Field Guide to Memory seemed to release at the exact time I needed it; it was fool’s spring up here in the Pacific Northwest, when the sun is out but the air is biting cold, and I was feeling tired and burned out from writing. What better to rekindle my creativity and drive me outside to look at birds and pick leaves than a journaling game about cryptids?
But Field Guide isn’t only a journaling game—creators Jeeyon Shim and Shing Yin Khor have coined two new genres to describe the game’s use of crafting, imagination, and play: connected path and keepsake games. They outlined these ideas in public Patreon posts, discussing how each style of play can result in enriching, engaging experiences that stem from their unique interests as creators. In keepsake games, you create an artifact—the keepsake—through imaginative play within the structure the designer provides. In connected path games, you do the same, but the story and object of play—the keepsake, for example—can be shared with other players or people as part of the play.
“We first started to describe connected path games as essentially show and tell,” said experience designer and cartoonist Shing Yin Khor. “I feel like you just really tap into that kind of childish, primal nature of finding a dead lizard under a rock and being like, ‘Look at what I found!'”
Though finding a dead lizard may not be to everyone’s taste, there is a sense of joy and emotional connection in sharing a surprising experience together. In Field Guide to Memory, one prompt has players sharing their notes on social media to crowdsource more information, the action tinged with frustration with bureaucracy and a need to share knowledge. It’s a beautiful moment of connection borne of irritation, allowing players—and their in-universe characters—to experience these emotions and their place in the story together.
Mechanically, these games—Field Guide to Memory and the others, such as A Mending and The Last Will and Testament of Gideon Blythe, both forthcoming after successful Kickstarter campaigns—may surprise players. The creation of the artifact is central to the experience, meaning the mechanics include things like embroidery, journaling, or scrapbooking.
“There are different ways of framing mechanics,” says outdoor educator and game designer Jeeyon Shim. “Like when we talk about mechanics and tabletop roleplaying games, the immediate industry archetype is there’s dice tables and inventory stats and classes and rankings and stuff like that.” But that’s not the case with keepsake and connected path games; in these genres, players create physical objects, using their imaginations to immerse themselves in the narrative. What you come away with in the end is not a character sheet of numbers and notes, but a tangible object of your journey—and, hopefully, a new skill.
Khor describes keepsake games as “hobby starters,” as these games allow you to try out a new skill through play. The stakes are low but the rewards are high.
“[It] absolutely lowers the barrier to entry. Because you know what, they’re just games,” Khor says. “Anyone can play a game… We’re gonna trick you into making stuff. You like gaming? Well, by the end of this you’re going to be a pretty decent embroiderer.”
It’s difficult to pick up a new hobby in a world that encourages us to monetize our every moment. Weaving these hobbies into a game gives us permission to try them out without the expectation that we actually be any good.
Citing cartoonist Lynda Barry, Shim explains that the game is not the creation of a beautiful object to hang on your wall; it’s in the sense of play that’s often lost as we grow older. “At some point you say, ‘I’m not good at [art],'” she says. “When does that happen? Because that means something shifted and it went from something that you did just for the joy of creating to something where it’s about a value judgment… placed on you from outside of you. It happens to everybody, and some people recover from it and some people don’t.”
Anyone can play a game… We’re gonna trick you into making stuff.
These games might not cure you of the adult need to be good at things, but the freedom to try—to treat embroidery or scrapbooking or any other number of crafts—as play is part of what makes keepsake and connected path games so special. It’s no coincidence, either, that Shim and Khor have thus far chosen crafts often considered feminine in our culture, regardless of their origins or history.
“I love archery. I also love textile dyeing. To me, they are equal in skill,” says Shim.
Crafts like embroidery or scrapbooking both require skill, but are considered somewhat frivolous in our culture. Making them the subject of a game, particularly tabletop games—commonly associated with math, crunchy mechanics, and a general lack of participants of marginalized genders—exposes people not only to the myriad types of play that can exist in the world, but also to the knowledge that crafts like these require skill and result in the satisfaction of knowing you created something new.
