Designing close to home: Games about your own life

edited June 2013 in Story Games
This is a thing right now, it seems. Lizzie is making a game about breast cancer; Ole Peder is making one about bipolar syndrome; I ran one about growing up in an environment of alcohol and drug abuse. Sanne Harder Flamant made one about confronting a suicidal parent.

For me, the major challenge seems to be how to - and, indeed, whether to - make these games dramatically/gamewise interesting for others, while at the same time preserving the autobiographical elements. There's a whole spectrum of possibilities there; at one end of the spectrum, you can have games that are inspired by issues the designer knows personally, but filtered and dramatized and made into a generalizable game experience. (For instance, my game could have been about different families with substance abuse, different roles one could take, comparing and contrasting them to show the dynamics and how they affect the families). At the other end, you can have tightly scripted games, directed by the designer, that run through autobiographical scenes in detail (which was pretty much what I ended up doing with my game - "this scene is about me trying to score drugs from X and Y, the year is Z, we're in city C, these guys will act like A, my bike was of brand B, go!")

My designer instinct, habit or preconception says that the last way of doing it is Wrong, because you're supposed to give players freedom, and make games accessible, etc. I like free & accessible games, both as a player and a designer. However, I'm not so sure when I think about it twice. I think there can be a lot of value in having a directed interactive experience, walking in someone else's shoes for a while. As a player, I could find this interesting. I ask myself, of course: "But is that really a role-playing game?" I answer myself, as usual: "Who the hell cares! Irrelevant question."

However, as a game designer, I wasn't happy with the tightly-scripted game I ran. It felt like a cop-out. It wasn't like designing a game; more like running a play or something, I don't know. After doing it, it felt like I had failed somehow in living up to my own expectations - it was supposed to have a lot of player input, meta-techniques etc, but didn't. (The players, in general, had an interesting and memorable experience, from what I understand.)

Reflecting on it now, I think that not living up to my own expectations is not a problem in and of itself; there are probably a whole, different set of techniques available for running that kind of tightly-scripted, detailed autobiographical game and making it a cool experience. If I were to design and/or run a close-to-home game again, I would consider where on the spectrum it should lie, and adjust techniques accordingly.

Comments

  • edited June 2013
    I’ve received a lot of input on the script, both from playtesters and people who’ve just read through the scenario. One of the things I’ve done as a result is to generalize it more. The main character has fewer details from my own life, playability takes precedent over “what actually happened” in the scenes and the selection of the secondary characters etc. Still, the game is very close to my real life experiences, something I want to preserve for two reasons, I guess: 1) I think it adds a sense of authenticity 2) egotistically speaking, it’s the “story I want to tell” this time around.

    For this particular game, I’ve chosen two moves that’s usually a little contrary to my design philosophy. First of all, there’s a main character that the story centers on. Second, the game is fairly tightly scripted. I’m currently reading Tobias Wrigstad’s “To write a Jeepform” (Document in Swedish), and these are two approaches he mentions as possible ways of writing freeforms. From the two playtests that have been run so far, both seem to work, but I might loosen up the scene structure somewhat based on the results of further tests.

    So what is the player input like with such an approach? Well, the scenes are open-ended, so it’s entirely up to the players how they play out. There’s a Demon character that constantly directs/gives input to the main character’s player, the Extras and the main character decide how to act out their roles… I think it’s still interactive, still a roleplaying game. Even though it’s fairly scripted, and designed to tell a particular story / give insight into some particular experiences. The playtests have also proven that the story will inevitably play out differently from exactly what happened in “real life”, which is a good thing, I think. It’s not “just a play”, it’s a freeform.

    Why write an autobiographical game? Well, why write autobiography at all? Why tell stories at all? I think Lizzie has a good point in the thread about her game: “A game like this has to be about the periodic table of human emotion -- the universals of the situation as mediated by your unique personal experience. And players need to be able to have their own unique personal experience of those same universals.” I believe that my experiences with losing my mind, being an addict and recovering / dealing with a chronic disorder has some universal application. From what I’ve read in the literature / classes I’ve taken / webpages I’ve browsed, my story seems fairly “typical” for a lot of people in my situation. So I wanted to say something about that.

