New Leaf, pt 5: Now Say Bye To Now Play This

New Leaf, pt 5: Now Say Bye To Now Play This

(London! I’m writing about tromping around, seeking out games and play.)

Easily flew through the twists of the seemingly procedurally generated London Underground system, beating my previous time record.

Staggered into Now Play This in the morning of its final day. Crossing the stone courtyard I noted that the fountains were switched on today, and that there was some cosplayer guy wandering around with a bug-like paper helmet, watched by groups of breakfasters at the cafe’s tables.

I stopped in to say hello to the organizers and someone mentioned the game running in the courtyard, titled Invisible Garden. Apparently Rosa Carbo-Mascarell and Tim Phillips had prepared some sort of digital landscape which you discover through GPS-mapped audio. A lightbulb came on over my head and I ran back to the courtyard to wear the bug-like paper helmet. I enjoyed the bamboo wind chimes, and the babbling brook. I waded into the waterless lake, which was so calm and rewarding. That’s also where the cafe-goers were. I hope they got some of that calmness too. I heard the wind in the invisible trees and the invisible crows scolded me, or maybe they were scolding the wind. Though I didn’t find the cave of frogs, I did hear a low murmuring purr-ish growl. I couldn’t decide what kind of animal it was, so I asked Tim about it afterwards. “We didn’t put any animals in there,” said Tim. I wonder if it had come from somewhere else, attracted by the refreshment of the invisible river.

Played more Pico Park. That game is so good! Our little annoying friend Green from yesterday was back, but instead of stealing keys and insisting his little cat was on the top of any given stack as everyone else played collaboratively, our kid had changed. As new people joined he explained the rules, would restart levels so new players could be added right away, would direct the group as to the best strategy in a way that was a little bossy, but was also well-realized and patient. I had a moment of warmth thinking about how games can help people build skills, step into responsibilities, and grow. My biggest regret of the convention was not mentioning this change to his parents when they came to pry him away from the game. (It was actually kind of insane, he wanted to keep playing Pico Park but they insisted he come away so that he could… play different games? “There are so many other games here, you should try some others.” I’m sure they had their reasons, and it would’ve been neat to have heard them.)

Majestic Dinosaurs had a fairly flat day. I saw some cute micro-play later with a couple of people gazing into one another’s eyes. She flapped her hands as if a very shy pterodactyl, he spied her through a spyglass from less than a foot away and then they kissed. Flawless. Afterwards some of the organizers and I considered a theory about the reserve of the British and how making a fool of one’s self is not everyone’s idea of a good time. One of the organizers shared a few anecdotes about various festival goers enjoying reading the Majestic Dinosaurs rules and imagining what play would be like, and that’s certainly valuable as well. I wonder if I’ll return to and modify this small game, or if I’ll leave it as is and provide it to bolder audiences.

Later in the courtyard I saw three sibling kids flapping their arms as they ran and I thought about pterodactyls, but then the back two caught the front one and they all started punching each other on the shoulders and chests. No majesty whatsoever, Small Sampling Of British Children.

Agata and I went out to the terrace to play Anthropo-Scenic Golf by Gary Campbell and Jeannine Inglis Hall. It was made up of several lovingly crafted mini-golf holes, each themed around some way humans are damaging the environments of the world. Plastic in the oceans, a damaged oil pipeline with tiny dead plastic cows. At the end we were shown how much the oceans will rise because of our terrible golf scores.

And then suddenly it was over. I pitched in to help pull up tape and untangle cords and was good-naturedly reminded that I wasn’t getting paid for the work I was doing. In American conventions, no one gets meaningfully paid. There may be some stipends, but it’s really all volunteer. Not here. Everyone is paid for their work, are actual employees, have mandatory breaks as the law rightfully provides. It’s somewhat of a head trip, art being financially viable.

I heard about a gaming festival in Berlin at the end of the month called Amaze, and it sounded really good. But my ticket back to North America is the same day as the first day of the festival, so there’s no way I’ll be able to attend, surely. Absolutely no way at all.

I was pulled along for a goodbye meal with amazing new friends Shang Lun Lee, Alex Lee, Zo-ii, Em, and Jordan Erica Webber. There is a bittersweetness to having friends peppered all across the globe but tonight the sweet half was more prevalent. The feeling that one is connected to others, that we have shared goals and puzzle-piece-ways of understanding one another.

