Making ROUND / SQUARE

Well, I have covered myself in hundreds of index cards again! This time to make ROUND / SQUARE, a micro game I submitted to sub-Q Magazine’s #subQjam. The prompt was to tell an interactive story about love in fewer than 1,000 words–1,000 words across ALL paths. In the way it distills each choice into two words, ROUND / SQUARE a bit like Chandler Groover’s left/right, which I really enjoyed. But beyond that initial similarity, it operates differently.

My challenge was to build some sort of narrative arc in units of two words each–and to give the player the sense that their choices were meaningful without presenting all the choices as being binary or otherwise mutually exclusive. (Part of my day job has to do with describing and classifying things via taxonomies and hierarchies and thesauri and data dictionaries, some of which can be inadequate, or worse, damaging.) In other words, I wanted navigating the game to be a process, not of drilling down, but of branching and looping.

I began by gathering words–mostly adjectives–from different disciplines: architecture, botany, art history, geology, navigation, poetry, science fiction, food criticism, theory, astrology. I looked at Jackson Mac Low’s light poems chart, and Roget’s Thesaurus (which, despite my skepticism of taxonomies, I love very much), as well as TMZ, Goop, clothing and furniture catalogs, and websites for luxury cars and condominiums. I was looking for specific and evocative words that might not typically be associated with love. All in all, I gathered about 1,300.

I hoped that, by very loosely clustering words by subject, I might avoid giving the impression of word salad and would thereby be able to maintain the player’s interest/motivation over the course of 100 choices. I wrote each word on an index card and assembled the game on the living room floor over several weeks. I worked “chapter by chapter,” deliberately infiltrating each “chapter” with words from other chapters.

Cardboard box containing 804 index cards
[804] words in a box
All in all, I used 804 words across all paths. The game has a branch and bottleneck structure, sometimes branching out to 32 passages presenting 64 words, then narrowing back down to a few. In retrospect, I probably should have structured the game a bit differently. Branching exponentially was an effective way to use up a lot of words really quickly, but it created breadth rather than depth. Because of all the bottlenecks, subsequent playthroughs will not feel significantly different to the player. Then again, maybe it’s better for people to play the game just once.

One of the best parts about this process was playing all the other excellent entries! My voting aligned generally with how the final results panned out. The games I thought had the most interesting takes on the theme were

  • Olivia C Dunlap’s Pretend You Love Each Other, for the way it subverts the conventions of a love story, but, in some ways, ends up being kind of about love (or at least compassion) anyway.
  • cairirie’s at 3am, I didn’t think you, for the way it presents pining over someone as being a series of choices–or not.
  • Eleanor Hingley’s Beloved, for the way it draws out and lingers over the steps involved in preparing a meal, and conveys that sense of intentionality and care to the player. I also really appreciated how you have the option to prepare the meal for yourself.