Perfectly emotional

My friend Joe made a game called Perfect. It’s about an alternate Victorian world, where daring criminals commit acts of passionate rebellion, the only flaws in a perfect and ordered society. Relentless Inspectors track them, capture them, and attempt to break them, conditioning them to be perfect citizens. Sometimes they succeed, but sometimes the fire of defiance burns bright.

I’ll lay all my cards on the table, here: Joe’s a pal, and I’m a fan of the game, and I’m posting to promote it. He just wrapped up the final edition—Perfect Unrevised—and is taking preorders. But this blog is about my personal experience, so that’s the angle from which I’ll look at Perfect, and examine why I love the game so much.

Last year I participated in Perfect’s final playtest and played a game with my friends Hans and Harry which ended up being one of my most fulfilling games ever, joining the ranks of Burning Wheel Ireland and Shock: Science Utopia. We had a nice, tight game of about four sessions that really pushed our buttons in a great way.

Perfect takes place in the society of Cadence, where the meek, beloved child-queen Abigail decreed before her death that everyone should be exactly like her, and never change. Now, years later, Cadence is regimented, drab and orderly, and black-suited Inspectors patrol as a secret police to ensure that this perfect society continues forever. The malcontent and rebellious are found out, captured and conditioned with various mind control and torture techniques to give up their criminal ways and become good citizens.

Hans, Harry and I each created a criminal: Chastity Ashford was a factory worker and foreman’s daughter who delighted in creating subversive graffiti, Jonathan Ayers was a postal employee with a master plan beginning with subversive art and moving up to bloody revenge, and Orville Patton was a small, shy governor’s assistant bent on punishing the corrupt and decadent.

Once you create your criminals, play is quite straightforward and smooth. For each player, it follows a cycle: Crime, in which you commit an illicit act, from art and hedonism to theft and murder; Discovery, in which you attempt to evade detection and incarceration; Retribution, in which you, if caught, must resist interrogation and brainwashing; and Reflection, in which you cap off your rebellion with a brief epilogue about the results of the crime and/or punishment.

That structure, in addition to being a breeze to play, proved amazingly robust for exploring what was important to us about these characters. You get to see them committing daring acts of passion, see them evading capture with canny poise or blind terror, and finally see them either bearing up defiantly or yielding pitifully at the attempt to break their spirit. The brief game produced moments of stirring triumph, agonizing suspense, and poignant heartbreak.

In our particular game, briefly: Chastity was cheeky, promiscuous, and supremely confident. She organized a resistance movement, but when the Inspectors crushed their open uprising, she lost all will to fight the system. Jonathan had a grand design, uncovering a painting of each freshly committed crime from a mural in his private quarters. He was eventually manipulated by a scheming Inspector into murdering a rival Inspector—who had captured and killed Jonathan’s brother some years before. Jonathan was tortured and killed, but not before smuggling his seditious mural into a museum. Orville was a mild and unassuming man who secretly held a righteous rage for the carnal excesses of those in power. As he exacted vigilante justice, his body was broken but his spirit stayed strong, and he founded an anti-corruption movement while finding carnal love of his own in a fellow crusader who found his purity inspiring.

The entire game oriented us toward telling these stories vividly and well. The setting is gorgeously, poetically repressive, and sketched out in a just-enough-detail swath that keeps out of your way while providing great story inspiration. The characters are created with a selection of Archetypes, which simply serve to point you in a direction for character motivation and portrayal. For instance, Chastity was a Hedonist Vandal, Jonathan a Romantic Vandal, and Orville an Idealist Judge.

The crime and punishment cycle was elegant and as noted above, perfectly primed for spotlighting what was important about the setting and characters. To start with, the crime you commit always succeeds. This brilliant touch means that you always start a session showing off your character in all their romantic, rebellious or sadistic glory, and the focus moves from “do you succeed?” to “what are the consequences?”

And as play proceeds, every oppressive force in the society of Cadence moves to stamp out all trace of liberty and individuality in your Criminals. After each unfettered moment of triumph, upright citizens and Inspectors will relentlessly spy, snoop, question, torture, and condition you to ferret out your crimes and “correct” your malignancy. Any contacts you forge can be threatened, and if caught you risk having the most precious parts of your identity stripped away. The game ramped up tension and released it, leading to a waveform of ever-escalating crimes and retributions that had us aching for the fate of our characters.

Perfect, for us, was focused game. It was a narratively rich game. And above all, it was an emotional game. It caused us to think deeply and feel deeply about control, rebellion and the cost of resistance. And that’s the highest praise I can give.



3 Responses to “Perfectly emotional”

  1. March 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Hey Joel! Stumbled across your blog through story-games.com. I played Fiasco with you guys in Portland, when I visited in October!

    I’m super excited to play this game now. I have the PDF from the Sight for Sore Eyes bundle but I haven’t read through it yet. It’s nice to see an actual playtest report on it.

  2. 2 Joel
    March 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Awesome, June! Great to hear from you!

    Perfect is very rad, and quite smooth to play. And as I described here, potentially quite powerful! I hope you enjoy it.

    If you’re ever up Portland way again, I’d love to play with you.

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