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I can certainly get behind the idea of narrative guidance, but the less focused an experience you're trying to create, the more counter-productive this can be. I'm skeptical that every game does have a platonic session. Or rather, that every game is well understood through the lens of having a platonic session, or better designed by a designer who uses that framework. There's more than one way to guide players, and I think a lot of games that don't draw the shape of a platonic session or an otherwise refined narrative guideline for players do instead draw a very detailed picture of how to use the mechanics as narrative tools on a scene-by-scene and session-by-session level.

A game of Apocalypse World or Spire probably isn't a good candidate for the platonic session lens; these are games that wrap narrative into mechanical minutiae and crowbar flavor into crevices of the system and the voice of the text and then hand players the power to obliterate anything resembling a consistent narrative structure with each new ability selected in character creation--Spire much more so than Apocalypse World, but they're both in that general direction. Games like these often have quite a bit of text dedicated to helping players use those chaotic systems effectively not by steering the session into a particular shape, but by steering the participants in the conversation into a particular frame of mind. This is by no means incompatible with what you seem to be after, I'm just not sure it's quite the same thing, either, and it doesn't seem to be an issue of missing material to me.

I can't speak to anyone else's creative process, but both as a GM and a designer, I find it very helpful to proceed with a looser sense of purpose in mind. I make the game I want to make that does what I want it to do, but when I get down to the more difficult work of testing and refining I'm not worried about a platonic session, I'm worried about providing others tools that do interesting things. I think most games lack clearer narrative guidance not just because some of them need more but because a lot of them don't. If the goal is for players to tell a very particular story, naturally it makes sense to guide players along that path very strongly. But that just isn't the goal of many, many games.

It's interesting that you name AW as one of the games without platonic sessions - I actually built a lot of this idea from studying it in part and, in the abandoned longer write up I did of this a while ago used it as a prime example of a game that has a pretty solid "intended experience" (a flawed term, as it implies some kind of imposed thing) in spite of its relatively generalized nature. Not every story told with AW will look similar, but they are, by necessity of the games ruleset, told in similar ways.

But I digress - even the most general game has, in my mind, a platonic session, consciously or not, a designer is trying to make something for a particular purpose, to fill a need they see missing or to contribute to a particular ongoing dialogue. When you say you're building games that provide tools for players to do interesting things, the particulars of those interesting things are what make up the fundamental grounding of your platonic session (and the needed guidelines for narrative tools). Some of the comments I made in the thread above this speak on this a little - while it's absolutely possible to limit player (and designer, and GM) creativity with bad narrative design or poor educational frameworks, well made ones are liberating and further allow those wonderful interesting things we're all trying to enable. The goal of the tools I'm proposing and talking about aren't necessarily about telling a particular story, or even a particular type of story, rather it's about informing a reader what stories they can tell with your games they perhaps couldn't with another game - or how the storys they tell in your game would differ from another, similar game.

But, of course, I have to admit I have a personal bias for more focused experiences, so perhaps its some of that creeping in - either way, great points. I agree at the very least that the approach to narrative tools and education must be very different depending on the intent of your design and goals of your game.

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"consciously or not"

I guess this is at the heart of where I'm losing you. If despite intentionally designing a game that has a quite varied array of platonic sessions that aren't easily coalesced into one narrative focus I'm not necessarily making something that needs more narrative focus to consistently deliver the intended experience or an otherwise engaging experience.

"When you say you're building games that provide tools for players to do interesting things, the particulars of those interesting things are what make up the fundamental grounding of your platonic session (and the needed guidelines for narrative tools)."

Suppose I have my session concept. The game is then not in the concept but in how the tools I provide lure players through the messy thicket of the game's ideas and their desires and their ideas of what the game's ideas are. Players often crash out of that thicket in a whild direction, so some games try to cultivate a very specific and consistent path through it.

But (whether or not this or that designer had a Platonic Session in mind) I think it's interesting to give players instead an explosive energy and a bunch of spare parts and, if they must be mundane, a machete and see what sort of path out of the thicket they come up with and what sort of story is produced. Some game systems seem very good at bottling the sort of energy that makes that work rather than merely creating a directionless mess of themes players have to bring their own energy to.

Accordingly, I don't think it's a widespread design failing that mostly shorter, more focused storytelling games provide these path-cultivation tools in a way that fits your framework of a Platonic Session. That's less a mistake on the part of everyone else and a particular feature of those types of games! I think there's a lot to be said for games that consistently create worthwhile experiences but do not consistently create the same kinds of stories. We can still call that a platonic session, saying for example that in Game A, the platonic session is one that deals with themes B, C and D. But at that point we may as well be talking about themes, surely, rather proposing that too many games lack narrative tools.