    Also, I think there’s a certain cathartic element to writing about traumatic stuff. Artists of various sorts deal with their own personal stuff through novels, paintings, poetry, etc. I’m a game designer. Why shouldn’t I deal with my personal stuff through game designs?
  • Matthijs, if you can read Danish, I heartily recommend reading "Tilbagefald", "Bamsers Mod", "Familien", "Det sidste eventyr", "Tabet" and "Scrapbog".
    All of the above are close to home, some tightly scripted and some very loose. I especially recommend Scrapbog because it can easily be run GM-less and is probably the most intense game I've ever played.
  • This just comes to mind, but I'm thinking some kind of ghost like overlay of the exact circumstances your describing - it doesn't describe what the scene is or how the scene pans out (you work that out with the players in play), but it acts as the starting point - the idea is that in bringing new things in, you can stretch away from the ghost, but you try to do something new with it, whilst stretching away from it as little as possible in doing so. Like maybe a player has an idea and swaps a push bike for a motor bike - not a huge stretch, for example.

    That way you can be very, very specific about the scenario, and yet it's still a basis for creativity. That's what pops into my head.
  • This seems to me to be fundamentally a matter of "designing a game" vs. "telling a story", and yes I know the border can be a labile one.
    That you're treating autobiography as a special case, here, is maybe just muddling the water, from a game-design angle.
    Regardless that the source for your story is autobiography, or anything else, what do you do when you start with a story and want to make it into a game? I suspect that's quite a common occurrence, actually.
  • edited June 2013
    This seems to me to be fundamentally a matter of "designing a game" vs. "telling a story", and yes I know the border can be a labile one.
    That you're treating autobiography as a special case, here, is maybe just muddling the water, from a game-design angle.
    Regardless that the source for your story is autobiography, or anything else, what do you do when you start with a story and want to make it into a game? I suspect that's quite a common occurrence, actually.
    The first time I encountered/read up on the Danish scenarios in the Alexandria database, I found them to be very scripted. "Telling a story", rather than "being a game". I didn't really see how they would provide for an interesting play experience of the sort I'm after in role playing games, where the participants are co-creators and the game is highly interactive. However, after having been a player in such scenarios, I find them to be very interesting. They provide an experience, give room for player input, and the storytelling is highly dependent on the participants.

    There are also different approaches to how heavily scripted the story will be. I mentioned Wrigstad's booklet on writing Jeeps above. He has the following taxonomy of some standard script styles:

    "Scene based
    The game happens in discrete scenes with clearly defined goals

    Semi-larps
    The game happens almost completely in character in realtime in a room

    Storyteller scenario
    The game happens in a re-telling (återberättande, not sure I'm translating this correctly)

    Framework (”Story Now!”)
    Simple set of rules to create a game by given principles

    Variants:
    Novellette scenario
    GM-less"

    The Jeepen webpages have more about this philosophy of scenario design in English.
  • This is a tricky one. A couple of Where The Heart Is playtesters commented that it's difficult to get people to play games verging on real life as they roleplay in order to escape from RL. My current solution for the game in general is to produce playsets set in a future far enough away that it doesn't seem like real life, and ones that draw on a specific setting, forex Downtown Abbey (masters and servants) or war settings (officers and men) etc. In terms of the standard game I encourage players to pick characters as unlike themselves as possible.

    I'd be happy to hear from folks who have other ideas for solutions to this thorny problem. The trouble is, as another one of my playtesters remarked, games about RL are a very difficult sell but need to be played as the issues are very important, my own addition to that being that roleplaying is a good way to air these issues.
  • I'd be happy to hear from folks who have other ideas for solutions to this thorny problem. The trouble is, as another one of my playtesters remarked, games about RL are a very difficult sell but need to be played as the issues are very important, my own addition to that being that roleplaying is a good way to air these issues.
    I think it might be an acquired taste? Many players might not be used to rpgs dealing with real-life issues, and prefer escapist fun when they game. Which is totally cool. I mean, I can totally relate to that. I’ve played a bunch of these Nordic style larps and freeforms dealing with heavy subjects, but sometimes they’re just not my cup of tea and I’d rather just play a silly soap opera game or Shadowrun or something. I like the variation. So it can be a hard sell, even to me who has both experience with such games and am currently designing in this tradition, right? You can, as you say, deal with contemporary RL issues through the lens of sci-fi or history or fantasy. You can also attack it head on. I mean, movies, books and theatre have all these different genres and approaches. Some are fantastical; some are more down to earth. Why shouldn’t the same variation be possible with rpgs?

