[Disorient] A Game About Alienation & Orientalism

Started by Jonathan Walton, April 08, 2012, 02:02:53 PM

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Jonathan Walton

I already posted some thoughts on my ingredients on the Game Chef blog. Here's my new pitch:

Hong Kong, just before 1900. An aging retiree, "Doctor" Wiley Lam, has organized The Sacred Geomantic Order of Lam Kit-Sing, a freemasonry for bored British and American aristocrats (along with their head servants and visiting friends), concocted almost entirely to fleece them of their money. For a reasonable monthly fee -- which supposedly finances Dr. Lam's investigations into lost geomantic arts -- the Doctor and his few associates (mostly family members) escort the privileged and their entourages through the "dangerous" Chinese portions of Hong Kong and the surrounding region, exposing them to thrills, chills, and exotic wonders far beyond their daily existence in the mansions, banks, and trading houses of Victoria. In the four years that Dr. Lam has run this "business," he has never yet left a member behind... until today. The Order was on an expedition to "examine ancient dragon lines" in the heart of the Tsim Sha Tsui night market, buffeted by vendors selling snakes, frogs, scorpions, and centipedes, when they completely lost sight of Dr. Lam, their other guides, and -- in some cases -- each other. How will this night end?

I'm drawing my inspiration from several novels that focus on disorientation, alienation, and orientalism, such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Paul Bowles' classic The Sheltering Sky, Dan Simmons' The Terror and Drood, and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Basically, I want to make a game about white people feeling weirded-out and uncomfortable, though I hope to structure it so that participants from other ethnic backgrounds can get something out of the game too. I'm also clearly influenced by Liam Burke's recent Kickstarter for Dog Eat Dog, a game about colonialism, as it made me wonder if I had anything to say about cross-cultural interactions that would make for an interesting game.

It's interesting to me that Bertolt Brecht came up with the idea of "distancing" (Verfremdungseffekt) in theatre after seeing a Chinese opera performed by Mei Lanfang -- i.e. he was distanced by the alien theatrical style, but the style itself wasn't necessarily meant to be distancing to its normal audience. Hopefully I can aim for something more like Lost in Translation rather than "Yellow Peril" stuff like Fu Manchu, especially if I ground the game in my own experiences of estrangement and alienation in Asia (my personal experiences in China and Vietnam were rich, varied, and complex, but I'd be lying if I said there was no alienation and orientalism involved).

I also think I might be designing this game for the meet-up Fabricated Realities, since the space where they hold that mini-con has a Chartes (?) labyrinth on the floor and I think using the labyrinth to simulate the disoriented wanderings of the Order members would work really well.

Jonathan Walton

P.S. Mechanics might start out as a hack of Murderous Ghosts, rewritten for labyrinth-walking, since that's a game about alienation and disorientation if there ever was one.


Ooo.  I'm looking forward to this.  I kind of hope I get assigned to review it.  ;)

I really like the idea of making Orientalism (and the "western" fetish for exoticising in general) something to toy with and make people uncomfortable (in that good, sucked in way) around.

Jonathan Walton

Yeah, I was thinking that there are already games that make us uncomfortable about sex, race, and violence, and -- especially given the prevalence of orientalism in gaming (Oriental Adventures, Legend of the 5 Rings, Feng Shui, Hong Kong Action Theatre, Weapons of the Gods, even The Mountain Witch and Kagematsu) -- it might be interesting to have one that confronted that stuff more directly.

So thinking about adapting Murderous Ghosts to a labyrinth... the idea right now is that each player has a card, with information on both sides: (1) is the description of their character -- Elizabeth Abernathy, bored laudanum addict, admired painter, and wife of Roger Ames Abernathy, chief clerk at The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company (HSBC) -- and (2) is an "encounter card" -- for lack of a better term -- that reads like one of the pages out of Murderous Ghosts, like:


Atop a poorly-lit stall, a nest of pickled snakes lie woven around each other in a enormous glass jar full of alcohol that smells both medicinal and of formaldehyde. You are standing uncomfortably close to the jar before you discern the snakes' dead reptilian expression and your heart stops momentarily. The vendor laughs at your terror and removes the lid of the jar, the strong odor washing over you in waves as he reaches inside with a wooden ladle and spoons just a thimble-full of snake-wine into a shallow saucer the size of a monocle, white porcelain with a blue flower painted beneath the yellowish liquid.

-- If you manage to swallow it down, draw a card and consult (A).
-- If you taste it, but spit it out before swallowing too much, draw a card and consult (B).
-- If you reject the snake-wine in anger or fear, draw a card and consult (C).

(A) If your total is N or higher, this happens.
(B) Etc.
(C) Etc. Still thinking about this part, obviously.

Players don't read and follow the instructions on the reverse of their cards.  Instead, they walk the labyrinth and -- when another player passes next to them -- they show the backside of their cards to each other and follow the instructions on the other player's card. In effect, the players play their characters and signify the "other" (the Chinese people encountered during this strange nighttime excursion) to their fellow players. Consequently, while it's a collaborative experience that you have with other players, it should still feel very lonely and alienating, because you interact with the other players as if they are strangers that make you uncomfortable.

While the card above is a bit "Choose Your Own Adventure"-y, Murderous Ghosts actually provides some pretty robust, emotionally impactful language that is worth stealing, like:

What about the child beggars seems most human?
-- Their eyes
-- Their tiny hands
-- Their need
-- The way they grip the edges of your clothing

What do you least want them to do?
-- Speak to you in English
-- Touch your skin
-- Follow after you
-- Cry

I also want to figure out what happens when you get a card you've already had before. Maybe that means that you ignore the card and have finally found one of your companions amidst the chaos of the Chinese city at night? And then the two of you proceed together through the remainder of the labyrinth? That sounds right, but I have to think more about it and look at the map to see if it'll work in practice.  It may be that cards have multiple stages and you engage the same card multiple times before it's completely "unlocked" (that's what happens in my game Metrofinal, so I'm pretty sure it'll work).

P.S. In my mind, the organizer of the game plays Dr. Lam and goes around providing players with cards randomly drawn from the deck in their pocket. That way, the organizer can also be on hand to answer any questions, since the players aren't supposed to talk to each other directly until they've "discovered" their companions.


Really rich, Jonathan.

Excited to follow your (maze-like?) path as you wander towards something unknown.
sure of ourselves, aren't we?