Games That Will Never Get Made
There are as many weird, unborn games on this planet as there are grains of sand, and I would love to design them all. I want to design the beautiful, iridescent glassy games and the lumpy ugly games. I want to dump my beach of games on unsuspecting players and I want to sunbathe on the sandy mass of unplayable games I’ve created.
I want to design games about making Frozen a better movie, and 90s Adam Sandler dating simulators, and games about ghost sex. But there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s where speculative game design comes in.
When I first saw It Follows, I was obsessed with the idea of making a game inspired by the movie. It had so many elements I’d want to see in a tabletop game. It used weird metaphors to talk about sexuality and shame, it kept an ambiguous moral stance, it was tense, it had a typewriter! So many elements of a good game!
Someday maybe I’ll make an It Follows game. But I can’t right now, so here are thoughts on what that game might look like if it were to exist. The ideas and mechanics here are under-considered, inconsistent, and half-baked. If that bugs you, welcome to the first stage of game design. If that excites you, or if you like any of the ideas below, feel free to run with them. I’d love to see what you create.
It Follows was a one hour, forty-seven minute roller coaster of foreboding-entity-sex-horror that hit all my panic buttons in all the right ways.
I hated the movie, and I loved the movie. I had so many questions, and I appreciated those that went unanswered. It Follows genuinely scared me, and I spent a week glancing over my shoulder expecting my own freaky sex demon to pounce at any moment.
This post will have spoilers, and I’m including advance warning for adult content, nonconsensual ghost sex, and dubiously consensual people sex.
After an unsettling interaction with her new boyfriend at a movie theater, Jay and her paranoid bf have sex in his car, during which he chloroforms her, ties her up, and takes her out to a remote location strapped in a wheelchair. He then gives her a “welcome to your new life” monologue:
From this point forward she’ll be pursued by an evil entity. The entity gets passed from person to person by fucking. Now that she’s got it, it will begin walking towards her. It always moves at a walking pace. It can take on the appearance of any person, even family and friends. If it catches up to her, it will kill her. And after it kills her, it will continue down the line, pursuing every person who has ever passed the entity on until…who knows. The only way to get rid of the entity is to fuck someone else, which is no promise of safety. Also, if things weren’t bad enough, no one else can see the entity. The burden of proof is on her alone.
Though disbelieving, Jay quickly comes to realize that she is in fact being pursued. There’s a decrepit old woman shambling towards her on her college campus. A lady with one flopped-out boob finds a way into her house. A too-tall man finds his way into her house. It’s all very spooky, and Jay runs away.
Jay’s friends (some of whom are still skeptical) drive her to a beachside cottage to get away, and to get some space to think. The ghost demon finds its way there, and eventually grabs hold of Jay. If there was any doubt that was telling the truth, her friends literally get to see her hoisted into the air by an invisible entity. Jay flees the scene in a stolen car and crashes into a cornfield.
Jay wakes up in the hospital and has sex with her douchey friend Greg in a hospital bed. This breaks the heart of her too-sweet friend Paul, who’s had a longtime crush on Jay, and wants nothing more than to take that sweet, sweet ghost away from her. Greg contracts the ghost, doesn’t take the responsibility seriously enough, and gets fucked to death by the ghost—who has taken the form of his mother—later that week. Jay flees and enjoys some r&r at the beach. She sees three dudes float up in a small boat, a ways from the shore. After a moment’s consideration, she strips down to her underwear and swims out to the boat. We don’t see what happens next, but the outcome is implied.
Finally, Jay and her friends devise a strange plan to kill the ghost involving an electric typewriter, some lamps, and an indoor pool. When the ghost reaches the pool, it has taken the form of Jay’s deceased father. Together, the group tries to electrocute the ghost, but bad things happen and their effort fails.
After lots of dodging his advances, Jay and smitten Paul have sex. Paul then drives downtown and solicits a prostitute. The final scene shows Jay and Paul, walking down a quiet suburban sidewalk hand in hand, with a figure walking slowly in the distance behind them.
But What’s It About?
On the surface, It Follows is a movie about being pursued by a spooky ghost. At a deeper level, it’s a movie that explores complex themes about sex and shame—particularly that special brand of millennial sex shame born from abstinence-only sex education. It’s also a movie about sex and death. The eventual death of this entity? Death from sexually transmitted disease? Everyone’s eventual death?
We can take a guess that, if everyone in the ghost’s fuckline didn’t fuck anyone new for the rest of their lives, the ghost would eventually kill them all off and then it too would perish.
Or would it? We don’t know.
When in human history has abstinence solved all of our problems? When in human history has having sex solved them?
