Geist: The Sin-Eaters

Been flipping through Geist: The Sin-Eaters again, largely because the Book of the Dead (which I developed) is now out on PDF and should soon be out on shelves (which means I’ll get my copies sometime before the next Ice Age).

Y’know, I really dig this game.

I wasn’t sure I would. I knew I had a lot invested in it both mentally and emotionally, as the topic is one that stirs a lot of passion (read: bullheadedness) in me. To expose a little bit of the behind-the-scenes design process, the way this game came together was the result of a pendulum swinging widely. I use the phrase “painting with shotguns” here, and that might describe how Geist came to be. It was a lot of splurty paint-blasts of brain-shot hitting the walls, and the ideas were all over the map.

Why is that? Well, I think it’s in part because WWGS often dealt with preconceived “monster types,” from vampires to werewolves to Frankensteins to the hunters that kill such monsters. Yes, each gameline took a unique approach to these old ideas, but when in doubt, you always had the old ideas on which to lean.

Geist, not so much.

New territory. New rules. Yes, contained within is a pastiche of old ideas: the possessed, the psychic, the ghostly, the spiritual. But the way it comes together is a whole new bag of bones. From a design standpoint, that’s equally freeing and frustrating. Freeing because, hey! Do what you want! Sky’s the limit! Wooo! Frustrating because charting an entirely new property like this takes more time and effort — you don’t have anything equivalent to, “Well, of course vampires are going to drink blood.”

You’re in a lawless land, and it takes time to find a sheriff.

So, Geist was a wild bouncy-ball, whipping wildly from idea to idea — and this even went into the writing phase, where uncertainty reigned as to how exactly all these ideas would play together, or if they would at all.

By the Balls of Skemp, it worked.

Seems high time to talk about the things I really like about this game. I know, I’m late — the game came out over the summer, and here we are on the cusp of winter. You’re just going to have to deal with that. So hike up your panties, Mary Beth, and shut yer trap. Oh, and don’t go expecting anything really insightful here — I don’t know that my thoughts are going to blow a hole in your mind. They’re just surface thoughts, shallow appreciations of a very cool game. Let us begin.

For A Game About Death, It’s Not Really About Death

Death exists for everybody, but that only becomes clear when it happens to someone close to you. It’s why teenagers just don’t give a fuck. They don’t have context; they don’t know what’s coming. But, when death happens — the death of a pet, a grandparent, a parent, a friend, a child — it gets in you. And at that point, you have a choice. You can pretend it never happened. You can seize up and find fear. Or you can recognize that life is shorter than you’d like and you best grab this horse by the balls and ride it until it drops.

I like to think that Sin-Eaters make that last choice, and that choice is what binds the geist to them.

Yes, they can still act like teenagers — barreling forward in fast cars, engaging in careless sex, not looking past today — but doing so isn’t because they remain unaware of what’s out there. It’s because they know what’s out there, and what’s coming for them and everybody else. Drink, fuck, eat, dance.

The metaphor here may be obvious, but it’s a critical one, one I don’t know that many games handle well or handle at all. Death is a mystery, as cryptic as the Kerberoi, as uncertain and labyrinthine as the Underworld. The Sin-Eaters deal with that in a proactive way (as in, they visit the Underworld to study its ciphers, they absolve ghosts of their torments, they conjure death energies). But we as people must also answer the questions of death in our own ways. It’s less proactive (we’re not literally out there forcing ghosts to answer our questions), but it’s still there. I think about death every day. I work through it, I move through memories and old photos as a quiet way of talking to ghosts.

This life is found throughout the book in small ways — bread on an altar, fiery rum in the throat, krewes and carnivals, fresh flowers picked for the dead.

For a game about death, it’s really a game about life.

Memories Are Made Manifest

It’s also a game that’s not afraid of dealing with memories. One of the interesting design choices of Vampire: The Requiem was the “fog of eternity” — a slick idea with a game enforcement element, but one that also hampered something that’s very interesting to me, this idea linking death and memory.

Geist doesn’t shy away from it, thankfully. Sin-Eaters have their own memories to deal with, and also the memories of the dead. Further, those memories can be made manifest in interesting, dynamic ways — the powerful memento mori, the secrets kept by ghosts, the truths lost in the tangle of the Underworld. Memories become this living thing. They’re a commodity. They’re of useable value. In our lives, memories feel passive; but Geist reminds us that we can use memories in both positive and negative ways.

