A Dozen Notable Games from 2018
This year, for the first time, the Nebula awards are including a Best Game Writing category. As a game designer, I obviously think that this is a fantastic addition to the awards. But a lot of the SFWA members that I’ve talked to have said that they’re not planning on nominating for the Best Game Writing award, because they don’t keep up with games as a field. This is reasonable! Games are a huge field, games writing can mean everything from video game scripts to tabletop role-playing supplements to ARG puppetmastering to interactive novels to staging a LARP. It’s impossible to keep up with the entire field of games, even for an avid designer or player. What I’m hoping to do, with this list, is encourage SFWA members to explore a portion of the game writing world and, ultimately, to become confident enough to nominate some of the outstanding work that game writers and designers have produced this year. Additionally, I’d like to highlight — for everyone — a few of this year’s excellent games.
To that end, I’ve put together this short list of notable games published in 2018. This list is 100% personal, and it reflects my personal preferences, which is for largely experimental and literary tabletop RPGs, with a few LARPs and other things thrown in for good measure. Other people would put together very different lists! I’ve encouraged a few of my friends and acquaintances to write their own. If they do, I will update this post to include links to other lists.
Games that I have played and love
Pilot (Blood), by Aura Belle, is characteristic of all of Aura’s work — brilliant, beautiful, and cleanly designed with a terrible logic. All of Aura’s work this year is fantastic, I’ve chosen to highlight Pilot (Blood) because it speaks directly to my fears and troubles. While it is putatively a role-playing game about the relationship between a giant robot pilot and their support staff, it is actually about the horror and trauma of long-distance relationships in the modern era, of being so close to someone (on the phone, on the internet) and yet unable to be with them in so many ways that matter. It’s a phenomenal work.
It is worth noting that people with a high risk of self-harm (myself included) should not play this game. I think it’s still worth your time to read, even if playing it isn’t something you’d want to do.
In addition to Pilot (Blood) I strongly encourage people to seek out all of Aura’s game design work, including A Real Game, You Must Break Up With Your Werewolf Boyfriend, and Kirigami Dominatrix Display Simulator. You could also check out The Tragedy of GJ 237b, which we wrote together in 2017.
The Magical Land of Yeld, by Jake and Nick Richmond, is a portal fantasy adventure game. The main characters — who are portrayed by the players of the game — are a group of children who discover a magical doorway to a magical world, the Land of Yeld. They travel to Yeld to play and to have adventures, until one day they find that the doorway has sealed, trapping them in Yeld forever. Further, the world that seemed so inviting is in fact a brutal tyranny of monsters, and if they stay in Yeld past their 13th birthday, they will become monsters themselves and be trapped in Yeld. Their only hope for escape is to defeat the Prince of Yeld and his Hunters, finding the magical key that they need to return home.
The Magical Land of Yeld is, to me, the first really effective portal fantasy RPG. It cuts right to the emotional heart of portal fantasy — both the appeal and the dangers of magic and fantasy — and it does it in a friendly, accessible, clear manner. The game is an excellent introduction to tabletop role-playing as well as a great piece of writing.
Twain, by J Li, is a single player live-action role-playing game, played in a public space with your cell phone. In the game, you play as a very near version of yourself, who as a child explored a magical world with your twin. You balked at devoting yourself to magic, and retreated, while your twin embraced the magical world completely and vanished from mundane reality. The game is about the two of you, as adults, deciding that you’re going to meet up, and what happens after.
Single-player games are vanishingly rare in the analog role-playing, largely because they are extremely difficult to design. Twain manages this effortlessly, creating real conflict, real emotional connection, and a real character almost immediately. It also has a fantastic visual presentation. J’s work is also generally fantastic — she hasn’t published much, but keep an eye on her future projects.
Planet and Satellite, by geostatonary, is a short love story game about the relationship between a planet and its moon. It’s brief and touching and definitely rough around the edges, but I love it and I think it’s worth your time to look at it and play it. Planet and Satellite is part of a wider game design movement of strange, short, often queer games that are largely published on twitter, tumblr, and google docs, and in that context is a really fantastic moment of beauty. If you like it, geostationary has many of other games published in similar situations, and it’s worth following up and reading and playing them.
Verdure, by Sharang Biswas is putatively a single player game about being a witch and, in that, it is already fairly well done. But it is also a series of personal meditations about your life, your relationships, and your emotions that you undertake while making a salad. To me, this is delightful, and captures in it so much of how I feel, and what I think about, while I am preparing food.
