A good thing is the series of recommendations from Vox. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should experience.
The world of tabletop role-playing games has traditionally been dominated by in-person experiences. A group of players, often a group of friends, gather around a table to tell a story together, following very loose rules and rolling dice to determine the outcome of important events. With each turn, players build up ideas introduced by other players, and the whole experience ends up being a strange combination of gameplay and improvised storytelling. At its best, it’s sublime.
RPGs can also be played on digital platforms. And in the era of quarantines caused by a pandemic, digital platforms are only way for many people to play these games (unless you live with your whole group of gamers). But something is lost in the transition to playing an RPG on Zoom or Roll20, an online platform that allows groups to play together via a virtual table and dice rolls. There is a physicality in RPGs, an electric sense in the air as everyone watches the dice roll and hopes for the best.
Alice has disappeared, one of the best and most unique RPGs I’ve ever tried, overcomes this digital divide by leaning into it. It’s a game played entirely by SMS, which means it can literally be played with a group scattered around the world using your trusty phone. Three to five players play the roles of characters who look into the disappearance of Alice, a girl from their small town; over about two hours of play (about 15 minutes for setup, exactly 90 minutes for the game itself, and about 15 minutes for the post-match chat), they text the clues they found in the game. hope to solve the mystery.
Alice Is Missing is so immersive that she actually asks you to change the names of your phone contacts from those of your real friends to the characters they play for the duration of the play session. a 90-minute playlist – full of officially licensed music! – which gives you a scary and haunting soundtrack.
If the story of a missing girl in a small town sounds a bit like Twin peaks, this is no accident. Alice Is Missing is strongly situated in the genre of “mysteries in a small town”. And if you really want to push the game into the supernatural, you probably can. But Alice Is Missing is the best I’ve found, when you keep it rooted in the day-to-day life sorrows of its teenage characters, who are stuck in a dead end town and have now lost a friend.
Alice Is Missing has a number of elements that suggest it lacks the free-form quality that makes other RPGs so endlessly replayable, where the details of the story being told change depending on the players gathered around the table. There is always a defined group of characters, and there are always very specific patterns sketched out on the cards you draw at the start of the game.
But the characters and the patterns are separate cards. And most importantly, while you choose your character, your design is randomly distributed to you. So your character – Alice’s older brother or secret girlfriend, for example – doesn’t always have the same motive. In a game, the girlfriend’s motive might be to ask as many questions as possible; in another, it might be to unconditionally defend Alice from any untoward suggestions made about her. At the start of the game, each player also records the last voice message they left for Alice, in secret; these voice messages are all read at the end of the game, after Alice’s fate has been revealed.
The identity and characteristics of Alice herself change based on a series of “missing persons posters” (printed in advance) showing different versions of a girl named Alice Briarwood, as well as questions that characters respond throughout the game. These questions are all open-ended enough to allow for a variety of interpretations.
I don’t know Alice is missing infinitely replayable, but I’ve played three times now, and each time the handful of discrete elements have combined in new ways to create very different games. And since all the details are worked out by drawing physical or virtual cards (including cards that introduce new suspects and new locations), players don’t need any special RPG knowledge to play.
Alice Is Missing will probably be the most fun if you play with someone who knows her or RPGs in general as they can explain everything to new players. But the instructions are straightforward, and even if you’ve never played an RPG before, a few minutes with the extremely well-written instruction booklet should clear it all up.
The SMS element is the number one reason to recommend Alice Is Missing. Even in person, it’s a completely silent game by design. It is meant to create the feeling of a tight-knit group of friends hoping to help each other out during a crisis by doing something (anything!) To gain some control over the tragedy, and at that it succeeds. I hate to spoil the events of this game, even in the abstract, but I was deeply moved by the time I spent playing it.
Alice Is Missing is the work of Spenser Starke, one of the most innovative RPG designers today. Its previous game Icarus – which simulates the fall of a great civilization by building a tall tower of bricks stacked higher and higher until they all collapse – is an equally cheeky revamp of RPG assumptions ( even if she at to play in person). Starke’s games focus less on rules and more on creating experiences in which powerful stories can be told. Alice Is Missing touches on a number of dark or complicated themes over the course of the game, but unlike some other games, it never feels exploitative, thanks to Starke’s thoughtful and sensitive design.
Too often it is very, very difficult for role-playing games to capture the feeling of life as it’s actually lived, rather than a fantasy adventure. But Alice Is Missing handles this feat with aplomb. It’s about the feeling of being a teenager yearning for something more, while fearing that something more will never come. And this is the unique (and for) heartbreak of young people, who will never know how much they missed.