The Game Left Unplayed

Game mechanics shape the game played at the table, even when they’re not actually used during the game. This runs counter to many particular threads of game studies, specifically common claims (in the tabletop RPG space, at least) that the experience of a game is defined by what’s brought to the table, or that if a mechanic isn’t used during play, it doesn’t exist. Both of these claims are correct in part, but they miss out on how the book itself talks to the players, how our understanding of the game can expand when we adopt a wider scope.

Allow me to provide an example. I’ve discussed it before in A Dozen Fragments On Playground Theory, but I’m tossing around a lot of ideas in that article, and I think some of them were overlooked in the process. I’ve refined the concept a fair bit in the year since I first wrote about Playground Theory, so let’s revisit the idea of the game called Happy Little Life.

Happy Little Life is a (currently non-existent) game about a coffeeshop, where the players are baristas and make friends with customers, taking care of the coffee and hanging out. It’s a peaceful, “wholesome” game that when played according to the rules is a pleasant romp through the day-to-day of an easily-romanticized small business. The secret of the game lies in the final half of the book, a complex web of suffering and starvation that ultimately results in the character’s miserable, unescapable death. There is no obvious bridge, no clear method by which the players can move from one mode to another. But the back of the book is a memento mori, a looming symbol of death amid a peaceful cheery book.

Now let’s imagine the difference in playstyle between two players of such a game, Alice and Beth. Alice knows about the death threatened by the book, and navigates the coffeeshop with awareness of looming starvation. Beth didn’t read the game, and doesn’t know about this set of mechanics. The mindset both players have around the act of play is wildly different, heavily influenced by the presence of a mechanic that won’t actually appear in the game.

Sometimes I mentally visualize that mechanics like this have a weight to them, warping the game around their invisible presence. Layout and art both exert a similar “invisible weight” onto the game space, but there are more possible mechanical examples.

Let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons, specifically 5th edition, with a system of characters growing stronger through gaining experience and levels. I would tentatively estimate 1 in a hundred characters actually reach level 15, let alone level 20, even though a large portion of the text is devoted to explaining high-level play, with monsters, spells, and abilities only available to players who either jump ahead or play the game for years and years. There is one approach to game design that says these mechanics are irrelevant, since they don’t show up in play. A “better designed” Dungeons & Dragons would strip down to just the parts players need, tossing everything else aside.

But let’s take a different perspective, and consider how two players think about their characters with different levels of knowledge around the mechanics. Beth doesn’t know what XP is or how leveling works, each new level is a new surprise for her. Her character exists in the moment, their evolution unanticipated and unplanned for. Alice knows what will happen as her character gains levels, and she imagines within her level 1 wizard the potential to someday be an archmagus, the story that brought him to such a point already developing in her head. She plays her wizard differently, aware that she can sculpt his future someday.

This aspirational mechanic exerts a particular invisible pull onto the playspace, driving players towards longer games and more ambitious characters to match the rhythm suggested by the game, even if the mechanic never makes it to play. Our play is fundamentally altered by the knowledge of what else is possible, what else is out there, what else the game contains. Game texts in this way serve as maps for both the knowable and the unknowable, revealing and suggesting hidden paths that the players wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Ultimately this is only the briefest of inquiries into such possible space — there’s a lot more that could be done with this and other concepts we could think about. But for now I hope this short article leaves us with some questions:

What else can a game text hide, what else can it say? What other forms of invisible weight can it exert into play, and what can players enjoy from the endless potential hinted by a text?

This short digression into other forms of play was only possible with the support of the Creekside Community Center. Join the Possum Creek Patreon today for exclusive articles, first looks at new games, and a thriving community full of design discussions.

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Jay Dragon

Jay Dragon

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.