are rules, but it’s not like a single rule makes one thing happen. It’s a mash-up of a lot of rules that come together. The combination space is completely outside of human comprehension. It’s like the number of atoms in the universe. 

-Jason Johnson