Logic-Deep Indy Story Games
(This is a post that is completely about gaming.)
I have a fundamental problem with narrativist-style shared-story-control games which are pretty much the norm in indy right now. Essentially, anything in which people all put in components, and then take turns interpreting them together.
I understand the need for low-setup, GMless games, because who has the time to personally design an elaborate setting, and how else can we make a game responsive to sandbox play?
However, the problem I have goes something like this:
Let’s divide a fictional reality into two types of information. Content are the nouns and verbs in the reality — plant people, bioluminescent motorcycles, decades of walking, etc. Logic is the connective interpretations, mapping content to meaning — timing as a delicate art, danger lurking in company and safety in isolation.
When you have a single, setting-controlling GM, they control both content and logic (more or less). So they decide what’s in the world, and also which things connect and lead significantly to other things
Exploring content is a sensory, consumptive process — you explore content by perceiving it, maybe thinking about or describing it some, and going, “Huh, that seems cool!”
Exploring logic is an interactive, visceral process. Because logic is invisible, you can only do it by actually getting into situations and seeing what happens next.
Content can be unitary — spending some time with one galaxy-sized blowfish once capture a pretty good chunk of the essence of the galaxy-sized blowfish.
Logic must be pervasive — running into only one situation in which having a button out of place leads to being disciplined is a quirky event, but a having all imperfection bespeak danger is a completely different experience.
This means that for a game to truly get sophisticated about exploring logic, the logic has to be both immersive and pervasive. In other words, the game has torequire simulation up to a certain level of consistency.
However, popular indy narrativism is about the opposite of the classic GM — control of both content and logic are heavily shared, and relatively independent.
The problem is that this structure serves well for depth and creativity of content, but is shit for depth and creativity of logic.
If a typical such game goes well with strong players, what happens is the players are hypersensitive to each others’ content contributions, and continue to riff off of them.
However, because logics are pervasive and experiential, it’s pretty much impossible to really communicate the logic you have in mind in a given bite-sized player contribution. You can only convey the one slow ghostly experience after the one trip to outer space, not the idea that you were imagining how breaking through one’s personal boundaries should be fundamentally haunting.
(And even that sentence, even all my examples of logics, are less informative than my examples of content — because I could really mean a million different things by “breaking through one’s personal boundaries should be fundamentally haunting”, and you can only truly understand which one by experiencing it.)
As a result, the game of strong players can be going really deeply with content, but will still be extremely shallow with respect to logic.
Sharing logics among creators is hard. It’s really the same action as creating culture, or building a unique relationship — because of the interaction-only data encoding, people can only do it with time.
Therefore, I have seen an inevitable correlation between logic-control-sharing games, and completely-boring-logic games.
If you have a single GM who invites players into their world, that universe itself can contain the GM’s private rich logic that players can explore.
By contrast, a shared-logic-control game automatically advantages content over logic, and by extension players who play for content over those who play for logic.
This, I think, is part of the reason why there has been such an explosion in games created. Because when you design your own game, you can write your own logic into it.
However, I feel that this actually makes logic-sharing through games less interactive, because the fidelity of transmission between writer and player, without immersive GMing, is pretty low.
Personally, I play games about 90% for logic, and about 10% for content. I end up feeling like I can get more creative mileage out of solo-GMing D&D than playing most indy games.
Many popular indy games are extremely well designed. In the 10% of the times I want to play a content game, and if I’m chill about being low-fi with logics, I can have a great time playing them.
But that is not, fundamentally, why I am a gamer. I’m play games to share and explore monumentally nuanced alternative reality-logics.
… Not ones that can be listed in a single-digit number of principles, but ones that would take months of ethnography to understand.
… Not circlejerking along paths of least resistance, but truly different and not-previous-imagined configurations of human experiences.
In logics-land, a game is a spell cast upon us, a key that unlocks a way of existing in the world that was at once always there, and never inhabited before.