To Change (Part 1)
Transformative Theory of Art (Literal)
1. Every Individual Component Is The Best
In our analysis, we consider every individual artistic element of a game the best; we do not find bad or good useful. So, the Split/Party framework assumes it is the best art, best layout, best writing, best design. This is an acknowledgement that nobody makes “bad” art on purpose; any given element is the best art that could have been produced at that point, restricted by its material conditions and constraints of time and effort. This is also because saying something is good/bad art is the most useless criticism that can be given. In practical term, this section is for things we will not touch on the review but merit acknowledgement.
This is an interesting game to spend time thinking about its material production. To Change is a fine-tuned game, with a simple skeleton that allows for easy modular/scale up design. Since it is confident of its base, it can have as much more “game” built upon it.
This kind of art tools for tabletop roleplaying may be which benefit the most from current crowdfunding tendencies; it approached investors with a solid core, presented possible ways to scale up, and does not compromise artistic communication nor tool usefulness, and does not rely on TTRPG Funko Pops, content bloat, price spiking out-of-control loss, delays, or burying you under trinkets and treats lacking any meaningful relationship to the project.
So, what this approach gets us, what you actually get when you hold To Change?
A game rulebook with clean functional layout, which feels weird to still have to mention. This goes well with the art direction, keeping a soft hand and letting art from different artists experienced with the topics and themes of the game to portray a myriad of what transformation can mean; where this approach usually produces dissonant results, it is pretty good at establishing To Change is more about what it is as an art piece and more about what you can do with it as a tool.
A more tight art direction was taken to the custom tarot deck designed for the game; the deck is a beautiful tool, but not the only way to play the game. A Twine version of the deck can be used to play the game for solo and collaborative play.
Beyond the game rules, they managed to include eleven stories. These are small stand-alone games made to be played through the To Change system; the addition of these really makes the game shine, by showing how easily the character of the modular engine can change and, in turn, change the stories it can create.
To Change, is truly where the wheel meets the road of the art of tabletop RPGs, and the tools of ttrpgs. The layout is clean and expertly done, with art that focuses on communicating the ideas of the game instead of someone’s favorite OC. The layout is easily legible, and never does the author’s voice become twee or overstays its welcome.
The custom tarot deck is a fantastic art piece, more character than a unique dice set, and itself carries the theme of transformation forward. The inclusion of the program version of the deck wins big points for me as well, an easy nip in the bud of awkward online solutions.
2. Meet The Game At The Level It Is At
Each game comes with certain expectations and tone. To properly breakdown, we have to meet the game at the level it is: not lament its choice of premise and wish it was something else, nor resent for not conforming with our politics, not letting “missed opportunities” stand in our way of applying the critical framework relentlessly. It also includes not working with the game as marketed or how it exists in our desires, but as it is.
To Change includes themes of transformation, including body horror/modification, mental changes and themes of identity loss. An expectation that one may have to deal with those themes and topics is carried through the game. As such, it is essential to approach them safely and comfortably for you to enjoy To Change.
To Change is well aware of the assumptions in play, being quite forthcoming with the expectations it expects when addressing its players:
All changes have positive and negative aspects; there should be always something creating tension: even the most drastic transformations benefit your original goals and desires in some way, and even the most sweet temptations to succumb to carry challenges to overcome and the terror of the unknown.
There is a point where there is no return from a transformation, and this is something everyone playing should keep in mind. Stories made with To Change excel as they approach this threshold, but this point should be the climax of any given game.
Changes always have mental and physical changes. Furthermore, both mental and physical changes occur at both the internal and external sense. Those four subtypes of changes progress independently.
Safety tools have rightly become ubiquitous among play groups, whoever their implementation has been severely lackluster. It often seems a dismissive inclusion, like crossing a checkbox, variations the same three paragraphs and the same links over and over again1. To Change, aware of its nature and the fraught themes it can slide on, takes a very proactive approach. Safety checks and talks, as well as opportunities to facilitate use of custom safety tools, are integrated tightly with the core engine; it puts the focus in the cultivation of a culture of play and cooperative storytelling that highly values comfort and safety as a collective, instead of procedural replication.
Tarot and its associations are built into the game engine, and gameplay may mimic certain forms of playing cards divinations.
Embodied gender expression and transgender changes have their own system, to be used alongside other changes or on its own. It is a welcomed change to the exclusionary prescriptions often done when attempting to implement such art tools; while the current stories underuse it, the tool has potential for much welcomed and needed genderfuckery.
To Change, makes excellent use of page space on Safety Tools, what I mean by this, is that it’s clear that the people behind this game knew that the concept of transformation, both freeing and horrifying and everything in between would need work to facilitate safe and sane play at the table. So, they set out to accommodate every single one of us that needs safety tools, and whichever ones are the most useful for your particular playgroup. They don’t bang a useless drum, but they also don’t just shout one sentence and then leave you to your own devices.
