Every year we try to work with new voices in the gaming community to release ashcans of their work. Ashcans are short-form versions of their games that are fully playable but are still works in progress. We appreciate the opportunity to showcase new designers and give players a chance to give feedback before the full game comes out.
This year we released two ashcans at Gen Con. The first is Passing, created by our very own Director of Marketing and Sales, Sarah “Sam” Saltiel. In Passing, you play shapeshifting aliens stranded in the 1950’s D.C. suburbs, trying to pass as human ten years after your spacecraft crashed to earth. This takes place in a world where everyone knows that aliens exist and a McCarthy-era style witch hunt is underway to root out the “invaders”. It combines the thrill of undercover spy fiction with the fantastical elements of science fiction and the tragic beauty of stories of otherness into a game that’s a mix of The Americans, District 9, and The Shape of Water.
To celebrate the release of Passing, we caught up with Sam to talk more about the game and about Sam’s artistic career as a whole.
Hi! So to start off, why don’t you tell us about the most important things that you think people should know about you and your game?
I think the first level of metaphor in the game goes without saying. Passing is about otherness in the same way that Shape of Water or other similar narratives are about otherness. That doesn’t require much work to deduce. I wanted to complicate the metaphor by bringing in ideas of intersectionality and erasure.
In real life, there’s not necessarily a stagnant or fixed idea of “us” vs “them”-- the idea of “us” vs “them” can be really context specific. In real life, each individual is a complicated tangle of identities that they’re constantly reevaluating and reprioritizing. Communities -- even communities united by a singular identity -- are not uniform. I wanted to extrapolate from my experience in the queer community to create a game that would reflect that sort of community dynamic.
Every playbook comes with a complex set of priorities that will pull the characters in different, and sometimes contradictory directions. As a whole, the alien Cell might decide to rescue aliens trapped in an alien testing facility. On the individual level, however, maybe one of the aliens is worried about how that mission might affect the career that they’ve established in human form, or another one is hesitant because an alien they’re rescuing tried to sabotage the Cell.
It’s impossible to talk about intersectionality without also talking about erasure. There are a lot of difficult choices someone has to make when belonging to a marginalized community that exists in the context of an oppressive society -- each person has to make choices somewhere along the way about how to navigate the pressures being forced upon them. Unfortunately a lot of those choices and intersections result in one identity or the other being considered invalid -- “not really queer” or “not queer enough” are phrases that are used every day, phrases that I’ve heard more times than I can count. Passing is about making choices while being pulled simultaneously towards the human world you’ve embedded yourself in and the alien world from whence you came.
All that being said, Passing is still a game about shapeshifting aliens. There are hard choices along the way, but I’ve designed the aliens to be beautiful and wonderful and weird and there’s a lot of pleasure in just exploring the world and your capabilities within it. I obviously have a lot of academic discourse about the mechanics behind Passing but the metaphor is supposed to work with the game, not overpower it.
What sources did you draw inspiration from? Why did you choose PbtA and how does Passing differ from the traditional PbtA model?
I think a lot of my mental framing as a game designer comes from my background as a writer. I’ve been writing prose and poetry ever since I was a kid, and I’ve been publishing my work with a literary magazines for the past six years. As a designer and player, PbtA is my favorite system to work with because I feel like the mechanics are streamlined enough that they let you get into the meat of the storytelling, but there’s enough structure that the designer still plays a role in the storytelling process. PbtA brings the designer into the conversation and allows them to direct some of the worldbuilding.
Pieces of media like Dear White People, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, or The Argonauts were really important for me in thinking through models of intersectionality that I wanted to use in my game. I also looked a lot at games like Urban Shadows and Cartel to examine the way that community dynamics can be mimicked in game mechanics. However, I owe a lot of thanks to Pasión de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta for the development of the question system for the basic moves. The biggest difference between Passing and the traditional PbtA model (if such a thing exists) is that half of the basic moves run off of questions and half of them run off of stats, allowing the importance of each stat to be moved to the forefront of the game.
Were there any things that came up in playtesting that surprised you? What has changed the most from the first version of this game?
The stat system was definitely what changed the most. Originally I had four stats that controlled all of the basic moves. The stats “Alien” and “Human” reflected how easily the character was operating in the respective communities. Trying to balance the pull of those two communities was the core tension of the game. Throughout playtesting, I kept coming back to the issue that the other stats just didn’t feel as relevant. Getting rid of the other two stats and developing a Human and Alien track that would allow character choices to be reflected in their stats was one of the most important decisions I made in wedding game mechanics to the sort of stories I was trying to tell.
What other projects are you working on? Are they connected to Passing?
I have a series of other projects going on, both in game design and creative writing. I have a game that’s been on the backburner for a few years that’s a one-shot PbtA investigative horror game that takes place across the landscape of the body -- you play medical professionals conducting an autopsy, moving across the metaphorical representation of a dead body, trying to determine who the person was while they lived and how they died. I’m also currently working on a chapbook of poetry about intimacy, dissociation, and trauma that should be published within the next year.
While my other projects aren’t explicitly connected to Passing, almost all of my body of work has to do with questions of identity and intersections between various identities. And besides… I’m not done with Passing yet. In a few months, I hope to start playtesting again to turn Passing into the full game I know it can be.
All of my published work -- as well as updates on works in progress -- can be found on my professional facebook page or on my website.
Professional Facebook: Sarah Saltiel