Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five or So Questions on Thousand Year Old Vampire

Hello all, today I have an interview with Tim Hutchings on Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a single-player game coming up on Kickstarter! (Check out the Facebook event here!) The game sounds pretty interesting, exploring the life of a vampire in intimate and deep ways. You can see a playtest version here. Check out what Tim had to say!

Content Warning for discussion of memory loss, especially near the end of the interview.


A vintage-appearing image of a vampire attacking a man
Tell me a little about Thousand Year Old Vampire. What excites you about it?

Well, first let me say that I don't often get excited about things I make. I get nervous, nauseous, pent up. I used to joke about the "sweat test"; if I wasn't sweating when I showed something to someone I wasn't sufficiently invested in the project or the showing. This came out of the time when I was showing art in galleries, and it has something to do with the way I made and thought about art at the time. It still applies to a lot of games I make, but in a different way--the games I make are personal, or visceral, or difficult in ways that my art never was. Now I sweat because I'm making a machine that people play with, and if the manual for that machine is unclear people will break it or maybe even get hurt. There's not a lot of room for excitement in any of this.

But I'm excited about Thousand Year Old Vampire in a way that leaves me quietly alarmed at myself.  I've worked on this game differently than other games, with the biggest difference being that a reaching back to my old studio process. When I made a thing in the studio it was a quick, fraught process during which I could ingest or enjoy or experience the thing I was making it as it was made; the actual "artwork" was a shell left behind after this work was done. Game making is different in that you need people or systems to test things; there's a space of time between the making and the experiencing of it. Because TYOV is a solo game it's making was a self-contained process, I wrote and played and wrote and played in a closed system. It was fast and amazing and it's how I want to be.

And it produced a game I am excited for and proud of. I've played this game so many times, and the prompts consistently produce a different experience with every go. And at least once during each game something happens that makes my innards churn, something unexpected and awful and it's like I'm not controlling a character but being betrayed by one. I'm not a "let me tell you about my character" kind of person, but TYOV has gotten me excited enough to write game summaries on the Facebooks.
A journal with leather binding and an abstract pattern, and stickers in various languages on it.
This is the journal in the PDF, which is gorgeous.
What is the motivation for a single-player game like this? As someone who loves lonely games and making them, I must ask: why is this game good alone?

I love your phrasing of “lonely games”! It’s perfect. For me, there were a couple of reasons to make a solo game. Maybe more than a couple.

Solo games are a weird design space. I have a print out of A Real Game by Aura Belle that I’ve been sitting on for a year, I’m so excited about it I can’t bear to play it. Every game I make is about communication and bodies in space; a framework for people pushing at each other to find play. Other players change the game space for each other with a constant barrage of gentle tugs which keep each other engaged and off-center—this is awesome and good but what if we didn’t do that?

A non-social game is tricksy and strange. How can you operate in the “story game” space and not have it be a choose your own adventure book? The game prompts in Thousand Year Old Vampire make you look inward for responses, you are building something between you and the machine of the game without any other conscious actors in the room. There’s no “yes and” here, oh mortal. And without other people in the room watching I can do things that I might not do otherwise when I ask questions and give horrific answers.

And the solo play echoes the subject of the game itself. You play a vampire who sees everything they love turn to dust. Your character is alone, you are alone, the two states echo each other. One play option is to keep a diary as you play. Journaling is a usually a thing you do alone. One of my objectives as a designer is to have the system and the setting inextricably bound together, so solo play works.

That said, I don’t see any reason that a person can’t play it with others. Why not share a pool of Characters and let the prompt reactions affect the world that the players occupy? The system is simple enough that players can do this if they want, and I’m sure some will—there’s been a remarkable amount of pushback over the idea of a solo game being a thing at all.

And practically speaking: I’m a lonely guy. Making a game I can play and iterate on my own is helpful. It echoes the prevalence of solo rules in wargame design—I’m the kind of person that can’t get people together to play things, so I’ll make the sort of things I can enjoy on my own.

Finally: I had a conversation with Jackson Tegu, who has a solo experience called I Was Once Like You, that helped me think about the solo play-ness of TYOV. In the friendly discussion-like thing we were doing I came up with "Petit Guignol" as a term that I thought fit TYOV. It literally means "tiny puppet" in French and has a direct connection to the “Grand Guignol" which was a style of bloody, horrifying, naturalist theater developed in the 1890s. As I play TYOV I sometimes play with scale in my mind, imagining the scenes happen in the space between my arms as I update the character sheet on a keyboard. It's a play space I don't think I can imagine with other people in the room, it's tiny and close and personal. Anyways, there's that.

