If you’ve read much of what I’ve written, you probably know that Epidiah Ravachol is one of my favorite game designers and overall people. Furthermore, I am a big fan of the misfit space friends genre of fiction. That’s what makes it strange that it took me so very long to play Vast & Starlit, his microgame of miscreants in space that is so short it will take you less time to read the whole game than it would to read my summary of it. In 2016 I have rectified this oversight to the tune of two plays.
And what wonderful stories we came up with! The kind that you look to shoehorn into any discussion of roleplaying you can. “Oh, that reminds me of the time our spaceship got jealous of the android and human interfacing and refused to play anything but jilted lover laments on the stereo…” Rich, exciting stuff that is the space equivalent of what Brendan Conway talks about as the Swords Without Master effect; when you hear an over-the-top, almost too good to believe story of sword and sorcery roleplaying, you can almost always pinpoint it as a Swords story. And the space version of that is what came out of our two Vast & Starlit sessions.
I don’t know that it’s a successful game. Which is why this essay is labelled as it is, right? On some level I want to say that if a game produced fiction that I enjoyed that much, it must be a success. But on another level there is something about the game that I can’t identify and that bugs me like a stone inside my shoe. Every time I revisit Vast & Starlit it rubs against my little toesies.
But what I’m on about here isn’t so much the Vast & Starlit part of the title, but rather the paradox bit. If the fiction produced is not the way to judge a game, what is? What is it that makes a game – and here I want to be careful with my terminology – successful, or perhaps “good?” I feel like the thing that’s bothering me is that I’m saying is it’s not the end result. Which on some level strikes me as bat guano crazy. But when I start to unpack it at bit I think I can see the reason.
At first blush, I would think the way to judge the success of a recipe is by the quality of food it produces. If the food is delicious, the recipe is successful. But if we dig into the recipe we may find that it wasn’t the most effective way to get to that end product. Maybe it told me I would need three eggs and only ever had me use two. Maybe it didn’t tell me to preheat the oven at the beginning so now I’m twiddling about on my phone waiting for it to get up to temp.
Or perhaps it makes assumptions as to the knowledge of the chef reading it. Maybe the recipe ought to specify how to separate out the egg whites rather than leave the method up to the chef. Maybe it needs to mention you should mix the cornstarch with cold water and not warm water because not all chefs know this.
But even as I dig down into this metaphor I find myself thinking: those are behind the kitchen door issues. What does the dinner care, so long as the meal is tasty? But I suppose there is usefulness in the repeatability of that tasty meal. With this chef, on this night, it was tasty, but with a different chef who doesn’t know about the egg whites and didn’t have time to preheat the oven, the meal could be an inedible mess. That consistency could certainly be important to the dinner, and if I may extend the metaphor even further, would likely be key to the restaurant owner.
Is what I’m saying that the repeatability of quality fiction under varied conditions the measure of a game’s success? Perhaps. But then how large a sample size is needed to give a game the Stetson Stamp of Approval? How many times must I visit the restaurant to award it another Michelin star?
Ultimately I think this topic is more about questioning than answering, but I think it’s a valuable question. Still, I don’t think any amount of culinary metaphor is going to get me out of my paradox. Perhaps you can help cook up a solution in the comments?