Writing an Autobiographical Game

Writing an Autobiographical Game

An autobiographical game is a game that is based on the experiences of the designer(s). There is, of course, a lot of wiggle room in that description. A game that realistically depicts an event from the creator’s life moment to moment is an obvious example, but what about an abstract game that is emotionally true to the creator’s lived experience but not literally true? Does a game in which players fumble around a room in total darkness without speaking count as autobiographical, if the purpose is to experience something similar to the helplessness and frustration the designer felt when they experienced a loss?

For the purposes of this piece I am going to talk about something that’s planted firmly in between the two. Specifically, I’m going to talk about designing an experience that explores autobiographical themes through metaphor while also incorporating characters that are based on real people. This goal is what I tried to achieve when writing The Truth About Eternity, my semi-live scenario for Fastaval this year.

The Truth About Eternity (Davis 2019) is a scenario about a near future in which ancestor worship has taken the form of preserving the deceased in digital tombs. When a person dies, their family can upload an artificially intelligent copy of them to a server and then continue to visit them via virtual reality. The scenario explores the relationships between two digitized ancestors and their three living descendants, all who belong to different generations, as well as the financial and emotional strain that comes with maintaining these digital tombs. One of the major themes is the struggle of balancing familial responsibility and personal freedom. At its core, this scenario is about Korean family dynamics, eldercare, guilt, and grief. It’s also about whether artificially intelligent copies of human beings have souls, but that question is presented in the scenario as a way to further explore those core themes.

While I clearly do not live in a world in which digital tombs of this nature exist, The Truth About Eternity is largely autobiographical. The three descendants, Esther, Helen, and Sam, are based on my grandmother, mother, and me. They are not carbon copies when it comes to the details, but I wrote them to be largely emotionally true to the three of us. The two ancestors, Jungwoo and Minji, are amalgams of various family members both living and deceased. Likewise, while some of the scenes are completely fictitious, many of them pull from real moments in my family’s history, some which I was present for and others which I heard about after, sometimes long after, they transpired.

grandparents posing with granddaughter by trees

Family photo of Clio Yun-su Davis and grandparents. Photo by Hoyun Kim.

Why Write an Autobiographical Game?

There’s a scene that makes its way into what feels like the vast majority of media revolving around ghosts. The protagonist somehow witnesses the trauma of the ghost through a vision or by investigating what happened to the deceased, and through witnessing the trauma they have either freed the ghost or have learned what must be done in order to do so. This trope is so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine there’s nothing to it in real life. There is something healing about having other people witness the most painful moments in your life because in sharing these moments you become less alone in them.

What part of your life do you want other people to witness and experience, and why? If you’re thinking about writing an autobiographical game, it will likely help to have as specific of an answer to that question as possible. If I had gone into writing The Truth About Eternity with the goal of creating a game about my family rather than creating a game about the guilt and profound grief my family has contended with while taking care of my grandmother who has advanced dementia, I would likely not have gotten too far. In my experience, vague design goals often lead to less memorable experiences for players. I would rather play in a game about someone’s family dinner growing increasingly awkward because a will was recently read than a game about a family dinner that becomes awkward because the characters don’t like each other for unspecified reasons.

Once you have determined what part of your life you would like other people to experience, even just for a snapshot, it’s a good idea to have some understanding of the “why” behind the design. There is a decent chance that your “why” will look like one or all of the following:

  • Because I want other people to understand this part of my life.
  • Because if other people experience this (in a controlled environment), I will feel less alone.
  • Because words are not enough to explain what I experienced.
  • Because I want to be witnessed.
  • Because other people have gone through something similar and I want them to know they aren’t alone.

The Curse (Stark 2013), a scenario written by Lizzie Stark also for Fastaval, has a premise and family tree that both pull from the author’s own life while not exactly replicating it. The designer created the scenario partly as a means for giving others a glimpse into the challenges faced by those who have hereditary cancer in their family, and specifically cancer caused by a BRCA mutation. That is, at least in part, her “why.” Marshall Bradshaw, another American larper and designer, wrote his short semi-autobiographical larp A Political Body (Bradshaw 2018) in order to provide an opportunity for players to explore the struggle of having to choose between participating in a protest and staying home when a chronic illness flares up badly. The larp functions as a highly specific snapshot that depicts a much longer-term issue.

