games are mind control

When I write a game (or when you write a game) I am building a set of social constraints: the rules are ways you are allowed/expected to behave. When you follow my behavioural rules you (if I did everything perfectly) get an experience that I intended for you to get.

Games are mind control.

I am basically communicating to you a method by which you can communicate with each other that does something special. See all that “communication” in there? I’m going somewhere with that. Because communication in itself is political: I choose what to communicate, I do so with a purpose, and you do something with that communication. In one-way communication I change you. In two-way communication we change each other. Whether or not I have a political agenda is irrelevant: this is a very political space.

If I choose to control your mind in this fashion and do so with no political intent, I’m being naïve.

If I choose to control your mind in this fashion and do so with the express intent of delivering no political agenda at all, will that’s political as fuck. And also pretty damned clever. If you pull it off, you’re gifted. If you think you are pulling it off but are in fact just delivering content so universally accepted by your peers that it just doesn’t feel political (because it’s not challenging anything you care about: that’s why it feels apolitical) then we might be back to naïve again.

If you have a political agenda then you’re just being honest with everyone. It’s not especially clever, it’s just self-aware. I place a high value on self-awareness. I think it’s important. If you read and play my political game and think “wow I hate everything this stands for” then I’ve revealed valuable information to you. If you let me know, then you’ve revealed valuable information to me.

What I’m saying is that communication with any depth is always political. Communication with accidentally no depth is just goofy. Communication with deliberately no depth is a wild idea. I can hardly think of anything more political. Dadaism was profoundly political.

So where do games fall? Certainly accepting the status quo has to be political. Things are shit and need to change. Do status quo games lie here? Are we hiding something from ourselves?

Are games about challenging the status quo valuable? Do they result in any actual challenges? On the other hand, can any art fail to do so? In being at a minimum reflective of what’s going on, the game text serves at least as a record of someone struggling with the world. At its best the text creates play and therefore a series of experiences (people playing the game) that present these challenges, ask people to pretend to live these challenges. Ideas have been moved from author to consumer.

But here’s what’s interesting and I’m sorry I took so long to get here: when we pretend anything we run a simulator in our head. We simulate the things we pretend. We simulate how we feel to discover how we might react. You know what we use to do the simulation?

The same thing we use to actually experience it. We just temporarily re-wire the inputs. So there is a sense in which, when I get you to simulate something, I get you to “actually” experience it. Sure you have your simulation flag set, so you get to discard it as fantasy. But it turns out we’re not great at that: when we simulate sadness really well, we generate real tears. Simulated emotions are only barely distinguishable from real ones.

Role-playing games are mind control devices. Mind control devices are all political. Nothing could be more political.

flashback cues

So the style guide rule for Soft Horizon is that a game in the Soft Horizon doesn’t change the rules, but it might extend the rules to better fulfill the context of the new game. That is, changes must be additive and contextual.

In The King Machine you play a character that lived most of their life in a utopia that is now, very suddenly, a dystopia. Your background is of limited value to this story, so you sort of emerge anew and discover who you have to be now. Consequently character generation is very simple and fast and doesn’t come with a lot of background information: we’re going to find out who you are.

A wary Retrievalist hears scarabs nearby.

In Sand Dogs things are different. You grew up hard in a world that has not much of anything and what there is can get weird and dangerous. Your background will be very informative: it’s going to continue like this, only worse. So the game demands a richer character generation. We want to know how your hard past will inform you now.

Previously I talked about the life path system I’m working on for this. It remains simple (a design goal for all these games) but provides a past. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough. I want the past to be more mechanically relevant to the now. So what I’m experimenting with now are flashback cues.

Each time you change careers, you write a flashback cue for the one you’re leaving. There’s a hint in each career — a cue for the cue if you will. So, for example, for Retrievalist (which used to be Stalker or Tombrunner) we have:

If you choose not to continue as a Retrievalist, add a FLASHBACK CUE: the time you risked everything to retrieve…what the hell is this?

And so you will write a cue that you can use once later for some advantage. So you might add:

FLASHBACK CUE: the day I recovered the Blasting Eye from the Thomas Gang who had hit a jolting ditch just outside the tomb and all caught fire. I caught fire too.

So to get your advantage in play, you’ll narrate a small scene going into detail here and the ref will nudge you with questions until we get to the part that gives you your current conflict some advantage. So what advantage?

I’m still thinking about that. Over on mastodon (I’m there) I posted:

What kind of advantage? Escalate a success? Add a die to the pool? Avoid a realized risk? Or maybe more darkly, apply a realized risk to someone else?

So escalate a success would to increase a fail to a success+risk or success+risk to success or success to legendary. That’s okay. Add a die is the same as everything else. It works but maybe not interesting, though since this is an expendable resource (you only use the cue once and then it’s gone) it could be a pretty hefty die. Maybe even a d12. I kind of like being able to stick someone else with your risk too: apply your harm to a compatriot, change who’s affected by a spillover result, &c.

Still thinking. Always thinking. Feel free to help me think

UPDATE: Nick Wendig offers:

@Halfjack Reroll a failure, since you learned your lesson in some mistake shown int he flashback?

…which in most systems sounds like a pretty good idea. In this system it’s very interesting given the system (roll your dice of varying types and select one for your result). Re-rolling has an amplified emotional impact when a large die rolls low (sad, against expectations) and you get to give it another try (relief, retry for expected positive result).