Hollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.
So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.
To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.
At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.
Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.
Now the more spoilery bit.
The other thing that I found noteworthy was Hollywood Visionary‘s approach to romance. Most Choice of Games pieces provide multiple possible romantic interests for the protagonist, and allow for gay or straight interests. This game goes a bit further, in two respects: it doesn’t assume that gender is binary, so there is the possibility of presenting as genderqueer. This seems to have some subtle political ramifications, but the game characters mostly honor it. And second, it allows for the possibility of winding up in a poly relationship, if you’ve successfully romanced two particular characters right up through the endgame. (Others may be jealous or monogamous.)
That final scene, in which you negotiate with both of your two love-interests, came as a surprise to me: I hadn’t seen anything in the story up to that point that suggested it was going to be possible for me to keep both lovers. I’d assumed that by pursuing both of them, I was steering us towards an angry showdown of some kind. So there was a curious sensation that the rules of the game had cracked open to set me free, which mirrored what was happening to the character herself.
The “visionary” aspect of the title, in other words, isn’t just about your ability to imagine an inspiring movie (though it gives you room to work on that). It’s also about your ability to imagine for yourself a lifestyle that might be seriously at odds with the prevailing norms of 1950s society, and then pursue and live that lifestyle. And while the game can’t go deep enough to let you then play out the next thirty or fifty years of living with that decision, it does provide some interesting consequences in the epilogue scenes.