Late at night, after the Underground and so on, I sought out a bar which had wifi in order to “check in” to my flight and thus avoid a hefty fee. Thanks, airline. I walked down the quiet streets of a working-class-feeling London suburb, it was much quieter than by day. Suddenly, a white-tailed fox stepped out of a break in a hedge, stopped on the sidewalk about four meters ahead of me. We looked at each other a moment then both continued on our business. I had assumed that all of the foxes in London had been killed or displaced a long time ago. I’m happy that the world’s not quite the way I thought it was.

(I’ve fallen behind and am playing catch-up! The above occurred on April 9th, 2017.)

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New Leaf, pt 4: Now Play This Sample Platter

(Warm weather in London! I’m writing a travelogue called New Leaf as I seek opportunities for play.)

Exhaustion allowed me to sleep in a little, and my Personal List Of Goals For London insisted that I take the morning off for a second attempt to view the ancient Roman Coliseum under Guildhall Yard. As I arrived, I noted that Guildhall Yard was the kickoff site for the cosplay parade, and I thought about pageantry and costuming through the ages. Did Romans have returning and beloved characters to their stage of this Coliseum? Perhaps I would find out.

The receptionist at the Guildhall had never heard of a Coliseum under Guildhall Yard. My heart fell. Was its existence some kind of internet joke? As I I tried to explain, my quest seemed less and less plausible. I told him I was looking for the place under the Yard, the ruins, where the Romans watched games being played, before London, when this area was called Londinium… Suddenly his face lit up. “Ah! You’re looking for the Amphitheater!” Yes, apparently I was, and it was my use of the ancient name for a city that predated the one we were standing in that connected that for him (or so I choose to believe).

I made my way underground through an art gallery with several impressive paintings, each stopping me in my tracks. Every face was turned toward the viewer, and it felt as if each was the face of an actual person of the time. My excitement grew as I descended the stairs, and then I opened the doors to what a friend would later call the “rotten pile of stones.” These stones from the Roman empire had been uncovered in the 80’s while the space for what is now the art gallery was being excavated. This place was like a time capsule, not for AD 70, but for 1988. Glowing green line art dominated the wall, showing in semi-perspective where the far wall of the Amphitheater would be. Wireframe-esque athletes posed along the back wall and across a few pillars as if standing up to a strong wind. After taking in all the green, my eyes slowly descended to the rocks and rubble. I had come seeking majesty, but the ruins seemed more like benches: so much so that numerous signs warned against sitting on them.

And then I read the inscriptions on the stands, calmly discussing the slaves who were forced by the Roman state to fight until they died. Some gladiators, yes, but mostly just crowds of kidnapped people from other lands or this one, forced into the circle of stones and then slaughtered for the entertainment of the people in the stands. I began to feel a bit sick and righteously angry. There was another viewer there who spoke English as well, so we broke the silence of the space and spoke together about the tragedy of humans depriving other humans of freedom and safety and dignity, and imagined the possible life stories of those who died here so many hundred years ago. I left, shaken, but no longer angry.

Those Romans had it wrong, and though some games today celebrate depravity and gore in similar fashion, now it is mostly the minds of the players which are affected. Games have gotten much better since AD 70, and I was so glad the cosplay parade was scheduled to begin in Guildhall Yard so that when I rose from the ancient torture depicted as somewhat-unfortunate-but-none-the-less-glorious history, I was so relieved to see a couple dozen larger-than-life character costumes. Mostly characters I didn’t know, but there were some Luigis and a handful of anthropomorphic Tetris blocks. Heartfelt thanks to all those cosplayers socializing in the sunlight.

I took the Underground to Somerset House and walked into Now Play This for day 2, stumbling into a room full of people wearing colourful padded vests. On the floor, a table, and stuck to the participants were cubes in several sizes, semi-circles, columns, all manner of shapes. Everything was velcro! This was Affix, by Sabrina Shirazi, and it was so fun! A sandbox playspace with joyous strangers, I really couldn’t tell who had already been friends before entering the room. Some players tossed the pieces onto each other, cheering when they stuck. Though I enjoy building bridges between people, usually I do it metaphorically instead of with a series of velcro objects!