If we keep going, It Follows is also a movie about mommy issues, daddy issues, who we value in sexual relationships and who we don’t, and who wants to help us heal versus who just wants to get in our pants.
Finally, and this I think is one of the most compelling themes, the movie forces us to think about the inevitability of the diseases we as humans share. But I’ll return to that part later! This was supposed to be about game design, right?
While it may not seem like it at first blush, It Follows is perfect game design fodder! Board game, LARP, RPG, you name it. Not only does the movie cover multiple, complex emotional dramas that could be used to frame the theme of a game—it also offers a complicated problem to solve. Game designers love coming up with solutions to complicated problems.
There are so many different possible games here, and I’ll walk through just a few of them. Will any of these games ever get made? I have no idea! But I think there’s value in speculative iteration. Plus it’s free and fun.
Game #1: Trouble Down Under (RPG, resource mgmt board game)
So, you’ve got a sexually transmitted ghost? Who you gonna call? The person who gave it to you!
This is a roleplaying board game about making lemons out of lemonade—part story game, part resource management. You’ve got a ghost, but you’re fortunately working with a competent group of people who have devised a solution to this problem.
In this game, you enter into a consensual business arrangement with the other living people in the ghost’s fuckline. Knowing that their well-being depends on you staying alive, this group of people plan on pooling their resources to send you across the world to say, Australia. They’ll support your monthly living expenses while you’re there, and they’ll try their best to monitor the ghost’s trek across the globe.
The distance between Detroit, Michigan (where the movie takes place) and Perth, Australia is 11,170 miles (or 17976.372 km). If the entity travels at an average walking speed of 3.1 miles per hour (and doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and can walk under the ocean) it should take it around 150 days—or 5 months—to reach the western coastline. 5 months in Australia isn’t too bad! That’s enough time to settle down, maybe find a job, make friends, and explore your surroundings. You can’t ethically have sex (in fact, the terms of your business arrangement strictly forbid it), but you can certainly get kissy, and the game can take advantage of this temptation with story prompt cards that introduce unexpected social challenges.
After 5 months is up, your benefactors put you on a plane back to the US, and the ghost pivots on its gnarly heels and starts walking again.
Similar to games like Sheriff of Nottingham, which gives everyone a turn in the Sheriff’s seat, the role of the “ghosted” gets passed from player to player after every round. During each round of turns, one player plays the ghosted, navigating day-to-day life in Australia, and the other players play the ghostees—collaboratively managing their finances, tracking the ghost, and trying to work together without blame to keep this wacky system functioning.
There are great opportunities for resource management on both ends, plus rich story game drama. Do the ghostees monitoring the entity in the United States live communally? How do their day-to-day responsibilities impact their ability to keep track of the ghost’s movement? Out of this group, who still fucks each other, who loathes each other, and who’s all about the hatesex? Calling back to those temptation cards, there’s ample room for underhandedness and deception here as well. The only way to keep this system working is to keep it in the family, and the minute a person fucks someone outside of the circle, the system starts to break apart. Can our Australian ghosted resist temptation down under?
Combine this with dice-based randomization that tells you whether you’ve lost track of the ghost on any given day, and I’d play this game all day.
Game #2: I Came Here to Fuck a Ghost Up and Chew Bubblegum… (Story-driven card game, roguelike)
You’ve got a ghost and you’re running out of all the fucks you have to give. You know you’re going down, so why not go down doing some science?
Game #2 takes a MacGyver-style approach to dealing with ghosts. It’s a game of weird traps, shitty science, and taunting death. It’s pretty gonzo, but so is trying to lure an evil sex demon into an indoor pool filled with electric typewriters and table lamps, so the precedent has been set.
This game assumes that you’ll die at least a few times, and when you do, you’ll pick up where you left off, playing as the next person in the ghost’s fuckline. You’ll carry with you what you learned from your last ghost-killing attempts, and that information will get you one step closer to freedom.
I can see game design elements from Machine of Death working nicely here: drawing cards with bizarre, unrelated objects, and having to construct a plausible ghost plan. For example:
We draw three cards from the deck—candle, field, and mix tape.
Using these cards, we piece together our plan to lure the entity. We’re in the middle of a drought, so lighting a candle in a dry field will certainly start a fire. We lure the entity into the middle of the field, and we test to see if different types of music have any impact on its attention span.
I don’t know what determines the likelihood of success here. Machine of Death trusts you to set these parameters yourself, and players determine the difficulty of any given challenge. Here, I think it’s dice randomization that determines success versus failure, but the range of numbers needed for success increases every time you gain new information about what works and what doesn’t.
You roll. Fire fails. You roll. Mix tape succeeds. What could it mean? You narrate that the ghost seemed momentarily distracted by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Just a fluke, or an essential revelation? Only time and repetition will tell!