    I agree that role playing games are a good, interesting and valid approach to exploring lots of issues and subjects. And one which might give different perspectives and experiences than, say, literature, movies and plays.


  • edited June 2013
    I think it's important to consider what your agenda is in running an autobiographical game. To me, it overlaps with some of the agendas of memoir-writing, and memoir-writing is what my job is at the moment, so I've had this on my mind. Is is to:

    - explain something about yourself to yourself and/or the audience?
    - do you have an extraordinary past that makes such a great story people need to live it?
    - does your past get at a larger issue that it might be beneficial for other people to understand?

    I'm sure there are other agendas I've left out here too here too, and certainly the above overlap with motivations for writing games about, say, historical periods, people, or events. But I feel like prioritizing one or more can suggest some design strategies.

    For example, if I wanted to explain myself to myself, I'd probably use meta-play or embodied abstractions and focus play around the "me" character. This might be useful for resolving a question, for example, "Why did my great Aunt Trudy not seek breast cancer treatment despite being a nurse and knowing about her tumor?"

    The second agenda suggests a scripted story. I'm thinking here of the awesome Jeannette Walls memoir "Glass Castle." (Note to other memoirists: you can stop now, Walls won the horrible life olympics). The story of her childhood is so incredible that what actually happened is part of the incredibleness, and so it needs to be played. I think this also goes for Sanne's game about her father, who lived an incredible life, it sounds like. Since the "what-ness" of the narrative is important, the scenes can be scripted out.

    The third agenda has an activist bent to me. If I want other people to understand, for example, what it feels like to grapple with medical uncertainty in the context of breast cancer, then probably I want the maximum number of players to experience that uncertainty and decision-making. This suggests a narrative with thematic mirroring -- I don't just want one character dealing with the condition, I want several, so as to distribute the empathy. It also suggests that I might prioritize my goal of helping players understand the larger issues over my own story. This was the tack I took with The Curse -- I used a lot of stuff from my past, but ultimately, I made composite, non-me characters dealing with issues I'd dealt with, but not in the same circumstances. I wanted to highlight the themes over my own story. Though that's in there too, in some sneaky ways.

    [@catty_big I think the problem you're raising is interesting, but maybe a bit to the side of the thread topic? I think games about RL often attract a different audience. But if you want to introduce people, I think you can do it lightly with a shorter (2-hour) game that doesn't go right for the super-serious weepy stuff, something like Anna Westerling's Robins Friends, for example. In my experience, there is a lot of opportunity for cross-over, and sometimes persuading people to try it once is enough to get them hooked. I think cloaking real-life issues in genre setting is what good genre storytelling does, and that can also be a good avenue, but I don't think it gets you directly there as quickly, as maybe you'll juts hook people on awesome genre storytelling.]
  • Oh, and as a sidenote: at Fastaval, one of the grand old men of the scene told me that this trend toward autobiography was, to his mind, a throwback to like 2000, when there was a spate of these on the Fastaval scene. So maybe it's a retro-trend!
  • edited June 2013
    What about a system that alternates between scripted scenes that play out the way they happened and either asides/confessionals where a player uses bleed from the scripted scene to discuss fictional inner thoughts about the events from the perspective of their character or flash forwards (scripted scenes are flash backs) to the present where players use the scripted scenes as back-story to improvise a fictional present that shows the repercussions.
  • edited June 2013
    [@catty_big I think the problem you're raising is interesting, but maybe a bit to the side of the thread topic? I think games about RL often attract a different audience. But if you want to introduce people, I think you can do it lightly with a shorter (2-hour) game that doesn't go right for the super-serious weepy stuff, something like Anna Westerling's Robins Friends, for example. In my experience, there is a lot of opportunity for cross-over, and sometimes persuading people to try it once is enough to get them hooked. I think cloaking real-life issues in genre setting is what good genre storytelling does, and that can also be a good avenue, but I don't think it gets you directly there as quickly, as maybe you'll juts hook people on awesome genre storytelling.]
    Fair point. I've started a new topic addressing specifically problems with games that involve RL issues.
  • I’m currently reading Tobias Wrigstad’s “To write a Jeepform” (Document in Swedish), and these are two approaches he mentions as possible ways of writing freeforms.
    Nice reading. Thanks for the link.
  • Not only am I arriving late for this conversation - I also find that I'm thoroughly out of the loop, as out of the three I've only heard of Lizzie's scenario! At least there's something in store for me, then.
    I think I would have benefitted a lot from having some of these conversations with all of you before tackling my scenario, as I recognize a lot of the thoughts that have gone into your designs.

