Three Games for The Fifth Season

I took a break from an existential crisis courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates to reflect on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. As a game designer, I process things through systems. I imagine them as games. Luckily for me, The Fifth Season would make a brilliant game. Three, actually.

F2P Strategy Survival Game

I’m obsessed with creating a hundred year game, the greatest challenge being how to provide new content over time. Content here loosely means unprocessed stimulus - as Raph said, once we know a game, it ceases to be fun. Successful long-term engagement relies on enough of the content coming from algorithms (procedural content) or other players (social/UGC) that the game can evolve over time and supply players with novel challenges and unexpected situations. As it happens, The Fifth Season revolves around a very robust procedural system - that of plate tectonics - while also having built-in social structures - comms (communities). The game writes itself: work together with your friends to establish a comm that is capable of surviving the next Season (Season being a semi-apocalyptic period of time triggered by geological behavior). Not only did Jemisin provide plenty of planetary catastrophes in her appendix (“Acid Season”, “Boiling Season”, “Season of Changed Wind"), any of which could be triggered on a semi-random basis like a good F2P event system. She also provided us with a set of classes for the players, which in The Fifth Season are the use-castes people are born into. Each player would, of course, be responsible for their own house & garden, but the compelling part would be strategizing together and resisting the urge towards individual gain. Here’s how a few of those castes could play out:
  • Breeder - These players get the genetics mini-game, figuring out what traits are most desirable and ensuring proper pairings. Because there are generations between Seasons, players can jump from character to character over time. Breeders also have to manage the human cost/benefit analysis.
  • Innovator - These are our strategy players. They get access to the comm's caches and likely have a sim-city-ish interface for whenever mechanical/technological breakdowns occur. They also need to strategize about how to effectively prepare, regardless of what the Season is ultimately triggered by.
  • Leader - These are our moderators and guild leaders. They can wield the ban-hammer and have ultimate say on what shakes down in the comm, in addition to helping resolve interplayer disputes. Before a Season, they're responsible for organizing mutually beneficial trade agreements and can even ally into nations/empires.
  • Resistant - These players are the explorers. Before a Season, they can travel most easily, acquire knowledge, create partnerships, and map out unknown territories. During a Season, they are less likely to catch sick, and therefore can act as healers.
  • Strongback - These players are our classic fighters. They get weapons, they stand guard, they deal with other players and forces of nature that come up against the comm. When a Season is not in effect, their strength lets them transport supplies with ease - or invade and conquer nearby comms.
The repeatable-yet-random nature of Seasons (variable reward) inbetween more traditional home-improvement gameplay in the off-seasons, is perfect for long term engagement. Could you create an Empire that could endure through the ages? That could survive even the longest Season?

Emotionally Crippling Narrative-Driven RPG

As excited as I am about a Fifth Season massive mobile strategy game, that isn’t actually what The Fifth Season is about. In a recent presentation, Jemisin talked about the difference between low immersion and high immersion writing and world building. The Fifth Season is a high immersion story - which is to say, we learn about the world not because we have maps and genealogies and linguistic footnotes thrown at us, but because we care about the evocative personal stories that take place in it. The experiential core of The Fifth Season isn’t about Seasons, or comms, or Use-Castes. It’s about a survivor, a mother, a broken man. This is ripe for an RPG. You aren’t trying to save the world. You’re trying to destroy it. The Fifth Season has many RPG parallels, with the orogene Essun accreting party members and the world providing a host of foes - from natural disasters to Guardians to carnivorous scavengers to Stone Eaters to the everyday prejudice of your fellow humans. We ignored orogeny in the F2P Strategy Game - orogeny being a trait that lets certain humans channel geological forces - but here we’ll make it the central, distinguishing characteristic of our player. In any powerful RPG, choice is a central tenant. Let’s look at some choices we could make as an orogene (This section has MAJOR SPOILERS. If you’re skipping, suffice it to say there are heart wrenching moments in the book that would make for painful game choices):
!!! --- SPOILER ALERT --- !!!
  • Player Character: Fulcrum or Feral (whether your orogeny was bred or accidental)? Birthplace (character customization)? Name (occurs multiple times throughout the game)?
  • Leaning: In place of Paragon/Renegade or Empire/Alliance, we could have Complicit/Resistant (we’d find a better name for Resistant as it’s use-caste) - essentially, are you more inclined to accept the systems at work around you or rebel against them? As in most RPGs, your leaning may unlock unique story options.
  • Story Arc: Do you kill the kid who’s hurting you on the playground, or just scare him? Do you go quietly when they come to your village to take you away? Are you still when your hand is crushed? Do you obey your teachers? Do you follow Bisof into the Main? Do you have sex with the person they pair you with? Who’d you pair - or triple - off with? Do you explode a city to save your lover? Do you kill your son to keep him free? Do you destroy the world?
!!! --- END SPOILER ALERT --- !!!
And then, of course, we have the staple of all RPGs: battle. The long grind. It's easy to imagine this more Final Fantasy-esque - where players are on a map and as they travel there are "random battles" which are minute earthquakes or hungry Kirkhusa. But something more compelling might arise when orogenes battle each other - or battle Guardians or Stone Eaters. One can imagine the steps of finding heat sources, shaping a torus, and directing energy. One can imagine a variety of attacks - from spikes of rock to pools of lava to heaving boulders to sudden ravines. Plenty of diversity for a very enjoyable skill tree. Orogeny also has a clear progression system - the rings awarded to orogenes at the Fulcrum (a ... specialized university, let's call it). Even after leaving, there's story justification for the continued accumulation of rings. One unfortunate disconnect from the book would be party acquisition. In the book, the main character(s) continuously find themselves alone, starting over, isolated, whereas in an RPG it is preferable to give players acquisition of party members as a permanent progress bar.

MMO Humanity Simulator

Of course I’m excited about an RPG that allows for polyamory and reflects a much higher level of relationship complexity - and choices - than we’ve seen before. BUT I’m still not sure that’s what’s at the heart of this book (psych!). It IS about a mother, and a broken man, and unspeakable choices. But those stories compel us because at the root of them is a terrible mirror of our own world. The Fifth Season is also about injustice. It’s about the way humanity separates itself so that some can feel superior at the cost of others. Which brings us to the final game, an MMO humanity simulator. Everyone starts the game with a random character - random parents, and parents determine genetics and birth location and so on. Just like real life. And just like real life, some of those random characteristics are preferred over others. And just like real life, some people will have parents who are already at the top of the class hierarchy, implicitly or explicitly. They're in the most sought after location. With the most resources. With caches upon caches of wealth. Everyone has the same goal: “Bring your people to greatness.” That’s it. Now let’s suppose each player has a “greatness” stat - something that combines tangibles like food and money and land with intangibles like influence, happiness, and knowledge. And lets say that at any time players can go to a leaderboard and look at the total greatness as divided by any characteristic. By location. By hair texture. By use-caste. Then we watch the world work. We never tell players who their people are. One of the most powerful things I read in Coates’ book was “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” He talked about “extinct" races: Italian, Irish, German, for instance - dividers we no longer use because we no longer judge ourselves along those lines. We no longer feel superiority/inferiority for those reasons. One of his later revelations is this: “What divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do."