Further, the geist itself is a good example of what happens when we stop letting those memories be a part of us: geists are more an idea than a human ghost, more spirit than specter. They become alien and inhuman.

(For the record, writing the memento mori was fun as hell. Poor John Newman probably wanted to punch me during that process, and I don’t blame him. That said, I think they came out like I’d hoped. Hell, the Memorabilia alone were so much fun, I’d write a whole goddamn book of ’em. The fact you can gain a measure of power from the toilet on which Pol Pot died makes me titter like a tickled girl. Get it? Pol Pot? Pot? Toilet? Actually, this is loosely based on a real thing, where some dude was trying to sell Pol Pot’s toilet and toilet seat.)

Why So Serious?

It’s a small point, but in accordance with my previous comment, I like that the game isn’t super-serious. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s not a morose death-fest, either. I like that the first character I think of (were I to create a Geist character right now) would be a bad-ass Roller Derby Queen who spits and drinks and cusses and wears garish clothing almost as if to offend death itself. I think the game supports this: it kind of throws a giddy middle-finger to the supreme seriousness of the subject of death. Hell, some of the influences listed in the intro aren’t grimdark resources: Grim Fandango? Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job? Bradbury’s Halloween Tree? Hot damn, yes, yes, yes.

I think that’s important in a game like this. Elsewise, where’s the fun?

I love Wraith, I do — but that came was so dark, so mean, so black, every attempt to play it resorted to so heavy an experience that nobody really wanted to sit with it for too long. It’s like hanging out with a Viet Nam vet who just wants to whisper about the horrors he saw and performed in his gravel-ground voice. Sure, you can learn something from that guy, and he’s for real. It doesn’t mean it’s fun, though.

See, that’s the irony of a game like Geist. It puts forth the idea that life is short, which is exactly why you don’t want to play a dusty, dark game about death. Because life is short. It’s already filled with misery and pain. Do we want a game — game = fun — to simply reiterate what we already know?

At The Corner Of Cool Street And Has-A-Point Avenue

And that leads me to my final thrill:

The game isn’t afraid to just be cool.

Not every design decision was one where it had to answer the question: but what does it mean?

A good number of the decisions were based on a single decision: is it cool? Translating to, is it fun?

Because if it’s not fun, what’s the fucking point? You can have a game laden with meaning, which is impressive and a worthy feat — but it’s important to recognize that this remains a “game.” Game game game. Geist gets that. It’s loaded with a ton of fun shit to do. Actually, I think the last three WWGS games are chock-a-block with this ethos. I read Changeling, Hunter, and Geist, and I’m overwhelmed by fun, cool shit. But each game also strives to walk the line and sometimes come out on the other side of cool, which is that it represents ideas that are meaningful and purposed. I’ll call out Promethean as being a game that walks more on the side of “meaning and purpose” than it does “cool fun shit,” which isn’t a knock against it, but for my mileage, it’s the type of game I only want to play a couple times before retiring. It has more cool stuff than Wraith (I mean, c’mon, I can be a giant, lightning-channeling Frankendude!), but less than Geist.

That’s the funny thing, too — for all these games inhabiting the subject of death (Vampire, Wraith, Promethean, Geist, Mummy, Orpheus), I’m of the opinion that Geist “gets it” most of all. A game about death that’s not about death. Sweet.

All Ain’t Perfect

Mind you, I don’t know that Geist is a perfect game. It has some things that get under my fingernails a little. The powers are cool, but all over the map. I much prefer the Ceremonies to the Keys and Manifestations. It feels like they aren’t quite done baking. Close, but not quite. I think New York is a nice choice for a city, but I don’t know that it embraces my visual of the game: New York is too dark, and maybe too obvious. Plus, we’d just done Philly with Hunter? And Boston with Mage?

The way that Miami really livened up how I thought of Changeling was what I wanted here — and me, I think Los Angeles would’ve been goddamn perfect. Equal parts soulful and soulless, lots of colors and dashed dreams and L.A. Confidential style history to play with. Mulholland Drive and Hollywood and coyotes and roller derby and smog and sugar skulls and sprawling wide open city. Again, just my two cents.

Still, it’s a great game. So much to digest.

Now, I just need to play it. Given my schedule and my non-proximity to other gamers, I’m figuring it just ain’t happening. Adulthood is awesome because I can afford games like this. Adulthood is less awesome because I don’t have the time to play games like this.

Once more, irony is alive and well.