    In case anyone is still interested, I'd like to talk about some of my design choices.

    Like Ole Peder describes, Son of Israel is also a tightly scripted scene-by-scene scenario. I chose this not because I wanted full control (I also agree with Ole Peder that many good role-playing experiences actually come from letting the players take charge), but because what is special about the scenario are the mad events, and the fact that they are real.

    I took no liberties whatsoever with the historical events. I researched them to bits. I've been through microfilms at the national archive, and I've ploughed through stuff like descriptions of WWII strategies - only to cut two thirds of the material away again! The fact that it is real is part of what makes the story interesting, so the backdrop needed to be accurate. But that also locked the scenes.

    What I did take great liberties with was - again like in Ole Peder's scenario - my protagonist's choices.
    I believe that choices are not necessarily an integral part for RPG scenarios. I know this stance is a bit controversial to some, but I've experienced wonderful scenarios where it was the experience, not the choices, that was important. However, in the case of Son of Israel, the entire theme of the story is centered around choices. Therefore, every scene presents the players with a choice of how to handle the situation, and it's up to the player to make a decision. Since my father was bounced around in his life by great powers, the choices were of no consequence to the string of scenes. It was not about whether or not things would happen to him. It was how he reacted to them.
    The other thing I changed was my father's personality. In the scenario he is pretty much condensed into two ethical approaches: A forgiving one, and a vengeful one. Apart from that, he is the sum of his life. But that's not all there is to him in real life.

    I chose to have one protagonist. However, to make room for the ethical debate, I split the main character into the two above mentioned factions, each of which were played by a different player, and put in 'meta time' for them to argue it out. The two remaining players are, in effect, assistant GMs, who are in charge of all the NPCs.

    I'm not sure if stories always have to describe 'the human condition' at their core. I hate defining what things must or must not be. But certainly as a reader (or, in this instance, as a player) you tend to think: 'How is this relevant for me'?
    My father's life is relevant to a lot of people, because a lot of people's lives were touched by WWII in one way or the other. Even the generations after. But the scenario is about more than that: It's about making ethical choices. About being a good or a bad person.
    I didn't want to make a scenario that would leave the players marveling at my father's wartime achievements. I wanted them to think about themselves and their own choices and ethical convictions. Make it personal for them too.

    Something that's great (but also pretty freaking harsh) about Fastaval is that you get so much feedback. Both from the judges, but also piles of written material(!) from the players!

    Here's some stuff that the players have written to me - good and bad:
    'Thank you for courageously showing me your family's story!'
    'The fact that it was all real especially got to me'
    'Thank you for giving us free hands with your own story'
    'I would have preferred more freedom in some of the scenes'
    'Sometimes I felt like an actor, who was reading out the lines'
    'So mentally demanding that sometimes I had trouble enjoying the experience'

    Something none of you (Matthijs, Ole Peder, Lizzie) mention is how it felt to have your own story played by others :)
    For me, it was an extremely vulnerable position to put myself into. However, I felt that I needed to be uncompromising about this. It is my story, and I stand by it. Also, I needed to share it. Not out of some exhibitionist need (definitely not that!), but because I feel this story is important. It's a story about what war does to people. And I feel that we do tend to forget. That war is bad almost becomes a platitude for people who have grown up in peace.
    But yes: I do have ulterior motives. I definitely feel that people who have played the scenario understand me better.