The Truth About Eternity was the equivalent of the cursed video tape from Ringu (Nakada 1998) or The Ring (Verbinski 2002) for me. In these films, the ghost of a girl who was killed by being pushed down a well manifests her anger and pain as a video tape that kills the viewers after they watch it. The scenes shown in the video are mostly abstract, with shots that illustrate her trauma dispersed throughout. The video’s message is not a simple confessional of what happened, but a strange piece of art that conveys the creator’s suffering by inflicting suffering upon those who witness it. 

I was, and still am, this ball of guilt and sorrow due to my grandmother’s condition and the immense challenges that have come with taking care of her. It has been unbelievably hard to communicate the sheer magnitude of my grief through conversation or even in writing. Like the girl in the well (yes, I am running with this analogy), I had to create something else in order to make people understand the emotional component of my family’s situation. One of the goals of The Truth About Eternity is absolutely to make its players distraught. When I hear that players cried during a run, it feels like part of the weight of the situation has been lifted off me. It feels like an essential part of my existence has been seen by another person—finally—and just by being seen, some of the pain dissipates. Is it selfish to write a game for those purposes? It might be, if there weren’t a lot of players out there who specifically seek out games that try to rip their hearts out.

There is a secondary reason for why I wrote The Truth About Eternity, and that is to help people who are unfamiliar with Korean culture and Confucianism to understand it a little better. The Wikipedia entry on Korean Confucianism serves as a good brief overview of some of the cultural information relevant to the scenario. As mentioned previously, this scenario was specifically written for Fastaval in Denmark. There are parts of it that would be different if I had written it for an American audience, and parts that would be very different had I written it specifically for Asian players intimately familiar with the culture. 

Much of the workshopping at the beginning is in place to deter accidental (and potentially purposeful) microaggressions. Autobiographical games that depict a culture different from the one the majority of its players come from have this additional challenge, as you must provide cultural context for the life events inspiring the content. You also run the risk of participants interpreting the game’s message as “this is what is wrong with this culture and why it’s worse than others” even if the goal is supposed to be “here is a glimpse at some of the complexities of this culture.” This especially tends to happen when players enter a game with existing assumptions about said culture gleaned from stereotypes, depictions of it in other cultures’ popular media, and brief encounters with it without deeper knowledge and context for its values. James Mendez Hodes touches on this tendency in his article “Best Practices for Religious Representation, Part I: Check for Traps,” in which he warns against wasting time on hierarchies of evil (Mendez 2019). One nightmare outcome for my scenario would have been if players used it as an opportunity to paint Korean (and Korean American) society as inferior and unevolved compared to others because of the game materials’ inability to make the characters’ values relatable. Too much information and the players are overloaded, while too little and they do not have enough to work with. Martin Nielsen and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand outline good practices for portraying cultures in larp in their “Creating and Conveying Cultures” chapter of Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences (Nielsen and Strand 2019).

Writing Characters Based on People you Know

There are some questions of ethics and etiquette to consider when basing characters on real people. Each case is different so I won’t go into much detail here, as there are plenty of articles on how to deal with this when writing fiction that apply to games as well, such as Matt Knight’s “Using Real People, Places, And Corporations In Your Fiction – How Real Can You Get And Not Be Sued?” (Knight 2017). The short of it is, it’s generally a good idea to not make characters one hundred percent identical to those they’re modeled after. The more similar they are, the better it would be for you to get explicit permission. There are, of course, exceptions, but this is a good place to start. 

A game that is autobiographical for you, the designer, is also likely in part biographical for one or more people unless you are creating a game in which multiple players all play different facets of yourself or alternatively, a single player experience. You may very well be telling other people’s stories as well as your own. In a chapter of Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences entitled “Writing Realistic, Non-Exploitative Characters,” Laura Wood (2019) describes the thinking behind writing Inside, a larp that takes place during an English class held in a women’s prison. The characters, created during a pre-larp workshop, pull from the histories of real people with whom the designer has interacted, but are purposefully not recreations of specific people’s lives. This is one way to avoid exploiting real individuals and their lived experiences.

