Game Pile: Asphalt Among Ashes

Have you ever looked at journal games?

Okay, hang on, let’s back up a few stops.

If you’ve heard me talk about games studies, you may have heard me mention notorious weirdo Roger Caillois, the author of Man, Play & Games. I mostly bring him up for two reasons:

  1. His model of games breaks them down into motivations for play, and is widely used and meaningfully useful for determining information about game experiences
  2. He was an immense fucking racist misogynist weirdo with brain worms

Caillois defines games by listing a set of traits games have to qualify as games. To Caillois, a game is:

  • Non-obligatory
  • Separate from ordinary life
  • Uncertain, so you don’t know the results of play
  • Governed by rules that suspend ordinary rules and behaviour that is important to the play of the game
  • Involves make-believe or imagined realities

And we’ve been through this list before, but the last category is the one where I disagree with him that games are:

  • Unproductive, in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins

This is where my vision of games part ways with Caillois. He believes that a game can’t ‘create wealth,’ and ‘ends as it begins.’ This shows a vision of games that either means that games that teach you things (like, even just how to play the game better) are not games, or that games that create objects (like art games or games that involve permanently changing part of the game) aren’t games. Consider that a simple game like Dots and Boxes creates an object afterwards – the sheet you drew on.

My model of games, the way I look at games is fundamentally creative. A game’s pieces are not play; they lie inert without a player. When you play the game, you are creating the experience, of the game, within that game’s parameters. In that, every game is creative. Changing this model in this way brings with it a really neat side effect that you start looking at things we do to create things as, themselves, playful.

Journaling games are a category of games that basically live in this space; you are given a set of parameters or rules or a series of events or questions, and you construct a narrative that complies to the narrative prompts you’ve been given. Consider that this model is how Diplomacy works, just that those prompts are generated using a map and cruelty. I used to use the game The Beast as an example of a journaling game, which was a pretty interesting one that also was what I’d say very guided. The Beast is also aggressively and deliberately horny, which means that it worked well as being a contentious experience to suggest people investigate.

The Beast is also a game that doesn’t actually print-and-play as well as it wants. Cards are specific, and that means when you cut them up and prepare them for play, you’re going to risk being contaminated by the information on them. The technology for journaling games has advanced a little, with engines that other people can use. And that is enough backgrounder to get to this offering, Asphalt Among Ashes.

Asphalt Among Ashes is a journaling game about the post-apocalypse. But it’s not a ‘post-apocalyptic’ game in the vein of your Fallouts, where the apocalypse’s recency created a normal, and the aftermath being a ‘collapse’ resulted in replication of that normal. It’s not about raiders and ammunition and the tactical, it’s not about solving the puzzle of enemies. It isn’t about filling bars or collecting XP – the narrative is much more pure.

With a simple system that uses a dice and cards, Asphalt Among Ashes presents you with questions, and unlike a lot of other games that rely on the puzzle, it asks you what you can come up with to answer that. The game is literally about presenting a set of experiences, emergent out of a small number of pieces. There’s a natural end state (you play until you stop), and the nature of it being a journaling game can create a tension for how much you want to play – after all, maybe you only want to write once a day, maybe you want to play twelve rounds and construct a story all at once.

It’s a very pure game, in the same way as a game like Minecraft is. You make your own goals, but you respond to the stimuli the game gives you to achieve whatever aim it is you’re pursuing. It’s also a small project made by a queer developer working with very small sets of tools: And that deserves to get some attention. We say during Pride month ‘give queer people your money?’ well,  you can go get Asphalt Among Ashes over on itch.io. It’s very cheap – only $3 USD.

I had fun exploring this little game, and I think you should give it a shot too. Especially if you want to make games or play stories.

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