As a newly converted fan of solo tabletop RPGs, Field Guide to Memory immediately caught my attention—not only did it combine my passing interest in pretty journals with cryptozoology, but it featured contributions from several of my favorite authors.
Field Guide to Memory
Jeeyon Shim and Shing Yin Khor
February 8, 2021
I should have known that the journey through it would be an emotional one, but I still wasn’t entirely prepared for how I’d feel at the end. Because while Field Guide to Memory is a journaling game, it’s also a lot more than that—it’s a permission slip to enter a space of mindfulness, gratitude, and harmony with your surroundings.
In Field Guide to Memory, initially delivered as a series of emails and now available in PDF form, you play as the mentee of Dr. Elizabeth Lee, a cryptozoologist who has gone missing in search of the pronghorned desert rat, Dipodymus antilocapra. You read the emails or the PDF, which contain letters and prompts you respond to in a journal of your choosing. But even that is putting it too simply; “playing” Field Guide to Memory is significantly different from how you play most other TTRPGs.
Please don’t take those scare quotes to imply that the play you do in this game is in some way inferior to other games—it isn’t. But it is different. Instead of responding to the whims of random dice rolls or drawn cards, each player will respond to the same pieces of correspondence as they try to recover Dr. Lee’s research from a bureaucratic institution. Though there is some variation in which letters you’ll respond to depending on chance coin flips, the majority of the prompts, whether they’re letters from young scientists or cryptic messages from people who may want to help, will be the same for every player.
But the experience of it—reading the prompts, responding as your character, drawing a rabbit’s gait on a napkin, crumpling up an angry letter and throwing it across the room—is unique to each player. The game I played springs from the same well as every other player, but no two journals will be alike. My sketch of the burlesque Gumburoo outfit won’t look like anyone else’s. My character believes that Dr. Lee is dead—others may not. My amateurish drawings of local flora and fauna differ from the drawings of those who live in other biomes.
Instead of being at the whims of randomness, you’re primarily left alone with your thoughts and creativity. The game hands you a prompt and you respond. Though you can play the game however you like, one of creators Jeeyon Shim and Shing Yin Khor’s stated goals with the game is to create a keepsake—hence the term “keepsake games,” which they coined (alongside “connected path game”) to describe the unique experience of playing Field Guide to Memory. Each keepsake created through play is special to the player, even if we’re all responding to the same prompts.
Before the entirety of 2020 happened, I’d been hoping to start a travel journal—some kind of mixture of scrapbooking and journaling that would serve as a reminder of trips I’ve taken, whether it was a day trip to a nearby city or a longer trip to somewhere I’d never been. Something had been holding me up, though; I’ve seen beautiful travel journals put together by watercolor artists and YouTubers and people on Pinterest, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to live up to that standard. I wanted a beautiful art object to remember my travels by, but I feared I lacked the skills to achieve it.
Field Guide to Memory probably didn’t set out to cure me of this hesitation, but it is a deeply appreciated side effect. Because while I didn’t spend as much time or effort making beautiful entries as many other people did—browsing the #FieldGuideToMemory tag on Twitter or Instagram can show you how beautiful some of these journals are—I still came away with something I’m grateful to have on my shelf. This art object I created, some of it torn, some of it ugly, some of it nice, is for me and me alone. There’s a special joy in that, especially in a world where we’re encouraged to monetize and share our every interest.
And this idea is something baked into Field Guide to Memory, even if it does have sharing on social media as an encouraged (but not at all required) part of the game. In addition to the game’s prompts, there are also notes from Jeeyon Shim, including further reading and suggestions for getting in touch with the world around you. These suggestions tie into the game thematically, but they’re also just good practices. At the game’s recommendation, I’ve spent more time sitting outside (when it’s not raining), just listening to birds and seeing what weird little bugs hang out in my backyard. The more time I spend in stillness, the more I can appreciate this space and my place in it; this, in turn, makes me care more about my immediate surroundings—my backyard, the retention ponds next door, the protected natural growth that separates my home from the highway.
Without spoiling the events of the game, one of the final tasks is to write a note of gratitude to a real-life person who taught you something fundamental to the person you are now. You don’t have to send it; the act of writing it, of putting gratitude into words, is what matters. Sign the note of gratitude, affix a pressed leaf to it, and send it out into the world—not to the person you addressed it to, but send it nonetheless. This simple exercise is something genuinely valuable, and the game gives us the permission, the excuse, to do it.
Field Guide to Memory reminds me of Variations on Your Body, in that way. These games may not feel like “play” in the usual game sense—you don’t win or lose, the stakes are so low as to be nonexistent, and there’s few elements of randomness or chance. They feel like something else: the kind of play we did as children, where make-believe is not just something done for fun, but as a means of learning about the world and finding out who we are through experimentation. Games like Field Guide to Memory, whether intentionally or not, give us permission to do things we might otherwise be resistant to—things that feel unproductive in our capitalist world, things that feel embarrassing in our hyper-critical world.
The journal I created isn’t beautiful. I won’t show it off to anybody. But the habits I’ve picked up—practicing gratitude, experiencing my environment, hell, just remembering that I can press flowers!—are as much keepsakes as the physical object itself. Though I wrote my note upon finishing the game weeks ago, this review, too, is a note of gratitude—I’m grateful for the beauty Field Guide to Memory brought into my life in a dark year, for the reminder of the importance of small joys, and for a touching experience unlike any other.
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.