Edit: I'm sorry, I got lost editing that when I went in for typos. I'm not sure how to revert and I'll try not to do that again but it's quite different from the post that was responded to below. Should convey the same ideas though.

(3 edits)

I think I have a better grasp of what you mean, thank you for clarifying. Apologies if I'm still off base at all here.

I think in a lot of ways this is tied somewhat to a slightly more common discussion about what happens when games hit players tables - about house rules and unintended rules readings and so on - and my reply is largely the same to that; that we can not control what the players and readers do with our texts doesn't seem to me to be something worth worrying too much about at the end of the day (Except in wanting to make sure our rules are clear and accessible anyway). It's inevitable that people will read our games and do things with our games that we simply have no way to predict or imagine, and regardless of what design lens, tools or lures we use, they may be missed, misunderstood, misread, re-worked or re interpreted. To some degrees nothing of our intentionality survives past first read/play, such is Death of the Author I suppose. You have no control over what the players ideas or desires are, only in how you communicate your own expectations of their play. A Platonic Session might also be understood as your work luring the players meshing perfectly with their desires and ideas. An impossible reality, but as a hypothetical, its a useful tool.

I'd also say that your platonic session isn't a set-in-stone thing established at the start of your project, I'm sure we've all had the experience of writing a game or a system and realizing the very essence of what we were aiming for wasn't working and had to rework the fundamentals or even scrap it. Understanding what you want people to do with your game in the end is just another part of the design process - The Platonic, or Perfect, session of your game may be very different by the time you finish writing, but there's still a lot of value in understanding it and being aware of it, even if it changes drastically after your first playtest or rewrite or what have you.

I should also maybe specify that my idea of a Platonic Session is strictly a design tool, it's not really useful to anyone after you've put your work out there - Think of it the same way some people write a guiding principle or a mood board. Its intended to keep you on track with what you're trying to make, rather than an attempt to bind players to that specific vision.

For the last part here, I'm worried the idea of a platonic session (the design tool intended to help inform a designer and guide the work process) is getting a little mixed up with the overall advice of providing narrative tools (a player-intended inclusion).. All games that intend to tell stories should have information and education for how those stories work and function, and its my belief that all games, fundamentally, intend to tell stories of some form. I'd also point out many of the games mentioned that have excellent narrative tool inclusion are actually fairly large games in the grand scheme of things - Spire is actually a great example of one, AW too. Blades was mentioned, etc. Smaller games can be good at explaining very focused, very intentional-narrative and guided experiences, but that's only really one form of what I'm talking about. 

Also Edit: No worries! It happens, I should wait some time before replying. I have some thoughts about the specific stuff edited in but I think I largely addressed most of the stuff in some way here, at least, I hope so.  Some of it doesn't make any sense anymore but I've already wrote a lot of words. To try and address the first part tho - By conscious or not I'm saying all games are ultimately saying something regardless of the designers intent, and being aware of that something is a useful tool, and many games are published without being actively aware of what that something is. If your intention during design is to make a bundle of machetes with which the players hack their own path through a jungle of your own design - that's your Platonic Session right there.

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I'm not much of a Death of the Author sort of person, myself. Especially in the age of the Internet, the author can sometimes get into a situation where no matter how much they want to be dead with respect to their work, they are consistently revived in it and unable to escape being present while it is at the table instead of merely when it is being made. Commentary tracks, development blogs, and help threads all put massive holes in the idea that the author's intent can vanish into the ether no matter how strongly we preference play at the table from an analytical perspective.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a platonic session. I suppose I got stuck on the implication that many games seemed to be missing a way of conveying that to the players or at least that, from the perspective that they have a platonic session somewhere in abstract space, they lack the tools to lure players sufficiently close to it. It's that aspect--the Platonic Session as a critical tool--that has me a bit lost. I certainly see why it can be a useful way to think about how to develop a good tool-set for players. I'm just also tempted to point out that shorter, more focused story games doing a more consistent and focused job of this is a feature of those games more so than a bug in other games.

(1 edit) (+1)

I don't have anything more to add here other than that I don't really consider the Platonic Session to be a critical tool - I think I'm largely the only designer to actively use this lens and plenty of great games are being made without a cohesive and singular vision. It's just something vital to my own personal work process and something I think many designers would benefit from is all.

Otherwise I think we might be at a bit of an endpoint here. Thank you for the discussion! It's forced me to rethink a lot of the specifics behind the idea and the way I present it, I really appreciate your viewpoint.