What’s up with all the angst?

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.

Dette innlegget ble publisert i freeform, Laiv, Rollespill og merket med , . Bokmerk permalenken.

17 svar til What’s up with all the angst?

  1. Elge Larsson sier:

    Actually, if you look at most of what’s regarded as «quality» stuff in other media, you will find the same kind of bias. I have a vague memory of an author who set out to write a novel about happiness and found it extremely hard not to end up with banality. Even if you look at acclaimed comedy writers (T. Pratchett is a good example) you’ll find that underneath the laughs there is some very serious issues. «Fun» is not so very funny – but «angst» can be hilarious.

  2. Sanne Harder sier:

    I’m one of the scenario writers who write depressing stories for Fastaval, so I’d like to take a stab at the question you’re posing 🙂
    It’s true what Elge is saying. And it’s a known fact that ‘heavy duty’ topics do better in the competition at Fastaval than more lighthearted ones. However, that’s not why it’s only my dark stuff that winds up there. There are two main reasons why:
    1. It takes about 6 months to write a Fastaval scenario. One of my scenarios even took 2 years – partly because I had difficulties with the structure, and partly because I also had a baby within the same space of time. That aside: When you invest that much of your spare time, it has to be for a cause that is really meaningful to you. You have to fall in love with your topic. Only a serious infatuation will get you through all of that writing, all of those revisions. Sometimes things that are serious and close to your heart are easier to fall in love with.
    2. Believe it or not, but most of what I do in terms of role-playing is fairly lighthearted classic escapism run-of-the-mill fantasy. All of that goes into the various campaigns that I’m running (currently I have one that’s inspired by A Game of Thrones, and even though there’s lot’s of backstabbing and political scheming, it’s main purpose is still to have FUN). But if you want to be taken seriously, that’s not the kind of thing you bring to a convention! I don’t want to be cast as the fantasy writer, with all the stigmata that follows 🙂 I want to be the original artist, the game designer who bridges serious literature and RPG.
    That aside: I agree with you that be need more of the light stuff. Everyone thinks so.
    New question: How do we ensure that you also get status and recognition from doing comedy and fantasy? And fantasy comedy, even?

    • olepeder sier:

      Thanks a lot for responding, Sanne. 🙂 I don’t really have much too add, except it rhymes very much with my own experience. Most of what I do too is «fairly classic escapism»: I’m currently in a Shadowrun campaign, a Sword & Sorcery campaign using Fate Core, and a Society of Dreamers campaign that is a bit surreal.

      I fully respect the fact that if you’re going to invest 6 months writing a scenario for free, it has to be something you care deeply about. Something that turns you on.

      With regard to the status thing: maybe we need to get over ourselves, a bit?

      I think the concept of the Ottos, giving out prizes to people who really make an effort with their scenarios is a beautiful concept. However, how often is the jury changed? Is it the same people recurring every year? How much does the «popular vote» count? Does it get a little incestuous, or does it give relatively varied results w/ regards to who wins?

      I think in Norway, we’re still in a very traditionalistic landscape of Old School table top RPGs at many conventions. It’s what the audience seems to prefer, and therefore it’s what the organizers serve up. To me it seems a little boring to play the same game for 20 years, but some people prefer their McDonald’s fare. Who am I to complain.

      One year a group originating in the rollespill.net scene tried to bring a bunch of new, Norwegian games to the ArCon festival. Their efforts were greeted with complaints that there were too few traditional games on offer. «Utakk er verdens lønn», as we say.

      So I’m a little envious of the Danish scene, or at least Fastaval, where experiments, drama and a great variation of techniques and approaches seem to be the norm.

      • I was in the jury for the scenario awards from this year’s Arcon. And, yeah, we’re all two-souls here. We like both the innovative, new stuff, and the old school stuff, though I personally am being very, very careful about the more emotionally taxing games right now.

        But in terms of organizing a convention, it takes a surprisingly big investment of time and effort to adapt a very old and established framework to a different format, like freeform games. I’m pretty sure that if we get some volunteers for the committees for 2014 who wants to be chief of indies, chamber larps and freeforms, they’ll be welcome. But doing this sort of thing properly takes time – a lot of scenarios for Arcon games are turned in too late for the jury to consider them. It’s probably a good idea to start working on the program right now 🙂

        I think the fact that some organizers keep working on their event material even during the festival either shows that Norwegian gamers are hopelessly scatterbrained (Johannes Berg used to say that Arcon statistics proves the most dangerous thing you could do to a hard drive was to put the only copy of an Arcon scenario on it), or that our old school organizers are very confident, know their GM’s well, and doesn’t really care about the prizes at all.