This one’s a lighter collaborative game, with everyone working together in the same place, supporting a collectively owned protagonist and her friends in their quest to bring this ghost down. It’s story-driven card game the way Gloom is a story-driven card game: you can dive into roleplay, or you can play it straight. It’s up to you and your friends.
Game #3: What Is sex? What Is Death? What Is This Game? (Freeform LARP)
Game #3 is the most ill-defined of the three games, but maybe my favorite. This game is about immersive exploration of the questions the movie left unanswered, and exploring some of the movie’s more abstract themes.
I haven’t done a lot of live action roleplay, so I’m going to draw inspiration from one of the few LARP experiences I’ve had, the freeform game See Me Now, from Sara Williamson and Liz Gorinsky. See Me Now is a game about friendship, growing up, and gender identity. It plays out through a series of nonlinear scene cards, where players pick a scene card that interests them, then act out the scene. A GM-like facilitator helps guide the action, asks questions, can call for internal monologues, and keeps things moving smoothly by cutting scenes at appropriate moments.
Before I get to the scenes I’d love to see in the It Follows LARP, I’ll run through some of the backdrop that I think makes this game really cool—stuff that’s part of the movie, but isn’t really front and center.
Ambiguous Time & Place
Not only does the movie take place in an ambiguous time period, it maybe doesn’t even take place in our world. The main nod at this possibility comes in the form of a bizarre, shell-shaped plastic compact that one character carries around obsessively, that seems to be some sort of e-reader. Maybe it doubles as a shell phone? It’s really cool, and I want one, but this isn’t a thing that exists in our reality. And that weirdness offers a darkly ethereal backdrop for a LARP!
Lack of Adult Figures
There are almost no adult figures present in the movie. It’s a very Miranda July world, but with a different pace and a more definable threat. What does it mean that there are no grownups here? Do we leave them out because we know they’ll deny our reality? If we come to an adult for help we could be grounded—locked in a room, which would mean a non-metaphorical death sentence. A world where adults are almost entirely absent, but occasionally appear as an outside menace, also makes for a great LARP backdrop.
Now, within this unsettling, grownup-less world, we’re free to explore scenes about…what? Here are some of the scenes that I’d be excited to see:
1. The movie doesn’t answer the question of what type of sex it considers valid for ghost transmission. Just penetrative sex between a penis and a vagina? Can the ghost be caught in a condom? Is the ghost nullified by birth control? Does this entity only pass from cisgendered men to cisgendered women (and the other way around), and if so, is this actually a game about hetero blight? I want to see scenes of rampant sexual experimentation spanning the entries on urban dictionary while panicked ghostees try to figure out whether or not they’ve got the ghost.
2. I love that folks jump in line to take the ghost away from Jay. The first person, douchey Greg, takes a risk because he wants to fuck Jay, and he doesn’t believe the threat. The second person, sweet Paul, takes a risk because he wants to fuck Jay and he loooves her. And his love is so good, and so pure, that he heads right out to pass the ghost on to a sex worker. I want to see scenes about who we value in our sexual relationships, who we don’t, when we deem someone “worth the risk,” and all the collateral damage that ensues.
3. Finally, It Follows may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that has friends almost openly and honestly talking about sexually transmitted disease. It’s one thing that the movie can’t really explore in-depth, because everyone’s too busy running for their lives, but we could perhaps slow it down and leave time for it in this in a game. A scene with a group of teenagers blamelessly supporting a friend through the uncertainty of a life-changing health crisis.
By premise alone, It Follows walks a razor-thin line between drama and parody. When I think about creating a game inspired by the film, there’s a risk of slipping too far into gonzo territory, which would be both dismissive and dangerous.
The film addresses some intense themes: voyeurism, stalking, abandonment, nonconsent, treatment of sex workers, disease. I want to explore the absurdist elements of the plot, but a game that makes a complete joke out of these themes would be a disaster.
We deal with this often in games that talk about things like racism, sexism, or body-shaming, and the line can be blurry. Games like this require a great deal of nuance and self-awareness on the part of the creator, and if that isn’t hard enough, they require players who are able to recognize that nuance and step up to the task of treating the themes with respect while also recognizing the humor.
If you’re interested in that challenge, my mind goes to a few other films that walk the line between the comical, the devastating, and the grotesque: Happiness, American Beauty, maybe Heathers? Unlike those three films, I’d say It Follows plays it pretty straight. While there are funny moments, it’s not a dark comedy—it’s just dark. But there’s so much to explore in the concept of a demonic STD, and some of those things are quite funny. I hope to someday take that on in a game I create.