There was a ten-player platformer puzzle game called Pico Park (by developer Teco Park), each player controlling their own different-coloured cat person. Each stage took place on one screen (which is to say the levels didn’t scroll in any direction) and had its own puzzle, and most of the puzzles were collaborative ones in which all the players had to stack their cat people up to form a tower, or push on blocks together, or all jump as a ball flew from one side of the screen to the next. There was a lot of fun exploration and shared communication, though one annoying kid who played as the green cat always wanted to be on top of the stack or hold the key or whatever. The adult players were patient with him, no one losing their cool as the kid acted like a kid, which had its own meta-level co-op feeling.

Toward the end Jeremy showed up and grabbed a Pico Park controller too. We’d met at Novelty Automaton on Thursday night, and it was really great to see him again. He told me that the rest of his date with Laura went really well, and that the two of them had talked over dinner about how, though this was a date and so perhaps it would’ve been strange, they had both felt a twinge of regret for not inviting me along. The three of us had really had a great time together, and I hope we get another chance to. Jeremy came with me to the library to play Majestic Dinosaurs.

Majestic Dinosaurs’ second installment featured more spontaneous play than the first, but the audience who self-selects for watching interviews and a series of micro-talks is perhaps not the same audience who wants to run around as thunder lizards.

We did have an amazing arc featuring a young child screaming in fright when Shang Lun Lee, personifying a Stegosaurus, roared in the child’s mother’s face. Meltdown city! But then the child’s parents comforted her, and introduced Shang Lun in his friendly lovable not-a-terrible-monster form, and Jordan the interviewer swooped in to show the child how they could be pterosaurs together. Soon a flock of them were flapping around the room.

Jeremy and I walked out to the courtyard, where we bid adieu.

Out on the terrace, Ann and I found a game called The Explorers, where Peter Law instructed us how to role play as Queen Anne of Denmark (myself, obviously,) who’d just moved into this palace, and her Royal Architect (to be played by Ann). We would stroll the terrace in 1603 and discuss how to improve Somerset house during the reign of my husband, King James, and when the architect suggested something that I liked, we would haggle a price and then I would pay him in golden chocolate coins. While strolling, I was to remain blindfolded. Through this fine game I was able to secure such improvements for my palace as a series of baths with a sort of obstacle course between as well as housing for the blind musicians who would accompany my relaxation, and a viewing tower to better see the gilded copper rooves of the south bank, which my architect added to remind me of my beloved view of the sea back home in Denmark. He also constructed a library at my request, in which to imprison my cousin who bumped into me during my stroll, so that he might learn better manners. My cousin was also to write some new and fresh-feeling stories for The Bible, which my husband was in the midst of revising.

Eventually night fell and dinner and ice cream and laughter and London and the Underground and then I slept.

(I’ve fallen behind and am playing catch-up! The above occurred on April 8th, 2017.)

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New Leaf pt 3: Now Let’s Attend Now Play This

(Currently in London, this is my travelogue New Leaf collecting some anecdotes as I pursue games and play.)

I’ve not been sleeping well, due in part to jet lag and I’m sure to excitement. Fell asleep with only four and a half hours of rest ahead of me and then woke up completely after two. Lay there with my eyes open for another hour and a half before calling it good.

I set off to and arrived at Now Play This at Somerset House in Central London. The radio in the cab told us terrible news about the world but we asked the driver to leave it on as we purred and dodged our way into the city. It’s good not to turn away.

Friday at Now Play This was wonderful. I very much enjoyed Giraffe Volleyball Championship 2016, for two players, each with a joystick to run back and forth and which to control how tall your giraffe’s legs were at any given moment, and each also with a button to extend your giraffe’s neck, the better to bump the ball. Alyx and I had a spirited head-to-head competition, though the game started glitching a little toward the end. I feel like that helped me appreciate it even more.

Joy Is Here is a room-sized word search (Thanks Aida Gomez!) which attendees filled to capacity and circled every word with chalk, even individual letters and some words that might not have been words. Ann and I cleaned it in order to reset it. I pulled in passersby to assist, feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer with his fence painting. “We’re wiping the walls! Want to play?”

A Spanish game-maker named Luis Díaz and I were interviewed on stage in front of an audience by none other than Jordan Erika Webber (who writes about games for The Guardian and talks about them weekly on British television). It was initially stressful and then really fun. Luis and I were a good pairing, he was testing his first tabletop story game and I’ve been making these things for a while, but then Luis comes from a strong background of digital games and I’ve barely looked at them. I was hoping to speak with Jordan before I had a mic in my hand so I could better prepare myself, but suddenly interview time had already come and I was sitting on the stage. Since Majestic Dinosaurs is such a lean game I didn’t want to give too much away, but Jordan helped me find a way to talk about it that both explained what it was and left enough of a hook for interested players to come back for more.

