games and places


Perils of the Sea

Crafting the boats

Crafting the boats

Perils of the Sea is a game where you make a tiny boat, name it, decorate it, perhaps grow to care about it, and then send it out to an almost-inevitable doom.

I've been really interested in craft games recently - how engrossed people get in the proccess of making, how freeing it can be to have an excuse to construct a real physical thing, how little it matters to a lot of players whether they think their creation is any "good".

And making stuff isn't just fun in itself: it's a way to get players invested. Of course, we know all about this sort of investment from digital games - the time we'll spend getting a personalised avatar to look just right makes it hard to ignore. 

So when the National Maritime Museum asked for a new half-hour game about the dangers of the sea, as part of their Dark and Stormy Late, it seemed like a good chance to explore the role of craft in games. I wanted people to control a boat that they had a connection to, to feel a pang if it was destroyed - so I got them to make the boat themselves.

In the first fifteen minutes of the game, players made themselves a folded paper boat, then used marker pens and stickers to decorate it and give it a name. A few even built sails. (After a lot of thought, I decided not to explicitly tell them that the boats might be destroyed later - but did warn them that they'd be travelling through an awful lot of dangerous situations, and "might not make it").

Rocks, craft and endangered boats.

Rocks, craft and endangered boats.

Then the players then had to balance their boat on their hand and navigate through a "rocky sea" - well, an area of the museum scattered with jagged cardboard pieces. If you dropped their boat, or knocked into a rock, then your creation was gone, plummeting to the depths. In the real world, this means you'd be asked to tear your boat in half.

Players had to sail through the rocks a few times, dealing with different circumstances - "a moonless night", for example, which meant navigating the rocks with their eyes closed while a friend called out directions; or "high winds", in which players whose ships had been destroyed waved paper fans to try to dislodge the remaining boats. 

Destroying the boats seems harsh, and there were a few gasps when I announced the rule - but from working on games like Nowhere I'd Rather Be, I'd learnt that people don't necessarily want to keep the things they craft for a game. My hope was that tearing up the boats would hurt just enough that their loss would feel like a small genuine sadness, but that it wouldn't make anyone genuinely upset: they'd have just ended up throwing out the boats anyway.

In the end, three boats made it through the rocks, out of around twenty. The sea can be a dangerous place.

Holly Gramazio