So, I’m going to cop to something here: when we did Pulp for Spirit of the Century, we did it wrong. Internet Wrong at least. Wrong time period, pulling from inappropriate sources, violating all manner of sacred cows of the genre. It would be easy to blame this on laziness, but I promise you, we busted hump for that book, so why do it wrong?
The answer to that is not something we were even thinking about at the time. Instead, we were thinking “What makes this stuff exciting to us? What makes us want to play right the hell now?” The answer had a lot of talking gorillas and dramatic fight scenes that were unquestionably influenced by some of the more modern incarnations of Pulp, things like Planetary and Indiana Jones.
In retrospect, I still think it was the right decision. There are lots of other games out there that serve other approaches and perspectives on what pulp is about, and most of them are fantastic. As a hobby, we benefit more from those difference in perspective and approach than we do even from our differences in rules.
That point comes around some when I think about licensed properties. Now, on one hand I’m a hypocrite on this, since we have the DFRPG in the pipe, and I would shoot a man for a chance to write a new Amber RPG, but with those crazy exceptions, I find that I’d be more inclined to do a lot of other games wrong, and in doing so, I think I’d be more likely to do them right.
By right, I mean “With an emphasis on what makes this playable and fun” and therein likes the rub. It’s not impossible to do this with a licensed product, but there are definitely additional challenges that come from it. Take the Dresden Files as an example. If we released a game that was simply modern urban fantasy through a detective fiction lens, we would not need to worry about accurately reflecting the events and characters in the book while still making sure to leave leeway for what might happen in future volumes. That would remove a HUGE burden from our shoulder, design-wise. Now, for Dresden, we consider the tradeoff to be worth it – Jim’s sandbox is enough fun to want to play in it – but it’s made me incredibly conscious of the dangers of that choice.
There is a profound danger in doing something right, when that something is not of the same kind as your end product. Since the something is usually a book or movie, and the end product is probably a game, there is a certain amount of necessary drift. The things that make one magnificent can fall down dead for the other, and that introduces an apparent paradox: to best capture the spirit of an idea in a game, you need to change it from what made it great in its original source.
This is hardly something new to games. Movies have long been aware that just re-shooting a book line-by-line is going to make a really dull movie. Certain changes are necessary along with the change in medium – masterful changes to a great book yield a great movie, but “masterful” is the operative word here. Making the changes that need to be made can be more of a creative challenge than just starting from scratch.
Now, I’m all for the school of thought that says hard things are worth doing, but I also think there’s such a thing as unnecessary labor. Personally, I wish more people would concentrate on making their own game that captures that thing they love about Harry Potter or Dune or god knows what. But it doesn’t happen – there’s a stigma attached to it. Sometimes you get things pushed through a lens (the way Fading Suns has Dune elements) so that the creator can put some manner of unique mark on it, to declare their creativity. I understand that instinct, but it’s a shame because the net result dilutes the things that actually make us excited in the first place.
And that’s the center of it all for me – translating the things that EXCITE us into games. This is as true for licenses as it is for games we played 20 years ago and can no longer see the fun in. The act of drawing out that excitement is so much more important than doing it right (for any measure of right), but it’s so much EASIER to try to do something right, so we skitter back from our passion in fear of being wrong.
I don’t know if there’s a real solution to this, but I will say this: when I see a game that’s passionate but wrong, it’s a lot more likely to grab me than one that is complete but bloodless. I have seen no shortage of examples of both, and it’s a schism I see from the largest to the smallest of publishers. I just wish there was a way to encourage folks who are willing to slop the table a bit, or at least to find them more consistently, but it remains a crapshoot where they’re gonna pop up.
Meanwhile, go do something wrong.
1 – Both of which born from specific, thought slightly tangential loves of the specific properties.
2 – And it’s an ongoing lesson of Transmedia