Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling


At IndieCade I had a chance to play Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat’s Deadbolt.

It’s a game about the truth: specifically, saying something true about yourself or about someone else in the circle. It’s not a role-playing game, because you are not telling a story or performing a character. The whole point is to speak from your own experience. The rules are simple: you have three rounds, and each round you say something truthful to someone else in the circle, based on prompts you’ve drawn from an envelope. The prompts control both what you say and to whom you say it. (There’s a more detailed description of the rules over here, together with pictures of the artifacts of play, which is helpful because I don’t have any pictures and probably wouldn’t have thought to take any.) If your listener is moved by what you have said, they can give you a token to represent this.

If this sounds trivial or easy, it’s not, and that’s because the prompts ask for things like “describe something you deeply regret doing”. If you’re going to play in good faith, you have to be willing to answer that kind of question honestly.

At the same time, the rules are written with a good deal of sensitivity. You have to answer the questions; you’re not told how much detail you have to go into, or what words you have to use, or how long you have to speak. You don’t even have to say what the question is that you’re answering. Sometimes people answered with a paragraph of explanation, and sometimes with a single phrase.

It’s not a game that brutalizes boundaries or forces confessions you’re not up for. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity (or at least, I found it to be one). The rules create a space in which it is permissible to speak about things that might normally be kept silent. I’m often conscious that telling someone something personal not only makes me vulnerable — that’s my risk to take — but also can be demanding on them, can seem like a bid for sympathy or reassurance; can even be an act of manipulation in the wrong context. But in Deadbolt your fellow players have consented to this and indicated their willingness to hear what you have to say.

Despite the description I just gave, the dominant sound of Deadbolt was silence. Someone would draw a prompt about what to say, and another prompt about whom to speak to. Then they’d sit there. Thinking; gathering courage. Sometimes they teared up. Then they would speak. This drove home to me something I’ve often observed in intense conversations in life, that sometimes getting to a hard truth is about being willing to wait, as a listener; willing to shut up not only when the other person is speaking, but when they’re getting ready to speak, when they’re still gathering their thoughts and finding courage. One of the rules of Deadbolt is that no one else can speak during your round, and that’s really important, because it creates the silence that comes before the truth.

I was a tiny bit apprehensive about playing something like this in a circle that included some people I didn’t know. Even tabletop storygames create vulnerability in a way that makes it hugely important to trust the rest of the group. But the rules of Deadbolt are sufficiently constrained that they make this easier. Also, the people I was playing with were awesome.

It was intense. I’m really glad I got a chance to play.