The Smoke Dream is dreamy. Possibly also smoky.

edited November 2009 in Story Games

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 or character 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.
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  • YEAH!

    Thanks for the account and the insights, Joel!
    Wonderful to read, especially after sitting in the library all day (for a change of scenery) working on the game.
    Things are going well on my end, and i'm so glad to see the game being enjoyed in the real world-
    it makes it worthwhile, you know?
  • I do know, indeed. Glad to be of service!

    I hope my commentary is helpful and all that.

  • Especially the part that you x-posted in the other thread about how you had difficulty with the hall of mirrors, your internal quote had me laughing out loud (i mean, LOL) and recognizing just how deep the hall of mirrors problem runs.

    back to the work at hand!
  • edited November 2009
    Just started playing last night. Gonna post some initial thoughts here to avoid reading through the longer, spoiler-filled thread.

    I was waiting for some stuff to bake, so I decided to play for about 30 minutes or so. It seemed like the first 5-8 cards I drew didn't "do anything" mechanically, which was a little offputting. I got a fairy companion and picked up an item (one of the 3s), but I also encountered a bunch of cards referring to stuff that didn't exist yet or store rooms that were empty. For example, I drew a couple cards that allowed me to move cards around between The Pines stack and other stacks, when those stacks didn't have any cards on them. So I felt, uh, maybe a bit lost and confused and in over my head, keep hearing about these things that I didn't know what they were and couldn't do anything with. For example, I couldn't even really figure out how cards would even get on the stacks, which made it hard for me to know when there would be cards there and when they would be useful.

    But maybe that initial lost, overwhelmed feeling is part of the intended tone of the game? I really did feel like I was wandering through some strange place, not really knowing what was going on. If so, though, I hoped for a bit of reassurance from the text like: "Things will eventually start making sense; just keep pushing forward until events begin to come together." Or a way to think about what's going on, narratively, when you encounter cards that don't "do anything." Is my dream self unable to escape from the Pines, even though there's nothing for me there? Some of that will definitely be emergent as I keep playing and have to decide for myself what it means, but I just wanted to share my intial feelings to see if that was or wasn't what Jackson intended / was happy with.

    As far as moving from the rules text to play, the rules seemed to be just throwing out lists of different card types at you, which wasn't as helpful to me as focusing on building a more general understanding what kinds of things you would be likely to encounter. Like, if you just said: you'll encounter three types of things 1) locations, 2) characters, and 3) items. And that you could place characters and items on certain locations once you encounter them (which is, I think?, how stacks work? maybe?). Basically, I felt the need to gain a more large-scale understanding of what the basic principles were and felt it was less critical to know that all 3s were X type of thing, while all 7s were Y things. That extra information was just more to absorb before I started playing and, in some cases, may have just overwritten more basic, important information in the rules while reading, such that I was more lost once I started playing. So maybe make the rules even shorter and focused on just the basics, letting the game speak for itself and the players discover, during play, that all the 3s are one thing, etc.

    Layout wise, I think it would be helpful to break the entries up to make reference easier, for example, putting all the 3s on the same spread, all the Qs on the same spread, etc. So you could just turn to the right numbered page to find your entry. If you had the page count for 64 pages (52 + rules), you could even do it one card description per page, but that might get excessive. I would also make the card number and suit much, much bigger on the reference pages, to make them easier to look up.

    Overall, though, cool. I look forward to continuing my game tonight.
  • Hey Jonathan.

    I am at the wincing stage now. When i read folks' accounts of play of the pre-final edition, i often laugh out loud at how poorly the rules communicate - perhaps how well they miscommunicate - my methods for playing the game. I am glad that you are limping into it, thank you for your patience and graciousness. There are few situations wherein a card does nothing in the version i am currently at work on, i am eager to share it with you, with everyone.

    Yesterday i was formatting, you and i are thinking in parallel about this. Please, enjoy your game, and i'm all ears for more thoughts.

    Your reassurance: Indeed, as you proceed through the deck, things will begin to tie together, both due to their familiarity (well, this still doesn't affect me right now, but at least i know where i am, kind of... isn't the merchant king just past here?) and due to the fact that you'll have more items and so on. (Ah, the ballroom again. doesn't do anything - oh, wait, but i HAVE the butterfly corpse now, so i can read this part here...)

    ah, to respond to another of your points - a feeling of uncertainty is certainly lovely, but i'd like it to be less pervading and evaporate more quickly, which is being attended to. I'm not happy with it, to be blunt; it is the prototype which i needed to build in order to build the next prototype. It's very humbling, to see how much difficulty others can have with text that i intended to be clear. Luckily, i am learning from it.

    thanks and happy thursday,
  • Prototyping is critical and important, Jackson, so I'm glad you're taking these comments as fuel and not as discouragement. Smoke Dream is getting a ton of outside playtesting partially because it's doing some really cool stuff with 1) solo play, 2) randomized encountering of a fixed number of things, and other stuff that's super exciting and areas where other people are interested in dipping their design toes. I'm going to try to keep limping along, but I also look forward to playing the next edition. Yay for iterative design!
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