July, being the peak of summer here in the US, is maybe not the time when we’re at our most introspective. But maybe it should be! This month, we’re taking a look at journaling games, a genre of… well, we’ll call them physical games, because that’s what itch.io does. In these games, players use notebooks or their preferred writing format to respond to game prompts, sometimes ending up with an art object (a la keepsake games), sometimes with a great story, and sometimes just (just!) with a wonderful experience under your belt.
What was your introduction to journaling games?
Maddi Butler: My first journaling game was One Day at a Thyme by Jei D. Marcade. It’s a cozy game in which the player takes on a whimsical cottage lifestyle. The player rolls to determine where their cottage is located, and uses the die and a set of playing cards to determine what events will occur in a day. This is all then recorded in a journal entry or a series of journal entries, which can be as long or as short as you like. I didn’t have playing cards at the time, so I adapted Kevin Jay Staton’s Botanica Tarot deck, which really added to the whimsy and magic of the game. Even though I only played through about half the deck, my journal entries ended up being… quite long, and I really enjoyed my time with the game.
Melissa Brinks: This is such an interesting question because I feel like most of the solo TTRPGs I’ve played, such as Fairyland Confidential and Field Guide to Memory are to some extent journaling games, even if they wouldn’t bill themselves that way. I don’t know a ton about the genre, but I feel like these games encourage me to put myself into the story and occupy the headspace of a character to craft a story, which is… maybe not exactly like journaling, but it felt a lot like that while I was playing them!
Emily Durham: Like what Missy said, my first experience with “journaling games” was with games that might not actually bill themselves that way. I’m thinking specifically of Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year and The Deep Forest, two TTRPGs that encourage their players to carefully (and literally) map out the challenges faced by communities struggling with the lingering effects of the apocalypse and colonialism, respectively. In my now many experiences playing The Quiet Year, I’ve created dozens of maps, with friends and independently, and taken lots of my own notes documenting what happened in each game. Sometimes my notes are disjointed and cryptic, and sometimes they are haunting and poignant. In its own words, The Quiet Year “occupies an interesting space—part roleplaying game, part cartographic poetry,” and, yeah. I would agree.
Zainabb Hull: I’m with Melissa and Emily, I think most solo TTRPGs end up being “journaling games” of some kind, where you’re expected to chronicle stories that usually unfold episodically, over the course of several “turns.” I also appreciate that journaling games (loosely defined) tend to allow the flexibility to record entries in whatever format most appeals—writing, audio recordings, drawings, even messages sent via text or Discord. One of my first really memorable experiences of a journaling game was with Haulways Trucking Inc (which I wrote about for Sidequest!), a game where you play as a long-haul trucker and describe the stops you make along a route. I loved how much room there was to play with tone and atmosphere although I opted for a “Lynchian horror” sort of vibe. I’ve also enjoyed playing The Wretched and I’m currently playing The Mysteries of Addy Sea, so I guess you could say my favourite flavour of journaling game is “lonely.”
What’s the appeal of this style of gameplay to you?
Maddi: As a former child who got way too excited to volunteer to read writing journal prompts out loud in elementary school English classes, everything about this style of gameplay appeals to me. I also love having an excuse to use one of the many blank notebooks I have lying around.
I also really enjoy that these types of games can be played with relatively little fuss. Journaling games don’t require a huge amount of space or a large time commitment; they can be played in long or short moments as I have time, and picked up, put down, and returned to as needed.
Emily: I also have far, far too many blank and half-empty notebooks lying around. I was an English major in college, and I took several classes on essaying, memoir, and yes, even journaling itself. So I’m an experienced thought-jotter, and if I can make my already self-reflective note-taking into a game? Absolutely I want to do that.
Zainabb: While I have to use a word processor rather than a real notebook (the dream!), I agree with Maddi that I appreciate not needing loads of space or fancy equipment to play journaling games. And as someone with a friend group made up entirely of neurodivergent and/or disabled people, it’s complicated to make plans to play group games together. Being able to engage with TTRPGs, even on my own, is comforting and it’s fun to flex my fiction writing muscles. It took me several real-life weeks to finish Haulways Trucking Inc due to my fluctuating capacity, but that only added to the sense of embodying a long-haul trucker.
Melissa: I really like that these kinds of games encourage creativity through play! It’s easier for me to let loose and experiment with writing when I am doing it for play and not for something I might want to polish later. Writing in pen means I’m committed to whatever I put down, and I don’t have to worry about it because it’s play. There’s no need to go back and edit; I just feel and respond and experience in the moment, and I honestly find, looking back at my journals for these games, that I’m proud of the writing I did in them even though it wasn’t edited or even really planned. I often miss the freedom that I felt in writing before I thought of writing as something I could do for publication, and journaling games help me tap into that feeling again.
Maddi: To piggyback on Zainabb and Melissa’s responses, I also love the solo aspect of journaling games. I’m interested in tabletop games, but I don’t have a group to play with and even if I did, scheduling anything with a bunch of others in their late twenties is an absolute nightmare. I really appreciate that these games allow me to play at my own pace, and I can still feel like I’m playing a game without having to stare at a screen.
