Let it bleed

Bleed as a term has arisen in and around the safety-techniques discussion of the past decade; I’m not sure who coined it or in what context. It concerns strong and possibly aversive or uncontrollable emotions that well up during play. If I’m not mistaken, at least sometimes it’s identified as undesirable or unsafe.

Edoardo Cremaschi, on the other hand, operates at the thin edge of these concepts in opening up play to as much Bleed as one chooses to encounter. I’ve posted about his games before, including this one, in Scathings and Tea and sympathy, or failing that, monstrous retaliation. I think he’s almost unique as a designer in establishing safety parameters not to keep all the badness out, but to identify exactly those holes for which play is permitted to let it in.

He also successfully defies the general problem that I observe in games with a single session, theater-based scene structure, and prescribed standards for speaking. In most of these, the play-experience is so canned, planned, and specified in style that the game itself can rightly be identified as a widget, which you wind up, set down, and it “does” exactly as it’s supposed to. Play in this case is no more than audience participation in a highly-controlled experience, much like dinner theater. Just as in the latter, the “participation” has no agency, because it really doesn’t matter who is in the audience or what they do.

Whereas in Marks on the Skin, for example, as I have observed, it is perfectly possible to create a dumb or outright vile story, the kind that you would walk out on or tell anyone that “it sucks” … and if that happens, the responsibility for it is right there where it belongs: in the mirror. It matters very greatly who is playing and what they are like, or how they play at this particular time. You can make an outstanding, unique, and provocative story by using the game’s instruments, but only because the potential not to do so is always in your hands as well.

I have always been worried about Little Katy’s Tea Party in this regard, to the point where Edoardo is probably tired of hearing about it – is it just a widget? Everything about it conforms so thoroughly to the stereotype of the trivial skit-type story game that I am now semi-humorously thinking of it as a cruel trap for those who idealize that stereotype.

To get to the point, consider this basic principle: if the toys successfully protect Katy from the crises of her experience, during the exact age-range when she starts to cease to have tea parties with her toys, then she develops into a more broken human being. Her developmental life-lessons at age 10 or so concern passive-aggressive or self-denigrating forms of survival. Her memories become happier and her development becomes more genuinely empowered when they fail to protect her and become monstrous entities in her imagination, generating fantasies of powerful violence or horror as a means of getting through these travails. It’s not any kind of fuckin’ Disney.

OK, well, if that’s the game, it should be easy, right? Whoever’s playing Katie, just be obstinate and refuse to be protected, that’ll make everything fine. Mannered game, one optimal outcome, voluntary play gets you there, and it’s just a flat ball, no Bounce.

Ummm … but not really. We each get to play a toy (were a hat, a nurse doll, and a tin soldier), to play Katy herself, and to play the conditions and persons who are making her life difficult. People do these differently: e.g., the latter role might be not really objectively so bad, but pretty hard to comprehend for a child, or it might be genuinely dangerous physical abuse, as with our scene when she faced the prospect of school-set corporal punishment in Victorian England. In the latter case, I was very eager to be protected by the toy. Or in playing Katy, you can see Eduardo playing her as very hard to reach, quick to turn to negative life-lessons, so that Alex, playing the toy, found herself really pleading to provide genuinely good advice that a child might understand. When the Bleed hits, it’s not exactly easy to strategize toward endgame mechanics. Katy goes through several situations, after all, and this is just one of them; maybe looking ahead like that can be someone else’s problem, not yours.

I found the game sticking with me a little too closely for a few days afterwards. Speaking especially as a real-life parent, I berated myself for playing Katy as so quick to acknowledge the hat’s protection in the classroom. If I’d been harder to convince, if I’d been able to face up to any more of Alex’s horrifying and all-too-convincing role-playing of Mrs. Dunwich’s malevolence, as well as face the prospect of actually enduring what might occur in order to cue Edoardo into going monstrous … then Katy wouldn’t have turned out to be such a two-faced, sneaking little git as a young adult, later. I judged myself harshly – the performative version of a reader reacting to a grim and bleak portrait of these characters in a story.

During our discussion afterwards, I also mentioned A. A. Milne’s poem “Forgotten,” itself one of the single most bleak and grim encounters in my reading experience. Read at your own risk.

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