This Christmas I received a copy of Gloom, which I’ve been curious to play since it was reviewed over at Play This Thing. The mechanics of the game exist to enable the players to tell increasingly implausible and horrific Gorey-style tales about their characters, until at last they are all dead.
As is usually the case with story-telling games, the results are more amusing than coherent. But there are a couple of mechanics I thought worked reasonably well.
Cards in Gloom are transparent plastic with text and numbers in specific areas. As you play, you stack cards representing plot events on your character; the cumulative effect of all these twists and turns is what you see when looking down through all of the stacked cards. Some events overlap others, wholly or partly blotting out their effects. From a story-simulation point of view this is a very coarse-grained kind of bookkeeping (right for a card game, but you’d expect subtler from anything implemented on a computer).
Some cards (in addition to bestowing positive or negative points) come with “story icons” — hearts for romance, coins for monetary adventures, etc. Some subsequent cards receive a bonus for being played on the correct story icon, or are restricted only to be played over a specific icon. This aids in the construction of semi-coherent stories, because you are more likely to play, say, “widowed at the wedding” on a character with some prior romantic events.
But the storytelling aspect is not really about plot as such. Most of the fun here comes from inhabiting the expectations of a particular genre, though — it’s not exactly a mockery or parody of Gorey as an invitation to wallow in a pseudo-Goreyverse for a while. This is not surprising — Second Person has some essays about storytelling boardgames that basically argue that they work best when they rely strongly on genre conventions. IF doesn’t really work on this level: if it did, a game wouldn’t be so much about being immersed in a story, making choices, solving challenges for the protagonist, or playing a role; it would be more about story organization, about choosing developments from outside the tale.
I did once try to construct a game that would be essentially on that level: you had a magical puppet theater, and you could pick objects and puppets and put them on the stage and then start them up; the next scene of the plot would be generated based on the current story state and the selection of characters and props you had chosen. But it was so boring that I gave up after not very long. I am not at all sure IF has the right granularity for that kind of game. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking about the design right: I was trying to make the computer do the hard (but fun) part, while leaving the tedious management part to the player, which is exactly wrong. What if…
>LULU KISSES MR OLERUD
But Lulu dislikes older men.
>LULU BECOMES DRUNK
Having stolen the keys to her aunt’s liquor cabinet, Lulu spends an evening becoming seriously intoxicated on single malt scotch.
>LULU KISSES MR OLERUD
In her drunken state, Lulu approaches Olerud in the back garden and insinuates herself into his arms.
Olerud is embarrassed: though he would like to respond passionately, he knows that Lulu is acting out of character because of drink. He pushes her away rudely and departs.
>LULU IS SICK
Lulu then wanders over to the rose bushes and is vilely ill.
Of course, a huge problem here would be communicating to the player the range of what can practically be done in this story. Lulu and Olerud exist in too much of a conceptual vacuum. There needs to be a genre with a highly conventional set of standard moves (e.g.: Zeus rapes someone, someone has a child, someone battles a nine-headed monster). There needs to be a clear set of rules for determining when an ending has been accomplished (e.g.: the protagonist founds a city, someone is turned into a tree). There needs to be some source of challenge; possibly in fact the game would provide a goal state explicitly and it would just be up to the player to achieve it (provide a foundation myth for the cult of Demeter; get Aeneas to found a city…).