Tatiana Vilela gave a micro talk about two stances she uses to create a game: God mode and first person. When you design a game using God mode, you look at all the mechanics laid out in front of you; a top-down, unemotional, comprehensive understanding of all the nuances the game will offer. When you design a game in first person mode, you imagine as vividly as you can what the experience of playing the finished game will be, and then you make the game that does that, bit by bit. She had a lot more to say, and her micro-talk was one of my favourite parts of the whole weekend.

Very much enjoyed Shailesh Prabhu’s new sport Dariya Kinare (which translates to On The River Bank, but don’t call it that obviously) which we played in the stone courtyard with the fountains switched off. I’ll definitely play this back home, a simple game of two teams, a cricket bat, and a large foam ball. The teams switch off between being the pack of hunters and the solitary prey (the team being prey takes turns, like being at bat). No one can move unless the ball is moving, but when the ball’s in the air, everyone can move around the field which is perhaps 20 meters in diameter. The hunters try to hit the prey with the ball, and the prey tries to knock the ball out of the field. If either of those things happen a point is scored for the successful team. While we played, Josh and I were very careful to at no point smash into one another and send both of us sprawling onto the cobblestones. I’m sure we would’ve been good sports about it, had it happened, but I’m glad we avoided it.

The organizers and I decided that Majestic Dinosaurs should run each day in the early afternoon, in the Library, which is the biggest space available. (For context, it was also where the micro-talks and interviews happened.) The audience were interested and rapt listeners, but when it came time to get up and roam around a little, most opted out. We had a few though, and that was fun and silly.

I did, however, get to enjoy watching a young boy go down the list of dinosaurs and portray several in a row, coached by his mom. She and I talked about media to help kids learn to be kind and I was glad to be able to point her towards Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Had an amazing time playing The Poem Game by Liliane Lijn. She designed it in 1970 and I was glad to play it with her and 8 other clever folks. I’ve played several games with words on cards, but this one was very powerful, with several excellent plays by Josh (who had stayed on his feet during Dariya Kinare), and Laura (not the one from Novelty Automation, the Pterodactyl one), and many others. Sharpen That Spark, Chaos. Flame-Self Eliminate Breath.

Late into the night I found myself playing one of those sprawling strategic games which reward system mastery and good luck, of which I was armed with neither. The game dragged on much longer than the anticipated 75 minute runtime as I made several costly missteps, having to circle back and re-strategize after exiting at the same station that I’d just paid to enter. The game was the London Underground. Not as good as you’ve heard. I was glad when I was spat out the other end into the cool night air.

Did a cosmetics bag suddenly toppled over at 2 in the morning, causing a little bottle of nail varnish to smash on the floor while I was trying to write in the living room? Yes, it did. After discovering that someone had in fact not broken into the flat that I was presently alone in, I did my best to wipe up the golden splotches and broken glass without falling asleep in the midst of it.

(I’ve fallen behind and am playing catch-up! The above occurred on April 7th, 2017.)

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New Leaf, pt 2: Everything At Once

(So I’m in London. This is the second part of New Leaf, in which I chase about seeking opportunities for play.)

Woke in the middle of the night after five hours sleep: sorry I’ve not done better by you, circadian rhythm. Promising to improve, I immediately fell back asleep for another 6 hours. Refreshing!

Eating yogurt and a Cox apple and Moroccan hummus with cucumber while looking out into a tidy British back garden is a lovely way to start the day. The post arrived, and I left.

Any chance I get I ask directions, half for an excuse to talk to people and thus get a flavour for the area. Unlike where I’m from, Londoners were happy to tell me they had no idea where the place I’m asking about is, but despite that, and due to several people who did know where I ought to go (including some people who designed an app for this sort of thing), I got to the places I’d hoped.

Yesterday I’d decided today I’d do the following:
1. Eat. (Check.)
2. See an ancient Roman coliseum, excavated but still underground.
3. Play in a fountain which creates rooms of water which change and constrict.
4. Play with a collection of coin-operated automatons made entirely by one man.

Well I ran off to the coliseum which is situated under Guildhall Yard (extremely British, that), first staring for fifteen minutes at my tube map outside of a London Overground station before realizing the two are different systems. Let us not confuse the Overground with the Underground. I rode a few stops on one and then switched to the other at London Bridge station which was, aptly enough, under reconstruction.

