How To Play Immersive Journaling Games
Editor’s note: This is an experiment for The Indie Game Reading Club! It’s an excerpt from Paul Czege’s upcoming zine, The Ink That Bleeds. It’s all about his extensive delve into solo journaling games over the past couple years, both a reflection on the medium and a practical how-to to get the most out of the experience. Czege is a long-standing presence in the indie gaming space, an original Forge personality, and always worth listening to. His Kickstarter for The Ink That Bleeds starts in February — back it to read the rest of this. On to the excerpt!
I’ve been playing so many journaling games the past two years. Sometimes they’re super immersive. I get lost in them and have a hard time taking a break. Sometimes they’re so bleedy I can’t stop thinking about them, about their characters, outside the game, surfacing my emotions from them when I’m at the supermarket, or driving, or trying to read something, totally fucked up by them. And sometimes they’re utterly forgettable.
My friend Adam feels that bleed, and games that aim for it, are “comparatively cheap, short-term pleasures….a bit like jump scares.” My experience is so the opposite.
I think immersive, bleedy journal gamings are acts of purging ourselves of narratives that aren’t in our interests and enlivening ourselves for the temporal world.
And I’m totally going to show you how.
You see a journaling game with luxe physical production or graphic design, or with its prompts written with evocative language, or you see one having the player go to a place in the physical world that’s like where their character is in the game, or having them use play procedures that are like things the character has to do in their life, and it feels like they’re wanting to give you an immersive experience. It feels like they’re trying to coalesce the experience of the player with that of the character.
But it’s a shame there’s pretty much no design talk anywhere about how journal gaming creates immersion and bleed, because what I’ve learned from doing stream-of-consciousness journaling for over twenty years, and playing a lot of journaling games, and designing a few, is these things that seem like cues of an immersive experience — a designed look, play procedures like things the character has to do, evocative language — aren’t the mechanisms that create one.
I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, over twenty years ago. It advises doing three pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling in the morning, every day. It’s giving your unconscious mind a voice and some of your time, to dwell on what it wants to dwell on, say what it wants to say, surface in you what it knows and what it wants for you. Your unconscious mind is perceptive and inspired and it’s on your side. But for most of us the temporal world and our analytic brain shuts it down, with skepticism and doubt, with gaslighting and self-gaslighting, with cultural narratives that tell us what we want, that tell us what’s unrealistic, that tell us what beauty is, that tell us who we are.
Usually when I start to write my three pages the temporal world is all up in my thoughts. I have things I know I need to get done that I’m not looking forward to. I have frustrations with people in my life, doubts about my past actions, and uncertainties about my future actions. My analytic mind wants to work on these things.
But what happens as I write is I increasingly set that clamor of thoughts aside. Maybe I do write them — “I ABSOLUTELY have to call about the credit card today!” — but then I move on. Maybe I write about the moment. Maybe if I’m outside I write about the leaves of the elm in the yard behind mine celebrating the sun and sky in the breeze, or about the crows poking around the grass finding breakfast. But then always by the second or third page my unconscious is surfacing what it knows and what it wants for me. “Relax about the wealth disparity. Just try to enjoy the fun.” It tells me what it wants me to do with my creativity and talents. It gives me ideas. It’s bolstering and constructing me as who it wants me to be.
This experience, of your unconscious constructing you as who it wants you to be, giving you the self awareness and truths about the world that you need, is immersion, same as you feel it when it happens in a journaling game. And it doesn’t happen from evocatively written game text, or collapsing your physical doings with those of the character, or the art or graphic design of the game. It happens from a certain writing process.
At first, even though I’d been journaling for years, I didn’t understand. I played The Beast, by Aleksandra Sontowska and Kamil Węgrzynowicz in 2015, when it was in playtesting before it was published, and it felt immersive. More recently I played other journaling games and they did not.
I think it clicked for me when I was designing Be With Me. I knew how to make it work — maybe unconsciously I had always known. It’s a journaling game I published last summer about your time on a show like The Bachelor/Bachelorette, hoping to find love. The prospective life partners you date in the game are named and inspired by paint swatches you select at the hardware store. This is how I tell you how to write your entries when you’re figuring them out:
“Begin by choosing one of your six swatches you feel you want to get to know. Start an entry in your journal, writing freely toward an understanding of them so they become real. Don’t expect that every sentence needs to be definitive. Let your writing try out thoughts. Let it discard ideas and try new ones, until you feel they’re right.”
And I give examples from my own actual play. For Venom, some of what I wrote:
“Her job? Not an academic. Not a journalist. Not too high in politics. Elected? City council? Secretary of State? No. State Attorney General? County prosecutor? Yes. Not elected yet. Deputy prosecutor, planning to run for County Prosecutor.”
For Ash Key, some of what I wrote:
“Why is she doing the show? I don’t see her doing it for trans awareness. Not for the money either. She’s successful in her job somehow. Art restoration? Field biology? Medical research? Stunt woman? Property manager? Yes. Property manager. Would she fall for me? Would a trans woman fall for me? Why is she doing the show then? She wants to adopt a child from her birth country, but the government won’t let her because she’s trans and single. She thinks they might if she’s a celebrity, if there’s international pressure. So, she’s super determined to go far on the show.”
See how the sentences figure them out. You’re not writing a story for someone to read. It’s a process of writing toward the existence of something in the game or a happening in it that feels right.
