I’ve made another small storygame! It is not done and I need help to test it.
Earlier this year I heard about Jenn Sandercock’s Edible Games Cookbook. “That’s a cool concept,” I thought to myself, clicked through, and then thought “hunh. Still a cool concept but completely not what I was thinking of.” Edible Games is mostly built around board games, and I was thinking of a narrative TTRPG.
So I roughed out the game I was thinking of, and it is Feast Days of Tlön. It’s about the cultural significance of group meals, whether they’re simple family dinners, traditional festivals or decadent entertainments. You develop the story around a potluck of actual food: everybody cooks and brings something to contribute to the meal, and then you build a fictional culture based on the food.
It is very much an alpha. It’s entirely untested. It’s a two-page .pdf at the moment, but I don’t know if that’s the ideal format for it or if it needs a more developed system. Normally I wouldn’t put a game in this state in the hands of innocents (it doesn’t even have cover art, for crying out loud), but Feast Days is the kind of thing that’s logistically tricky to get together, and I expect it to be a while before I can get a group together. There’s some prep and planning involved, and it completely doesn’t work online. (I suppose you could not make food and then pretend you did, but that would be utterly defeating the purpose of the thing and you’d be better off playing Downfall instead.) It explicitly doesn’t require you to be any good at cooking – the rules say “putting spray cheese on a toaster pastry or an ice cube into bourbon counts as ‘making'” – but I strongly suspect that nothing I could say there would reassure everyone.
If you feel so inclined, and somehow manage to organise a session, please let me know about how it went! If you have thoughts about it just from reading, that’s cool too, but the thing it needs most is live testing.
OK, lemme tell you about my favourite session at Go Play Northwest.
Bluebeard’s Bride (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, Sarah Richardson) is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about feminine horror. The story always loosely follows the fairy-tale, with play focused around exploration of the many rooms of the castle. The players all play aspects of the Bride’s personality, who pass off control to one another as play progresses; in our game we played the naive and trusting Virgin, the sultry, sexual Fatale and the scheming, slightly monstrous Witch. Bluebeard is absent, but you are likely to interact with his servants.
(Content warning: this is a game that’s fundamentally about abuse, particularly domestic abuse. Actual play inevitably forms a sort of makeshift raft cobbled together from content-warning-worthy subjects. This is a game intended to fuck you up.) Continue reading
I’ve been eager to play Diadem (Max Hervieux) since Max told me about it at last year’s Go Play NW, and this year I just decided to run it myself.
It’s a game with a very specific historical focus: the Crisis of the Third Century, which is a big significant thing but also quite easy to totally overlook if you’re merely moderately informed about the Roman Empire. (I confess I hadn’t heard the name prior to encountering this game, and I feel like I am way more of a history nerd than most storygamers).
It’s one of a well-stocked subgenre of games about succession struggles: the Emperor is dead and the Senate have crowned a useless successor. You play one of five pre-rolled characters in the military capital of Sirmium. The game is about the process of choosing a pretender, the support of the army being a lot more important in imperial Rome than that of the supposed ruling class. Each of you is someone with power and influence, but personally ineligible to be Emperor – so you’re going to be creating and developing NPCs. You all have different priorities, but the Empire steadily goes to shit with every delay, and you need to reach a four-fifths majority. Continue reading
Awright. Going over some of the more noteworthy things I played at Go Play NW this year:
The Mind of Margaret (Drew Besse) is a storygame in which the players all play different emotions (or other motivating drives) of a single character. The protagonist goes through a succession of dilemmas, with players switching which emotion they represent for each dilemma.
This is not a radically original concept – it’s been done before and in other games; I’ve prototyped similar things myself – but it’s a tricky one to get right on a couple of levels. Most immediately, it’s a setup that requires some kind of mechanical conflict resolution – you can’t just go with freeform assumptions about player-character autonomy, because you’re all determining the choices of the same person. That conflict resolution ought to be at least somewhat balanced, interesting and reflective of what’s going on at the table, while remaining simple enough to avoid bogging play down. Continue reading
One of the key things that videogame stories offer is approval. To some extent all media does this; but in videogames player identification with protagonists is a lot stronger, and more active participation is required – and needs to be motivated. As a result, the kinds of approval on offer in videogames are often much more blatant in their delivery.