I walked on for a bit before encountering fleets of smiling middle-aged white men in business suits. Their whiteness was stark against what seems the usual London mix: every skin tone imaginable. They were attending a charity function at the Guildhall which the Yard is part of and, since they’d overrun it entirely, it was closed to the public. Terrible news. I spoke to the police, but they were powerless to assist me. I walked toward the water, in this case the river Thames.

Skirting the water I was visited repeatedly by visions of a city being remade, re-imagined, and hurriedly shoved together, architecturally speaking. It was beautiful, and I was well glad to have come that way. Gigantic ancient plinths at the edge of the river certainly once held something, now stood disconnected. The walkways cycled through styles, a bike lane emerged and dissipated.

Crossing one of the bridges (Blackfriars, perhaps, or Waterloo), I made my way to the site of the gigantic fountain with water spouts that build rooms. I asked directions from a mum, and she kindly told me that she didn’t know anything about fountains, and her daughter pointed to a public map display two floors up on a terrace. I thanked them and made my way to the stairs. I looked at it a long while and made my best guess at which of the terraces around this, the largest art centre in Europe (touts the web page), held my opportunity for play, and set off. Once there, I inquired about the fountains to a girl about my age, sitting quietly with a guitar. She said yes, they’d been here, but I’d missed them. Yes, she said, she’d seen them here herself, on this very terrace, but she didn’t know where they’d moved to, and they were gone. I thanked her very much.

Inside at the ticket office I got the full story. My hoped-for grid of fountains was an installation called “appearing rooms,” which was due back once the weather reliably improved. I tried to make a case for how pleasant the weather was today (20 degrees, which is about 70 fahrenheit) but the rooms did not appear.

Crossing back over the river Northward I was struck again by the mix of styles in architecture, representative of different ages and hopes and structural systems, all finding ways to blend around one another and cling to existence clear through until today. This is the city that misplaced a coliseum, only later to discover it under the stone-flagged Yard of the Guildhall and then shrugged, saying, “We’ll keep both.” ‘Everything at once’ is a very compelling aesthetic if you’re committed to it.

As soon as I rounded the corner, I saw the the sign for Novelty Automation with its lit arrow bobbing mechanically to and fro, beckoning. When I approached, I saw that I could not enter here, either: it was full. Entirely full, wall-to-wall full, completely brimming with happy-sounding humans and happy-sounding machines. But I went in anyway. Due to the drink special that night they enjoyed a great deal of business and I was able to watch one of my favourite things: adults at play. Genuine laughter, cheering and joking with each other as they operated machines that let them try their hand at laundering money (via a magnet crane mechanism, penalized if they’re spotted by the regulatory authorities popping out from their windows) or standing up to a scary dog (complete with intense growling, and glowing eyes, and slobber). The two-player games, like exercise-cycle-controlled pong, or the oppositional-crank-controlled divorce simulator, were especially fun to watch friends compete on. When I emerged from being shut inside the Eclipse Simulator a group of strangers asked what I’d experienced, and I’ll tell you the same as I told them: it was lovely, and well worth the coin, and they should try it themselves. There’s a picture of me operating the split-stepladder controller of The Housing Ladder, in which I sought to save up for a house before I died of old age (‘Buy The House Or Die Trying’ its sign announces) and, well, let’s just say that you’re all welcome back at my place once the paperwork’s sorted. As it happens I also won a Nobel Peace Prize for my work on the Small Hadron Collider but I’m not one for self-congratulation so we’ll skip the details.

A quick shout-out to Laura and Jeremy whom I joked with at Novelty Automaton and who, partway through me assuming they’d known one another all their lives, got around to admitting that this was only their third date. It’s nice to make fast friends in a strange city, and doubly nice to play unsuspecting social lubricant for people to show one another how clever they are. Hope to see you again!

And a quick thank you to Tim Hunkin, maker of the mechanical marvels at Novelty Automation. Social commentary and silliness in every cabinet of wonders. I met the man briefly: a little shy, he moved among the machines like a librarian between the stacks, you couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. Some player of the automaton My Nuke had managed to flick a few of the nuclear cylinders into the wrong part of the cabinet, and Mr. Hunkin unbolted the tempered glass faceplate and slid away the blast shield in order to fish them out again. “You set out to make new things,” he told me, “but you seldom consider how much time you’ll spend fixing and upkeeping the things that you make.”

