[Whispers in the Dark] An unofficial review

Started by Dan Maruschak, May 03, 2012, 02:21:45 AM

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Dan Maruschak

I wasn't officially assigned to review Whispers in the Dark by Jacob Possin, but he asked for additional feedback so I decided to post some.

Whispers in the Dark starts with a somewhat intriguing premise, with four players taking different roles that correspond to different narrative forces tugging at a single character while the story of that character's life is told. The roles roughly correspond to self-control, chaos, self-protection, and self-destruction, which provide some interesting counterpoints to each other but don't suggest strong natural "alliances" among players, which should keep the mechanical part of the game reasonably dynamic. The game then uses an oracle mechanism, filtered through the POV of one of the four player roles, to frame a scene in the Spring, Summer, Autumn, and then Winter of the character's life. If the oracles had to stand alone I might be concerned that they were a little broad to spark inspiration for a specific scene, but the act of filtering them through one of the disparate POVs could easily be enough to make them function well.

Once the scene is framed, play progresses to a trick-taking card game mechanic, where a series of card-plays determines who gets to narrate the beginning, the climax, or the fallout of the scene. As with many pass-the-stick games, I worry that the fiction of each stage might become inconsequential since it has no meaningful impact on the future flow of play. No matter what a player says about the Beginning of a scene, for example, the Jack player could win the trick for the Climax, narrate away any precautions, prudence, or safety, and narrate the character into a horrible predicament. Presumably some vague sense of "good sportsmanship" will keep players from being too egregious, but if that's true then much of the game revolves around navigating the social situation and storytelling sensibilities of the group, figuring out what sort of narration will be respected and what won't, which to my mind means that much of the "system" of the game isn't really being designed by the game designer. Additionally, if players stop feeling that their narrative contributions are meaningful then I worry that they lose any incentive to play the card game – if the primary reward is "narration" that can be trivially overwritten by the winner of the next round, is winning this round worth the effort? I am also slightly concerned that the provided motivations for the player roles may not lead all of the players to playing the same card game. For example, if the Doctor decides that the best way to "protect the character" is to hold their best cards in reserve in case they need to win a round when "it really matters", are they playing well or poorly? Are the player roles aver-arching roles or moment-to-moment guidelines? Both? Neither? Just flavor that shouldn't be affecting the card-game choices? I can't really tell, or tell if it matters. I also worry that the narrative choices made by some players early in the game can have a big impact on the characterization of the single character, which might undermine the investment of other players. For example if the Jack player wins a lot in the early game they could easily make the character so self-destructive and unlikeable that the Doctor or Will players could lose sympathy, thereby removing their investment in actually pushing for positive outcomes for a character they now dislike.

As is probably clear, I don't think I'm really in the target audience for a game that relies heavily on trading off pure-storytelling authorship like this game, so I'm not sure if I can give any meaningful advice for next steps. The game seems to be as procedurally complete as many "finished" games in this genre, but I think I would have trouble playing and having fun with it. Perhaps the game is already great for people who like this sort of game, though.

(From a purely aesthetic point of view, I mistakenly assumed that the game would be Lovecraft-inspired because of the title's similarity to The Whisperer in Darkness, so I was a little confused at the beginning of the game since I kept waiting for the Mythos to kick in. It's probably unfair of me to think that Lovecraft gets to monopolize the space around his titles, but that's the first place my mind went due to the popularity of Lovecraft-based gaming. I also found it a little difficult to parse some of the procedures, which might be addressed by rephrasing them to move away from the future tense to make them more direct and imperative.)
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Thank you for the review. I have a lot of the same concerns about my game as well. Its funny that I wrote a pass the stick style story game when I normally hate them for the reasons you bring forward. Also I felt tha tmy mechanics needed a little polish. My question, in response to your review, is what can be done with a game like this to connect the mechanics and the narrative more closely? I played around with a chips mechanic, but that seemed to over complicate the gameplay. I am curious to hear your thoughts on ways to "fix" these pass the stick style games?
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Dan Maruschak

Well, the standard answer that people give seems to be including mechanics that operate on the fiction. When you confront people with the idea that B is dependent on A, focusing on B will make them more likely to believe that A is true. If the game says that fictional situation A leads to mechanical result B, people will be more likely to consider the fiction significant since they have to figure out whether situation A applies or not in order to know how whether to take B into account for the mechanics. I'm not sure how you could really do that in your game. I think part of the problem is that each hand of cards is essentially independent (other than in terms of hand management) so you don't really have a lot of mechanical levers to hook fiction->mechanics operations onto. One way might be to separate out the endgame "win" condition from the trick-taking mechanic and instead have it dependent on something else, but I'm not really sure what that could be. Another way of making the fiction matter might be to change what the tricks correspond to so that there's more feed-through. For example, if the first trick lets you frame the status quo of the situation, the second one lets you define a threat/opportunity/crisis, and the third one lets you decide if which of those two "wins" then you've given players a reason to pay attention and remember what the first two chunks are until the third one is decided, which will increase the likelihood that they consider the fiction introduced in those first two steps as meaningful. That might be a pretty dramatic change in the feel of the game, though.
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