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To Change (Part 2)
Transformative Theory of Art (Literal)
This is the conclusion of the critical analysis of To Change You can find the first part here.
5. Disassemble Engine
Games have a flow, which, when you hit, the game pretty much runs itself. It is extremely satisfying. After examining the interactions of game elements, we single out the most important - the one that sets the pace of sessions, or even campaigns. We focus on how that engine works, how it makes the game move along, and what to do to make it do what you want to do - and how to keep it running clean.
Any form of art that achieves or seeks to be transformative is a social production, an act of communication1. As much as certain movements may seek to believe, you cannot abstract away from the art of role-playing games anyone laboring for this process of communication2 — even if they are not synchronous participants3.
Asynchronous participation in this artistic endeavour has often been accomplished through writing. Art and layout are often used more as replacement/complementary to the art-form writing contributions4; design work as an art is all too often buried under writing, hidden away and either hated or seen as embarrassment. To the point, one can see relying on writing to carry the art-form a failure of design, or that you don’t even need design at all if your writing is just that good; from that position, these are reasonable things to think if not to say or act upon5.
But this tension between writing and design is a false one, an outcome of a systemic failure to critically approach the art-form, systems, framework and an evaluation of a product and how consumption interaction with it.
What if writing is the game engine?
I bet your knee-jerk reaction was one of disgusted or confused dismissal, but it is not quite self-evident in the current manifestation of the art-form? Writing is still the way most designed engines interact with each other; in such approach, it is, for all that entails, the bottleneck of design. Even for examples of the art-form that use a wider range of engine-communicators beyond writing, writing is still going to be the most common way framework and design overlap.
This may also account for an appreciation for technical writing in TTRPGs, or the endless formal obsessions about “efficiency of information delivery” going on and on about bullets, boxed text, tables, etc6.
But a more interesting stress point exists: scenario writing, be them adventures, modules, etc. It is not fiction writing; it is not technical writing, has translation transfer of skills and both require the development of others. You need to not only communicate; you need to make this communication active, shared, collaborative and you have accomplish this asynchronously.
Anyway, To Change, the game this critical analysis is supposed about. Yes, the game has a transformation cross, which does dictate the pacing as you progress between physical/mental internal/external; it has a tarot deck, which does dictate specific details about a scene and a story. But the actual game engine is the writing of the scenario and the synchronous continuous communication as one plays the game. As mentioned in part 1, the game is well-aware of what it is and seeks to do no more, no less. By doing this, it has a writing-driven story-facilitating engine of transformation.
“That’s it?” All my preamble was to put in evidence that while this is a simple goal, accomplishing it is both difficult and rare that an art-tool that accomplishes it so elegantly deserves contemplation. Not only scenario writing is a stress point of engine/framework intersections, like everything else it has suffered under the underdeveloped critic of our art-form7. This also means there is so much to be explored about this type of writing to complement this place in the art-form.
To Change spends a lot of time thinking about this challenge and has the courage to tie its experiments to how the game is played. It draws from CYOA books, fiction and adventure writing. The cross, the cards, you and the scenario text — written or created in the moment — are in constant communication. Yes, it is janky; it relies on various skills of the scenario writer, themes, what you yourself bring. But it is an engine and it works as one.
To Change has a simple but effective engine, the transformation cross. This to me is where the wheel (the player) meets the road (the scenario) and things happen. There is a very unique relationship to be honest, because To Change is very focused, and knows exactly what type of story you are going to use it for.
It’s interesting because To Change makes its scenarios so unique, but they use the same engine with almost no modularity and yet can still have a wildly diverse flavor. The Transformation Cross is clearly the engine because it makes the rest of the game work, but it is able to be so compelling because it really only needs to make To Change work, and is fine-tuned to do so beautifully.
6. Essentials For Session One
So, you got this game, you going to play it, but you don’t have the time to read everything. Or even worse, your have read it and now it is all jumbled together. Here we break down the things that you absolutely want to try to get right and/or hit during your first session, so you get the felling of what makes this game stand out from similar art.
Even if the game, as an enabler of stories, avoids calling attention, everything for getting down and play with barely do any reading or prep is already there.
The best way to get ready to play the game with someone else is to play on your own. There is plenty of translation between the two. Pick a scenario that you want. Then run through the following:
Safety and comfort (Pg 10-11)8
Stats and the reading cross (Pg 12-19)
Draw procedure (Pg 22)
I would not worry too much about the meaning of cards; I had to check them every single game. Accept you gonna have to check it everytime, anyway.
Then play a game, all this should take you less than one hour and then leave you an impression of how you can draw the best of To Change when running the game for someone else.
Lu is (as usual) correct here, I played a solo game and then did a duet with it, and definitely heavily discuss or contemplate scenarios, keep the tarot interpreter at close hand, and get ready to tell one interesting story.
