When was the last time a game showed you a substantially new way to approach play?
I’m not talking about recognizing first movers (X did it first! Z is just an evolution!). I’m talking about the actual game that opened your eyes to new possibilities.
I’ve been thinking about that for a bit now, both as a wannabe designer and as a player and consumer of this thing of ours. As a designer, there’s a draw, I think, to being The One Who Showed Us A New Way. As a player, though, maybe I’m basically conservative in my approach but A New Way is more often than not a stumbling block to overcome. Not always! Might be an age thing.
When I say A New Way, I don’t really or necessarily mean a killer app. I do think any good game will have (at least) one thing it does in a really good, effective, and maybe novel way. I might do a series about killer apps at some point. But back to A New Way, yeah? I’m thinking about a new paradigmatic approach to how we do the thing.
My operating definition of the thing, by the way, is “participating in an organic narrative.” That’s the most compact phrase I can come up with. I honestly do not feel like fighting over it (it’s my definition, doesn’t have to be yours) but I can unpack it if anyone’s interested.
Probably the first game that showed me a new way of participating in an organic narrative was GURPS/Hero. My games leading up to that started at Traveller, and moved quickly on to everything TSR had put out by the mid-80s: D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Top Secret. None of those substantially moved the needle for me, I don’t think. But point-buy games, whoa! My first introduction to play was to funnel characters into trope sets: fighters or pilots or wizards or mercenaries or whatever. Gamma World and Top Secret kind of broke away from that, come to think of it, but not in as assertive a way as the early point-buy games. Point buy puts all the creative onus on the players to cook up something on their own, even if mostly we just cooked up variations on the tropes we had learned from earlier games. Still, it was a big one.
Next big one had to have been the World of Darkness games. For me, the new thing was seeking out conflict and tension amongst the player characters. Up to then, my games had been externally focused, I think: us versus the dungeon, or the ruins, or NPCs.
(Quick break to remind everyone that I’ve already addressed my disinterest in pedantically assigning credit or providing a comprehensive longitudinal study of all game design everywhere. I’m just talking about my own (r)evolutions.)
Since then, the revolutions have come fast and furious at me: Burning Empires/Wheel for re-centering play on explicit player priorities, Dust Devils for modeling outcomes on narrative priorities rather than character abilities, Apocalypse World for uncertainty triggered by fictional context, resulting in narrowly shaped fictional and mechanical outcomes, Fiasco for player-driven scene setting.
I’ve played a lot of games since 1980. My personal revolutions have come in spurts, then dribbles, then floods, then nothing. There’s really no way of telling when the next revolution will come. But they’re always a mix, for me, of excitement and dread. I want to discover new ways of conversing! But I also hate feeling frustrated about being inarticulate in this new language.
What was the last game that showed you a genuinely new way of doing your thing?