In March of 2020, I started my fourth attempt at therapy.
The previous ventures failed for a variety of reasons—poor fit, lack of money, the delayed onset of trauma. I hoped the same wouldn’t be true of this attempt, because I’m 31 years old and I’ve been carrying grief and trauma around for my entire life, and it’s grown very heavy.
But this is a game review. Or rather, it’s a review of what I think it may be like to play games, someday, because I’m not ready for them yet.
Sometime in 2019, I bought Avery Alder’s Variations on Your Body. I have, regretfully, never played a game by Avery Alder, though I listen with jealousy whenever anybody tells me about their Monsterhearts games.
But Variations on Your Body, a collection of four games and an essay, called out to me. When it arrived, I didn’t read it for months. When I did read it, I didn’t play it. Almost a year later, I still have not played it, but I have read it again and again and again as I dabble in mindfulness practices and witchy rituals and, finally, in therapy and the homework my therapist assigns to me.
So this is not actually a game review. It’s a review of Variations on Your Body, a book of four games that I would like to play someday when I am ready.
Teen Witch is the first game in Variations on Your Body. To play, you become a teen witch.
I was never a teen witch, but I was, briefly, a witch in elementary school. I was poor and frightened and strange, but me and several other girls—girls of different social standings, with different friend groups and interests—all came together to bond over witchcraft. One girl in the group bought a collection of spell-related trinkets from Claire’s and shared them among the group. I got a flower-shaped necklace with a single yellow petal inside, and one night I looked up at the stars and performed a spell that would make me popular. The next day, people argued over who would sit next to me at lunch.
After this, trauma made me stop communicating with people. I lost those friends, brief as our friendship was. That same trauma drove me further into fear, including the fear of being a witch, which was something only evil people did. I left magic, and more tragically, the potential for magic, behind.
To become a teen witch in Alder’s game, you must try to believe that you are one by dressing and acting as one, by really embodying whatever it means to you to be a teen witch. “That something is a fiction doesn’t make it any less real,” Alder writes, and this is a theme that carries throughout.
I’m not ready to become a teen witch yet. I’m not ready because it sounds messy—there are herbs and anointments and drawing circles involved. I’m not ready because I don’t want to explain what I’m doing to my husband, who almost certainly would not care or even find this particularly strange. I’m not ready because herbs cost money and maybe it’s wasteful to use them in this way.
But as I read this chapter, I’m struck by how each section leaves space for the individual to shape it. Possible ingredients—”paint, chalk, ash, permanent marker, blood”—are listed, then lists are finished, “else.” Suggestions are made—a secret place may be a bedroom or a forest—and finished with the idea that other places—a bathroom, an attic—”might work too.” Conclusions aren’t reached, prescriptive rules are not written. This reminds me, as I’m rereading, of something Marina Kittaka wrote in “Divest from the Video Games Industry!”: “My advice is to 1) be open to learning from practices that don’t fit your brand while also 2) being able to adapt the spirit of advice into something that actually works for you.”
Kittaka is not writing about becoming a teen witch, but maybe she is, in a way. Is being a teen witch “my brand?” What is the spirit of advice being given here—is it to spread cinnamon on my body and light candles, or is it something else?
I was never a teen witch, but I was, briefly, a witch in elementary school.
I don’t know much about ritual or religion or magic, but it has always seemed to me that they ought to be personal and descriptive. Alder describes some potential behaviors of a teen witch that a player may embody—walking slowly, licking your lips. When I pitched this article, I said that part of the reason I wasn’t ready to play it was that, “i don’t want to tell my husband why i am stomping around burning things in my office.” Even my hesitation to play is shaped by my own ideas of what it means to be a teen witch: stomping.
I’m not sure that I can convince my 31-year-old brain and body that I’m a teen witch. I had my chance, and I missed it out of fear. But as Alder writes, “The fiction doesn’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to convince yourself absolutely. It doesn’t need to be one hundred percent real.”
