December 18, 2012
Okay, full disclosure: I’m not exactly a gamer. In my house, you’ll find the likes of Skyrim, Call of Duty, and The Sims along with more than one brand of video console, but none of these are mine. When I was eleven, you see, my mother sat me down in the doctor’s office as my right hand cramped into a seemingly permanent knot, convinced I was experiencing some kind of debilitating vitamin deficiency. Nope. It was Atari joystick carpal tunnel. That was a thing. And now you understand. I’ve been on the wagon since 1987, but I’m willing to bail for Meriwether: An American Epic, a role-playing game-in-development created by Sortasoft LLC designer Joshua DeBonis and writer (and, full disclosure, my friend) Carlos Hernandez. The two met roughly five years ago via the Board Game Designers Forum in New York City where Hernandez learned of DeBonis’ fascination with the Lewis and Clark expedition and DeBonis learned of Hernandez’s gift for narrative. Thus the Meriwether wheels were set in motion. As Meriwether gathers funds from its Kickstarter campaign as well as interest from the likes of The Atlantic Monthly, I asked DeBonis and Hernandez to sit down for a conversation that covered everything from game design to the craft of writing to Borges to Roger Ebert to my eminent retreat from the real world sometime around November of 2013 when Meriwether officially drops.
Josh, are you coming at Meriwether: An American Epic from the perspective of an educator or … what is it you do?
Josh: I’m a game designer, and I’m definitely coming at it from that perspective. I have designed a lot of games that involve learning, not explicitly learning games but games that have some element of learning in them. Like Nimble Strong is one that I did that teaches you drink recipes, bar recipes. It’s not a learning game per se, but you definitely learn something from it. That’s the case with Meriwether as well. We’re approaching it the same way we’d approach a gamer’s game. I knew this game was heavily narrative based, for example, and, actually, that’s one reason Carlos and I teamed up so early. That’s one thing I knew he was really good at and that I knew I could use a lot of help with.
That’s a great segue to discussing the connections between the writing that Carlos does and game designing. Would you like to comment on that, Carlos?
Carlos: I would indeed. To me, it’s really interesting — first, just this as a writing project and then my education in games. To start with the former idea, when you’re writing for game like this you’re writing it very differently than you would a narrative because in the narrative you control the streak of action. You basically control the line of action from the opening exposition to the crisis that determines the outcome. And in games you don’t get to do that when you’re the writer. You don’t get to determine the crisis point, and you don’t get to determine how it’s going to be resolved, exactly. Instead what you do is create a field of possibilities, and you have to basically think through those possibilities so that you have your contingencies in play when someone else decides how they’re going to play through the story that you’ve presented to them. So it’s much more heavily oriented toward world-building and character-building and much less oriented in creating a plot that only goes through in one way. Now, there’s plotting, of course. There’s a general arc that you create. But games aren’t fun if they’re predetermined. The whole point of a game is that the players determine the action or else you’re not really playing a game. So, that’s one of the things that I had to think radically differently about. You know what this reminds me of, Cynthia? This is something you’ll appreciate. It’s very Borgesian. It’s very much like a Borges kind of story where there could be multiple stories going on at the same time or there could be no resolution or possibilities explode at the end rather than come to some sort of neat resolution. It’s a “many worlds” theory being applied in a very practical sense. And this isn’t experimental writing or something. This is something that kids are going to use when they play through the game, but as a writer you have to think in an avant garde, experimental way. You’re creating a field rather than a specific story.
Josh: I think it’s telling that every game designer, or most game designers, love Borges.
Carlos: That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that. Really?
Josh: Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s really uncanny, actually. Even people who aren’t familiar with his writing, if you have them read something, they love it.
Carlos: So maybe he just has that sort of ludic part to his work that everybody reacts to. That makes a lot of sense to me, and, of course, I adore Borges. So, on the one hand, the writing is very different, but also to me the game design part of it is fascinating. What happens in a game is that, even though the game itself is this wide field and you have all these different choices, and when I’m writing for that game I have to create the possibilities for those choices, what players do is create narratives out of them. What a single player’s experience is, is storytelling. So, to me, it’s a fascinating kind of inversion where you’re creating the field so that stories can emerge. I think a lot of people talk about Harry Potter and say, “Oh, I love those books.” They love the world after they’ve experienced Harry Potter’s experience of that world. They have to experience the experience to get there, whereas games do the opposite. They present the world to you and urge you to create your own experience.
