As a creative person, I love it when games tinkle my imagination and encourage me to role-play or start making stuff up as my “head-canon”. However, that doesn’t happen as often as I would like; I often let myself get tricked into playing the latest and greatest RPGs that encourage that mentality, but I never role-played in these games. I’ve played the modern Bethesda RPGs, but I always lose interest because I’ve never felt the urge to role-play or to create an elaborate backstory for my character or the ones surrounding me. Even in one of my favorite game, the Witcher 3, I never really defined Geralt or contextualized his actions in regard to a “role”; I just did what I thought was more interesting or the best option for the story. I’m not saying this as a critique of those games, but I always thought I would be encouraged to create the “head-canon” that other, like-minded people have been creating with such games; and I was right! The only issue was that the right game had not come along to, organically, nudge me in that direction and create the need to define and contextualize my actions. That game was Game Dev Tycoon (GDT) however, it did not urge me to create a backstory for my company or for my character or for my employees; it didn’t really urge me to do anything! Turns out, all I needed to make my own “head-canon” was a… personal touch.
But, first: some backstory. As a teenager, I went through a “car nut” phase and with my monthly allowance, I would get whatever car related game I could get my hands on: Driver, Colin Mcrae, F1 games; if it had vehicles, I was interested. For some reason, I got Euro Truck Simulator and obviously I hated it! I had to wait at traffic lights, follow traffic rules, not crash and keep my truck at a reasonable speed; but, it was my allowance for that month and I had to make it work. So, I went back to my life-long passion for music; I simply muted the game and played my playlist over it. It was a beautiful, relaxing time and I kept on doing the same thing with similar games. One of those games, or at least at the time I thought it was, was GDT, but after a few minutes with music over it, it became so much more than that for me.
For those of you who don’t know, GDT is a simulation game that tasks you with starting your own game company, in the mid-80s, from your own garage and making it in the game industry. Initially, I got pretty bored by it; once you figure out the formula for creating the different genre of games, the challenge wore off, and I was soon ready to set it aside until in one of my playthroughs I got stuck in naming one of my games, so I just named it after the song I was listening to. That basically re-sparked my interest in the game and I have since logged dozens of hours in GDT listening to songs and creating games named after them. But I didn’t stop at naming them. In order to make things more challenging and enjoyable I had to create a story for them that made sense, as well as gameplay concepts that adhere to the naming logic.
For example ‘Guilty without a cause’ was a literal take, meaning that the song name was taken as it was and translated into a game story and several concepts; the game was about the playable character being taken from their house in the middle of the night and found guilty of crimes they did not commit. As a game it was a RPG, where players would battle hordes of enemies in the oppressive, dystopian setting and collect loot to fight difficult bosses that would progress the story and uncover the conspiracy behind that fateful night. Then, there were more creative takes like “William George Allum”; the song is one of many from a famous Greek poet whose poems were given melodies and recounts the English stoker’s experiences as the poet learned them during his time with William in the sea.
However, the game is about a sailor doing the mundane maintenance required of them in a ship, in the form of mini-games until nighttime arrives and the player gets to choose with whom they hang out and listen to their stories, in the form of playable vignettes, like in What Remains of Edith Finch. The poet, his work and William, would be easter eggs, not the focal point. Furthermore, there were times when I created a franchise based on a band and due to the relative success those games had in-game, continued and expanded on the series; like my CCR farming-simulator games. It started from “Don’t look now” and the images it creates in my mind of good, honest physical work, which I translated to the farming-sim genre, but with a twist: the game would have systems in place, to try and con you from your promised rewards and it’s the player’s job to outsmart or take advantage of the system, in order to survive and thrive. Then, after a couple of hours, “The working man” came on, and I had just build a new engine, so the time was right for a sequel; the game would be an exploration of the systems introduced in “Don’t look now” and a refinement of the core, gameplay experience.