A vintage style illustration person with an octopus arm for a head getting attacked by someone with a sword.
Tell me about the design process. The way you handle moving through the prompts is simple but clever, and you have these memories and experiences that are created. How did you develop these aspects of the game? 

My design process is a sham. I stare into space until my unconscious gets bored and gives me something that I can think about, and then maybe that becomes a game, or a joke, or an artwork. My games are not the product of rigorous engagement with discourse, they are random stuff that vaguely imitates a category of thing which I understand exists in the world. These are the “Sunday painter” equivalent of game design, if that Sunday painter just really liked wearing smocks and berets but never bothered to go to a museum.

I don’t design these games so much as find them laying around my brain-house. I pick them up and wipe the muck off, maybe paint them a different color to assuage a conscience that demands at least a semblance of effort, then I scribble my name on them and puff up with self-satisfaction.

But a serious aside: I don’t read a lot of games, and I do this on purpose. I’m more likely to solve a problem in a useful way if I’m not clouded up with other people’s solutions for similar issues. This is a good methodology unless you’re building bridges or stuff where people can die. This builds on my greatest strength, which is that I’m pretty dumb.

Occasionally these magical brain-gift games might need some rough corners polished up. With TYOV I had to figure out a way to progress through the prompt sequence so as to maximize replayability. (You, dear reader, haven’t played this game, so super quick summary: You roll some dice and slowly advance along a list of prompts which you answer about how your vampire continues its existence. If you land on the same prompt number more than once, there are second and third tier prompts you encounter. The game ends when you reach the end of the list.) By using a d6 subtracted from a d10, it created the possibility of skipping entries, of going backwards, and of landing on the same entry number more than once. This meant that rare and super rare results could easily be baked into the chart structure—you have the same chance of landing on any given number as you progress through the prompts, but there are diminished chances of landing on a number twice and getting the second-tier prompt. Landing on a number a third time usually happens once per game, and those rare third-tier prompts can be world-changing.

The tiered prompt system naturally evolved into a mini-story arc system. I can make the player introduce a self-contained Character or situation with a first-tier prompt, and in the second-tier prompt them interact with what they created in a new way. It’s perfectly fine if they never hit that second tier prompt, they won’t for most entries, but if they do it will naturally make a little story. It’s so satisfying and it’s all part of the same system, no additional rules are needed to support it.

One aspect of TYOV I’ve been thinking hard about is player safety. What are appropriate safety tools for solo play? What tools allow us to think terrible, soul souring thoughts but then put them behind us? I’m a fan of X-card-like thinking, and was around Portland while Jay Sylvano and Tayler Stokes were working on their own support signals systems. Stokes later developed the affirmative consent-based support flower, and is giving me guidance on my solo safety thinking.

One of my imperatives as a designer is getting rid of non-vital things. This is practical because additional complexity usually makes a game less fluid and harder to learn. If I can get by with three rules that’s great, but if I’m going to have eight then I might as well have a hundred. Not that there’s much wrong with games that have a hundred rules, I like those too. I’ve recently been converted to Combat Commander, of all things.

Something I threw out of TYOV are rules about tracking time. At one point I had a system in place for tracking the date. I mean, if the game is called Thousand Year Old Vampire then you want to know when a thousand years go by, right? But there was no benefit to tracking the actual year, it was easier to allow the player to just let the passage of time be loosely tracked in their answers to the prompts. Maybe an arc of prompts happens over a year in your head, maybe a whole generation goes by—the game works regardless. The only rule about time is “every once in a while strike out mortal Characters who have probably died of old age.”

Finally, I should acknowledge the importance of Burning Wheel and Freemarket to Thousand Year Old Vampire. Writing good Beliefs in Burning Wheel is a skill, and the idea of tying character goals mechanically to the game was mind-blowing. Freemarket has Belief-like-ish Memories, which are something that have game mechanical effects AND can be manipulated as part of play. Both of these mechanics had outsized influence on the way I thought about Memories in TYOV.

Memories in TYOV are everything that your vampire is. You have a limited number of Memories, and every Memory is made up of a limited number of Experiences. Every Prompt you encounter generates a new Experience which is tagged onto the end of a new Memory. Eventually you run out of space for Memories, so you older Memories to a Diary. You can and will lose our Diary, along with all the Memories in it, and it’s awful. But the Diary is just a stopgap anyways, as you are forced to forget things to make room for new Experiences.