When emotions are strong and psychological wounds are fresh and/or deep, it can be tempting to write characters based on people we know as saintlike or evil beyond the shadow of a doubt. If you’re going for a surreal, cartoonish, or over the top tone, then this might work! If not, however, you will probably want to include a bit more nuance. Real lives and people are complex, and if you want to convey that complexity, you are going to have to do some things in your design that may hurt a little. Or a lot.

Playable characters based on people who have hurt you generally need to have qualities other than that they hurt you. Again, when you dive into very surreal territory you might want to throw this out the window, but when writing realistic characters, this is important. Players are already often inclined to take a character with unpleasant traits and play heavily into them, making them as despicable as possible. I learned this the hard way with Jungwoo, an ancestor character who does some nasty, selfish things but is also supposed to be pitiable and at least somewhat sympathetic. Many runs of The Truth About Eternity seem to have featured a decidedly horrible version of Jungwoo, something that I’m taking into account as I prepare to make revisions to the scenario.

Likewise, playable characters based on people who you love and admire need to have flaws. I struggled with this when writing Esther, who is based on my grandmother. I ended up taking one of her best qualities and amplifying it so much that it became a flaw—Esther is so selfless that her selflessness actually becomes a burden to her family. Similarly, writing Helen was a challenge because she is largely based on my mother who shoulders many of the same responsibilities that Helen does. It wouldn’t be difficult to play her as someone who easily makes all the most selfless decisions if I didn’t make her realistic by giving her her own conflicting needs. If a character is placed on a pedestal, a player may be hesitant to portray that character with the depth they would like for fear of breaking an unwritten rule about representing that person as perfect and beyond reproach.

Photo of a mother her young girl posed against a rock wall with a building behind them

Family photo of Clio Yun-su Davis and mother in South Korea. Photo by Mark Davis.

Writing a Character Based on You

This is where things get even trickier. There are so many ways in which writing yourself into a character can go wrong. You have to have a keen sense of self-awareness in order to write a character based on yourself realistically, and I’m still not sure whether I managed this or not. My approach was to create a character who shared my motivations, fears, and one big flaw that I’ve had plenty of time to examine. Sam, the youngest character in the scenario, is the embodiment of my desire to have all the elderly people in my family well taken care of despite what it might do to those fronting the brunt of that responsibility. In my case it is primarily my mother, in Sam’s case it is Helen, his mother. As much as Sam and I might sacrifice to help our families, it is never as much as our mothers sacrifice. So it is that Sam is fairly oblivious to how his desperation urges his mother to martyr herself. Sam has this flaw because I have spent a lot of time reflecting on its manifestation in myself. Had I not, I don’t know what kind of character Sam would have turned out to be, but I suspect he would be rather two-dimensional, not very believable, and therefore difficult to play. 

It can be a little weird and disorienting to have other people step into your shoes and play someone who is based on you for several hours. They may make decisions that make your head spin because you’d never see yourself making them, or they may accentuate your worst or best qualities in a way that makes you feel anywhere from slightly embarrassed to utterly ashamed. If you find yourself reacting strongly to the way others portray you, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that they are likely playing for drama and not to accurately depict you. Depending on how much you disclose, there is a good chance the player won’t even know their character is based on you.

So far, I’ve mostly been amused and fascinated by how players portray Sam. I’m relieved when people play him as naive and childish because it means I didn’t write him to be a perfect angel simply because I didn’t want to see myself in an unflattering light. It is wise to check your motives when writing yourself into a game. If it turns out that the whole thing is a long way of saying you were right and everyone else was wrong, chances are you need to revise it.

Is This a Game that is Emotionally Safe for You to Facilitate?

This leads us to a question I grappled with even before I started writing The Truth About Eternity. Is the game you want to create something that you would be able to facilitate without it causing you too much distress? You are, after all, setting up a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past situation in which you may be witnessing variations on upsetting scenes from your past, depending on the content of your game. Some of those variations might take you by surprise in terrible ways.

