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Guest post: Curated Narratives

By Failbetter, July 20, 2010 · Tagged with ,

 [This is a guest post by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat, who produced the much-admired indie tabletop RPGs Mist-Robed Gate, It’s Complicated and more recently Blowback. Anything Elizabeth says about EBZ below is her own opinion and involved little to no bribery.]

My family takes friendly games of charades entirely too seriously. This is to be expected: my siblings and mother consider themselves to be A) extremely observant; B) excellent actors; C) exceedingly clever and fun. I was inclined to agree with them, more or less, until one fateful game of charades where someone got a little too pleased with their own cleverness.

We’d write things to act out on pieces of paper, and draw them randomly. I drew “The Berlin Wall.”

If they gave out Academy Awards for charades, let me tell you, I would have won. I stood on one side of the couch, looking sad and forlorn; then I leapt to the other side, looking happy and free from the tyranny of communism. I did this a few times to establish situation, and then jumped triumphantly atop the couch and began throwing pillows and cushions, dismantling the comfy symbol of my oppression.

No one guessed it.

I was despondent. After I explained that I had been the Berlin Wall, everyone agreed that my portrayal was quite good, very soulful. My brother (who was the culprit behind making “The Berlin Wall” a choice) asked one question: “Why didn’t you try ‘Sounds like, 3 syllables?’”

I made up some nonsense about how “sounds like” is the crutch of the amateur, but seriously, I just blew it. When you’ve only got a minute or so for people to guess your intent, you’ve got to choose what you show them very carefully.

Echo Bazaar— casual gaming in general, really— gives you more than a minute or two to make your impression, but there’s never a moment to spare. The idea, as Alexis mentioned in a previous blog entry, is to make the world feel vast; as if you’ve only explored a small section of what there is to see. And you’ve got to drive home the feeling that the undiscovered territory is worth the effort to see.

The idea, then, is to give the players enough context to figure out what to imagine. If you don’t give players appropriate clues, then they’ll either imagine the wrong things entirely and become upset when your game doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, or else be too uncomfortable with their knowledge of the game to imagine at all.

In the indie tabletop RPG world, this is sometimes referred to as “Right to Dream.” Sometimes, when you sit down to play an RPG, you want to change the world you’re playing in, or redefine the prevalent themes of the narrative, or kill your friends and take their stuff. When you want the Right to Dream, you want to simply be in the world, imagine the world, and experience it with the people around you. When you’re sitting around the table creating the story collaboratively, the group is able to throw out all of the stuff about the world or genre that doesn’t matter to them and the Dream, and just focus on what they love. If you’re playing a game about being mermaids, you can throw out water pressure and decompression sickness. That’s not what the game is about.

When you sit down to play a computer game, however, you’re not allowed to throw out any of the contributions to your experience that the game makes. If you’re playing the mermaid game, and there’s a water pressure meter and you’ll die if you surface too quickly, there’s no way to ignore the way that encroaches on your Dream. Which makes for disgruntled players.

In games with a contained narrative— games in which the player affects the world of the game minimally, if at all— a good designer acts as a curator, selecting only the finest and most appropriate elements of story and genre for the players to consume. A great designer allows the player to act as a curator as well, and Echo Bazaar’s card structure does just that. If I don’t feel like increasing a particular type of nightmare, or don’t feel like connecting to the orphans, or desperately want to be BFFs with bohemians— EBZ allows all of that. It is the first casual browser RPG I’ve played that begins to support the Right to Dream, and that makes EBZ very special indeed.

– Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat’s website

3 Comments

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Herm Jul 22, 1:55pm

I'd quite like to kill some Bohemians and take their stuff...

Pat Parslow Jul 22, 12:06am

Agree with RichD, useful perspective on why it is playable (and quite possibly a hint as to why a colleague of mine didn't find himself drawn in, because he *didn't read the storyline*!) One thing though - The Berlin Wall, 3 syllables? I don't think your family take Charades seriously enough if they can't tell the difference between words and syllables! :-)

RichD Jul 20, 6:30pm

Well said, Elizabeth. I had not thought of it in those terms before but you have put your finger on one of the reasons Echo Bazaar is so enjoyable.