Mary Russell

There are a number of reasons why I write these blog-things twice a week. Some of them are pretty obvious and mercenary: for example, it helps promote awareness of me as a designer and us as a publisher. Since we're a weird little outfit doing weird little games, there's plenty of folks that have never heard of us, and if they happen to follow a link to one of these things and as a result get curious about us or our wares, well, that's a win. I'm also primarily a verbal person, and there are few interests that equal the simple pleasure of stringing words together. And while arguably I do that when I write a rulebook, rules-writing is often too technical and precise to allow one to indulge in the sort of showy shenanigans that I enjoy. I believe it was Nabokov that never said that you could always count on a game designer for a fancy prose style.

But there's also a reason why I write the specific blog-things that I do. Consider: there are plenty of blog-things out there in the game design and publishing thing-o-sphere, which do little more than dispense the same six pieces of fatuous non-advice as every other blog-thing, deathless wonders like did you know that playtesting is really important you guys. Which, of course it is, and yes, we know, and if you don't, there are literally dozens of blog-things that will yammer on about it ad nauseam.

Whereas I yammer ad nauseam about feedback loops, deadlock loops, tempo, leverage, deliberately brittle games, and the other bits of assorted game design weirdness that make up my motley collection of pet obsessions. And I don't write about them to serve as some kind of grand avant-garde rejection of traditional game design theory or anything obnoxious like that. The stuff I write here isn't meant as some antidote to find the fun and kill your darlings, though sometimes I want to scream like heck that you shouldn't kill your darlings, because sometimes your darlings are the point. It's not even so that I can explain to you, customers both current and potential, what my whole weird deal is. It's really so that I can explain it to myself.

I've touched on this before, but my process as a designer is often more instinctual than analytical. That's not to say that game design is not a primarily cerebral pursuit, because it is, or that I don't think through my decisions, because I do. But I generally can't point to some mathematical formula to justify this mix of combat factors, or why this railroad can build to two cities in its first turn and that one only one. I do what feels right, and I adjust as necessary. Sometimes I can see why something's wrong right away, and sometimes I'm not really sure what's amiss but I will stumble around until everything snaps into place.

I like to say that I'm pretty sure that I know what I'm doing, but I don't always know why I'm doing it. Writing these blog-things helps me to have a better understanding of that last part. Finding the right words and putting them in the right order so as to communicate a thing clearly helps to make it more concrete. Ideas that are airy and obfuscated and just out of reach are pulled down to earth, imprisoned in specific, permanent words, and sentenced (quite literally) by periods. Trying to give others a better understanding of something gives me a better understanding of it myself. It also gives me the opportunity to grapple with the thing, to explore what I've done before and what I might do next.

But in writing about an idea, and in attempting to express it clearly and passionately, I will of necessity allow some of the nuance to slough off. It's a necessary part of making the idea digestible, and of making the argument easy to follow. One word follows another, one sentence follows another, one paragraph after another and so-on, each building on what came before it, each pointing to what comes next. But if you stop after every premise to offer a contradiction, if you follow every example with an exception, if you constantly interrupt yourself with "however" and "well, actually…", the argument becomes a garbled mess, impossible to follow, lousy to read.

Imagine, for example, that you have decided to set your friend up on a blind date with another of your friends, presumably because you've got third billing in a romantic comedy, and the two names above the title haven't met-cute yet. In describing one friend to the other, you want to give them some sense of the person. You want to capture some of their complexity of course; you don't want to compose a hagiography, unless one of the friends is the ghost of an actual saint and the other is a depressed birthday clown who plays guitar, in which case, yes, two tickets please, this sounds amazing. But neither do you want to recount everything you know about them, nor do you want to undercut what you're saying. You simplify, you condense, you elide: you sort through the mess and create something a person can follow and hang onto. It's the same way you would describe an event, and the same way you design a game on an historical subject: you focus on some things and set aside others. 

But there's a special danger when you're trying to describe an idea or a tension in a game design rather than a person, place, or thing. Because the idea can sometimes be rather abstract, when you cut away the contradictions and the exceptions, you can find yourself climbing further and further out on a rhetorical limb.

And sometimes in different blog-things, I climb onto quite different limbs. In one blog-thing a little while back, I wrote about how I try to balance things for highly competitive, experienced play instead of softening the thing to give the best possible first play. I'm in a somewhat privileged position in that we're free from the commercial considerations that come with large print runs and traditional distribution; I don't need to go out of my way to appeal to Joe Newbie. But right now, working on This Guilty Land, I'm instituting some changes, which I'll probably write about in a future blog-thing, that are mostly aimed at protecting the first play. So, which is it, Tom? Do you not care about the first play or do you? A-ha, we got you!

Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes). Which is to say that in writing these blog-things, and in exploring them and testing their boundaries, I am also constantly walking them back, reconsidering, questioning, trying out new ideas, abandoning old ones, picking up old ones again and dusting them off. It is incredibly, insanely easy to grab something from blog-thing A that doesn't gel with blog-thing B. But they're not really meant to gel. There are no absolutes in game design, no laws, no maxims that apply every time to every game and to every designer, or even, as the case may be, to the same designer.  Really, I'm more than a little skeptical of any creative sort who remains consistent.

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