I don’t have a good answer when it comes to The Truth About Eternity because illness kept me from attending Fastaval this year so I did not get to facilitate the game for its intended audience. I have, however, heard and read detailed accounts of the runs that took place in my absence. Before I settle on a definitive answer, I feel that I need to run the scenario for a group of players not composed of my friends.

What I do know is that I cried for about twenty to thirty minutes every time I sat down to write this scenario, which made finishing it in the first place ridiculously difficult. There were also multiple layers to my concerns about seeing players embody these characters. Would they make a parody out of these characters’, and therefore my family’s, suffering and the way I presented Korean culture? Would they find the characters and their situation so alien that they couldn’t possibly portray them with any seriousness or depth? These concerns are in addition to the standard anxieties so many people have about their games; do the mechanics work, are the workshops helpful, is the pacing okay?

My advice is mostly hypothetical since I did not run the scenario in the environment it was written for. However, I would suggest running it first with players you trust before making yourself vulnerable to the world at large. That way at least you can see how it is you react when you know the other people in the room have your back and will understand if it’s an intense experience for you.

Receiving and Parsing Feedback on an Autobiographical Game

It’s a pretty radical act of vulnerability to write an autobiographical game and then hand it over to people who are going to tell you what’s wrong with it. When you take the time to create something that holds so much meaning for you and share it with the world, you will eventually encounter people who don’t like the thing you created at all. When you’ve created something based on your own life, you might find that even if you’re normally thick-skinned, the criticisms sting particularly badly. 

It can also be difficult to distinguish, particularly when writing about a culture that is likely unfamiliar to the players, when your design isn’t doing the best job of explaining how to portray that culture or when players are being unintentionally insensitive. I also dealt with this challenge when writing and calibrating The Long Drive Back from Busan (Davis, 2017), a freeform larp created for the 2017 Golden Cobra Challenge about a dysfunctional k-pop group. If the majority of runs of the game do not encounter an issue with this, then it may very well be an issue with the players instead when it does occur. When players are being intentionally insensitive, it tends to be more obvious, and unfortunately you can’t trust much of the information you gain from those sessions.

Fortunately, none of the feedback I received for The Truth About Eternity was painful to read. In fact, it was overwhelmingly encouraging and informative. Some runs were a little bumpier than others, and players pointed out the things that didn’t go perfectly, but at the end of the day the experience resonated with many of them exactly the way I wanted. There were some players who did not connect emotionally to the content, but that’s to be expected with any game. For now, I can safely say I do not regret writing this scenario and sharing it with people. I would love to see more autobiographical games in the future from designers from different backgrounds.

References

2019. “Korean Confucianism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. July 22

  1. Microaggression.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. July 23.

Knight, Matt. 2017. “Using Real People, Places, And Corporations In Your Fiction – How Real Can You Get And Not Be Sued?Sidebar Saturdays. August 5.

Mendez Hodes, James. 2019. “Best Practices for Religious Representation, Part I: Check for Traps.” September 1.

Nakada, Hideo, dir. 1998. Ringu. Toho Co.

Nielsen, Martin and Strand, Grethe Sofie Bulterud. 2019. “Creating or Conveying Cultures.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjonsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 228–31. Copenhagen: Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Verbinski, Gore, dir. 2002. The Ring. DreamWorks Pictures.

Wood, Laura. 2019. “Writing Realistic, Non-Exploitative Characters.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjonsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 228–31. Copenhagen: Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Ludography

Bradshaw, Marshall. 2018. A Political Body. In Review. 

Davis, Clio Yun-su. 2017. The Long Drive Back from Busan. PDF. 

Davis, Clio Yun-su. 2019. The Truth About Eternity. PDF. 

Stark, Lizzie. 2013. The Curse. PDF. 

Cover photo: Wilson Vitorino.

Content editing: Elina Gouliou

Authors

Clio Yun-su Davis
Clio Yun-su Davis is a Korean American game designer and writer who splits her time between Arlington, Virginia and Austin, Texas. She graduated from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2015, where she studied interactive storytelling and became involved in writing and producing immersive theater pieces. Much of her current work is in tabletop and freeform games that explore some of the darker tropes in popular culture.
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