My genius collaborator has already covered that To Change wears its expectations on its sleeve and comes out and tells the players them, the tarot aspect is unique and a delight.
3. Identify What The Game Says It Is About
Games are about things. Usually. Mostly. That is often the same thing they market themselves as. This often means to establish the relationship of the game with systems, mechanical frameworks, genre, etc. This is how games establish exceptions about the nature of play and creates a common space for creation.
To Change says it is a game about transformation, guided across two axes: one, the emotional turmoil of touching and perhaps losing yourself to something that is definitely inhuman; the other, the curiosity and euphoria of discovering something that you may never imagined wanting, something only possible by achieving new ways to be embodied. This creates a distressing push and pull that allows the celebration of alternative meanings of beauty, especially what is often deemed monstrous and undesirable.
This has a queering appeal. After all, it is a game celebrating being different while capturing the material and emotional rubber band of queerness in a way that is both challenging to hegemonic culture and made uniquely challenging by it.
In a word, Transformation,the idea that your mind and body will both be resculpted into something inhuman, but still loveable, something monstrous, but beautiful. To Change claims to be a game about this basic idea, the idea that you can change both physically and mentally and it can be both wondrous or awful or both at the same time.
4. Uncover What The Game Is REALLY About
What the game says it is about is not always what the game is about. This is where we look at all the weird interactions, examining the system that game creates, how the way mechanics interact with the text and art, how it exists on a given context, how well parts flow together or get in the way. This creates a much richer environment that the original design could ever imagine once a game hits the table.
To Change is a game about transformation. No, I mean it; it is actually about transformation. It does the thing by actually being the thing.
A lot of the time, especially when one is building around an engine without the support of a framework or without connecting both of them through system design, what a game says it is about seems slapped on top, more like clothing and drapery rather than the bones and sinews of the art form.
Transformation is a theme for a collaborative storytelling game that is particularly fraught; it is very challenging to do it as part of an engine and framework, but is very tempting to make it a thing you claim your game is about by having this art bundled together with transformation fiction or transformation art2. There you go, have a transformation game, give me your money.
This is not the first game we talk here that is about transformation. Hard Wired Island couples transformation with the threat of neoliberalism and liberation constrained by capital, Moriah is about the transformative potential of sacrifice, and XII showcases many different examples of transformation — including making it central to the core gameplay engine3.
When you play a game like Trophy, transformation in the form of Ruin is always be a part of it. However, that’s all. It may not even tie to the framework; for the engine, only 5 or 6 Ruin matter. You can turn it on and off without any resistance, making apparent it is not the agent of transformation stories: It is a game where transformation happens in its neighbourhood. That’s not the case with To Change. The engine is transformation. The framework is always about transformation. The game does transformation; avoid it and you have no game: no more, no less.
If that proves insufficient, you may find To Change an interesting exploration of vulnerability. Transformation requires a certain degree of intimacy, and that requires vulnerability; how to facilitate that through collaborative storytelling is a tension point of art-form very much in its infancy. To Change tries to create that vulnerability by putting an emphasis on mechanisms of trust. Yes, the transformation is tense, terrifying, dramatic and unpredictable in an all-encompassing way. However, you can know the rest of the game enough to develop trust in it.
Because To Change does not rely on putting its authority on a specific player at the table, nor can rely entirely on the framework of the stories, it does so through the cards. The transformation cross is easy to read, and you can see your decisions that led to this point, you know the story exists for a purpose and you can follow it, and while the deck will surprise it, it can always be somewhat know: you can see which cards were discard, you can learn the effects of individual cards, and you can always get as much control back as you want4.
This nudges you to struggle and succumb; ultimately, the success of To Change as an art piece will depend on its ability to facilitate such moments of vulnerability and being invited in when those happen.
In a Word, Transformation. To Change does the thing. To Change is a game about transforming, and all the packaging that comes with it. Now, if you are a heavy reader you are waiting for my twist, for me to say “but”, and there is not one, so instead I am going to say that To Change is also a very fun exploration of control.
Lu mentions that To Change’s Transformation Cross is easy to read and grasp, you can see your decisions and how they got you here, etc. The transformation is in the narrative, wild, uncontrolled and terrifying, but you get to choose what you play in the transformation cross, you have the ability to effect the change, and if people help you make this draw, you get even more cards, at the risk of them accepting the consequence. You have control, you have choice, and with every safety tool art your disposal, you can in fact lose that control, without losing that control. I think it is a fascinating theme, and used well in this game.
This reflects how the tools end up themselves being used, as “we have the tools, so this is inherently a safe and comfortable space”; instead of, you know, tools to make those aspirations a reality. Confusing having a document that says you intend to do something with actually doing it.
Or Proserpina sustain us, relegated to a 6d6 table.
And if you consider what the spin-off game seems to be going for, transformation and investigating what that means externally and internally through games of sex and death seems to be what that art piece is aiming to be about.
The relationship of the game with safety and comfort we discussed in previous points probably plays an important role in supporting vulnerability.