Writing a deconstruction of a game like Brindlewood Bay is a little tricky, because in some ways it’s not trying to do a lot of the things that I’d have found handy if it did. If you want to write a long attack piece on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, well, they’ve had 30 years, 4 editions, and an obviously-huge art budget that could all have probably allowed them to make a good roleplaying game. The strength of the design milieu that produces games like Brindlewood Bay is almost exactly that they’re agile – quick games, relatively short text, very approachable. The point, therefore, of writing a deconstruction and exploration really isn’t actually very much about this specific game, because it’s more like a synecdoche of the idea of deliberate game design. Nonetheless, this piece and equating “observation: it was imperfect” with a negative emotional response is going to make it sound like I hated this game, whereas I had an absolutely great time running it. When reading this, try not to forget that for US$10, this game was in the top few for the best fun:$ ratio across my collection.
Once you’ve clicked through and bought it, we can discuss why it’s kind of a failure too.
This post is in several main parts, since otherwise it would be a bit on the long side, even for me.
The first part presents background about how we can think about detective games. I’m mostly concerned with the semiotics of detection – what is a clue, how does this relate to the experience of playing a game?
The second part looks at the nature of roleplaying games, especially about the way scenarios can be “player facing”, on the nature and design of clue chains (i.e. mysteries), with a cameo appearance by my old drinking pal, Baudrillard. It is similarly, not sharply to the point.
Part one and two having explored the nature of detectives, we take a detour in part three to look at conspiracy fictions, which are the other half of the Brindlewood Bay experience. This part is mercifully short.
The next part gets into the details of Brindlewood Bay specifically. I outline briefly where it sits inside the theoretical framework from Part 1, and then I dive into detail on the play experience. Alongside my (pretentious) thoughts on what the game means, I’ve also got a lot to say about the ergonomics of the game at the table, and I sneak in a few choice comments on Powered by the Apocalypse stolen without attribution from Dana of GameHive. I would have cited her, but it’s difficult to cite properly things said to me in meatspace.
I then wrap it up in Part Five, trying to bring it all together in a theory of “What it Means to Play Brindlewood Bay”.
And as a fair warning- you’re going to be attacked by a few Hidden Goblins throughout, so just be on your guard.
I’ve also aggregated almost all the references below, so they’ll be available as they’re dropped in future posts. I suppose some kind of clever hyperlinking might have been the real way to do this, but I’m not quite hard-core enough for that. My intention here is to have given sufficient information that you don’t need to have read any of this stuff – but it’s there if you’re feeling especially hard-core. Honestly, one of the nice things about detective academia is that most of the worthwhile critical stuff is actually pretty readable, versus the over-written “erudition” of your average high-falutin’ proper literary critic. If I could recommend just one bit of writing, it’d be Adventure, Mystery, Romance, by Cawelti. Basically anyone writing criticism in this genre who’s not aware of this book is very likely just writing garbage.
Auden, W. H. The Guilty Vicarage | Harper’s Magazine. http://harpers.org/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/3/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2013.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots of Literature: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum, 2004.
Breu, Christopher. Hard-Boiled Masculinities. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed.., New World Library, 2008.
Chandler, Raymond. ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. The Simple Art of Murder, Vintage Books, 1988.
Chesterton, G. K. ‘A Defence Of Detective Stories’. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, Biblio and Tannen, 1976.
Cox, Alex. Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film: A Director’s Perspective. Kamera, 2016.
DeFino, Dean. ‘Killing Owen Taylor: Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past’. Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 30, no. 3, Oct. 2000, pp. 313–31.
Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Indiana University Press, 1979.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism; Four Essays. Princeton University Press, 1973.
Grella, George. ‘Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel’. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 4, no. 1, Oct. 1970, pp. 30–48. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1345250.
Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. Peter Davies, 1942. —, editor. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. Biblio and Tannen, 1976.
James, Phyllis D. Talking about detective fiction. Bodleian Library, 2009.
Knapp, John V. ‘Ross Macdonald, Family Systems Detective’. Clues, vol. 24, no. 2, Winter 2006, pp. 73–87.
Knight, Stephen Thomas. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1980.
Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Knopf, 1991.
Laws, Robin D. Hamlet’s Hit Points: What Three Classic Narratives Tell Us About Roleplaying Games. Gameplaywright Press, 2010.
Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. NLB, 1983.
Moretti, Franco. ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’. MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, Mar. 2000, pp. 207–27.
Niccol, Andrew, et al. Gattaca. Columbia Pictures, Jersey Films, 1997.
Plantinga, Carl. ‘Art Moods and Human Moods in Narrative Cinema’. New Literary History, vol. 43, no. 3, Nov. 2012, pp. 455–75. Project MUSE, https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.2012.0025.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. M. Wiese Productions, 2005.