Sunday, November 22, 2015

Game as Art: Participation

I ran Monsterhearts yesterday, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about why I love the game so much. I mean, sure, "messy lives of teenage monsters" is a cool hook, and the writing is tight, and it's probably the best implementation I've seen so far of the *World system (though Bluebeard's Bride gives it a run for its money). But on top of all of that, it feels like art.

We talk about whether RPGs (or video games, but that's a discussion I'm not really qualified to have because my interest in and exposure to video games is a pretty narrow slice) are art, but it tends to be hard to come up with a good definition of "art" as it relates to RPGs. When I think of RPGs as art, then, I realized, as I thought about Monsterhearts, that to me a game that's art is challenging.

I would argue that most RPGs actually attempt not to be challenging. What's one of the common sales pitches I hear when I'm walking the dealer's room at GenCon or Origins and talking to folks about their games? "The system gets out of the way." Well, that's cool and all, but that's not really what I want if I'm looking for art. I'm looking for something that makes me engage with the game. Games that prioritize breadth - your GURPS, your d20, even (I hate to say it, because I love the system) Fate, don't challenge so much as shoot for inclusivity.

Now, that's funny, of course, because a lot of those games have labyrinthine rules rabbit holes, such that only someone who is willing to engage and put in the time to learn the rules actually gets the full experience of the game. I talk about this with regards to NWoD a lot; it's a good system (2nd edition especially), but it gets better if you learn it and use it. Hell, that's true of Chill, too - there are a lot of fun things the game does, but you have to know how they work.

That's not the kind of challenge I'm talking about, though. That's mechanical challenge; it'll be harder if you're pressed for time or if reading comprehension (or math, in some cases) isn't your thing, but it's not art. It's not an aesthetic challenge, it's not challenging attitudes or viewpoints. It's more like a puzzle.

No, when I'm thinking about challenge, I'm thinking Monsterhearts. I'm thinking Bluebeard's Bride, or Misspent Youth. Hell, without meaning to toot my own horn, Promethean works precisely because it's assumptions and challenges are so different than the rest of the World of Darkness - you're on a journey with a specific ending, and that ending is that you leave the WoD behind and become "normal." That's 180 degrees from every other WoD game, and consequently a lot of folks label it "unplayable." It's not, though (as two long-running chronicles will attest), it just requires different engagement than other games in the same world.

A challenging game should do more than make you try and remember what kind of dice to roll and what numbers that generates. It should make clear the relationship between system and narrative. Bringing that back to Monsterhearts, I have a player in my group who is highly system-impaired. Like, actively hates "systems". But even he is aware of what it means when I tell him to bubble in "cold" at the beginning of a session; he's gonna mark experience when he rolls on cold, but he's more likely to fail. That means if he plays to his character's strengths, he'll succeed more often, but he won't get as much out of it in the long run. Character development is therefore tied directly in to what that character does within the fiction of the game, which is a hell of a lot more artistic and elegant than "you killed 80 goblins? OK, at 4 XP each, that's...".

As I was talking about this with +Michelle, she pointed out that A Tragedy in Five Acts might not be art so much as it encourages players to make art. Players don't tend to remember the system (which is a pretty simple bidding mechanic, really), but they remember the play they created. That's actually something I was trying to do with my contribution to Game Chef this year, Unstuckand those it's very much in the preliminary stage, I'd like to flesh it out at some point. That does leave me wondering where curse the darkness falls, but since it's mine, I don't think I'm qualified to judge.

One more thought: I've played with a lot of first-time RPG players over the years, and the notion that "you create, control, and speak for a character within this world" is a pretty radical one for some of them. I think it's therefore important to remember that art, even as I'm considering it here, is a pretty subjective measure; what's challenging and new for one person might be familiar or even banal to me. In that kind of case, I think it's important for those of us with more experience to a) remember that there's always someone out there doing edgier shit than we are and b) remember that no one likes snooty, scoffy people who crap on other folks' fun.

Anyway: Tell me more challenging/artistic games! Offhand, my (incomplete) list:


  • Monsterhearts (duh)
  • Misspent Youth
  • Bluebeard's Bride
  • Ganakagok
  • Geasa 
  • Spark (although this might fall into the same category as Tragedy; a game that helps you make art as opposed to being art)
  • Dread
  • With Great Power...
  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Magicians (maybe, I haven't played it)
  • Poison'd (yeah, I know it's problematic as shit in places, but it's definitely challenging)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard