(cross-posted with 20×20)
Since last year’s Game Chef competition, I’ve worked on three short games that have a somewhat similar design philosophy. They’re all two-player games about China that are written to be very supportive of online chat-based play, and the stories that they tell are limited to a single scene.
I’ve been really interested in constraining the number of players a game supports ever since Ben Lehman and Emily Care Boss blazed that trail with Polaris and Breaking the Ice, and I’ve been especially fascinated with two-player games because I think they provide excellent opportunities for players to listen to their play partner and learn how to support them in what they’re trying to achieve. Mo brilliant articulation of “Push/Pull” reinforced this idea for me, so the last couple designs have been specifically written to support as much Pull as possible.
Also, I’m on an ongoing quest to prove to Ben Lehman that you don’t need a mechanic that let’s you say “No,” and, additionally, you don’t necessarily have to say “No” at all. All three of these games bypass normal resolution systems and have player input immediately become “what happens,” without being filtered through anything other than the social situation (you want to say things the other player will like) and the overall feel of the game (you want to say things that support the kind of game you’re playing). Maybe this is just my hippie design tendencies in action, but I see a lot of potential in this type of play, removing task or conflict resolution (as they’re traditionally practiced, anyway) from the equation entirely. Right now, these three games may seem a bit simplistic for most gamer tastes (especially for folks who dig the crunch), but that’s because I’m only starting down this path. As it is, the complexity of these designs is certainly increasing and Shreyas’ challenge for indie designers to not be afraid of crunchy ideosyncratic mechanics may be the next task I take up, maybe in this year’s Game Chef.
Here are the games and my thoughts about them:
Heavenly Kingdoms (Jiuzui de Tianguo)
Self-described as “the game of drunken Taiping exegesis,” this was a pseudo-entry in last year’s Game Chef competition that didn’t make it into the finals because 1) I was one of the judges and 2) I was busy doing a Fulbright Fellowship on the Taiping, a pseudo-Christian Chinese religious sect circa 1851-1864. The game itself is about a pair of drunk brothers who are trying to piece together an elementary Taiping text that has gotten scrambled up.
While this game led to the two games listed below, it’s definitely the one-of-these-things that’s not like the others. Players have a small hand of 3 cards and on each card is a stanza from the Taiping’s Trimetrical Classic, an instructional book for children and the barely literate (i.e. most everyone, at that time). The stanzas have been shuffled so that the order doesn’t make good sense. However, the drunken brothers take turns playing stanzas in what is “obviously the proper order” and then use description to explain how the most recent stanza continues the story told by the ones played before.
Included in the game description is a bunch of wishy-washy stuff about how the brother have different goals and personalities and that players are supposed to work towards different aims. Since none of this was mechanically supported, I doubt it would really work all that well in play. It was, perhaps, my dissatisfaction with my non-solution here that led me to make the characters in the next two games have different personalities AND support those differences mechanically.
This is all Shreyas’ fault, since he started this bizarre contest to write a game based on the concept “lesbianstripperninja.” I’m not exactly sure where that came from, but anyway… I’m not one to easily resist a challenge. This game has color shameless pulled from the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but instead has the Great Khan conversing with the ninja Kyoko, who has just put a sword into his gut. As the Khan dies, Kyoko mocks him by telling stories about how she managed to seduce and corrupt many of his most beautiful wives.
The system is very strongly scripted, using ritual language to a degree that recalls both Polaris and MadLibs. The players basically fill in the blanks in required sentence structures, trading a few sentences back and forth as Kyoko tells her stories and the Khan asks for specific details of the seductions. This was my first attempt in mechanically differentiating characters by differentiating the kind of input their players could have on the game. I think this was monstrously successful and can’t wait to build on this and see where it goes. I think this is gonna come back with a vengeance when I begin serious work on Lions on the Precipice, my all-Mountain-People re-write of Dogs in the Vineyard, which has two characters (a human and a mountain lion) trapped in the same body.
Unfortunately, in the first playtest of KKKKK, both Thomas and I got so caught up in the basic ritual phrases that we forgot to incorporate the optional special phrasings that can be mixed in every now and again. We’ll have to play it again, I guess.
Waiting for the Queen/Tea at Midnight (first draft)
My most recent attempt along these lines, this game is my contribution to the first volume of Push, my progressive game design journal (which should be available in a few weeks, fingers crossed). It’s based on a young adult wuxia novel that I was co-writing with Shreyas, Josh Kashinsky, and Thomas “LordSmerf” Robertson and describes the first meeting of two of the novel’s main characters.
This is perhaps the most mechanically interesting design so far because the system is reverse engineered from early interactive fiction computer games (“get lamp”). The players construct statements that describe “what happens” by selecting actions from a limited list of available options which varies by their character’s physical location in the limited game landscape. Some actions are only available after other actions have been performed, whether by your character or the other player’s character.
We haven’t playtested this one yet, so I’ll be interested to see if the system works like I designed it too. Drawing on lessons learn in the process of designing these three games, Waiting/Tea tries to do for the overall story what KKKKK tried to do for the characters: it provides form to the story by limiting the kinds of actions characters can take. Now, there’s a lot of freedom for the meeting between the two characters to go one way or another, but the limited range of actions they can take means that the mechanics support some kinds of stories much better than others, so the deck is stacked for things to end a certain way.
In any case, I think my design work is probably going to continue developing along these lines, and I’m excited to figure out where I go from here.