And as Melissa said, it really does feel like play. I’m a habitual self-editor as I write, which can make for a very slow, nitpicky, and agonizing writing process at times. Not being able to edit pen on paper in the way I would in a Google Doc is somewhat freeing. I think that having to live with my imperfect journal entries is very good for both me and my creative process.
Have you ever had a really great moment playing a journaling game? What was it? Is there anything about it that made it unique to journaling games, as opposed to another form of game?
Emily: Last year, I played A Mending, a keepsake game by Shing Yin Khor. It is one of the only self-described “journaling games” I’ve played, as well as my favorite. Also a “keepsake game,” it was my first experience with embroidery, a hobby I’ve now taken up with great vigor quite literally because of this game. In A Mending, the player is charting a character’s journey on a physical map using a needle and thread, along the way (much like The Quiet Year) drawing from a special deck of prompt cards to steer their path.
I don’t know that I can point to a specific single moment from that game as my favorite, but I will say that at various points, my character waxed eloquent about foraged foods (honey acorn chutney, mulberry wine), remembered an unrequited love who once climbed a tree and mistakenly grabbed a bees’ nest, and even befriended a stray dog. And because the prompts were so intentionally vague, everything—every single thing—was introspective. All of my notes are written as though they’re my character’s memories, or her inner monologue, which is unlike any other game I’ve ever played. It’s been over a year, but I did my journaling in my phone’s Notes app, and there my notes will sit. I’ll never delete them.
Zainabb: I love that, Emily! As an enthusiastic embroiderer myself, this sounds like an incredible game and it makes me happy to hear about its impact on you. I’m not sure I’ve had specific stand-out moments with journaling games, but I have found myself exploring themes or moments in journaling games that have affected me in unexpected ways. I’ve frequently found that these moments revolve around horror and maybe that speaks to the way I engage with journaling in general; my regular, non-gaming journal is a place to dump my feelings and prod at stuff that might feel too uncomfortable to say out loud. Those moments of horror tend to surprise me but they’re cathartic, often detached enough from my real life to feel safe to explore. It’s not something I’d necessarily feel up to doing in a group and it might be more difficult to conjure up those spaces in more structured TTRPGs.
Melissa: My first game of Fairyland Confidential ended poorly because I misunderstood the rules, but transforming that failure into a compelling end for my character was actually a lot of fun. I wanted to tell a complete story, albeit with an inconclusive ending, so I had to spend some time working my character’s failure into a disappearance through a fairy portal. It’s not the kind of ending I’d have chosen, which made it a real flex of my creative muscles!
Do you use journaling games to inspire creativity? What is it about journaling games that’s good for getting those creative juices flowing?
Maddi: Inspiring creativity is a huge part of the appeal of journaling games for me. I write fiction in fits and starts, and right now all of the projects I’ve started are on the backburner. I love that playing them feels like a really low-stakes way to write something, with no expectation of ever showing an audience. I can practice writing the things that I am terrible at writing in fiction with no pressure at all. For example, I tend to write very character-focused fiction, but One Day at a Thyme made me think more about environment and worldbuilding a lot, which was really inspiring.
I also find just reading various rulebooks inspiring because I love seeing the different types of prompts and stories people come up with. Each scenario is so unique, but by the virtue of journaling the act of playing the game becomes really a personal, intimate, and individual experience.
Emily: Absolutely! And I agree with you, Maddi—my experience with journaling games has been that they’ve had a tendency to pull me away from my normal method of writing fiction, (character/dialogue/narrative at the forefront) and make me take a step back and focus on the smaller details, the imagery. I love how they force me to slow down and dig into specific small moments.
Zainabb: I love using journaling games for creativity and specifically for writing fiction. I used to write fiction a lot but it’s something that’s faded over the years, and I miss it often. Like Maddi says, journaling games offer a way back into fiction writing that has a lower barrier for entry and it’s great for exploring characters, ideas or situations I wouldn’t come up with on my own. Despite the eclectic settings and prompts of the journaling games I enjoy, I gravitate towards writing in tones and about themes that most interest me—which I also appreciate as a reminder that I still have a distinctive fiction writing voice.
Melissa: I mentioned this a bit already, but games give me the freedom to play. I treat writing like work, because to me it is work. Writing as a game, something I’m not doing for any purpose other than to enjoy it or experience something new, frees me of the concerns I have about writing as work—how it sounds to another person, whether it’s cliche, whether it makes sense, et cetera. Play is a powerful thing, and games that encourage my creativity take me back to a time when I didn’t think of writing as a career goal. It’s freeing, and I come away from gaming sessions like these filled with inspiration. It’s actually quite easy to create something, but sometimes I need to be reminded of that fact.
Madison Butler is Sidequest’s self-proclaimed jock editor. She co-founded the blog Critsumption and once got really into powerlifting via Fitness Boxing for the Nintendo Switch. She tweets at @_maddilo.