*NEW* Pin Feathers // Cloud Studies, by Jeeyon Shim is a single-player, largely contemplative game that is largely played internally (you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a commonplace format — it’s not, rather it’s a new format that I’m very excited about.) It uses flight, feathers, wings, and injury as a way of exploring the self, transformation, home, and healing. Reading it, it seems elegant, but simple. But playing it, like playing most excellent games, unfolds a lot of complexity and substance.
Other notable games which I cannot summarize as well because I haven’t played them:
The King is Dead, by Meguey and Vincent Baker, is a fantastic, concise game about the relationships between dynamic, sexy nobles during collapse of their kingdom and the ensuing civil war. It has blood and sex and a lot of the things you love out of Game of Thrones while decidedly being its own work. I haven’t gotten a chance to play it, but I have played and loved the predecessor game (Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands) and from that I can say that this is definitely worth your time and attention.
Sadly, Meguey and Vincent’s game Bedlam Beautiful is not in the running this year, because of its publication date, but you should seek it out anyway. All of their work is great, actually.
Eyeless Smile, by Jackson Tegu, is a surrealistic biotech exploration of change, mutation, and daily life. It is almost, but not exactly, a story that takes place inside a body, with cells as protagonists. But it isn’t and instead ends up feeling like bizarre biological science fiction. Like Cronenburg, but happy.
In general, Jackson Tegu is a brilliant and prolific designer and it’s very much worth looking at his other 2018 work and beyond.
Bluebeard’s Bride, by Whitney Beltran, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, is a horror game about, in short, power and abusive relationships. The stories it produces are based on the Bluebeard fairy tale, but have the capacity to spin out in their own ways into phantasmagoria and their own meanings and conditions. It’s a great work.
Dialect, by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu, is a game about languages dying out. I do not know anything about it, but dozens of designers that I respect told me to include it in this list, so I’m going to.
The Dungeon Zone, by Ewen Cluney, is a game about the culture of Dungeons and Dragons players. In The Dungeon Zone, you pretend to be players of a fictional role-playing game, making friends, arguing about rules, trying to figure out how the game works. It’s a sometimes friendly, sometimes vicious work of self-parody, and it’s perfectly timed for this culture moment, when Dungeons and Dragons is having a resurgence of popularity.
Games which are not for various reasons eligible for the Nebula but I’m still mentioning because they were in a previous revision of this essay:
The Glassmaker’s Dragon, by Jenna Moran, is the campaign accompaniment to her groundbreaking 2014 game Chuubo’s Magical Wish-Granting Engine. Chuubo’s, which is a brilliant game in its own right, is sufficiently different from every other role-playing game that there was a strong demand for a pre-built campaign. The Glassmaker’s Dragon is an answer to that demand, and it’s a phenomenal answer.
Like all of Jenna Moran’s work, The Glassmaker’s Dragon is surreal to the point of defying easy description. However, I’ll give it my best shot: In the setting of Chuubo’s, the creation of the universe was a crime, an act of violence against everything that does not exist. Sometime in the past, the forces of non-existence struck back, destroying the sun and reducing existence to a tiny stub, a small town named Town and the surrounding countryside. In this small town, the great leaders of the war between existence and non-existence are incarnated as children, who over the course of play will fight, struggle, re-enact and re-interpret the war of their previous lives. That all sounds absurdly high concept, but The Glassmaker’s Dragon makes it accessible, understandable, and easy to play. It’s definitely worth a look.
(Sadly, The Glassmaker’s Dragon was disqualified due to a PDF edition going on sale in 2017. I look forward to including Moran’s next major work, glitch, in 2019.)
Dream Askew, by Avery Alder, and Dream Apart, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, are definitely worth your time. Avery is trailblazing designer who can move between “fairly normal role-playing game” and “avant-garde structured activities” with easy and aplomb, and Dream Askew is her latest work, about queer communities in the post-apocalypse. Dream Apart, also recommended, uses the same game mechanics and the same structure for stories set in the Shetls of Eastern Europe. Benjamin Rosenbaum is also a science fiction author, who you may recognize from his short fiction and has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for fiction. Both of the games are available in the same volume, and both of them are very recommended, but I don’t have my copy yet so I can’t say beyond that.
(Sadly, Dream Askew / Dream Apart did not ship until 2019, so please look for it on next year’s Nebula list.)