    Fastaval was extremely difficult for me. Having the scenario judged was tricky. Luckily the criticism didn't concern the story, but had to do with game dynamics like how scenes were built up, or how the material was presented. Still, having invested so much of myself... it was hard.
    Also, there were lots of people who said stuff like: 'Your father is a bastard'. However, this was something that I felt I had prepared myself mentally for. (And he kind of is a bastard, anyway).
    But on the other hand, I think people were very respectful that I had something to say, and that it was deep-felt and real.
  • (It's not strange that you haven't heard of my game - it was a one-off at a tiny local con. It used the Play With Intent framework, which you might want to check out; it's a toolkit & philosophy/attitude for improvised play.)

    How it felt to have my story played by others: It was strange.

    First of all, I was afraid of several things; that people would be silly and laugh; that the experience would be boring for them; that it was too intense; that they'd think I was a weirdo for, well, having had some fucked-up experiences. There was an element of the shame I felt in my childhood/youth about not being in a "normal" family. Exposing that was scary.

    Second, I found it very hard to let go of control. I did say explicitly that people could provide input, we could change scenes etc, but since it was about my life, I ended up staging nearly all the scenes.

    Third, afterward I was happy that people accepted my past, as it is a part of me. I think some of the participants know me a little better than they did, which I think is good.

    Fourth, when people provided alternative readings of my history, I felt a bit ashamed, as if I hadn't thought it through well enough or something. I'm not entirely sure what that reaction was, or how to describe it.

    All in all, it was a valuable experiment, but it definitely feels unresolved to me, as if there's something there I didn't grasp, or some experience I didn't get, or something I didn't achieve. I don't know what I was aiming for, but I don't think I got it :)

    I think that if I were to run something like this again, I'd have one person who owned the historical events, but another who framed them as scenes. (I might possibly even run it with several people's stories, using one scene as inspiration for the next; this could become very intense and interesting, and would require some debrief/talk after each scene, I think).
  • edited June 2013
    Thank you for a thorough and interesting response, Sanne!
    I also find that I'm thoroughly out of the loop, as out of the three I've only heard of Lizzie's scenario!
    Small wonder, as mine is currently on the draft stage and Matthijs' was only played at a tiny local con, as he says. :)
    I think I would have benefitted a lot from having some of these conversations with all of you before tackling my scenario, as I recognize a lot of the thoughts that have gone into your designs.
    I've had a lot of help and feedback so far, which has been very good. I might not finish the scenario (I hope I will), but I've gotten to play-test it three times (two with me as the GM, one with an external group where I didn't take part) and have received some valuable feedback both from playtesters and readers.

    And boy, are the playtests important for this format...
    I'm not sure if stories always have to describe 'the human condition' at their core. I hate defining what things must or must not be. But certainly as a reader (or, in this instance, as a player) you tend to think: 'How is this relevant for me'?
    I agree, come to think of it.
    Something none of you (Matthijs, Ole Peder, Lizzie) mention is how it felt to have your own story played by others :)
    It's been... interesting. In some ways harder than I thought it would be, in other ways easier. The first run-through was kind of intense and left me a little bit emotionally drained. I think I can say the same for two of the other players. The third player was less affected, and viewed it primarily as an interesting role-playing challenge. Which is totally ok with me. People come to the table (or theatre stage, in this case) with various luggage, expectations and emotions. For some it will be closer to home than for others.

    The second run (which was also kind of a failure and highlighted some important flaws in the scenario structure) was "easier". But the second run I played with Matthijs and Magnus, who are close friends and were with me throughout the events described in the scenario. With the first run-through, I was more "vulnerable". Even though I was with friends, I don't know them that intimately, and they didn't know me that well during the period I had my crisis.

