NOTE: THIS IS A LITTLE BRAIN-DUMP-ISH, SINCE I HAD A LOT OF THOUGHTS AND WASN'T REALLY ABLE TO SORT THEM OUT IN MY HEAD. HOPE IT FLOWS OK. ALSO, i NOTICE THAT MAZZA SCOOPED ME ON SMOKE DREAM AP. I'LL READ HIS AFTER I'VE POSTED MINE. NOW THEN:
So I played Jackson Tegu's The Smoke Dream
, spread across 3 sessions over the past week. It was way rad.
The Smoke Dream is a solitaire story game, kinda like Myst with a deck of cards. The premise is that you're having a freaky dream where you're looking for your missing heart. There's a whole bunch of entries in the book corresponding to different card draws, divided into Items, Locations, and Characters, with all these special conditions for interacting with them. You can put items in your inventory, and take a character as a companion, and many of the entries have a "default" text for interacting with them, but also special text with an item
name underlined, only to be read if you have that thing or person with you. It's a really rich and robust system for interfacing with an imagined world.
I found the game worked great if I let myself immerse*--sit and still my thoughts and sort of self-hypnotize that I really was having this weird dream. It reminded me of some alternative-spiritual practices I've tried, or like guided meditation. I concentrated on imagining the objects and environment that was revealed through the cards, and giving the characters a voice. I tried to do this intuitively, by "seeing" what was there instead of "creating" it through force of will. it worked well. The Fair Cousin was genial and encouraging, cautiously humbling in victories, knowingly soothing in setbacks. the Swarthy Cousin was robust and back-clapping, sardonic but in a best-friend curmudgeonly foil sort of way. The Wolf-blood Girl was terse and dismissive, with fits of petulance.
It made for great emotional involvement. The premise itself is vague yet personal, allowing the player to construct their own meaning. I made decisions based on emotional ties--like when I ended up with the Witch of Brass on my shoulders, flogging me as I wandered along, because I couldn't bear to give up my Compass Rose. After she hurled the Fair Cousin out a window. Which made for a heartfelt reunion when he turned up again, battered but OK.
The game proceeds through cycling the deck--you only shuffle it at the beginning, then go the cards one by one, "encountering" each person/place/thing, then either taking them, setting them aside, or putting them at the bottom of the deck. There are special cards that will mess with the deck and card order, such as the Hall of Mirrors which shows you the next six cards without interacting with them, or the Merchant King who shows you the next few cards and offers to trade one with you.
I found that these cards came up so often (EVERY 6 is a Hall of Mirrors, and EVERY 7 a secret passageway) that after awhile it became hard to meaningfully incorporate them into the Dream. it was all like, "OH, another Hall of Mirrors. I, um, guess I'm on another
whirlwind journey of delirium where visions dance before my eyes that I cannot touch." It wasn't. . .bad
, exactly, it just watered down the narrative. The Merchant King posed another problem--the Mirrors and passageways cycle such that they'll ensnare different
cards each time, but the King cycles such that the same cards follow him each time, and
each time he adds another card to his wares. As it happens the 3 or 4 cards following him were Face cards, which are near-impossible to acquire since you need to trade an equal-value card. So a particular card that I needed to acquire another
card to unlock the way to particular location was basically OFF LIMITS as soon as the King ensnared it.
One of the major stipulations of gameplay is that you not "peek": There are text entries you can only read when you draw the card, and/or under certain conditions, and there are certain effects that will mess with cards without letting you see them.For the most part I was good and honest, but it was hard not to peek sometimes at special text: "Ooh, I wonder what happens when I visit this room with the Wolf-Blood Girl?" And I bent the rules for card-peeking a bit one time: The Hollow Lady hoarded away a bunch of cards, face down, and when I finally managed to release them (returning them to the bottom of the deck), I couldn't help
but take a look at just what cards she'd been holding hostage--one of them was even my missing heart! Knowing that lent a lot of fittingness and closure to the exchange.
Another awkward feature (though maybe intentionally so!): it's really hard to hold on to an item long enough to use it for its intended purpose. they're always getting stolen, or else you need/want to discard them for another, or what have you. It was just another factor, like the recurring mirrors and such, which serve to draw the game out, by means of delaying success/resolution. Which is a neat feature to have, but it got repetitive after awhile. Again, the more often something happened, the harder it was to "make sense of" its meaning in the dream.
It's an interesting design concern, because one of the Smoke Dream's inspirations, the computer text or graphical adventure, does
rely on puzzle-solving with repeated stymieing of solutions, and lots of trial and error. And in the context of a dream, everything is ephemeral and all elements can disappear or shift or transform at any time. But a dream also has the quality of the portentous
, so the more it mutates, the harder it is to draw meaning or significance out of it.
But overall significance abounded. the way I interacted with the companion characters, especially, as well as each of their commentary on events and on life, made for a rich experience, especially considering that any of these characters' words that come to me are my own inner voices
, and facets of how I see the world. And while an exercise of "tell yourself a surreal vision of personal meaning and significance" could quickly become stale and predictable without some kind of constraint or prompt to draw your thoughts down below the surface--the unpredictable sequence of events and combinations of elements provided just that! Well done, Jackson. My Dream had a very nice progression of events with a full palette of recurring themes. It ended with my finding my heart at the shores of the Lake, after previously drawing the Legendary Sword out of same Lake. And of course to pick up the Heart, I have to discard an item. It made a wonderfully apt end to the whole affair as I cast the sword back to the waters and my heart rose up to meet me. I traded the perception of power (the Sword in fact had never done me much good, for all I worked to attain it) for wholeness of person. Perfect. Satisfying. Moving. Thank you, Jackson.
PS. The possibility of replay is an intriguing one. I think I'll need some time and distance before i'll be ready to descend into the Dream once more. My biggest question is whether the qualities and nature i ascribed to the elements will stay the same, and I'll be re-encountering the same old friends (and enemies), or if they'll take on a new character in the new Dream. I don't think i'll know until I journey there. And either way has intriguing and rewarding possibilities.
My blog of roleplaying, art and life: http://storybythethroat.wordpress.com/