Alumni Report: My Daughter, The Queen of France

As part of the build-up to the launch of Game Chef 2012, we’re checking in with a number of recent Game Chef “alumni” to see what their post-contest experience has been like and how their games have continued to develop. Today we spotlight Daniel Wood and his Game Chef 2011 entry, My Daughter, The Queen of France.

Tell us about your game.

William Shakespeare has become estranged from his daughter. In an effort to understand what went wrong, or just reach some sort of emotional closure, he assembles a group of his friends to put on a play about their relationship. All of his friends also knew his daughter and may have their own opinions about what she’s really like and her estrangement from Shakespeare.

Shakespeare directs the play, but he has almost no input into the content of the individual scenes; he must rely on his friends to act out the truth of his relationship with his daughter and hope that it is a truth he can live with. Gameplay revolves around the fact that individual scenes are played more than once — a single scene may be played five or six times over the course of a game — and what this constant reinterpretation eventually reveals about Shakespeare and his daughter.

What state was your game in at the end of Game Chef, and where is it now?

The game itself hasn’t changed significantly from the version I submitted to Game Chef, except insofar as a surprising number of people have played it between then and now. The fact that people were actually playing it — and enjoying their play — brought a different focus to how I conceived of the game and where I thought it needed improvement.

That may sound strange, but consider that I wrote and submitted the game with little expectation of play — the themes of the game and the motivation behind its mechanics are really strongly influenced by the fact that the contest was being judged by an academic scholar of Shakespeare. It is in some significant respect a meditation on the death of the author as it relates to Shakespearean scholarship — and also the specific experience of reading Shakespeare (or trying to read Shakespeare) in high school and undergraduate settings. I wrote it mostly because I was curious A) whether that would be obvious to a non-gaming scholar and B) whether I could do that and still come up with a game that was worth playing.

Once I realized that I had produced a playable — rather than simply theoretically interesting — game and that people were actually playing it, my concerns regarding the game became more practical. I got a remarkable amount of feedback from several people, including a full audio recording of two different sessions — which is absolutely invaluable, by the way — and since then I have been slowly working on a new version of the text. Most of the changes are clarifications, corrections, or minor additions, though I am also considering adding a significant amount of more explicit play advice. In terms of the game’s design, however, not a lot has changed.

What have you learned over the course of the game’s development?

I learned that I am not the only person who wants to play games that do strange and emotionally idiosyncratic things and that a strong enough fictional premise will carry players through all sorts of mechanical stumbling blocks. Actually, I kind of already knew (or suspected) both of these things, but the second one in particular is something that seems particularly relevant to both My Daughter, The Queen of France and my previous Game Chef game, What Remains (from Game Chef 2007, I think?)

What I mean is that almost everyone can relate to a parent being estranged from their son/daughter, and vice versa — it’s an extremely compelling emotional idea, and it admits almost infinite variety. And so because my game starts from this immediately recognizable, relatable place, I can introduce unusual or potentially convoluted game mechanics and rules for play without worrying about players losing focus or disengaging. Once you care about Shakespeare and his daughter, the bizarre constraints of your collaboration become meaningful, rather than simply annoying. The strength of the premise also provides players with a perspective on the rules, and while I obviously make a point of encouraging and guiding that in the game text, I feel like it would be true even if I wrote from a more neutral perspective. Once someone is committed to a notion of play, they will fit everything into that, for better or worse.

This isn’t to say that the premise can make up for random or terrible rules — see my aforementioned Game Chef 2007 game for an example of rules that mostly fail their premise — it’s more about buy-in and a willingness to embrace the rules that are there, rough-edged though they may be. Which leads me to the second thing I learned, which is that sometimes your rules can speak for themselves.

Last year Game Chef entries were limited to 3,000 words, and my initial draft of the game ended up well over that number. At which point I did what every responsible, adult game designer would do — I went and complained on the Game Chef forums, hoping that by sheer charisma alone I might somehow magically garner an exception. Instead I got a lecture (from this insufferable “Walton” character) about how a Game Chef draft didn’t need to be a complete game text, just a complete set of rules, and a suggestion that, in fact, this was an opportunity to see how well the rules of my game would stand on their own, without a bunch of explanation and advice to support them. Well, obviously I was skeptical — especially since, as mentioned, the main reason I was writing the game was because of all this literary theory stuff, and so naturally I wanted to make sure that all my intentions and insights were manifestly visible to the reader — but of course it turns out that I was wrong, and the Master Chef was right.

Editing the text down improved the game dramatically, specifically because it forced me to embed my advice and intentions into the rules. It wasn’t that I threw it all out — it’s that in order to avoid throwing it out, I had to put it in the game itself. And even if there were still valuable things that ended up left out, it was immensely satisfying to know that when people took the game and played it by themselves, the core idea of the game still came through; once the rules alone can reliably produce the game you are imagining, that’s a much better point at which to start adding advice.

What are your ultimate goals for the game and how close are you to meeting those?

My goals are pretty modest: I want to publish a final revision of the text, and put it somewhere on the Internet where anyone who wants to get it can do so. A friend has also talked to me about possibly producing a few fancy print versions, in a very limited-run sort of way, which appeals to me because… who doesn’t love books? It also appeals to me because there is presumably some subset of players out there who will start taking a game more seriously — in the sense of whether they’re willing to play it — once it appears to be published in some final way. As for meeting these goals, I made a foolish promise to the Internet about the final revision already, and I have learned my lesson. But at this point it is mostly a matter of finding a few days of unbroken attentiveness to actually implement the changes. All the thinking-work is done already, I hope. Overall, my main goal is just for more people to play the game, have fun doing so, and then maybe tell me about it.

What advice would you give to other Game Chef alumns who are thinking about developing their game further?

Do it? Don’t do it? I guess I don’t have a good answer for that, except that I hope people realize that they can “publish” a game on whatever terms they like and shouldn’t get too hung-up on it.

What advice would you give folks thinking about participating in Game Chef for the first or second time?

I don’t know how universal this advice will be, but my main piece of advice is: don’t wait until your game is done to start writing it down. All you need is something concrete — some sequence of rules, example of play, or evocation of premise — and you have enough to get started. The process of writing, of finding the voice that will fit your game, is a form of design; you won’t be able to write things down without improving and clarifying them. Gaps that didn’t show up in your outline or flowchart will become glaringly obvious, and you won’t have any choice but to write into them. Everything gets easier once you start.

And don’t write from the beginning, either: start by writing the stuff you care about the most. The structure of the game will become obvious, and it’s easy enough to move things around afterwards.

In 2007, I had practically given up on finishing my game until I decided to just write down an example of play — what play looked like was absolutely clear in my head, even though the details of the rules were still super fuzzy. The example of play ended up being the better part of my game text; everything else was organized around it. So don’t worry about where to start, or where you’re going to fit it — if there’s some part of your game that you can see clearly, write it down.

More information about My Daughter, The Queen of France is available online here.

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