Forget it Jake, it’s Sweettown

Something clicked in my head over a year ago: the board game Candyland could be used as an analog to the movie Chinatown.

No, bear with me here.

In Candyland, you have no agency. Candyland is a skill-teaching game, mainly for patience in turn-taking, pattern matching, and simple processes. There are no choices precisely because that would be against the role of the game in child development.

In Chinatown, Jake doesn’t really have much in the way of significant agency. He’s a film noir protagonist: someone who becomes embroiled in a deadly situation over his head, and is fortunate to survive at the end but doesn’t really achieve much in the way of change. To me, that’s the point of Chinatown and it’s a powerful point indeed.

For some reason, it clicks in my head that you could use Candyland as a base for a Chinatown story game. The reskin is simple but non-trivial:

  • There’s some overall “plot” regarding a bunch of characters investigating a murder.
  • Each of the “PCs” should have some little backstory on a card or something representing their role in the world.
  • Each of the eight colors are themed and also double-coded with a shape. Things like a black gun (for “Murder”), purple cocktail glass (for “Bar”), red high-heel shoe (for “Dames”), etc.
  • Each card would have a line of flavor to go with it. That’s the narrative input from a random engine, which would get coupled with some player reaction that shows character circumstance but not necessarily character agency.
  • Each character has 3 hit points (for lack of another term), which are checked off each time a gun card is drawn. When the third gun card is drawn, that character dies and that player is out of the game. Because it’s Sweettown, and murder can happen to those who stick their candy corn in places.
  • No matter what, the player has no choice in the game (beyond little bits of narration). There’s no player agency in Sweettown.

That means more in the way of art production and making up a bunch of little one-liners for a random film noir movie. And admittedly, it would be something that’s probably funny (but not fun) to play once on a lark, but making it a good game would take, well, a lot of work and scrapping the underpinning idea of having no agency. So it’s a thought exercise, a little bit of an amusement, and possibly the kernel of a future idea.

– Ryan


3 Responses to Forget it Jake, it’s Sweettown

  1. Mendez says:

    I just watched Chinatown for the first time the other day. This is great.

  2. H. M. 'Dain' Lybarger says:

    It might not be necessary to scrap the underpinning idea.

    As described, I think the game could be fun to play (and even fun to play more than once). The fun comes not from having agency in the story, but from *telling* the story. The game system gives you these little oracular one-liners and bits of information. You then engage your imagination to turn them into a narrative–and making up the narrative is the fun. (Admittedly, maybe that’s just me…)

    As the comic referenced above points out, the outcome is fixed as soon as the deck is shuffled. Choice and chance have no effect on the outcome; but two tables of players playing with identically-stacked decks will still generate two different noir film narratives when they play Sweettown.

    Hmmm… Maybe what I’m really trying to say here is that the player’s don’t have agency to affect the outcome, but they *do* have agency to shape the narrative. For me, at least, that’s enough agency to be entertaining.