Eventually you have an ancient, creaky vampire who doesn’t remember that he was once a Roman emperor, or that they used to live on a glacier, or that he fell in love two hundred years ago. But they at least know how to use a computer and are wrestling with the fact that the hook-up site they used to find victims was just shut down and how will they eat now? This design goal was crystallized when I read “The Vampire” by Ben Passmore in Now 3 put out by Fantagraphic Books. It’s a heartbreaking, sad story in which you see the vampire as a deprotagonized system of habits. It’s great.

A vintage illustration of a man in period clothing with a white curled wig, standing under an eclipse and a hillside with Egyptian-appearing monuments, while corpses lie on the ground.
What has the development of this game been like, from original inspiration to the speed of production?

This game flowed out quickly and mostly easily. My pal Jessie Rainbow I were playtesting and iterating the game over weeks instead of months. The game is built from a story games mindset and there aren’t any ridiculously novel mechanics that need to be explained; I hand the rules over to a playtester and they understand them immediately and the game works.

The game works and a year of refinement to get it five percent better isn’t worth it. It’s done, and like an artwork it might be slightly flawed but that’s part of the thing itself. I don’t necessarily want an extruded, sanitized perfect thing; instead I have, like an artwork, a piece that becomes a record of it’s own making. If I work on this game another year it won’t get better, it’ll just get different—2019 Tim will have different priorities than I do right now and all that’s going to happen is that TYOV will torque around to reflect that. I might as well let 2018 Tim have his moment and give 2019 Tim new things to worry over.

In regards to the themes of mortality and memory, as well as with aspects of queerness in some of the prompts, how do you relate to TYOV? How is it meaningful to you?

This is hard to talk about. I think I need to break this question down into three very separate categories: My understanding of evil, personas shifting over time, and a vampire-shaped momento mori.

The game is twined up in my own ideas of person-scaled evil which is based on my experience of social predators, thoughtlessly selfish idiots, and rich people exerting power over others. This evil is written into the “Why did you do that awful thing you did?” type prompts, which assign an evil deed which must be justified. There’s an important subtext in the game which I never say out loud: As the vampire is writing in their diary are they telling the truth? But the evil is about the wickedness that people do to each other, and this is my chance to pick out a version of it that I seldom see represented.

Completely unrelated to the themes around evil are the ideas of shifting identities. Over the centuries the vampire will be reinventing themselves so they can fit in with the societies shifting around them. As a cishet white guy I’m outside of the dialogues that happen around LGBTQA+ folks, but I see folks change over time and it’s exciting. A related prompt might draw attention to ingrained societal mores that can now be abandoned because the culture of your mortal years is centuries dead. I can gently make a space for this even if I don’t have that experience, with the understanding that my understanding isn’t necessarily another’s understanding of the space that needs to be made. Like I said before, this becomes a portrait of 2018 Tim thinking through difficult issues using creative work—this isn’t Truth with a capital T.

The shifting personas of the vampire are probably the most personally resonant aspect of the game for me. I have some pretty distinct phases in my life where I was having to be markedly different people. In NYC I used to exhibit art with a gallery owned by the son of billionaires. I’d get taken to a dinner that might cost more than I made in a week then go back to my home which had holes in the floor which I could see my neighbors through. I remember hanging drywall in the morning and meeting a Rockefeller descendant later that night; he got noticeably upset that I had a scratch on the back of my hand then shut me out when I said it happened “at work.” I learned that I had to keep these worlds very, very separate. And it went both ways, I found myself being reminded of the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas telling a story about how no one in his Brooklyn neighborhood believed him when he told them he was teaching at NYU.

Now I’m a guy with a kid living in a suburban neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. I’m not the same person that I was five years ago in New York. I can’t be the same person, that guy couldn’t live this life.

Which leads me to my final bit: I did things that sound wonderful and which I can’t remember, I apparently did things that are terrible which I am glad I forgot. These moments are lost until someone else remembers them for me or I happen upon some chance evidence. My memory is going, and it’s awful—there’s a much more exciting version of me which is being forgotten. I can see my brain failing in other ways; sometimes I leave out a word when I’m writing now. I bet I did it within the text of this interview.

This loss of skill, of memory, of personality are reflected in the way the game has you lose or edit memories. Eventually I’ll die and be forgotten in turn, but at least I’ll have this self-reflection on mortality outlive me for a bit.
A vintage style illustration of a man tied down onto a wooden structure of some kind, bound.

Thanks so much, Tim, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Thousand Year Old Vampire on Kickstarter when it's live! In the meantime, you can RSVP on the Facebook event here.

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