Designing Autobiographical Games

Autobiography has a place in game design. The truth has a powerful force to keep audiences interested and invested in a story. In a novel, a guy who can pull a truck with a chain attached to his teeth is a metaphorical convenience. In a nonfiction book, we have immediate questions–are his teeth OK? How does one learn to become a teeth-truck puller? What in his life brought him to this point?

The autobiographical game heightens this investment because you are an expert about your own life, and understand the motivations of the main character intimately and completely. That is powerful research on which to base a game. But it’s not just as easy as writing down your life story and cutting it into scenes–you need to step back and consider how to best interpret and digest your own story so it can be communicated to others.

I think much of this thought process would be useful in historical and other nonfiction-inspired designs,* but here I’ll focus on autobiography. I’ve designed two short American freeform games that are autobiographical on some level–The Curse, about living with an inherited BRCA1 mutation a la Angelina Jolie, and In Residency, a larp inspired by the atmosphere of an artists’ colony as I experienced it. In designing these games I developed some core appraoches autobiographical subject matter.

Focus on one or two aspects of a single experience.

Look, you’re a complicated person and so am I. There’s no way to tell the whole story of a person in a single short game. So scope down your ambitions and pick one or two aspects of a single personal experience.

When I was designing The Curse I  decided to go deep on two aspects of my BRCA journey that were most interesting to me–the experience of deciding to have a preventive mastectomy, a choice I’d already faced, and my future of making decisions about whether to have children and when to have my ovaries out. I focused on two narrow points in time and gave one of those points to each pair of players.

In contrast, while developing In Residency, I started out by trying to structurally mirror every aspect of my colony experience–the first edition of the game had characters coming and going constantly, which worked great in a short play-storm, but poorly in a longer run of the game–things were too chaotic and there was too much going on. I greatly improved the game design by shortening the period of time covered during play and winnowing down how true-to-life the fictional colony structure was. I decided to focus on the difficulty of art-making and playing nice with other artists.

Why I made these choices in both games is closely linked in with how I answered the following question…

Boil down the emotional core of your story.

In addition to focusing the plot of the game to one or two aspects, it’s important to think about one or two ways in which the characters in the story are like you, and to focus on those. Whatever the emotional core of your experience was–that is what you should strive to mimic. It’s important to pare that down to its essentials, since as I mention above–you don’t have time to tell everything in a single game.

In The Curse, I wanted players to experience both my uncertainty about what the right decisions were, as well as my urgency in needing to make choices about these issues.

I generated the uncertainty by giving the characters unclear cancer screening results in the middle of the game, as well as the shaky real-life statistics available about BRCA. I generated the urgency in making the decision by including my real-life family tree in the game materials, altered with fictitious names and professions. I also included a warm-up where the players portray cancer-related moments from the family history to drive home the idea that everyone in this family gets cancer.

In In Residency, I decided to focus on what it was like to make art out of tragedy and issues of status–imposter syndrome and artistic ego.

Look for the primal causes.

Try to dig below the surface of your story to figure out what really makes the situation tick. The more you can involve the subtle, hidden currents of situation and emotion, the more impact the game will pack.

In writing, we talk about the difference between showing and telling. I can tell you I’m sad, or I can describe the tracks the tears make on my face. In game design, I think there is a similar difference, between telling the players how to feel and mimicking the conditions that would lead them to feel that way.

This is why I included elements of my own family history in The Curse. I felt that having watched a whole series of relatives suffer from cancer exerted a profound effect on my later decisions around the BRCA mutations. The decisions were the “now” of the game, and I think that playing the past deepened the characters’ pathos and the players’ understanding of the stakes of BRCA.

Leave room for player interpretation.

In writing an autobiographical game, it’s easy to get fixated on your own experience, and to try to force the players to experience your situation exactly as you experienced it. I think this can make for dull-railroaded play, especially if you get focused on the details. You need to make room in the narrative for player choice, interpretation, and reinterpretation of your own story.

Depending on how you design the game, this space for play might be small or large. In The Curse, I treated my own experience like a scientific experiment–given a set of starting conditions similar to mine, how many people would make my same choices? I had a preventive mastectomy, but in the game, the character facing that choice does not have to–it’s open to that interpretation.

In Residency leaves much more interpretive room–it’s a game about the contrast of emotional artistic work (represented by guided meditations that mimic art-making) with a lighter, cocktail-party atmosphere (represented by cocktail parties). The juxtaposition is totally open to interpretation.

Care for yourself afterward.

If the players know the game you’ve designed is somewhat autobiographical, this can give them faulty ideas about you and your beliefs, so you need to care for yourself afterward. Some folks who played The Curse told me stuff afterwards, like, “Thankfully, this character made the ‘right’ choice.” But often, that wasn’t the choice I made. They were attributing a morality to the game–the concept of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decision–that I didn’t see as embedded in the drama and that also hit home because it felt like a comment on my personal choices.

I dealt with this by seeing the reinterpretation of my personal situation as a design success–I had succeeded in preventing my own biases about the ‘right’ course of action to seep into the game. I also had to remind myself that although my game was personal, it wasn’t necessarily who I am as a person. And finally, that playing a game where the personal risks are simply imagined isn’t the same as facing a situation in the cold light of real life.

A manicure and a martini helped immeasurably too.

 Other tips and tricks

  • Put different aspects of yourself into different characters. This has a twin effect of simplifying characters for the players and can produce thematic mirroring that helps the core issues come across.
  • You can also wedge more themes into a game with act breaks–focus on one element of the experience in one act, and another in the second one. But remember: most good stories build to a climax that occurs about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the piece, so work that in, even if you’re shifting themes.
  • If autobiography feels too intimate, consider defamiliarizing it–take the dynamics you’re most interested in and put them in a radically different setting.
  • Kill your darlings. If you’re like me, chances are good you’ll start out trying to do too much in one game. Pare back the non-essentials until you get to something that feels right.

*There are lots of examples of folks using history–facts and situations–to great effect in roleplaying games. Among them, the work of designers such as Jason Morningstar (Grey Ranks, Carolina Death Crawl, Night Witches), Emily Care Boss (King Wen’s Tower), Anne Eriksen (When We Were Wasps), Troels Ken Pedersen (Dulce et Decorum), Mikkel Bækgaard (Sludrup) Moyra Turkington (Model Protectorates), Julia Ellingboe (Steal Away Jordan), and many many more.

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