I’m going to start with a fairly mundane assertion: tabletop games are fun. That’s not a very inspiring statement is it? Unfortunately this banality is the takeaway from 56 consumer interviews that our company Deck Head Games has conducted over the past six weeks. Each response was usually book-ended by a shrug or an “I guess.” For game designers, these widely held sentiments create a challenge. How do we leverage the physical limitations--and opportunities--of analog games to inspire emotion more gripping than fun and deeper than excitement? How do we leave the player wanting more? This is the hunt for the fun-sad dichotomy.
All silly vocabulary aside, the quest for engaging emotional experiences is a challenge across all of gaming, but it is particularly present in non-digital games. Fortunately, the video game industry can provide something of a roadmap when it comes to emotional complexity. After all, in a mere 40 years digital games have evolved from simplistic arcade cabinet fare to storytelling masterpieces like Heavy Rain, Journey, and The Last of Us. Two years ago I learned about this maturing of the games industry through listening to Jenova Chen’s 2014 Games Fo r Change talk, Blank Canvas. In the talk Jenova describes the necessity for a transition from primal and simplistic feelings such as fun, excitement, and awe, to more complex emotions in order to grow up alongside an aging player base. This talk was what first drove me to think more deeply about maturity in games and if these same trends were applicable in the analog industry. Spoiler alert: they are.
In order to prevent stagnation, tabletop games need to mature the way video games did to reach a more varied audience. Overcoming this hurdle will be especially challenging given the stigmatization in mainstream culture that tabletop games are solely for kids. While there most certainly are analog games made for adults, these offerings--much like the old guard of the videogames industry--are typically limited to intricate strategy games or games with hyperbolic and over-the-top explicit content. While certainly enjoyable, neither of these genres push the medium toward emotional complexity. Creating a game that does successfully advance the medium is a lot easier said than done.
In our company’s quest to accomplish this with our game Ducklings we strove to convey emotion through mechanics, without using narrative as a crutch. I believe strongly in allowing the Mechanics Dynamics and Aesthetics framework to do the talking. Mechanics centered around the affordances of game pieces is a much more visceral and tactile way of making the player feel emotion than a wall of text could ever be. My teammates Aimee Zhang and Timothi Lim have made games of their own that convey emotion in a way that digital games can’t and current physical games haven’t.
In Tim’s game Dear Father the player is living out the trials and tribulations of a father-son relationship. The game is packaged in a simple, beautiful wooden box that is unadorned except for a slip of paper upon which the words “Dear Father” are handwritten. When I first playtested Dear Father, picking up the box and opening it reminded me of one of the cigar boxes my father used back when my family lived in Houston. The warm feel of the wood and the small seams beneath my fingers where the edges of the box came together transported me to a different time and place. Within the box, correspondence between parent and child were stored in actual letter envelopes that were sealed before the start of the game. Anticipation built while I ran my finger under the flap of the envelope. I was struck by the mixture of excitement and dread that accompanies the opening of a letter. These sensations stayed with me because they were triggered by a personal connection that was enhanced and made concrete by the physical affordances of the game pieces.
Aimee’s game, Clo udy Day, compels the player to feel the weight of heartbreak, literally. Cloudy Day recreates the journey of a boy and his dog trying to reach home. Everything is fine and dandy until the dog, sadly, dies. At this point, the player places weights around his or her wrists and must finish the journey alone, feeling the weight of their loss. At the end of the journey, when the player reaches home, he or she discovers a small rose-covered box. The final action the player takes is opening the box to find a handwritten note that reads “Home is where the heart is.”
Beyond making me overjoyed that these fantastic designers have joined me on Ducklings, these games reveal that there is endless opportunity to utilize the mechanics of physical objects to convey feeling, conjure memory and trigger sentiment. Right now, th e industry is only beginning to embrace emotional complexity. With the advent of crowdfunding platforms, independent game developers have the freedom to pursue innovations and narratives away from the oversight of publishers. Many of these indie tabletop developers have already begun to push the limits of the medium. It may take time for the industry to venture forth into deeper waters but one thing is clear: if analog games are to continue to grow in a digitized world they need to expand their emotional reach in a way that only physical games can provide.
What do you think about emotional expression in tabletop games? What roles do narrative and mechanics provide in conveying a feeling? We certainly don’t have all the answers and would love to hear your thoughts.