    The first run was a success, the second run highlighted important weaknesses in the dramatic structure of the scenario. Right now I'm at the stage in the writing process where I almost feel like giving up: "is the scenario good enough considering the subject matter, what's the point, I might have to restructure the whole thing, why bother, is it just an exercise in exhibitionism and ego-stroking, it's safer to just not do it". I have lots of negative thoughts like this, at this point.

    What I'll do is probably let the scenario rest for a week or so, and then pick it up again and look at it with fresh eyes. And rewrite...

    As to why one writes such a scenario: it's a story I want to tell, it's a story I want to come to terms with for my own sake, it's a story I think might be of interest to others. It's a dramatic and somewhat interesting story. I wanted to try my hand at "Danish Freeform". Lots of reasons. 

  • For me, the major challenge seems to be how to - and, indeed, whether to - make these games dramatically/gamewise interesting for others, while at the same time preserving the autobiographical elements.
    One way of doing it is to mask things with metaphor or externalization. For example, Kim and Marshall, my game about Eminem's abusive relationship, is actually about me and my (non-abusive) relationship--it's actually about my emotions about my relationship and myself, externalized into this volatile thing, because my emotions are often volatile, even though they are often masked.

    But maybe this example is a little far afield from "designing close to home"? It really, really doesn't feel like it is, to me, but it might look that way to others.
  • edited June 2013
    So, just to clarify, I don't think that all stories _have_ to be about the periodic table of human emotion, just that the best, most lasting ones are, that they tap into some aspect of shared humanity that exists more primally below whatever fancy trappings (plot) we've wrapped them in.

    Running my game is usually awful for me, and needs to happen late in the day because it spoils whatever comes next.

    Really, the worst part is the prologue, where scenes from my family history are played. Watching other people act this out doesn't allow me the intellectual distance of just imagining what it was like. To put it another way -- the progress of time has shielded me from an emotional understanding of what my ancestors went through, but the game removes that barrier. Sometimes, I get to watch my great-grandmother find out, scene by scene, that each of her daughters has cancer. Or I get to imagine what it was like for my grandmother to watch both sisters die of cancer, while suffering the same diseases three times herself and seeing her daughter struck. It's given me new perspective on my relatives, but basically, for me these characters are real people, so it hurts a little more keenly.

    I'm able to put my intellectual hat during the meat of the game, in which two pairs of couples (the women are sisters) make decisions about their future. The players often want to search for a simple solution, and since I've been there, I think I have a good idea of how to complicate their choices. But in real life, as in game, wresting with ambiguous decisions is exhausting. And now the players have thought through these choices and come to a conclusion about what the "right" one is. Often it doesn't line up with my conception of the problem, and although I've made the characters somewhat different from myself, it still feels like a rebuke to my life choices. And that can be pretty tough.

    I playtested this about five times, but didn't run it at Fastaval.

    In general, though, it feels good to have others play out my story, because I think the game does a good job of showing that these decisions are complicated, and are not made in a chronological vacuum. Just that makes me feel more understood. It's sparked some wonderful discussions with some of the players about cancer and genetics, and I think it communicates some valuable real-life information about genetics. It makes people feel they can trust me, and sometimes people will share their own stories about relatives with cancer or hereditary cancer. And like I said, I feel that there's more empathy for the strange corner of the world where the BRCA patients live.
  • I think all of your stories are important. Stories are like mirrors. We learn more about ourselves when we learn about other people's stories.
    I've always thought that role-playing as a medium is something quite exceptional. You are not a spectator. You are taking part in the story.
    When you watch a film or read a book, it's like looking out the window of a plane. You see everything objectively. You are able to analyse things as they happen.
    Role-playing is different. Being in the middle of the action, you feel just as confused and immersed in your emotions as you would be in real life.
    I think there is tremendous learning potential in role-playing, exactly because it feels more like real life. And yet it isn't. So it poses an opportunity to toy with problems that aren't yours. It builds your empathy and helps clarify opinions.
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