This franchise would go on to include “I heard it through the Grapevine” (I know it’s a cover of the Marvin Gaye song) where the information required for outsmarting the system, was introduced through chatter and rumors from other farmers, and “Sailor’s Lament” taking the previous systems and advancements to the sea, with the farmer replaced by a sailor; “Sailor’s Lament” also introduced new, dangerous random elements such as pirates and 10 feet tall waves that posed a serious threat to the player’s livelihood. However, these are just some stories where everything clicked together; the timing of which song plays alongside what engine I’m on and which genre I want to tackle next, all coming together nicely to create the stories that stuck with me.
But, there were also times when nothing of interest came out or the game I created failed miserably; even then there were a few stories that were memorable in their own ways, like “a weird game” which in my mind was a weird, mash up of multiple genres that was presented with a Terry Gilliam-esque animation aesthetic and connected together by an equally bizarre, unconnected series of events that was very reminiscent of Monty Python. Trouble was that, this was only the second game I had created, so I was too ambitious for my own good and destroyed a great idea, while gaining a valuable lesson.
Furthermore, there were occasions when the timing of the songs and what genre I was going to tackle resulted in hilarious situations like making Rihanna’s “Stay” into an evolution, action/sim because of the trend at the time and because of creating games with new topics results in a bonus. The game was about evolving the human race through the multiple stages of physical and societal evolution and…ummm…staying in the period you wanted? Each period had its own mini-games and combat mechanics but, allowing someone to stay in a period, in a game that is all about the continuous flow of evolution seems pretty dumb; I never really saw the appeal of games like Spore so, I don’t know if this is what happens in games like that, but I guess the people loved it…
Needless to say I ended up pretty obsessed with my ‘ritual’ and adding new songs and mods to the game only enhanced my experience and I still come back to GDT whenever enough time has passed that I just miss playing it. It is a relaxing and stress-free way to cool off, as well as the perfect solution when I really need to shut down my brain and stop thinking about what troubles me.
Furthermore, it is a creative and satisfying mean to experience what I’ve seen dozens others experience and have felt envious that nothing had made me do that before; a game which made me want to create head canon. To summarize, GDT has been a constant comeback game since 2014 when I first bought the game and fell in love with it. There have been other games where I “implemented” my ritual upon, such as Passpartout: The starving artist where, instead of coming up with backstories on games based on songs, I had to create a painting; but none compares to the enjoyment and the state of serenity GDT puts me in. It allowed me to have my own “in my head canon, this is what happened…” moments and create those moments from something I love so deeply, music, but it is also an example of what makes video games great and distinct from other entertainment mediums; while other mediums allow for personal interpretations, games allow personal, interactive interpretations. The big difference there is that, while others find their freedom and creative stimulation in grand RPGs, I’ve found it on a small, indie game about making games with the added personal touch of my favorite music.
Where others completed the backstory of interesting characters in desolate wastelands, I’ve created entire games, stories and designs based on song titles/content, the sliders that favored gameplay over engine and how that is reflected in the game, and how the world responded to it; when games succeeded or failed, I updated my story to account for that. When “Stay” was labeled a ‘surprise hit’ and was praised for its visual style by a journalist, I came up with the style of a cartoonish, stop-motion animated characters that had procedurally generated characteristics (like Spore) in a table-top like world, with 3D modeled miniatures of buildings, wild-life and environmental props.
As a side note, and I guess a, somewhat, fitting conclusion, I’ve had a similar experience with medieval-themed movies and books; ever since I was a kid, the sound, image, or line of a noble knight, kneeling in front of a queen and kissing her hand, while uttering that despised line “My lady”, with the response of “How do you do, noble knight?” was enough to make me physically incapable of continuing to watch or read. But then, I watched Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, and it was so silly and great, that after that I just watched or read anything medieval-themed effortlessly; similarly to what happened with GDT. Before GDT, I had to force myself to come up with uninteresting and dull backstories, that I forgot as soon as I thought of them, but after GDT and my little “ritual”, when a game encourages ludo-narrative or “head-cannon” and I’m enjoying it enough, I create these stories effortlessly; games like Darkest Dungeon or new entries in series that I never interacted with in this way, such as Football Manager. So, in a way, I’ve created 100s of these games, besides the ones I’ve created in GDT, and now that I have a taste for it, I don’t plan to stop.