My therapist has me work a lot with mantras, positive affirmations that I’ve come up with to chase negative thoughts from my brain. Every day, I repeat five different traits in myself that I find admirable. These traits were selected so that I can’t argue my way out of them—they are fundamental truths that I can’t deny, at least not without stretching my logic too thin. I also write all of the reasons I deserve forgiveness for past sins in a journal, repeating the same lines over and over again. The goal with these rituals—spells, if you like—is for me to replace the negative internal voice with a positive one.
“If the game feels weird or uncomfortable,” Alder writes, “first be still. Think about that feeling; hold onto it. Perhaps the feeling will pass over and through you and you can continue.”
It felt silly to do my mantras at first. Having to remind myself of my own value makes me feel like a weird, weak, and stupid person. But as I’ve said, I am tired of carrying these weights. I say the mantras, and every day it becomes easier. Someday, with enough practice, I may think them without having to count each one on my fingers.
It takes me until the end of the chapter, where Alder writes a spell called “Secret Beauty,” to tear up. Alder reminds the player that sometimes spells fail. But if it doesn’t work the first time, that’s okay, because part of the ritual is expunging any self-hatred you’re carrying with you. It will be easier next time.
She writes, “Eventually, the spell always works.”
My first impression of Brave Sparrow is that this game isn’t for me. Maybe it won’t resonate with me at all. I have read We’ve Been Stranger Things, the essay at the end of this collection, where Alder discusses this game as a step in her journey toward understanding her gender. I’m a cis woman, and maybe it’s even transgressive or wrong for me to consider playing this game. I have never felt too small for my body; I have felt too large by far, like a tangle of emotions crammed into a tiny jar. I also do not ever feel brave.
It’s possible that you won’t complete Brave Sparrow and that you will remain a human forever.
But I’m not playing right now. I’m reading. Alder again reminds the player that belief is important to this game. You may doubt, but you must believe. You don’t have to believe that you truly are a sparrow who, by magic, has been trapped in the body of a human being. But you must believe in the possibility of such a thing—that things may be different than you’ve always expected.
The game is separated into two sections: training and missions. Training is further divided into collecting feathers, witnessing quiet beauty, and acting with bravery. I could do the first two, if I were ready to play.
Alder defines bravery as “action and intent carried out in the name of hope.” This is something I want to hold on to, even if I’m not playing Brave Sparrow, even if I never play it. She goes on to list several potential means of acting with bravery. Some of them sound very easy and some of them sound very hard. Many are things that sound inconsequential—things you might do if you were in a good mood. “Don’t treat this as a list of cute sentiments,” Alder writes, “but as necessary components to escaping a very real and tangible prison.”
As much as I would like to be a person who is never subject to cynicism, I, too, sometimes scoff at the idea that things like singing or being forgiving could have real transformative strength. I shouldn’t do this. I should be more like the titular brave sparrow. When you practice, these things become easier.
Once you have collected enough feathers, you move on to missions. Missions are risky, symbolic, and must involve acting with bravery to reach a place of quiet beauty. I imagine what it would be like if I reached this point of Brave Sparrow—would I climb the fence around the retaining ponds near my house and finally see the bullfrogs I hear croaking during summer nights? Would I wander into the woods and paint my face with blackberry juice, singing loudly to drown out the passing cars?
Even if you complete mission after mission, pressing feathers to your skin in the hopes that they will stick, it’s possible that you won’t complete Brave Sparrow and that you will remain a human forever. But this isn’t a loss. As Alder writes, you will “emerge observant and thoughtful and curious,” just as a sparrow may be.
My first reaction to Universal Translator is to skip it. I am, unfortunately, not a sci-fi fan—with a few exceptions, features like robots and aliens are not interesting to me. But, even if not a sci-fi fan, I am a diligent reviewer. I take my time reading through the chapter, absorbing it and its conceits, its alien terms and languages.
This game is less straightforward about rules and orders than the previous two. Universal Translator begins with a bodily assessment—feel the side of your head, the place just above your ear. There’s a little bump there, and that is the universal translator that allows you to speak with all creatures throughout the universe. But the translator is not perfect; something may be lost in translation, particularly things that are specific to culture or personal experience.
