The Last Thing in the Box
By Alex Roberts
It’s late summer 2015, and I’m at a beach house in New Jersey, about to play the most Canadian game ever made. I don’t know this yet; I just know it’s a freeform scenario called Hope was the Last Thing in the Box. Freeform is a style of role-playing game in which a small number of players, led by a facilitator, use a few pages of text and pictures to generate a series of scenes; either narrated while sitting together, or acted out like an improvised play. People call this one “the Terry Fox LARP,” and though it was released only a few months prior, it has a reputation. Everyone I knew who’d played it wanted to tell me about it — but they had trouble finding the words. They sighed. They put a hand over their heart. They got suddenly quiet and they urged me, softly, to play it if I ever got the chance. Four hours after my chance appears, I am reeling. I take a walk on the beach and I wonder how this game, which was written for a convention in Denmark, and which I encountered in the United States, could capture the shared hopes and anxieties of Canadian people so profoundly.
Hope was the Last Thing in the Box tells the story of four desperate people who find Terry Fox’s artificial leg in a warehouse, and feel called to finish his Marathon of Hope — to run the 3,000 kilometers from Thunder Bay to Victoria, and dip his leg in the Pacific Ocean as Terry intended to himself. Each character is living in the margins, coping with deep-seated hurt and shame. Pat, an affluent white Torontonian, is slowly destroying his life because he blames himself for the death of a child in his youth outreach program. Michel is one of the Duplessis Orphans, declared “mentally unstable” and abused in a Church-run mental institution until he was 18. Kelly grew up during the collapse of the fisheries in Newfoundland, losing her father and brother to accidents in the oil fields out West, and more recently her mother to cancer. Eli lost his family too, after a chemical spill in the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation that the government ignored and swept under the rug. All four have a personal connection to Terry and his Marathon.
The game’s text describes it as a “grail quest,” in which the personal struggles of the characters reflect the pain and hopeful redemption of an entire nation. Canadian issues and historical tragedies loom large, and manifest in each interaction between these deeply flawed characters. They lash out. They hurt each other. The question that presents itself, over and over, in every scene, is whether or not they can forgive and be forgiven.
My experience of playing “The Terry Fox LARP” was painful and profound, and the feelings I had and realizations I came to on that day are still with me now. Ever since, I’ve been thinking of ways to bring this little-known work to a wider audience. But when I reached out to the game’s creator, Brand Robins, excitedly chirping about a feature on Hope was the Last Thing in the Box, he didn’t jump at the chance. Describing it as “deeply personal and deeply problematic,” he hesitated to promote a game that had been written in a specific way, for a specific audience, and even within that audience had received a decidedly mixed response.
Hope was created for Fastaval, an annual Danish convention for board games, tabletop role-playing, and live-action games. (Freeform exists somewhere between the last two.) It won a Special Jury Prize in the scenario competition that has made this relatively small convention an international hub of experimentation in the tightly-knit world of analog game design. Every year, there is an open call for scenarios, and the 20 or so with the most potential are selected by a committee to premiere at that year’s convention. Each scenario will be played 6–12 times over the course of the weekend, and, based on player feedback, are awarded prizes like Best Scenario, Best Roles, or Best Presentation. Brand Robins first attended Fastaval in 2014 with his partner, larpwright and publisher Mo Turkington, to present Run Them Again, which Robins describes as a “a space survival slash labour drama,” and which also won a Special Jury Prize. Within a few months he was working on a submission for 2015’s competition.
The scenario was written with Fastaval in mind, for an audience familiar with the tropes and techniques of semi-live roleplaying, to whom a game script about national and individual trauma would not have been entirely surprising. But it wasn’t born there. Its origins are in the long and deeply personal process of becoming Canadian. Brand was born in the United States, and was studying at California State University when he first met Mo just over 15 years ago, while she was visiting California with a friend. The two corresponded for a few years, fell in love, and eventually the decision was made for Brand to move to Canada. In an interview he told me about the rose-coloured perception that many Americans had (and still have) of the country he was moving to, defined by its apparent immunity to their own national ills: racism, homophobia, gun violence, income inequality, and more.
From afar, everything seemed perfect in the land of “free healthcare.” He told me, too, of the slow breakdown of that idealized image. When I asked about his research process for Hope was the Last Thing in the Box, he said “It was research for taking my citizenship tests, it was listening to my friends’ stories and having debates with Canadians about the differences between Canada and America and why that mattered or didn’t. [It was] a little more then 10 years of loving Canada, of wresting with Canada, of being pissed off with Canada, and I had plenty to work with.”