        Accordingly, I think upping the status of «emotionally unchallenging(?)» genre games involves seeking out experienced old school organizers who both know what they’re doing and can explain what they’re doing clearly, in writing. Lay out a clear course of things to get done before the convention, and leave it to them to get their GM’s together and put on an event in their game of choice within that framework. Offer them festival perks, a bit of cash for materials and props, feedback, free proofreading and unlimited access to a photocopier, and I think you’ll find you’re getting there.

  3. Really thought about Gabriel Widing post from 2011 about a wish for more utopian (instead of dystopian) larps.

    (In Swedish)

    Varför finns det inga utopiska lajv?

  4. Håken Lid sier:

    Mikodine XA is created by Lauri Lukka from Finland.

    Superheroes’ World created by Maria Kolseth Jensen, Mohamad Rabah, Emma Edlund, Aleksandra Franskevich, Anastasia Sinitsyna and Emma Greve. From Norway, Palestine, Sweden, Belarus and Denmark.

  5. The larp Papers i designed this year was made in the spirit of being in joyful and fun although it carried a serious undertone. What I have been lacking is sometimes alternatives to the dark. I do like the really serious and though shit, but I want to larp and roleplay the light, silly and fun stuff as well.

    I actually chose to play Hirelings during Grenselandet because it felt like fun break in the program and I am really glad I went there. It was just what I wanted there and then.

    There is room for loads of genres and alternatives, so I would hope for just a bit more of the silly and fun next to all the angsty stuff. For me, that would be perfect.

    • olepeder sier:

      I tend to agree. What I’m asking for is (even greater) variety, I guess.

      And some of the «serious and tough shit» games really take it out of me, y’know. After playing «Happy Ends», I felt so bummed out that I went home early. I don’t know. I’m sure it’s in some ways both healthy and interesting to play with emotions like this. But sometimes it can get a little too much. At least for me.

  6. Erling sier:

    Perhaps it’s a basic human thing? If you look at the suite of basic emotions we come equipped with, it’s mainly negative/unpleasant/conflictual stuff. Think about it, and you’ll probably find you have more words for different negative emotions. In basic emotions theory, eleven probable basic emotions are recognised. Shame, guilt, contempt, disgust, sadness, fear, envy are not pleasant. Anger and interest/excitement can be both. Joy and tenderness/love are pleasant and positive emotions. Positive emotionality varies less than negative, so there are fewer different states of being to explore.

    • olepeder sier:

      Very interesting perspective. What I guess you could do to alleviate this phenomenon is to have less of a laser-like focus on the negative emotions, and bring a more varied mix to the table. Then again, a lot of the games I describe above deal with love and relationships.

      But love hurts. 😉

  7. Matthijs sier:

    «Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.» (Anna Karenina. I’ve actually read several pages of the book, and might continue at some point in the future.) By which I mean that there are many different and interesting things to make games about in the domain of unhappiness – there are so many exciting things that can create human misery! War, disease, bad parenting, drugs, hunger, injustice, frustration etc etc etc.

    And it’s hard to make games about simple happy things. Watching TV, having sex, eating food… Without bringing in negative aspects, these subjects would easily make for banality.

    Interestingly, the games I can think of that are only or mainly positive are tabletop games. The recent «Ryyutama» game is all about feeling good and helping people, I believe. And there’s «Muu». And «Toon». And «Baron Munchausen». Etc.

    There’s also the question Sanne raises: «How do we ensure that you also get status and recognition from doing comedy and fantasy? And fantasy comedy, even?» Hugh Grant, at an Oscar ceremony where only drama films got the big awards, made a quip to the effect that «everyone knows that dramas are really hard to make, but anyone can throw off a comedy». Which was a joke, of course.

    I’m daunted by the idea of writing a funny game. I find it scary. Humor that falls flat is so, so much worse than tragedy that falls flat. Being unfunny is the most painful thing in the world!

    (After war, disease, bad parenting, drugs, hunger, injustice, frustration etc etc etc.)

  8. Tilbaketråkk: Den Skandinaviske Angst – Imagonem

  9. Tilbaketråkk: AngstCon « boningen.org – en blogg om rollspel

  10. Tilbaketråkk: Stockholm Scenario Festival 2013 – A weekend of larp and freeform | Petter Karlsson – Producer and designer

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