clock menu more-arrow no yes
A watercolor painting of a rodent with horns, with a fountain pen next to it Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

Filed under:

Field Guide to Memory is a ‘keepsake’ game written inside your own personal journal

A guided role-playing exploration that generates a beautiful, personal object

The first thing I do is write down the dream in my diary, the one about Dr. Elizabeth Lee. I found the instructions in my email that morning, telling me to write about the dream, the desert, and “a dim, rust-colored sky.” And so, I do — using a notebook (one that’s dark purple like an eggplant) to which I’ve taped a drawing of a rose. But before this first entry, the one about the dream, I’ve used my collection of ink stamps to tap out a name on the flyleaf: Field Guide to Memory.

Field Guide to Memory is a narrative journaling game, a niche kind of role-playing game that blends creative writing and art with in-character play. It was created by artists Jeeyon Shim and Shing Yin Khor. The story is centered around the disappearance of Dr. Lee, a fictional cryptozoologist who’s recently been declared legally dead. Players take on the role of Dr. Lee’s mentee, responding to written prompts created by the developers and then collating it all into a journal.

the text reads “field guide to memory” Image: Jeeyon Shim, Shing Yin Khor

Field Guide was originally run as a live game, with prompts delivered daily to hundreds of participants via email. Each one developed their own story. The experience is now available as a self-run archive, and can be purchased as a PDF.

Shim and Khor developed Field Guide together. Throughout the game, the player offers their own insight through their journal — a physical book that documents their character’s diary, field notes, and correspondence with nonplayer characters.

My dream, the one about Dr. Lee, is part of Shim and Khor’s larger narrative, and the narrative of the community that surrounds Field Guide. But, it is also entirely unique to me. Shim and Khor call Field Guide a keepsake game, a game in which the designers and players collaborate in creating a physical object — “a gameplay artifact,” Khor explained to Polygon.

But this journal that I’m making — or rather, the journal that Shim and Khor are helping me to make — is much more than just an elevated version of the cloth maps that came with classic computer role-playing games.

“Keepsake games are not [...] games that simply have cool things in them,” Khor said. “This is something that is very much about the process of making, and the collaboration between the designer and the player.”

A leaf, feather, and animal skull on a notebook Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

The original live run of Field Guide added to the energy and momentum of the experience. Participants were able to share their impressions in real time on social media, each one representing a wildly divergent but strangely similar story. But Field Guide is no less interesting when you purchase the game on itch.io for $20. The PDF has everything you’ll need to play, aside from your journal; a few tools for writing, drawing, and labeling; and stuff you find in nature. From there, the solo RPG begins, first with character creation, and then ... that dream.

Following the story and universe in Field Guide means following daily prompts — one per day for 20 days — that come in the form of an email (if you’re on a live run) or from a PDF. The prompts are part story, part instruction, using a number of different media. Sometimes I’m sifting through research or letters. Elsewhere, I’m recalling in-character memories or flashbacks. With each of these prompts, the player then reflects the information back into their journal or in the real world: picking up a leaf outside and then drawing it; responding to letters from NPCs; recalling memories; writing down dreams; taking a sip of water, and then reflecting.

One day, I’m sent a prompt that tells me that my character had a flashback. It’s a partial memory told from the point of view of my character, its details filled in by Field Guide’s creators. The flashback is set on the night of my character’s college graduation. They and a friend visited a burlesque nightclub where dancers dressed as different cryptids. They invited Dr. Lee along, on a whim. Between portions of that recollection are prompts that instruct me to pause from reading to draw the bounding gaits of rabbits and rats — once without looking them up online, and another time where I’m to copy them from diagrams on a website sketched onto a cocktail napkin taken from the fictional burlesque club.

The game is filled with these sorts of Inception-like experiences, casting me as the character, having fantasies of a life I’ve never lived, then bringing that life into the physical world by carving it onto the pages of this book. The story Field Guide is telling throughout these daily prompts reflects these actions in a way that gives them emotion and meaning. Once I’m done, I tape the cocktail napkin — a doctored-up bit of paper towel I scavenged from the kitchen — into my journal and close the book.