Tomorrow:
1. Eat
2. Attend Now Play This, a festival of experimental games.
3. Play some of the 40 games being showcased there, including my own Majestic Dinosaurs!

(The above occurred on April 6th, 2017.)

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New Leaf, pt 1: A Departure And Several Arrivals

One of those days in which I’ve been up so long and crossed so many timezones and have had so many disorienting naps as to be confused as to what day I woke up in and whether or not this is still the same one.

Purchased some last-minute power outlet convertors, threw some things in a bag, and got on a plane to London. Talked about the game which is bringing me to Britain with my seat mates, Majestic Dinosaurs, and they were very excited about it. For clarification, my seat mates were midwest relocatees to Seattle and the Majestic Dinosaurs will appear at Now Play This in my game of the same name.

Landed, rode the tube and thought about Vancouver, walked up to Somerset House where I’ll be running the game this weekend. Admired its soaring stone walls and grid of fifty five dancing water fountains in the stone courtyard.

While peeking into the beautiful old rooms being used for Now Play This, I was hit by a that lovely backstage feeling of anticipatory energy. Various video game controllers were being unwrapped and assembled, a charming pair of humans were painting letters onto the walls of a room-sized word search.

I got to meet Sophie Sampson, game designer with Matheson Marcault. Heard wonderful stories of runaway ARGs and how she would frantically write stories and puzzles into the evening, hoping the global players wouldn’t have solved them all by the time she woke the next morning. We bonded over curry with her friend Eugene, a theoretical physicist.

If my calculations are correct, this has been Wednesday. Big day tomorrow, and yet bigger days thereafter. I hope I threw the right things into the bag.

Tomorrow:
1. Eat
2. Visit an underground excavated Roman coliseum.
3. Go play in a different fountain at a different old building which is an art centre or museum, and this other building’s fountain creates “rooms” of water blasts- do you jump through the wall as it closes in, or hope that it ceases constricting and opens a door? I’m so happy I packed my swimsuit!
4. Visit Novelty Automation, a collection of a wonderful man’s self-designed and fabricated coin-operated automations. Sort of a cross between a museum and an arcade?

(The above occurred on April 4th and 5th, 2017)

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Learning To Finish

It’s a matter of accepting yourself, completing something is.
And I don’t tend to. Not in an artistic sense.
And it’s a matter of no longer protecting your beautiful idea from the world.
Do you want the world to see your beautiful idea?
Then at some point you’ve got to let it.

Patreon has helped me love the deadline again, even as I lag behind them one after another. My beautiful ideas line up, shoving and jostling as before, but I’m more able to tell the bigger ones to sit down, more able to give the smaller ones a careful once-over (twice over, three times over up all night revising and adding sections and tweaking the layout) and let them go.

I’ve been struggling with this perfectionism for a very long time, and I’ve come incredibly far. Instead of resting here, though, at this lesser plateau, I’m continuing up the mountain. Wait for me at the next switchback if you want to chat about the maximum creative output that can be managed in a month, because I’m forming theories. Perhaps the more you let go, the more you can carry?

Like I said, just a theory.

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I Am Not A Part Of You Anymore

The moment when the angel’s foot begins to receive its weight, pressing slightly into the soil.

How the focus, for so long a soft tapestry of insinuated colour with contours as gentle as a breath, suddenly completes its slide into perfect sharpness. And though the eye has yet to alight on anything which belies this one’s celestial origins, the imperfections await unwitnessed like hereditary bone disorders.

Like bells, “I Am Not A Part Of You Anymore. I Belong To Those Whom I Am Among, All Those Who Shall Kiss Me On The Cheek And Bring Me To Eat At Their Table. Even Now, Already, We Are Different Completely.”

All of that is true, and what I won’t tell you of are the shapes I saw in your undetermined majesty, nor that today you’re as perfect as a clock. I shall have to cast you out if I am ever to get anything done around here. Go join the others before you on the Earth. You shall never understand all the ways that I have loved you, nor my gratitude for the ways that you have changed me.

Completion is like dragging myself through a gravel valley, tiny abrasions, the chalky dust matting my hair and leeching water from my skin. I shall always love you. But it will sting less after I can wash my face and begin scanning the sky for indistinct forms.

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Micro-Conventions

This past weekend we celebrated the games of Drew Henderson at a game convention called Breathing 2014. Mr. Henderson was not only the guest of honor – he was the only attendee. I had, of course, a small handful of volunteers (Robert Bruce, Orion Canning, and Jay Loomis) to add their creativity, opinions, and expertise to the discussions and playtests, but Drew was the pilot and star of the show.

