Make an end to make a beginning
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
Tinker with an Etch-A-Sketch long enough, you get the equivalent of screen burn-in with the aluminum powder. It leaves behind traces, networks of lines and swirls of old creations.
Eventually, everything new you try to make can’t escape the ghosts of shed art.
So it is with evolving, collaborative text-driven games. You start with a fresh palette, a clean foundation, and together with players you share epic adventures. If you’re lucky, you’ll see that tale to a satisfactory conclusion. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll see that story keep growing, changing, shifting over time, lasting for years and maybe even decades.
But after long periods of time in that same turf, you may find you’re left with a sprawling labyrinth of plots within plots, clusters of characters, chains of cause and effect looping back over themselves in such complexity that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for someone new to jump in with both feet and feel like they can contribute – they can MATTER – as storytellers within the world.
OtherSpace, the collaborative space opera I run at jointhesaga.com, turned 16 on June 28, 2014. That’s a lot of time spent in that universe. Plenty of wear and tear on an engine, tried and true. It’s seen war after war after war, reality-shredding calamities, assassinations, the rise and fall of multiple crime lords, the collapse and reconstruction of mighty empires, and the destruction (and occasional resurrection) of several worlds.
That’s a lot of narrative weight. Too much, really. If new participants come to your story and you tell them that they need to sift through a decade and a half of real-time game history to figure out where they’ve been and how their character might make a difference.
How does a new writer in such a story hope to stand out compared to people who’ve been everywhere and done it all?
Ultimately, there comes a time when, for the sake of the players, the story, and your sanity that you must hit the shiny red RESET button.
What shape such a reboot takes is up to the individual storyteller, but the effects should be uniform no matter how you do it: give players a fresh start with a more-or-less neutral set of circumstances with certain factors teetering just on the brink so that player actions can nudge those factors one way or another.
When OtherSpace started in 1998, I already had laid a lot of groundwork for players, from the existence of faster-than-light travel to interstellar relations between worlds and alien races. That proved handy at the time for players who wanted to have a decent foundation of lore for an original-theme interactive story.
But times change. The joy in games like OtherSpace – at least for me – comes from letting players unspool that narrative thread and follow where it leads. The less I set in stone before the story kicks off, the more glory I leave for players. So, in the reboot, we don’t have faster-than-light travel yet and Sol System hasn’t made first contact with any aliens. If players want to expand to the stars, that’s up to them. Sure, I’ll provide some motivation in the form of story arcs, but my intent is to provide conditions for players to share engaging stories and fun adventures.
New heroes rise to face new challenges against new foes. Of course, someday, it’ll be the stuff of nostalgia again and newcomers will complain about the complicated backstory.
Might just have to start again, again.