Sometimes, prompts are suggestions for action. In an early prompt, I’m instructed to complete a morning routine, to stretch and take a sip of water before journaling. It’s an effective way to intertwine my own life with that of my character — a unique opportunity for solo play during a period in my life where I’ve otherwise struggled to find those moments.

a pile of nature books, with a leaf, a journal, and a feather Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

I’m playing Field Guide by myself, of course, but it’s also a “connected path game,” another term coined by Shim and Khor to describe the social connectedness between the players — between each other — and the creators.

“Keepsake games are the gift that you make of the gameplay process,” Shim said. “It’s the gameplay process distilled into this beautiful object. And connected path games are the process itself being shared, either in real time during a single live run, or at [a player’s] own pace.”

Shim continued: “Sharing is usually intuitive for people. And adults need to do that too.”

The connected path elements come in with how players are using social media to share their journals and experiences. Players have created elaborate in-world journals and shared their research, writings, and drawings with others, using the #FieldGuideToMemory hashtag.

It’s the sort of sharing and shared experience that people in crafting and making communities will be familiar with. As a knitter, I’ve participated in group knit-alongs — the act of multiple individuals knitting the same object, on a similar timeline, but each one remote and on their own. I’ve followed hashtags dutifully, sharing the joy and curiosity of watching someone else’s creation evolve alongside mine. Creating and sharing online comes naturally to these communities in a way that’s not often found in video game spaces.

A screenshot of gameplay in Field Guide to Memory Image: Jeeyon Shim, Shing Yin Khor

Of course, gaming is also about community. People do this all the time — telling the stories of what they’ve created inside a virtual world, Shim said, as if they’re telling a story around a campfire. But it’s typically not a space that’s public; it’s more sequestered in spaces like forums or Discords.

“The idea of creating a public space that is not intimidating, where you don’t feel scared or vulnerable in sharing your art, was really intriguing to me,” Shim said. “That’s how you meet people who aren’t like you. And it’s how you see resonances of yourself in people who aren’t like you, and the appreciation of a shared story and a shared art form happening simultaneously, and intrinsically connected to appreciation of how you are crafting a story on the same foundation, but your houses look completely different.”

And indeed, this is true: In scrolling through the #FieldGuideToMemory tag on Twitter, my journal looks nothing like anyone else’s, but we’re all connected through the story. We’re all students of Dr. Lee.

This ethos is fundamental to how Shim and Khor approach their games and other projects, too. Shim, a game designer based in Oakland, California, has been making journal-based and solo RPGs for years now, including Dear Poppy and Wait for Me, co-created by Kevin Kulp. They’re working on a connected path game about a magician’s assistant called The Shape of Shadows, and a crowdfunding campaign for the project will launch soon.

a bird reference book with a feather pen, leaf, and animal skull arranged on top Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

Khor, on the other hand, said that they’ve hesitated to call themselves a game designer in the past. Instead, they opt for the title of “immersive experience designer” and artist. They’ve created Dungeons & Dragons experiences, like A Short Rest, and immersive installation spaces, like The Last Apothecary, which was installed at Burning Man in 2016. Khor is now working on a solo keepsake narrative game called A Mending, which uses sewing, mapmaking, and embroidery to tell a story of “two friends who have parted for some time.” A Mending was just hosted on Kickstarter, surpassing its original goal of $12,000 with a total of $190,007 in funding.

Shim and Khor are both Asian American creators from racial diasporas; their lived experiences are intrinsic to their work. Sharing that experience — albeit with different lives and stories — had an impact on Field Guide and their other works, too.

“While my [personal heritage] might not come up explicitly in our work, this is stuff that always informs the undercurrents of any art that I make, certainly,” Shim said. “And to work with someone where I didn’t have to explain something, or where I could see that resonance was present for them as well, was absolutely revelatory.”

Shin continued: “To be clear, keepsake games have been made before. I can think of a couple title examples right now. But it would be a mistake to say that these experiences don’t underpin the foundation of how we are making these games.”

With Field Guide, Shim and Khor made a conscious effort to hire guest authors that are people of color with “various intersections of marginalization in that mix,” Khor said.

“It was an incredibly liberating experience,” Khor said. “Because ultimately, the long arc of what we’re trying to do is to create space for marginalized people to make not just work about their trauma, or about their background or their experiences, but to create space for them to make work about whatever the hell they want.”

Field Guide is a distillation of this ethos, the things that have been present in Shim and Khor’s work together and individually. With A Field Guide to Memory, they may finally have a name to it — keepsake and connected path.