This is a topic I often return to as someone who spends more time thinking about games than actually playing them. One of my hobbies is to read RPG rulebooks, soaking in the atmosphere and considering how certain aspects of the games might play out if I ever decided to put a group together. Of course there are about a million more games than I will ever be able to play, and so what ends up happening is that I sit alone reading through the various systems and source books admiring the work that went into them.
I don’t believe that most games are designed with this in mind, but I do find it interesting as a sort of emergent facet of game design. Specifically, what inspired me to write this post is the recently released behemoth of a game Invisible Sun by Monte Cook. Completely leaving aside the way the game plays, or the cost ($200+ for physical and $100 for the PDF), I want to talk about the way the game exists aesthetically.
It’s clear that this is a Big Game. There are six or seven books, envelopes with handouts, props, statues, decks of spell cards, an oracle deck, maps, artwork, and all that good stuff. Thumbing through the resources gives me the impression that care and passion went into it, from the typesetting to the layout design to the worldbuilding to the dozens and dozens of pieces of art across the multiple books. Honestly, it’s gorgeous to look at, and I have no idea how it even plays. I have no idea how I would introduce it to a group, or how I could convince someone to spend that kind of money on a game. The bottom line is that just experiencing the game as it presents in text and as art is very satisfying.
I suppose the discussion I want to have is about whether that can be enough, whether a game designed as an “experience” works for you, and whether that kind of game should be supported or encouraged. Also in this camp I think of games like Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, a fabulous set of books with a character that feels so powerful and emotional and punchy, and whose very writing is just as much a part of the art and the game.
Other examples of these kinds of “Big Games” I’ve come across recently include KULT: Divinity Lost and Degenesis and things of their ilk. Evocative imagery, books, settings, atmosphere, and all the rest. They’re the kinds of games that a GM needs to sit down with for hours and hours just to get the right feel, even before trying to explain the game to a potential group of players.
So what do you all think of games that make their art and worldbuilding and even the graphic design so much the forefront of their presentation? I love to view games as both visual and written art, but on the other hand I can definitely see an argument made that these priorities are backwards from the perspective of designing a game meant to be played.