When you acknowledge that it is there and that it is a flawed but useful piece of technology, you are better able to spot the places where it fails.
In this game, you recognize that your translator exists. When you acknowledge that it is there and that it is a flawed but useful piece of technology, you are better able to spot the places where it fails. Alder writes that players may keep a journal and experiment with methods of “de-layering,” or intentionally seeking the lost edges of communication to become more aware of it. Dreaming is one such method, psychedelics another.
“Attempt to see the crooked, beautiful weirdness of every body you cross pass with,” Alder writes. “Allow yourself to become uncomfortable with implications you weren’t ready for yesterday.”
I think it would be nice to play this game with the universe.
Good Bones is the game that scares me most. I had the most to say about Teen Witch, but that’s because being a teen witch scares me a lot less than the mind/body harmony Good Bones suggests.
In this game, the player understands that their body is home to many things, and some of those things are bones. Bones have an ancient, esoteric magic about them, waiting to be woken up. You have to ask your bones for help, and you have to thank them for being there, developing a relationship between yourself and your bones that is based in service and gratitude.
I have lived long enough with trauma that there doesn’t seem to be a me outside of it. I can’t fathom myself without this weight. I can’t drop it, I can’t let it go, because it sometimes feels like the only thing that I am. It makes me up as surely as my bones.
This isn’t a healthy viewpoint. In the design notes section, Alder discusses her own relationship with depression and its romanticization, the feeling that to be artistic or thoughtful or cool, one must also be depressed. She developed Good Bones to combat that, reframing her relationship with mental illness to be a more compelling story.
“What if recovery was incredibly badass, super esoteric, and fully engaged with the darkness? What if recovery was more shadowy and strange than depression could ever claim to be?”
My relationship with my mental health is different from Alder’s. But part of the reason I’m scared to play Good Bones is how much sense it makes to me. I can’t help but see parallels between the work my therapist has me do and magical rituals, and when I see them that way, they feel simultaneously silly and like maybe they really are magical.
“If you’re dead inside, why not try necromancy?” Alder asks.
There is always an answer, and there is always another way. Necromancy may be an ancient, forbidden art, but it may also be healing.
We’ve Been Stranger Things
We’ve Been Stranger Things is not a game. It’s a manifesto on what Alder describes as “impossibility models,” a variation on Laverne Cox’s own variation on “role models.” A possibility model, Cox’s term, is a model that goes beyond imitation—instead of aiming to be the next Laverne Cox, a person might aim to also be a prominent trans actor, but in a way that is uniquely them, not a recreation of what worked in the past. An impossibility model, Alder’s term, is a model informed not by what is possible, but what is impossible—a person may become something totally new, something outside the confines of what our deeply flawed culture tells us we can be.
Our possibilities are flawed.
“It’s important,” she writes, “to sincerely imagine impossible things, to develop empathy towards impossible creatures, to practice being impossible.” This is the goal of the games within Variations on Your Body—to imagine a model of being that isn’t possible, but that nonetheless gets you where you need to go.
As Alder explains, living within systems like patriarchy and capitalism means that our possibility models, those things that show us an alternate, achievable reality for ourselves, also spring from these same systems, systems that may harm us or make us hate ourselves. Our possibilities are flawed. Healing comes from imagining models outside of these systems—models that may feel as impossible as becoming a teen witch when you are a 31-year-old woman.
“We can imagine helpful fae guiding us home,” Alder writes. “We can really and truly believe that helpful fae are guiding us home. We can giggle about how silly that idea is. We can keep believing it anyway, if we want to.”
Healing doesn’t feel good. Reliving life-long trauma with my therapist every two weeks feels like having a rake dragged through the detritus in my head. Repeating stupid mantras I ought to know already feels like being a child looking up at the stars and holding a necklace in her hands, wishing for friends. It feels like naivety. It feels embarrassing. I think, daily, about quitting and resigning myself to carrying these weights around for however much time I have left in my life.
And then I repeat them again, imagining a world in which they sink in and I believe them as easily as I believe other true things. Sometimes I laugh while I do this, but I do it anyway.
Maybe I am, in my own way, already playing.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.