Perhaps you’ve seen the advice to “play to find out” in Vincent Baker’s game Apocalypse World. I think of this process as “write to find out,” and I think it’s necessary to a journaling game for it to be immersive. I have played a lot of them, and I haven’t had one feel immersive that in some way wanted something besides write to find out.
And then when I played Last Tea Shop by Spring Villager the whole experience of immersion clicked for me — bleed in, bleed out, worlding, and how your unconscious constructs you for the temporal world — and I knew I should write a zine about it.
I haven’t seen another journaling game tell players specifically to use anything like a write to find out process when they play, but it is obvious to me that some designers understand it intuitively.
Here’s a prompt from Transmission For Them, by Joshua Luke Cable, Samuel T. McNally, and Eryk Sawicki:
“[Y]our air supply was getting thin. It was being used faster than it could be recycled. But why? Either the ship was inexplicably leaking air without your noticing, or something else was breathing your air. You scoured the ship looking for an answer. Behind your ration crates you found a loose metal grate with its screws undone….Something was living there….You heard slight, scared breaths around the corner. Who or what was this Stowaway living inside your vents? Why were they there? What did you do about them?”
Here’s one from Honey Hex, by Edaureen Muhamad Nor:
“You come across a monument to an occasion that improved the fortunes of the realm. As you contemplate and describe the memorial and what it commemorates, regain 1 energy.”
Here’s one from Hopelessly Devoted, by A Devil Like You:
“You’ve been investigating tales of a monster in a nearby village. Whether these accounts have been violent, destructive, befuddling, or bewitching is up to you. During the inquiry you discover one of your committed is somehow involved. Are they a victim? The perpetrator? How do you put the matter to rest?”
Do you feel them wanting you to surface their characters and events from within you? The way to do it is write to find out; the designers don’t say that, but they betray an intuition for it, and all three of these games were super immersive when I played. Here’s another one from Transmission For Them:
“You stop at a strange station for fuel. Halls of Onyx flooring and Marble pillars. The only person present was a kind old man who called himself The Sunsmith, and this was his Sunforge. He helped you refuel your ship himself and offered to refill your supplies as well. Over the casual conversation he sensed the toll your journey was taking and offered you sagely advice. Once you head off, you glance back at the station only to see a blazing orange star in its place.
What advice did The Sunsmith offer you? Will you repair your relationship with your partner, or will you forge a new one entirely?”
Not all journaling games have prompts like these, that seek their answers in your unconscious.
I tried hard for Thousand Year Old Vampire to be one when I played. It tells you to make a series of decisions to create your character before you start playing — a list of skills you have, a list of resources, a list of mortals you know, and five experiences you had written as one sentence each, including one about how you became a vampire. I tried to set myself up for an immersive experience by doing write to find out journaling for these elements, and determined that I was a beggar named Yarden in Joppa in A.D. 30, with a crippling gut parasite and a handful of teeth robbed from the graves of influential dead people that I used to tell fortunes for coins in the street. It was fun. It took me several hours to journal my way to all the decisions. The teeth had told me if I could join a certain sect of Essenes their purification rituals would cure me, but the leader of the sect thought I was disgusting and rejected me. I wrote a conversation I had with a woman of the sect who I saw had a slave tattoo. Her name was Tamar:
“They keep you as a slave?” I ask.
I hadn’t seen other women in the place. She is beautiful. Her skin. Her eyes.
“I was. I escaped. They allowed me to join.”
“They will not allow me. I am not so beautiful.”
Her eyes betray that she thinks the same.
“But you are free,” she says. “I was a slave, and I may be found and returned for a bounty and my foot broken as punishment.”
I take out my small bundle of teeth and explain what they are. All from powerful dead people. A Roman governor. An Egyptian priest. The senior wife of someone. They can tell me the future because powerful people create our futures.
“We’re all slaves,” I say. “The powerful make our futures.”
Then I wrote of meeting an ancient vampire, a philosopher from Athens, on a hill overlooking the Essene settlement at sunset, and asking him to make me a vampire, to cure me. And he did, and I was beautiful. My fatigue was gone. I was no longer hunched and aching. My hair was thick, no longer brittle. My skin was clear and perfect.
But when I started playing the game, following its procedures, I quickly lost the character relationships my unconscious had surfaced for me and found myself writing to explain things like how my vampire nature enabled me to master a new field of knowledge, and a system of feeding I came up with that enabled me to financially profit from my victims.
Answering its prompts wasn’t immersive because explaining events is a cognitive activity of our analytic brain that we do all the time in our wrestlings with the temporal world. Why did I get turned down for the education grant? Our brain tries to make sense of it. How should I change my Hinge profile to get better results? Is Emma cheating on me? Where can I get the money I need to move out on Verne? Why didn’t I get offered the manager position?
Playing Thousand Year Old Vampire was so often just coloring in details and explaining how or why something played out as a prompt specified. My unconscious never got to determine what happened, say what it knows about me, say how the world and its characters will respond to who it wants me to be. The game never gave me what my unconscious most wanted for me, sometimes by making me do things I’d never do, but also often by never giving me the opportunity to do things I’d certainly have done.
Immersion isn’t about figuring out and explaining a world you’re in. It’s when your unconscious is alive in your identity and the outcomes of an imagined world, making you what it wants for you.