7. Playing The Game Wrong
Games are played wrong. Rules will be misunderstood, interactions will be confused, the importance of certain tech disregarded; etc. This is good, and it is good to acknowledge for: you cannot have the designer at your time, and even if they were, they would be just another player - and entitled to play it wrong. After identifying stress points of the game, things that don’t connect that well, we think of the things that are more likely to be (our have been) “played wrong”. What happens when you forget a line in page 273 clearly saying this is impossible?
As a simple game of narrow scope, To Change has surprisingly few stress points. Most of them are universal play culture things that always should be considered — safety, comfort, running themes and check-ups through people, etc.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that, well, the game pretty much requires a scenario for it to be truly enjoyable as To Change and not a free-form collaborative storytelling exercise. Even if you are making your own, even if you want to keep writing and prep to a minimum, you may want to have one when you sit at the table9. Also, the game just does not work as a solo game without the use of a scenario.
And don’t sleep on the Twine card drawer tool.
I ended up using the Twine Drawer tool for my in-person duet cause that was just easier, but otherwise, I really cannot think of any other To Change stress points. Pick out your scenarios in advance.
8. What to Steal
Experiencing good art is the most important step in making good art. We look back at the things that worked and did not work about this game, see what we learned for design work, interesting tech and just a general overview of things that we will take from this game and bring into others. Or more honestly: since many of us may not play this game and we have it in our library, this way we can get some use out of it.
To Change comes with its own licensing scheme, with few restrictions besides full reproduction of adventure texts, using art from the run of To Change, corporate use, web3 bullshit, and so called “AI”. The open-ended use of bigoted works and what not may raise some eyebrows to those that know how such can and have been used to turn on marginalized and sex work, but the writing and context suggest an environment against development of bigotry and enclosure rather than a non-specific hammer to protect IP10. As such, there is much that can be done with To Change, and the potential is there. Scenario writing will thrive and can be very satisfying To Change, and may give you first confident steps in game design — because of how the game engine works, will also teach you a lot. The simplicity can also be drawn to other purposes and other games, and the licensing is pretty open to such explorations in a way most SRDs are quite limited.
Anyone that does scenario writing and has struggled with what a scenario should be lack, and on even identity which of their own skills they would benefit from training and applying will benefit from looking into To Change’s daring approach to tackle this tension point in the art-form that has seen barely any development over fifty years.
The only good solo game because it is not a solo game11. Joke aside, as mentioned previously, all art is about communication; this is often forgotten when a solo game is made, offering only a mirror for the player to see themselves on and/or obsessed with the production or consumption of “artifact-of-play” — a treat that a Product Has Been Acquired And/Or Played. To Change is here to facilitate a type of story, is here to help you do this kind of art, by TTRPG or inspiring other art, and knows this is a social production process so it is constantly communicating with you and facilitating communication between all intervening parts — while avoiding to overstep. It is a masterful achievement, and in the process reveals something.
No game that seeks to be an art-tool for this artform can truly be “solo”. It has to be aware there communication from the engine design and from the scenario writing; even if you tinker with the deck, even if you write your own scenario, even if you just play the game as a solo Tarot reading, To Change will reveal something to you sooner or later.
Every satisfying solo instant is a duet, even if only between you and the person you are becoming.
To Change has such a generous licensing that if you read it and thought “Oh my gods, I have a perfect scenario” you could probably write it up and print it. This is great, and if you are that person you should do so immediately. I think the other thing that To Change has, is the thing that long-time readers will notice I harp on, it’s good at doing its specific thing incredibly well, that factor alone makes To Change, transformative, in its own special way.
Double so when it is transformative art about transformation.
Or the double penetration of commodification of art and identity handing over a greasy mirror that reflects only the American Imperial.
Often devaluating the contributions of those art forms to add on their own to the artistic form of collaborative storytelling, delegating it to an “accessory art” that nevertheless is used to compensate for neglect in other artistic media that serve as components - purely sensual “aesthetics”.
I hate “good” and “bad”, but let me outright say it. Whatever your art is, if you think your mastery is such that eclipses the contributions of another artistic form, you are not as good as you think you are.
Dull. Boring. Missing the point.
Look no further to the three main tendencies that have dominated contemporary writing of those: that good scenario writing is divorced from engine and ideally even framework, that scenario writing does not add anything to games and is not worth considering and at most is the perfect place to strap some designfluencers as a way to drive support for your crowdfunding as it will not meaningfully influence the game; and of course, the most recent and most depressing, that scenario writing should be little dramatis personae for a cast of players and literal scripts.
Playing Solo is no excuse to not taking care of your safety and comfort!
Not to mention how having even a very simplified sketch of a scenario is important for the required buy-in and comfort.
A conversation well beyond the scope of this critique and To Change.
I kid for exaggeration.