I’ve written before about this, mostly with respect to masculine power-fantasy. The power-fantasy hero is strong, taciturn, highly competent, deeply serious, reliant on nobody. He is emotionally inexpressive: when the stoic mask drops, it’s mostly to express anger or (more often) contempt. He can be loved for doing good or feared for doing evil, but this is less important than the fact that he’s shown as having the power to choose, and to do it on his own terms. But none of his choices carry weight, because none of them can change him. He can slaughter thousands without the hecatomb ever affecting his feelings.
People in indie games talk a lot about diametric alternatives to the status quo, so you hear a lot of discussion about the opposite of gun-butch, individualist-mastery power fantasy: games about interpersonal dynamics, femme-coded activities and aesthetics, tend-and-befriend, and so on. A recurring theme is games about care, community, intimacy, therapy. Which is all to the good! But these aren’t novel or unexplored spaces in games, for all that they’re more prominent in hobbyist and indie works than in headline-grabbing AAA. And, just like power-fantasy, they’re themes that exist to feed particular urges, to the point where the primacy of the urge often distorts the world around it.
I keep meaning to do this every comp, and then leave it too late and get self-conscious about self-indulgent overreading. But, look, I think naming is really important in writing. Outside of poetry, there are few places where the choice of a single word has so much potential to imply stuff, and… OK, I’m not going to justify this, I just really enjoy doing it.
Anyway. Here are a bunch of character names from the 2017 IF Comp that I found striking, but which would have been a huge boondoggle to talk about in the actual review; and what I read into them. I make no apologies.
Bird (10pm). Birds are delicate, gracile, frail. When you call someone birdlike, you tend to imply being small and fragile. Applied to a twelve-year-old boy, one pictures something like those two boys who look confusingly similar in Stranger Things. It suggests childhood as a time of acute vulnerability, emotional as well as physical; there’s some sense of the trope of childhood as inherently feminine. Bird talks about feeling imprisoned, so there’s an element of bird/cage at work here as well.
Voting is closed in the 2017 IF Comp. I made it through all of the top-tier games in my triage system and had time for a scattering of assorted pieces after that; I haven’t played anywhere near every one of the 79 games, but I’ve had time to at least glance over most of the ones that piqued my interest. Here are my favourite games of the comp:
Set in a New England women’s college, Harmonia is a beautifully-presented story about utopias and their shortcomings; and also about textuality, viewpoints, what can be drawn from texts and what can’t. Liza Daly has been pushing the envelope on IF presentation ever since First Draft of the Revolution, and this is a substantial step forwards on that front. Very few IF works make me downright avaricious with their layout, but this has jumped straight to the top of that list.
Tuuli is a short, punchy game about a novice Finnic witch who’s obliged to step into her mentor’s shoes to protect her village from Viking raiders. At least part of my enjoyment was due to its subject-matter hitting a lot of my buttons, but it accomplishes a great deal in a small space. (cw: its magic rituals involve self-harm).
Will Not Let Me Go is a highly polished, acutely observed piece about old age, dementia and death, deftly using interaction to signify the protagonist’s disorientation and frustration. It’s heavy going, but manages to strike bittersweet notes on a subject that’s prima facie grounds for despair. (Disclaimer: I tested this game.)
Eat Me is a visceral, vision-of-hell horror piece underlaid by really solid design; if you like the macabre worlds and powerfully lurid prose of Chandler Groover’s previous work, it’s like two of those that are somehow occupying the same space. It comes with a lot of health warnings – squicky, grotesque horror with a palpable (if not necessarily intentional) flavour of kink, and I’d counsel caution if you have any kind of Issues around food.