Private Games

This is the talk on Games and Intimacy that I gave at Now Play This on Friday.


Many of my favorite games to write have been written for specific people.

As indie designers, we talk about writing for the market (which involves a lot of guessing, because who can read the minds of the masses?) or writing for ourselves, to create the game that we most want to play or the game that expresses some deep-held belief or the game that fits our artistic vision. And then a lot of people sink their teeth into one of those approaches and growl at anyone who tries to take it away. Like it’s not realistic to write for yourself, or it’s not honest to write for a large audience.

But there’s a third option, which is to write for a specific recipient or a small group of recipients that you know personally. And that’s actually how a lot of us start, of course. The first computer game I ever completed, I wrote for my little brother because he was bored with math. It was a dungeon where the monsters asked you arithmetic questions as a form of combat. Astonishingly he liked it, which shows you something about the power of personalization.

* For someone else’s friend

Once as part of a charity auction, I auctioned off a small work of custom interactive fiction. The person who bought it asked me to write a game for her brother. She told me about the kinds of games he liked to play and the puzzles he’d enjoyed in the past, and she asked me to set it in a particular fan universe I’m also fond of.

Even though I didn’t know the recipient myself, I really enjoyed working on this project. Game design best practices are often about trying to suit the largest number of people and accommodate different play styles, but when you have one person in mind, when you know what that person likes to do in games, you know what that person is likely to find funny, you can calibrate every aspect so much more tightly. The game rewards are rewards FOR YOU.

* For a collaborator, then the general public

One of my larger on-going projects is providing support for the text adventure tool Inform 7. One of the things I do for that project is provide small — in some cases really tiny — example games, showing off all kinds of code functionality. Over the years I’ve written nearly five hundred of these, and while they were written for the broader Inform community in the long run, their first reader has always been my collaborator on the project, Graham Nelson. So I want to make them amusing and enjoyable in general, but there has always been that additional point of wanting to entertain him personally — especially since he was often reading over the examples I submitted as break from doing some boring or arduous batch of bug-fixing.

And, full disclosure, partway through this project I married him, so we have a lot of shared history.

The result is that those example games are now like a stratified record of shared references, TV shows we were both watching, places we’ve been on vacation, disagreements we were having about game design.

* For a friend

Many years ago some of my friends and I got really into buying and trading perfume oil from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s an online perfume shop from which you can buy tiny bottles of perfume oil with names like Tezcatlipoca and Severin. Their perfumes are designed after Neil Gaiman characters and voodoo spirits and ancient lost cities; the descriptions of their perfumes are some of the most evocative advertising copy on the internet. And they send samples, but you can never get samples of everything because their product line runs to the hundreds, or maybe even the thousands at this point.

So my friends and I would order these perfume samples, keep the ones we liked, and swap the ones we didn’t like. At one point, I’d decided that when I mailed perfume samples to my IF-loving friends, I would also send along some tiny little IF games that were based on the scents. It felt like a more creative way of doing a review, which had been our custom up to that point.

To a friend who wrote gorgeous surreal IF, I sent a little interactive machine room in which the devices controlled different scent notes. That friend has a really lovely, spare prose style, so I found myself concentrating on my prose, trying to make it worthy of the recipient.

To another friend who was a Harry Potter fan and Snape enthusiast, I sent a small scene set in the Potions classroom, in which the samples I was sending were all Potions ingredients. If you solved its main puzzle and figured out which of the three perfumes I personally liked best, you got an ending that shipped two characters she liked to see together.

One of the things I look for when I’m writing is the moment when a passage rings true. This is so much an intuitive measure that I can’t provide any objective qualifiers for it. It’s different from thinking that something is clever or funny when I write it, though: instead it’s an experience I have when I’m reading it back, and think, “Yeah, that’s right.” What I write for specific people, though, has to ring true in the context of what I know about them.

This is not the kind of game I’d ever write and release for the general public, even if there were some niche audience of Snape-loving BPAL fans who happened to have the exact same three perfume samples that I put in the game, but in the context of this particular friendship it felt really cool.

It was a goofy way to spend a couple of afternoons on vacation. I never would have written those pieces for myself. They were like letters, and had as much to do with the recipient as with me.

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