Through brainstorming with yours truly, Drew decided which of his own works in progress that he wanted to playtest, what games by other designers he wanted to play and talk through some ideas around, and what kind of food he wanted us to join him in eating. As of the Thursday before the convention, this is what the schedule looked like.

You’ll see that there were many choices left to make (designated by fill-in-the-bubble options) as we headed into the weekend. There wasn’t time for everything that we were hoping to get to, but we gave feedback from earlier playtests for Eloastryn’s Quest and Treehouse Dreams, playtested-then-toyed-with-the-mechanics-of both Only What You Take With You and Wayfinders, and played a game of Dungeon World featuring the Grim World playbooks. The volunteers and myself were charmed and excited by Drew’s upcoming designs, and Mr. Henderson himself left on Sunday evening glowing just a little bit, floating roughly a quarter-inch off of the ground. Breathing 2014 – a success.

Several of Drew’s games can be found here.

This concept of the Micro-Convention is centered around one designer working on in-process game designs. This “guest” responds to prodding from the convention organizer as to what they’re looking to explore or further the design of, and the organizer facilitates that work through lining up suitable work/play spaces, the correct number of player-volunteers per session, and so on.

The initial list of options for each “work period” that I presented Drew with was as follows:

  • solo work,
  • shared space work,
  • discussion-based work,
  • game jam,
  • play-to-test,
  • play-to-understand.
  • (If either play- option is chosen, also choose: you and one player, you and two players, you and three players, you and four players. And then choose: quiet/small place, loud/large place, your hotel.)

He added both

  • continue previous playtesting, and
  • follow spiritual flow,

which was akin to “roll with it, do what we feel at that point.”

We made Breathing 2014 happen with only the costs of meals and housing between various Olympia diners, my studio, and Drew’s hotel room. Giving a friend and valued fellow designer the attention he was looking for: a wonderful gift to arrange and deliver. I hope to see the idea of the micro-convention echo, twist, compact, and become prolific; I think we all know a designer who could do with an opportunity to shine. I intend to field questions about micro-conventions or Breathing 2014 via G+; you can also contact me directly via the email address at the bottom of the page.

Special thanks to Robert and Orion and Jay for their delicious brains, to the excellent service at King Solomon’s Reef, to the bizarre obsession plaguing a particular Double Tree hotel employee bent on regaining possession of the borrowed folding table as quickly as possible, to Trenton Kennedy & Deanna Nygren for those badass Grim World playbooks, to each Johnstone Metzger and Daniel Wood for earlier proto-micro-conventions and the good times we had then, and to Drew Henderson whom the light shall shine on forever.

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To Write

To write, you must sit down and write.
To write, you must walk around the room,
down the hall to stare at yourself in the mirror,
boil water and leave it, clap your hands at nothing,
adjust the blinds, peer from the window,
put the water on again.

You must strike things with your pen. Drop it.
Snack, check the messages, write something
unrelated, back to the mirror and then run full tilt
back to the desk speaking aloud to no one, laughing.

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Test

You are making a tabletop game and you want to test it, but aren’t sure how to interest people.
This blog post is for you to read.

Sometimes, there are meetups in your area. If these are well-attended and attract the kind of people who want to play your game, great. Use them, and give back to them of your own cleverness and attention.

Let’s say that’s not the case. What would you do if you were me? Well, first you’d get in the right mindset. You are asking people to help you – you are not granting them the privilege of testing your game with you. Behave gratefully.

Part of internalizing gratitude is making sure things are in place. It’s likely that you’ll eventually be hosting your playtesters on two levels – as an event host, and as a game host. You will want to make plans to keep them warm or cool, provide access to snacks, and paint a clear picture about the timeframe you require. In addition to this, you’ll want to create materials to explain the game as best you can, including handouts, perhaps, and a script for yourself about what order to explain the rules in.

It may be helpful to explain your entire game to someone who won’t be playing it, perhaps over a beer that you bought them, and record yourself explaining it. You’ll find pauses, incorrect assumptions you set them up to have, and all manner of communication difficulties that will help you create that script.

Great, so now you’ve done all that. You’ve revised the game in the process, too, I see. That’s great.

 

Where To Find These Playtesters?

