As a kid, I spent countless hours with my friends pretending to explore a new planet, fight a dragon, or save the world. Little did I know that such play also helped me explore and develop emotional responses in a safe environment. After all, if it got too intense, too real, I could always quit playing.
Growing up, we leave that kind of play behind. “Pretend” is frowned upon, making it more difficult to get people together without a definite purpose in mind. Like most kids, I allowed video games to take the place of more freeform play.
Unfortunately, there’s something more that video games still don’t capture: the emotional aspect of play. Video games are entirely mediated before the game begins, whereas freeform play is mediated by continuing consensus. As with books and movies, video game designers determine what actions and reactions will be available to their audience. This makes it easy to call up great, sweeping emotions but at the expense of the more personal emotional experience that freeform play encourages.
Being a Puppet Master is a hard, often thankless job. If you do things wrong, your players complain about the content you’ve put out. If you do things right, they tell you that there isn’t enough content. Dealing with the inevitable crises under this sort of scrutiny and feedback is draining.
When I worked on Ares Station, I woke from a nightmare about our players. They were huge, fuzzy spiders, chasing after me through endless hallways. Finally, I made it to a helicopter and jumped aboard, only to have the spiders jump up and pull it down. In desperation, I tossed a spherical puzzle to the ground. They converged on it, allowing me to escape. From then on, any player who complained or demanded content from us was labeled a ‘Puzzle Spider’.
In an odd way, my nightmare made things easier. When our players got into the story or said good things about what we were doing, I let it give me a boost of energy. When our players criticized, I pretended it came from Puzzle Spiders to make it easier to take. After all, Puzzle Spiders don’t mean things personally. They’re just voracious consumers of good puzzles and story. As a PM, you can take their interest as a compliment. After all, if your story wasn’t any good, they’d move on to something else.