Who’s the real witch in Salem?
“Hey, I want to film a story game! Round up the hottest players in Seattle and bring them to my office! Stat!”
That’s Peter Adkison talking, a little over a year ago. He needed to make a documentary for his film class and story games seemed like the perfect topic and would I help out? Twist my arm!
Part of the vision for the documentary was to highlight how story games can make serious, dramatic stories. So even though we played Jason Morningstar’s excellent Fiasco, a game which invites over-the-top black comedy, we used a very serious playset: Salem 1692, written by Logan Bonner and Lillian Cohen-Moore. Witch trials, false accusations, burning at the stake: the whole dark nine yards.
Was it good? Yes, crazy good. It was one of those games where even though we were making things up as we went along we wound up with an astoundingly tight plot. Tight and tragic. I don’t think we could have done better if we sat down and scripted the whole thing ahead of time.
Now Peter is taking that game we played — our tragic story of adultery and lies and paying for the sins of others — and he’s working on adapting it into a movie. Actors, period sets: the works. In fact the Kickstarter is running right now.
Was what happened in the game good enough to be movie? Without a doubt.
It’s a fascinating thing really. Gaming is an internal activity. You make it happen by talking and listening to other people talk, but the interesting part is really happening in your mind. When you’re playing, your brain is twisting and turning, absorbing the ideas other people are introducing and reweaving them back into the story combined with new ideas of your own.
When you’re playing, you’re totally involved because you’re making it happen. But unlike watching a physical activity like baseball, someone else can never really see that internal mental process. You can’t see what’s going on in the players’ heads. You can see the results, but you’re not seeing what the players are experiencing. When you watch the snippets of us playing the Salem game in the Kickstarter video, you’re seeing that outward interaction, the talking and the listening, but not the inner bit where we’re actually playing a game. That part’s invisible to the naked eye.
And of course in a perfect game, or at least a very good game, what’s happening in each person’s head matches up enough that we all share a common vision of not only what’s happening but what should happen, what’s interesting and what’s important to this game. We not only all care about addressing the same things but we all appreciate the results.
And if you don’t think that’s kind of a magical thing for humans to accomplish, you are not paying attention.
So can a game be a movie? Or more accurately, can a movie capture the magic that made it a living game and not just a planned script? I honestly don’t know. But now I’m really curious to find out. This project is, in many ways, a grand experiment. Or it will be if you fund it.
postscript: I don’t want to give away the ending, but the graphic of the woman(?) hanging from the tree is worse than it looks. When we go dark we don’t mess around.