You, but since you’re me I could say I, want to make sure that we are pitching the playtest to people who are not only intrigued by the theme, but also are interested in the gameplay. You will get unuseful feedback if you do an orange juice taste-test with people who dislike fruit.

So, play games that have similarities to your game with some people whom you like to play games with.

What’s that, you don’t know people who like to play the games you like? What’s that, this game is so new that nothing else is even remotely similar to it? What’s that, you don’t play games?

In order:
You will have to meet some people, which can be long and tiring, but is very much worth the energy.
No it’s not, my dear.
And there’s your problem, you can’t make a game without playing games!

So witty. *Licks side of hand, uses it to groom hair*

After you’ve met people who like to play games that you like and played games with them that are similar to your game, make an event to host them playtesting your game, either at your home or a coffee shop, and invite them. Be very clear about what you’re doing: asking them to come and give their feedback on something you’ve been working on, and have a few snacks in the process.

Why them, either you or they ask? Because they are smart and you respect their opinions. People like to have their opinions respected, and enjoy participating. Perhaps you’ve heard of the internet; it works on the same principle.

 

So Now They’re Coming.

If you have a theatre background, think of this not as a run-through of the script, but as a full dress rehearsal with stand-ins for some of the props. You’ve got an audience, sure, but it’s just a few trusted friends.

You’ve gathered an audio recorder, snacks, a space heater and table set up in the garage so you won’t wake the kid, chairs enough, pens and pencils, extra scraps of paper for people to take notes for their feedback on, print outs of your crappy hand-drawn information sheet, mock-ups of game cards, a marker-drawn gameboard perhaps, a script of which order to explain the rules in, and all the playtesters have been informed when to arrive and when they’ll be done by.

I think you may need one more thing. Do you love this game? Have you been working on it for uncounted hours, does it make you smile involuntarily, and are you excited to share it? You need to prepare yourself to have your heart fucking ba-ro-ken.

Not because these people have it in for you. These are probably genuinely nice people, some of whom may be a bit socially awkward. But the game that you’ve dreamed – it’s not actually in the rules you’ve written or the play materials you’ve prepared. The game that you’ve dreamed is still a long way off, and the game that you’ll eventually create will be very different than its origins.

You are asking them to give you their opinions. And sometimes hearing those opinions will suck so fucking hard. Even when you don’t agree, thank them, and make an unbiased note of their thoughts – both where the problem they see is, and what the solution they suggest is.

Christian Griffen told me something that I think he heard elsewhere, that someone else’s solution to a problem with your game is often wrong, but their recognition of a problem is often right. I say record both, chew them over after the fact. Sometimes you’ll even come around.

Some will want to give written feedback on notepaper, some will want to talk it out after the play session, either is great. Double-check you’re still recording.

 

A Quick Rewind To Talk About Time –

Your (my) playtest goes like this:

  • 10 minutes of social time to get situated and wait for late arrivers, and for introductions if necessary. Remind people when they’ll be done by, and deal with any miscommunications on that front right away.
  • Get everyone to write down correct spelling of their names in the way they want to be credited, so you can credit them. Start your audio recorder.
  • 30 minutes to explain the rules.
  • Restroom break.
  • 1 hour OR PERHAPS 1.5 hours of playtime. This might not finish your game, and that’s ok. If your game has several subgames, jump ahead, hand out tokens or whatever as you imagine they’ll fall and jump back into it.
  • 30 minutes to 1 hour of feedback,
  • Thank yous and goodbyes.

That’s three hours.

 

I Don’t Want To Play The Whole Game Through?

What you’re doing here is pacing your playtesters’ energy – your nightmare scenario is playing the game, having a great and challenging time, and then everyone being exhausted from playing and running out the door without giving you any feedback. Get that feedback. Ask them to tell you everything wrong with your game and everything right with it. Learn about how it was to play!

Ask them:

  • What did you like?
  • What didn’t work?
  • When (this thing in the play of it happened), I noticed (something was going on for you). What was that about?
  • What do you think about (this sub-system)?

In this moment, you are bringing them onboard as temporary members of your development team. Look at things from their angle. Learn what they missed, or what your game was missing.

Thank them, credit them, turn off your audio recorder.
Put the uneaten snacks away.
If you can avoid cleaning up the game site, leave it. Maybe take photos or notes of who had what or what wound up where.

If you’re having the feels, have them. Maybe some part of something you love has died. If so, mourn.

If not, or later, look at the desolation and get building.

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