I am terrified of the game I'm currently designing:
It is a game about cultural disconnection, the harm family members do to each other, and children growing up and needing to decide their place in those dynamics.
It is a game that could be made very, very wrong.
It's also a game I haven't been able to get out of my mind for over a month.
The idea started with the tale of the selkie. I grew up knowing the story but my emotional connection was to the movie the Secret of Roan Inish. The movie is about a young girl who comes to believe her baby brother's disappearance in the ocean is related to the myth of the selkie and that if she gets the seals to return, they will bring her brother back. It focuses on themes of heritage and family and longing for what's lost. That emotional core became connected, for me, with the more general myth of the selkie.
As I was thinking about how to make a selkie game interesting, I also thought about the fact I've wanted to experiment with making a belonging outside belonging game. The name of the system gave me the final piece: what if this game is about mythical creatures in the human world who have to decide if they will stay with the humans or go back to the sea?
I started re-reading the Scottish myths I was raised on. At first I wanted any stories about mythical creatures and humans living together, but as I started reading all the different localised stories about people from the sea I became drawn to a pattern: a lot of the stories had an undertone (or outright theme) of coercion. It was impossible for me to read the various stories and not feel echoes of domestic violence patterns in them.
The more I read, the less I became interested in the decision of staying/going for the mythical creatures. After all, the stories say the selkie left. There is no real ambiguity.
Instead, I became interested in the idea of the children of these pairings. The selkie wants to leave. What does that mean for the children? Where do they belong? And how do they, as they become adults, recouncile their parents' history of relational abuse?
This is a question with no clear cut answer. Every person who grows up in an a home with relational abuse has to find their own answer. Some cut off all ties with both parents. Some try to maintain a polite but distant relationship. Some try to stay connected to one parent but not the other. Some remain close to both. This can change throughout the lifetime. This can always be changing...because family, and the ties of family, are complicated.
I went back to Scottish myths with an eye for this dynamic. It wasn't hard to find relational tension in almost all the stories of people from the sea. I chose four to illustrate different views:
The Selkie is forced into marriage with a human. She leaves as soon as she has a viable escape, but leaves her children behind. This dynamic looks at the base of a lot of relational abuse: one partner trying to control and have power over the other.
The Maid of Waves is like a mermaid of the rivers. If she is caught by a human, she must grant three wishes. Some stories hint that controlling her this way destroys her soul. This dynamic looks at the partner who gives up everything to support the other, even to their own detriment.
The Finwife must convince a human man to marry her, or else she will wither away into a hag and be forced to marry a Finman, who are known for their cruelty. This looks at the dynamic of a marriage based on trying to escape a bad situation, and how that can create a lasting power imbalance.
The Sea Maid married a human man on the agreement that after 7 years, he would return home with her undersea. The man's family did not want to lose him and their grandchildren. They marked one of the children in a way that meant they could not go underwater, so the child was left behind when the rest of the family disappeared. This looks at the dynamic of a family doing "what's best for the child"...even when that might be more about their selfish interests than the child's.
While this game explores different ways families hurt each other and difficult decisions about how to respond, I don't want the actual gameplay to be focused on pain or abuse. One, if those dynamics are built into the game mechanics they could be uncomfortable or even traumatizing to play. Two, focusing on the dark side doesn't reflect the reality as much as focusing on the all the good parts which make these decisions hard to make. Three, I personally don't find overwhelmingly sad or painful games engaging.
In many ways, the game will focus on the ties built up by living in a small community. It will be about the shared history within the family. It will be about an enormous storm coming and the community preparing for the possible disaster. It will be about the storm bringing some supernatural magic and wonderment. It will be about the friendships between the player characters, forged by proximity and small town dynamics and having some shared family troubles.
This game is ultimately about the children on their way to adulthood. Their perspectives. Their experiences. What matters to them. And sometimes that's their parents fighting, but other times that's not wanting to look scared in front of their peers...or wanting to break into a boarded up store when no one is paying attention...or wanting to throw a last party before the storm hits...or using the potential disaster as an excuse to kiss that person they've had a crush on for years.
At the end of the game, the storm breaks. In the midst of the chaos and height of magic each player will get to decide. Do you stay, or do you go? Only now, at the end of the session, that question will have the weight of all the relationships and stories you built up through play.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.