Hello Strix, Marissa and Sarah!
Thanks for answering a few questions about noir themes and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth for each of you? Why?
SB: If you’d asked me this last month [note: questions were asked in 2015!] I wouldn’t have had an answer for you, but right now it’s absolutely Jessica Jones. The Netflix series delves into so much great content I don’t even know where to begin. Noir as a tradition has often struggled against (somewhat correct) perceptions of it not being very diverse. When you think of a gumshoe you conjure up a white guy in a hat, sitting behind a desk and talking to a “dame,” right? Jessica Jones blows all of that right out of the water.
MK: It is hard to choose favorites, but I really love Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 2. I think there are a lot of interesting and fun sleuthy-noir themes in that game. Shepard dies and comes back, she doesn’t know who she is really working for, and she struggles to save the galaxy even though she is a total badass.
SR: Probably Phèdre nó Delaunay from the Kushiel’s Legacy series of books. She a courtesan who’s also trained as a spy, so she’s basically foiling a bunch of kingdom-destroying plots by sleeping with the right people and figuring out all their schemes. She has quite a bit of the “femme fatale” feel of traditional noir stories (and oh does she bring trouble with her), but it’s told through the lens of a society that values free love above all things and was founded by a fallen angel. There’s also a bit of explicit S&M. It’s a really great series.
You may or may not consider your game to be part of the "noir" genre, but it uses the central story of Bluebeard's Bride to make social critique through what is in essence a first-person investigation of a murder in the offing. Noir at its best provides an avenue for fiction to address the ways that society and social structures are harmful or corrupt, as well as the ways our human failings turn us against one another. What are the issues you see your game engaging players with?
SB: It’s an investigation of many murders! But really, it’s a metaphor for the investigation of self and one’s position in the world. Bluebeard’s mansion is a double image, in some ways a mirror of the Bride’s mind, and in some ways representative of the cage that many women find themselves put in. Feminine horror is unique to the feminine perspective, and that’s really what we’re after.
MK: I don’t think of Bluebeard’s Bride as a noir game, but like you said, I think there are a few elements that can be examined through a noir lens, especially the strict societal pressures. The main character is the Bride. She has no name and she is bound by societal pressures to be the bride of Bluebeard and nothing more. If she dies in the house no one will remember her name and if she get’s away, society may still shun her for being disloyal to her nefarious husband.
SR: One of the reactions I get most frequently from male players is anger at how helpless they feel. So as both Marissa and Strix mentioned, it pushes a lot against the roles that society expects women to fulfill, as well as the pressures we put on ourselves. Pressure to be perfect, to be beautiful, to be the perfect wife - these are all things that show up in the game in a magnified way, and then the players can choose how they react - at least within societal strictures.
What is your approach to creating a mystery in Bluebeard's Bride?
SB: The outcome of Bluebeard’s Bride is not a mystery. You know that more likely than not you will meet a grisly end. Therefore the mystery lies within the story of the mansion. I tend to let players dig their own holes. They will naturally gravitate towards setting up and exploring mysteries. My biggest challenge is keeping out of their way, and putting in the right twists at the right time to deliver dramatic beats.
MK: Each room contains its own mystery. We give the GM tools for creating a room with a theme and objects that introduce twists and turns. Each room is it’s own contained mystery where the Bride must decide what happened to who, and why. We place responsibility of stitching together the clues set by the GM and coming up with what events actually transpired with the players, so even the observation of horrors is active rather than passive.
SR: A lot of it is atmosphere. Early on, I had players ask me why they couldn’t just go outside, and my answer was to create a thunderstorm that starts up when you arrive at the house. It’s practical, but it’s really fantastic at creating this foreboding feeling, plus appropriately-timed thunder. The rooms themselves, like Marissa said, are their own little mysteries, and I like to package them up with little touches that are a bit unsettling, like a sofa sitting in the middle of an empty room, or a covered birdcage that has some not-birdlike scratching coming from within.
Can you each tell us a little about what Bluebeard's House is like when your run it?
SB: I love pulling from the Mexican literary tradition of magical realism, surrealism, and mythological archetypal symbolism. I want players to feel like the world is sliding out from under them. A bending, glittering kaleidoscope of experience wrapped around symbolic anchors which act as access points for poignancy and discovery. It’s a little like hallucinating in an art gallery. The paintings are deeply moving, but when you look at them you bring your own meaning, and what you see could be sublime or utterly horrifying. Or both. Because this is a horror game, I do push players towards the horrifying more often. My landscapes tend to be vividly jewel toned and ephemeral, pre-modern, and marked by an eerie “out of space and time” quality.
MK: Every room wants something from the Bride and the hallways of the house are haunted by what the Bride can’t leave behind as she continues from room to room. I try to scare my players, so what occupies the house is an ever evolving mixture of my nightmares and the fears that keep my players up at night.
SR: Most of the time mine is all gothic period dressing, so stone walls and rich fabrics and antique heirlooms and such. I point out how physically uncomfortable the Bride probably is, and then it’s a slow slide into intense discomfort, with ordinary objects and situations turning threatening. That’s what’s scary to me - things and people that should be safe but aren’t, objects that breathe and bleed, and horrors that speak directly to the players.
What is most important to you as you work on the game?
SB: For me, it’s keeping true to our vision. We’re in new territory. No one’s ever published a feminine horror RPG before, at least that I know of. Because there’s not a precedence, people will often try to fit it into other genres that they already understand, because that’s more comfortable. Most often, people will lean towards playing Bluebeard’s Bride as a haunted house game, which it really is not. Being very careful to bake in the type of play that we want out of the game will continue to be key.
MK: My biggest hope is that we can design a solid experience that will be fun and scary for players. Horror is a hard genre to capture, but we are doing a lot to deliver that experience. I also hope that this game will challenge a patriarchal conception of feminine agency.
SR: I really love the horror elements, and bringing forth how intensely personal horror can be during play. I hope the book will not only help people run a game of Bluebeard’s Bride that is true to the feminine experience, but also give them ideas on how to run fantastic horror games in general.
Thank you so much for chatting with me about your compelling game in progress!
Strix Beltrán (SB) is a game writer, designer, and academic in both the analogue and digital space. She likes horror movies and cats. She wears elf ears as often as she can get away with it. Follow her @The_Strix or see what she's up to at StrixWerks.com.
Marissa Kelly (MK) is the co-founder of Magpie Games, author of Epyllion, and co-author of Bluebeard’s Bride. In addition to her design work, Marissa also handles art direction for Magpie Games, John Wick Presents (7th Sea), Evil Hat Productions (Fate Worlds), and Storium. She also works as a paleontology intern throughout the year, spending her summers in Montana and Wyoming doing fieldwork.
Sarah Richardson (SR) is a graphic artist who illustrates, lays out, and creates tabletop RPGs. She has several other games currently in development alongside Bluebeard's Bride, and also handles marketing for Magpie Games. You can see her artwork at www.scorcha.net and follow her on Twitter as @scorcha79.