So this year I’ve opened my eyes to the wonderful Dano-Swedish tradition of freeform games. I’ve had many great gaming experiences, and gotten to know a lot of great creators and players.
What I’m wondering is: what’s up with all the angst?
Let’s take this weekend’s Stockholm Scenario Festival as an example. Here’s the playlist of the 30 games played.
I haven’t played all games, obviously, but let’s look at some of the keywords in the descriptions and see what can be gleaned from them.
* The word “death” occurs four times in the descriptions, “suicide” once. There’s also cancer, madness, abortion, bullying, Alzheimer’s disease and more. Two scenarios deal with alcoholism.
Lots of bleak stuff.
* 12 might be labeled social realist drama.
Then there’s a smattering of the surreal, fantasy, relationship dramas, awkward sex, art and more. For sure, it’s a varied playlist. But I’m stuck with this feeling that there’s a certain overweight of the dark.
And I guess that’s ok. Creators will have to create whatever they’re inspired to, and players can pick what appeals to them. Nothing wrong with that. I’m just wondering where this impulse comes from.
Where are the light-hearted comedies? The action adventures? The straight up fantasy and sci-fi? The genre stuff that is so common to traditional role playing games?
Why are so many creators and players intent on doing… dare I say it… “misery tourism”?
And why was I? Back in May, I was thinking to myself that I might want to pitch a game to Fastaval (the Danish freeform convention). I thought to myself: ok, what’s the most Danish shit I can cook up? What I ended with is Bipolar Lush, an autobiographical scenario that deals with bipolar 1 disorder and substance abuse.
I mentioned it to the Fastaval people, and they came back to me in August wondering where I was in the process. I ended up giving it to the Norwegian chamber larp festival Grenselandet, however, both because they asked for it and because it somehow felt safer to premiere it in my local scene. So it won’t run on Fastaval, since they’re only doing premiere scenarios this year.
The game is ok. Not great, but ok. There have been three ok runs of it, and one that was a bit shit (where we lacked a player).
Writing such a game, dealing with relatively dark subjects from your own life, is an interesting process, and a somewhat therapeutic one.
I’m not sure what the players get out of it. Maybe a little education. A little identification. A little understanding of living with such a disorder.
But Claus, many year Fastaval organizer, told me this weekend that what the Fastaval programme actually lacks, the games that are easiest to pitch are straight up action and comedy. Because there’s a lack of them. People would rather do high brow art, experiments and dark stuff. Which I guess confirms my hypothesis in this piece.
Again: why is that?
Because we’re grown-ups now, all the art we can relate to has to be depressing?
As a counter-point, me and Håken Lid designed a game this year for the book Larps from the Factory, called “The Hirelings”. Is a humorous romp through fantasy clichés, Dungeons & Dragons style. You play a group of hapless adventurers about to go forth on their first dungeon crawl. It uses various freeform techniques and techniques inspired by improvisational theatre.
And I’m sure there are many, many other examples like this. The huge Alexandria.dk archive has its own categories for comedy, action, fantasy etc, whereas “drama” is just one category. There are plenty of games to choose from for those who are not inclined to deal with alcoholism, death and fucked up families in their games.
So anyway. Here’s a list of some games I’ve played this year, where I’ve not been actively seeking depressing shit, but not really trying to avoid it either:
Bipolar Lush – see above (Norwegian)
The Hirelings – see above (Norwegian)
The Curse – a game dealing with inheritable breast cancer (US)
Maroons – a freeform game in the American tradition, about a group of colonists stranded on an alien planet. Sci-fi. (US)
Fiction – a flexible freeform system I designed with Elin Nilsen. Can be filled with any kind of subject matter. I’ve played this three or four times with varying results. (Norwegian)
Mikodine XA: a larp/freeform about the board of a pharmaceutical company that have to face some tough ethical decisions. (Swedish?)
Little Libertine: about love relationships in small communities. (Danish)
600: a game about “the world’s largest gangbang”, where you basically play porn actors (Danish)
Easter: a game with a recurring motif, Easter breakfast in a dysfunctional Danish family (Danish)
Udover Dig: a game about love and different kinds of relationships (Danish)
Dino + Saurus: a cute and sad game about two dinosaurs in love (Danish)
Doubt: about fidelity, love and temptation (Swedish)
Happy Ends: “Let’s explore the delicacy and intimacy of happiness together”, the blurb reads. Well, I can tell you that the main character’s father gets killed in a car crash, her mother is permanently injured. Then the mother gets Alzheimer’s – before she dies. Yeah. The GMs employ a whistle to have the players re-do sequences in game if the play gets too depressing… Hm. Yeah. Well. (Swedish)
Mulholland Larp: surrealism inspired by David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. A black box larp. Very interesting stuff. (Swedish)
Summer Lovin’: a game about awkward festival sex. Fun and weird. (Norway/Sweden)
Superheroes World: a game about growing up. With dance battles and superpowers (Palestinian-Scandinavian?)
We’ve also played a bunch of different games at the freeform gatherings here in Oslo, many of them from the Nørwegian Style-tradition. Which is similar, but a bit different, to what the Swedes and Danes are up to.
I don’t remember all the games I’ve played. But I mean… that list isn’t too depressing? Maybe I have to eat my own words. Maybe I’m just perpetuating prejudice against this Nordic larp / freeform /chamber larp tradition. ‘Cause there is a plethora of very varied games out there. And you can pick and choose. And even create your own.
Argh. This is getting as unstructured and rambling as always. I’m sorry.
Lastly, I want to mention a very interesting game I ran in Palestine, “Caged Flesh” by Swedish Tobias Wrigstad. It’s less a straight up role playing game and more a guided meditation on where role playing ends and reality begins. “What is a character, and what is you?” Those kinds of questions. I found it highly intense to run, and I think the players had a good, intense experience as well. Something I had a little trouble with is that the game specifically instructs you not to do a debrief, but rather “get the fuck out of there”.
I cheated, and I’m glad I did.
But anyway, I think that is one of the many very interesting directions freeform games can go, that move a bit beyond the alcoholic-abusive-father cliché that I think some might have come to associate with this tradition of games.