But new kinds of play can be intimidating, and before playing Field Guide to Memory, some people were concerned that they’d fail to live up to their own expectations—that they’d forget to journal or that the keepsake they were left with wouldn’t be satisfying.
“They were afraid they’d be bad at it,” says Khor. “But… the win condition of this game is you get to day … The win condition is you finish it. And the moment you finish it, you’ve won. You’ve won the game. But also, I mean, 20 days of journaling is not an insignificant demand.”
These experiences of creation and play are rewarding for players, but also for developers Khor and Shim themselves. Both creators discussed how much they enjoyed seeing the creations people make on social media, and also how they benefited from creating this game together.
I love archery. I also love textile dyeing. To me, they are equal in skill.
Field Guide—and the genres of connected path and keepsake games—all started when Shim hopped into Khor’s DMs to ask if they wanted to collaborate on a project, using words like “cryptids” and “artifacts” to describe their goals. They bounced ideas off of one another and built on one another’s strengths, with Shim handling much of the writing and emotional beats and Khor spearheading the artwork and bureaucratic side of game development.
While each creator has their own set of skills, they also have shared life experiences that made working together a uniquely refreshing experience.
“This is the first time I’ve really collaborated this in-depth with another person of color, and also another Asian American person,” Shim says. “And we’re both from diaspora and that really makes quite a difference just in terms of not needing to explain things that are just experienced.”
These experiences also helped add depth to Dr. Lee’s story in Field Guide to Memory. Dr. Lee is a queer Asian woman whose story isn’t just about her own success in the cryptozoological field, but also the communities she built and fostered. Khor and Shim intentionally included that sense of community to showcase how the roadblocks in Dr. Lee’s career—resulting from institutional sexism, racism, and queerphobia—forced her to look elsewhere and eventually build the support and communities she needed.
“It also, I feel, allowed us to do a lot of nuanced things,” Khor says.
Khor explains that the major gatekeeper to Dr. Lee’s career—Dr. Ed Yang, Director of the Institute for Theoretical Evolutions—is an Asian man. From Dr. Lee’s perspective, Dr. Yang ought to have been an ally, someone who would have seen and understood her experiences as a marginalized person. That he doesn’t adds nuance and texture to the story.
“That’s only possible when you’re working in a comfortable space with other people of color,” says Khor. “Otherwise it would have been simple to just make the director your standard stereotypical white director, but I think it’s just so much more emotional to realize that Dr. Lee has this hope that she believed it could be better, and then it wasn’t, and that that is more heartbreaking than just going through institutional setbacks.”
Khor and Shim’s new harmonious creative partnership, a pandemic encouraging us to try new crafts and hobbies, and a growing mainstream awareness of climate change, racial injustice, and the benefits of slower living all seem perfectly timed for the success of connected path and keepsake games. But as Khor points out, these ideas are not new; that their game released amidst the pandemic isn’t entirely coincidental, but it wasn’t spurred on by it or any other things that gained mainstream attention last year, either.
“The thing that drives me most in the world is the desire to make space for marginalized people to explore and indulge their odd and varied passions, which might have absolutely nothing to do with their marginalization at all,” says Khor. “I want Jeeyon to make weird nerdy games about trees and squirrel watching. I want to make games about carving spoons, and other slow and methodical ways of making. It’s great that the world around us is increasing its awareness of climate change, racial injustice, and ‘slow’ culture, but also, some of us have been on this beat for a while.”
Shim and Khor’s work is thought-provoking and beautiful, and feels unique even within the diverse and growing tabletop game space. With many games forthcoming from both creators and games from other creators likely to follow, keepsake and connected path games are a genre to watch if you’re interested in games that press gently at the boundaries of our expectations, creating new, inspiring experiences for all kinds of players.
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.