So how does this work in the historical context when you’re working with real life people whose ends we know about?
Carlos: That’s a great questions. First, let me say that we have an embedded historian. We have Barb Kubik who is a renowned Lewis and Clark scholar. She meets with us every week. We talk minutiae. And I mean the minutiae. We’re talking about which way the buttons are oriented on the jacket kind of minutiae. I don’t know if she’s covered that specific one—
Josh: She did. She did.
She talked about the buttons, Carlos.
Carlos: [laughs] But the other thing is that it’s just like a historical novel, in a sense. Everybody knows the story, but they don’t know the story the way you know it when you experience it through a novel. And it’s the same sort of invention through history that becomes part of the aesthetic thrill of playing a game like this. We know that the Lewis and Clark expedition makes it. They make it all the way back. So how do we create a situation where we have this character Lewis who’s in charge of the expedition, how do you let the player create his or her own character while playing this game of a guy who is a historical figure. Our solution is that – well, Lewis is actually a really enigmatic and complicated figure. He had really different parts to his personality, and any one of them could come out at any given time. This is kind of speculating, but Jefferson specifically says that Lewis has a melancholic character. And he says this early on in his life. Apparently there was a string of this in his family. Jefferson in his letter traces it from not just Lewis but earlier family members as well. Later, after his expedition, after his service as governor, he kills himself. He returns a hero and four years later actually takes his own life. He had a complicated, difficult character that is full of contradictions, so what we did is play up those contradictions. So you have these different roles. Sometimes Lewis is the good soldier. Sometimes he’s the leader of men. Sometimes he has to be a diplomat and learn how to compromise. Sometimes he has to be dispassionate, more like a scientist, and sometimes his melancholy is going to take over. All of those characteristics are the ways in which players will construct Lewis. So you can make a Lewis who’s going to be more diplomatic because that’s how you like to solve problems in real life. Or you can make a Lewis more like a soldier because you don’t get to beat the shit out of people in real life and you want to beat the shit out of people in the game. But all the time you’re going to have to balance the goals of the expedition with the kind of character you want to make, and you’re going to have to battle against that melancholy that can creep up on you at any given time. So that’s how we’re building choice, selection, and variation into the history based directly on the history but still full of invention.
And what is it you hope the Kickstarter campaign will enable you to accomplish?
Josh: Our initial thought was that using Kickstarter would simply help us raise the funds to finish the game, which it’s doing. The thing that has become clear to me through doing this is how much support there is from the community, which is really reassuring to us. And it’s also clear that Kickstarter’s a great way to get the word out about the game before we actually release it, to tell the world about our game in a way that’s different from other previews of games or early press releases. It shows people what we’re doing before it’s finished and allows the community to be a part of the development and influence the way the game is going. Those are some really strong benefits we didn’t really anticipate when we first started the campaign. But specifically what the funding is going toward is paying for programmers and artists and musicians to finish the game but also to make the game polished to the level that it can be released to the public.
So, speaking of artists, maybe we can talk a little about the idea of games as art in light of MOMA acquiring video games for a new exhibit and so forth.
Carlos: Your pal, Cynthia, Roger Ebert has said that games can’t be art. Actually, he makes a pretty good argument in places. A lot of it’s misguided, though. He’s never played a game, and he’s just talking out of his ass. But we’ve had sports for a very long time, and nobody’s said, “Well, why shouldn’t we call a football game art?” That’s true, to an extent. But to me, the game versus art debate is a nonstarter. Most people in the gaming community are bored with that conversation. Whatever you want to call it, fine. What we can say is that this is about the most important cultural artifact that is being made right now in terms of influence on popular culture, in what people are doing on a day to day experience. I think it was about two or three years ago that the gaming industry started making more than Hollywood. So look at a game like Meriwether. It’s strongly narrative. It definitely carries with it all of the same themes and symbols and complexities that you can get out of other forms of narrative media. That’s where I think the Ebert argument breaks down. At least it can be said that there’s an artfulness to creating games. There are better games and worse games, games that succeed and don’t succeed. And games have missions that at least coincide with artistic missions.
