The first time I encountered the phrase ‘terror game’ was on a comment under a ManlyBadassHero video on the video game Clay-Scape. It said: “I personally call these types of games ‘Terror’ games as they scare you with the fear of what’s going to happen, not the fear of what is happening.” It was a simple, succinct distinction that was quite clever in explaining a very particular kind of horror game. There’s a certain creative freedom for designers and for players in making things easier to catalogue for people to find.
The phrase ‘lyric game’ has caught considerable attention amongst indie tabletop game designers in the last few years. It has been subject to a lot of conversations about what exactly is considered ‘playing an RPG’ and what even is considered a ‘lyric game’. I want to introduce my own very simple version of this, at the risk of stirring certain conversations. To me, a lyric game is a game that is a piece of art, first, and a game, second. Let me also stress: this doesn’t make them any less of a game than anything else in the industry.
A lyric game is a game that is a piece of art, first, and a game, second.
What makes the lyric game so interesting is that, much like that definition, it exists in a vague form. There are a lot of lyric games that take many shapes, and none look the same as any other. However, there is a common misconception, a boxing-in of beliefs, that lyric games are supposed to be inherently unplayable.
This is simply incorrect. Adira Slattery’s As Above is a lyric game that challenges notions of play and is completely playable. Arguably, the most high-profile lyric game would be LOGAN: An Autobiographical Tabletop Game by Logan Timmins - again, a game that is completely playable, while challenging certain expectations of play while doing so. So, to discuss the vast genre of games that are meant to be unplayable, I’d like to propose another term: the closet game.
Closet games (a term borrowed from theatre’s ‘closet drama’) are games that are unplayable, not meant to be played or the requirements to play them are simply impossible/extremely difficult to interpret. The purpose of a closet game is that it is meant to be read, but not played. You are meant to experience it purely through the text, and interpret the text rather than perform its actions. If you’re browsing on Itch.io’s physical games tab, you may occasionally stumble onto these games labelled by their designers as ‘No Player’ games or ‘0-Player’ games.
The game that first made me aware of this particular side of the lyric game movement was miserytourism’s Hogsburg, a graphic little game set during the American Civil War. The prerequisite to play Hogsburg is that you need to be a Confederate soldier whose body is slowly decomposing as you wait to be buried, and also you need to be angry about how much your side sucks.
Some games are more playable than others, but it's debatable how much you’re supposed to play them. Janie Jaffe’s Mediums is a personal favourite, about the difficulty of archiving original documents. The game describes writing a letter and putting it through hell until it's illegible. Jack Harrison’s Your Baby Is Crying is a funny little project about attaching a picture of a baby to a speaker playing audio of a baby crying, and then you have to keep trying to calm it down until the battery dies.
And some games proudly aren’t even really games at all. Brandon O’Brien’s Listen plays with the expectations of a game to present a series of straightforward advice cards that ask you to be a kinder person. McGravin’s Wilderness, meanwhile, asks players to take a hike and imagine what the plants and animals are doing while you’re gone.
Why do they matter so much? Lyric games, as an artistic movement, have always sought out to redefine what we would consider ‘playing an RPG’. They seek to push the boundaries of what ‘play’ is, as compared to the traditional RPG.
Closet games use the expectations of tabletop games to turn interpretation into play.
Closet games were primarily born out of the same movement and pursue similar goals. Closet games use the expectations of tabletop games to turn interpretation into play. The player is given the creative freedom to define the game and its purposes for themselves. In the same way that some people will exclusively ‘play’ the character creation of a system rather than the game attached to it, a closet game asks players to define their own instrumental play and get as much out of it as they put in.
For designers, as well, the closet game is another example of pushing the boundaries of the RPG as an artform. It challenges notions of what defines a game and can build design knowledge in challenging yourself to find what you want to bring out of a player’s experience and how to achieve that goal.
Why is it important to distinctly separate the closet game from its older sibling, the lyric game? Despite chasing similar goals, the two kinds of games utilise notably different philosophies in how to warp perceptions of play. Conflating lyric games as being exclusively unplayable does a disservice to lyric games that beg to be played as they are.
Most importantly, closet games are fully worth checking out. For every new designer looking to experiment with their wildest ideas and hone their craft through experimentation, it is important to make finding these different experiments in game structure more accessible. Closet games lay hidden amongst lyric games - assuming they are tagged at all. Allowing players the chance to find these games and allow creative sparks from these projects will only help bring new concepts and ideas to the gaming table.
Expanding the definitions and terms used to define mediums, genres and art is never a bad thing. Not everything, even the terms, will be for everybody, but differentiating the concepts will only help people to discover the vast world of design and experimentation they may not find otherwise. We owe it to every experimenting designer and every player looking for something new to make finding these things easier. If someone asks themselves “Is there such a thing as an RPG you’re not supposed to play?”, it would be nice to point them somewhere and say, “People call those closet games, and you can find them here.”