Jeff's World of Game Design

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I get high with a little help from my concept

Jeff Warrender
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I learned recently that Rolling Stone released a new and updated Top 500 Albums list. I haven't been able to peruse it because the site loads too slowly on my machine, but I hear that What's Going On now holds the top slot. I don't know if that would be my pick but I also don't know if I'd argue with that pick too much, it's certainly an excellent album.

Losing its crown in the process was Sgt. Pepper. Now Sgt. Pepper would not be my pick for top Beatles album, not even top 3 (Revolver isn't in that top 3 for me, either), so I definitely wouldn't have picked it for best overall album! But what's of interest for this post isn't Sgt. Pepper's artistic merit, but rather that it is an early example of a concept album. The first of these was Pet Sounds, and apparently Paul was impressed by Pet Sounds and wanted the Beatles to create their own, the result of which was so devastating to Brian Wilson that he sunk into a deep depression after hearing it. Sgt. Pepper is, if nothing else, a towering studio achievement, for its time and for any time.

Now what's even more interesting is that probably most people can't say exactly what the concept of Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper even is! Sgt. Pepper's seems to be encapsulated in something Paul said to Ringo; that they were going to adopt these alternate personas and perform the songs as though they were those personas rather than themselves. I'm not sure whether that comes through all that much. The original concept for Sgt. Pepper seems much more coherent: a collection of songs about everyday life. But when Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, which would have anchored that album, were released as a single, it orphaned a lot of the songs that obviously fit with that concept (Lovely Rita, She's Leaving Home, A Day in the Life, etc), and whether they fit well with whatever the final concept is is perhaps debatable.

What's not debatable is that there aren't terribly many high concept games. Thus I was very interested by a comment Dom made about Oceans: that with its Shallow and Deep decks, Oceans is a game about the Known and the Unknown; and that the game's box, which has two covers instead of one like most games, reflects this, with one cover depicting "the known" and the other "the unknown". I thought that this was pretty cool.

Lost Adventures isn't exactly a high concept game but it does have something of a high concept behind it: we aren't in-universe characters in the Indiana Jones world, but rather we are movie characters in a game that is both about and set within a movie. I guess the closest comparison is Man in the High Castle's Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

I think there's a slight difference between what I refer to as a game having an "idea" (Ch 8) and a concept game, but the difference may be subtle and slight. John Company is about leverage, Oath is about historiography, This Guilty Land is about slavery, and so on. These games certainly have an idea, a message, but are they concept games? I'm not sure, maybe. I think this distinction is more easily seen by looking at music and observing that while many albums have an idea running through them (e.g. "heartbreak" or "loss" or "retrospection"), not every album with an idea is a concept album.

My intent isn't necessarily to identify the precise boundary that separates a concept game from a game with an idea, or to adjudicate whether a particular game is or is not a concept game, but rather to observe that it would seem that concept games are a rather rare species and so it impressed me that Oceans is built to be such a thing, and I wonder if we might see more games that try to do this, either from Dominic&Co. or others!
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