What games have influenced either of you, visually or story-wise and so forth?
Josh: Some of the games that first hooked me on playing games were role-playing games like we’re making. I grew up playing Ultima games and the Wizardry series. Actually, many of the games I’ve made are not role-playing games, so I’m really excited to be making one now because I’ve always had a soft spot for the genre. I would say this game is more directly influenced by modern role-playing games like Mass Effect. Our conversation system is deeply inspired by that for example.
Carlos: And let me ask you a question, Cynthia. You invested in the game. What do you think the game is going to look like when you finally see it? What do you expect it to be?
Um. Do you want me to call Joe over here to answer? [laughing] It’s funny because Joe and the kids are the ones that play all of the games in our household. But I can tell you that when I look at the Meriwether promo on Kickstarter, it looks like the games they like to play, the perspectives, the journey, the role-playing …
Carlos: So, for someone like yourself who doesn’t play games … this is really interesting to me. To me, it’s sort of like — I go to movies, but I’m not a huge movie person. And you are a really huge movie person.
How is it that we’re friends?
Carlos: Well, I can say why it is that I don’t get into movies. Usually I think they’re underdeveloped, especially in comparison to a novel. To me, movies tend to move too quickly with characterizations, too quickly to allow you to really get to know characters, so I prefer the novel’s pacing when it comes to storytelling, in terms of trying to get invested in characters. So I can say why I personally feel movies aren’t my genre to go to. Can you say why games aren’t necessarily your genre to go to?
I think I can. But I think I’m changing in this respect, actually. For example, I’ve been watching more and more television series, like The Walking Dead and Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. A couple of years ago, I would never watch a television series for the same reason I’d never play a game. Because I know how I am. I am going to get super invested in something that’s so drawn out. When I was a kid I did play video games all the time, and it was a bit of an obsession. But I think that’s what it is. It requires a big investment, and I know my personality is such that I’ll get sucked into it. I have time for a two-hour movie, though. That’s what it is. I know the lure of the game, especially the role-playing game.
Carlos: Right. I have to cut my game play down a lot when I’m in the middle of a semester, because I have to grade papers and stuff like that.
Josh: Actually, that’s another goal we had with Meriwether – being mindful of a player’s time and not filling the game with things that take up your time. It’s still going to be a fairly long game, but it’s quicker than other games in the genre because it’s not filled with grinding and mechanics that unnecessarily draw out the experience.
Carlos: Cynthia, I should explain the concept of grinding. It means doing the same things over and over to get to the next level. So a lot of times players on World of Warcraft, say, will have to go out and kill, say, 455 Orcs before they can move to the next level. And the only reason that play is designed that way is because it’s so hard to create content that is new and original for players who are going to devote their lives to doing that. So one of the things that designers do is they find ways to use a simple mechanic – like kill “X” — and make players repeat it over and over again. But it’s just not that much fun. There’s no discovery. So we’re going to be pretty grind-free.
Okay. Got it. I think you guys are designing the perfect game for me, then, and I promise to play it when it premieres.
CARLOS HERNANDEZ is a writer and professor living in Queens, New York. He is Associate Professor of English at BMCC (a CUNY school) and a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America with work forthcoming or appearing in Exotic Gothic V, Interfictions II, You Don’t Have a Clue, Interzone, The Tangled Bank, Bewere the Night, and other anthologies, magazines and journals. He co-wrote Abecedarium with The Nervous Breakdown contributor Davis Schneiderman in 2007. He is presently on sabbatical where he is working on his first solo novel and, of course, Meriwether.
JOSHUA DeBONIS founded Sortasoft LLC in 2004 for the purpose of creating unique games featuring original gameplay. He is an award-winning game designer who teaches game design and development at Parsons the New School for Design, and is co-founder of both the New York board game designers playtest group and the experimental collective Brooklyn Game Ensemble.