I was surprised to learn that the author of such a uniquely Canadian game hadn’t lived in Canada all his life. When I read the character background for Kelly, I was sure they must have been a Newfoundlander. Even now I can’t read that part of the text without tearing up — not just because Kelly’s story is sad, but because she could be my mother, my aunt, any of my older cousins who grew up on the island but had to leave. Kelly’s story is, in part, the story of my family.
I wonder how First Nations players might feel Eli’s story. Robins consulted a few First Nations friends while writing the character, though none to his knowledge have played the game (which has only been run about 20 times, as far as either of us can tell), which points to a larger issue of diversity in the gaming community. Those he spoke with expressed a variety of reactions — most were cautious, many were skeptical, but at least one insisted that if he were to make a game about Canadian identity, to not include a First Nations character would be inexcusable.
I also admit that, although I grew up with Terry Fox’s story, I’d never felt a personal connection to it. I was born a few years after the Marathon ended, and in class presentations and assemblies, Terry seemed not unlike the other distant figures who get bronze statues made of them: important in a vague historical sense, but not relevant to my life. I played with two Americans, a Norwegian, and a Swede — and though they’d often turn to me with questions about the setting (yes, the Trans-Canada highway really is like that and yes, there really are that many Tim Hortons along it), the power of this uniquely Canadian legend was, in some ways, as fresh for me as it was for them. In trying to explain it, I began to understand Terry’s run as more than a Heritage Minute in the making, but as something that touched people, and changed them, and gave them hope.
Robins was quick to remind me that hope is not an absolute good. He first read the famous quote “Somewhere the hurting has to stop,” when he visited the Terry Fox monument in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the Marathon began. Seeing those words engraved on the monument moved his partner to tears — Mo has idolized Terry since childhood — but Brand’s first response was disbelief. “I believe we can fight all our lives to make the hurting stop, and maybe we get lucky, maybe we keep it from hurting for a while,” he told me in our interview, but his purpose in making Hope was the Last Thing in the Box wasn’t to make a statement, but to ask a question of the players: “can the hurting stop?” In a Freeform game, the ending is not fixed. You, together and individually, decide what happens.
I can say from experience that when you reach the ending, the questions that have been simmering throughout the game — whether you can forgive, whether you can keep going, whether or not you are worthy or capable of healing — are not easy. They feel heavy, and painful, and real. And the most important question of all comes at the beginning: should you even play this game?
Brand’s answer was ambivalent. Despite it’s prize-winning reception at the world’s most prestigious scenario competition, individual feedback has been positive and negative in almost equal measure. Some people dismiss the idea of a Terry Fox game immediately. He admits the text is flawed, that it assumes familiarity with skills and techniques that those new to role-playing might not have. It’s also a relatively passive game, an “odd joint meditation focused more on how you feel internally than what you do externally,” in his own words, disappointing those who want live-action play to be energetic and physical. The appeal of the game isn’t in its tone or energy. What’s happening to you and your character might not be fun, exactly. And Brand is eager to set realistic expectations to anyone who encounters this game. He’s emphatic that no one should play it who isn’t ready to handle difficult topics, and their fellow players, with great care.
It’s a game about trauma, on the macro and micro level. And players with trauma in their own pasts seem to be the most drawn to it, and to have the most positive experiences. When people who see their own PTSD in Michel, or their own grief in Kelly, engage with the game, they aren’t necessarily triggered — though the text has multiple safety mechanics in case that does happen. Instead, the act of playing together becomes a chance to connect, to understand and feel understood. It’s the nature of creative, collaborative play. This connection can happen in any game, from high-fantasy Dungeons & Dragons to the most serious and realistic scenario. But there is power in bringing to the surface what is often hidden in shame. “Sometimes we try and protect people from themselves,” Brand said offhandedly in our interview, “but we should be giving them the tools to protect themselves when they want to protect themselves.”
To call this the most Canadian game ever made is pretty bold contention, and it’s one I’ll stand by. Even if it’s not perfect, and even if most people won’t — and maybe even shouldn’t — play it. Even if it was written by a man born in the United States, which casts a long shadow over our national identity and to which we often seek to define ourselves in opposition. This game is quintessentially Canadian because it refutes the idea of a quintessential Canadian story, and offers us instead four unique, personal stories that intertwine in inconvenient and sometimes painful ways. Those four stories can only be resolved, if they can be resolved at all, together. The titular Hope is not a treasure, and not a power. It remains a question. The final outcome is uncertain, because nothing is guaranteed. There are just people, surviving a legacy of pain, running together towards their best chance at a fresh start. What could be more Canadian than that?