Game Jam Winner Spotlight: God Of Vengeance

from the like-it's-1923 dept

We’re down to our second last winner from our public domain game jam, Gaming Like It’s 1923! This week, we’re looking at winner of Best Adaptation for the game that most faithfully and meaningfully adapted its source material: God of Vengeance by JR Goldberg.

One of the great things about remix culture, and one of the reason’s the public domain is so important, is that creators can turn old work into something completely new with a different meaning, or something that subverts or critiques the original’s purpose — but there’s also a lot to be said for faithful adaptations that carry an old work’s meaning forward into a new era and a new medium. And that’s what God of Vengeance does with the Yiddish language play of the same name — which was first translated to English and performed in America in 1923, and led to an obscenity charge, conviction, and eventual successful appeal. Based on that you can probably figure out that this dramatic, improvisational roleplaying game is not for everyone and certainly not for children — but for those prepared to explore its subject matter, including domestic violence, sex work, and a Jewish crime family in Poland, it promises to be an engaging and challenging exercise.

God of Vengeance needs four players who take on the roles in the play, with three playing the main characters and one playing the ensemble of other smaller characters. Each receives a brief description of their character and motivations, such as:

Rifkele is the daughter of Yekel and Sarah. She is in her late teens, of marrying age. She is innocent to the ways of the world. She is scared of her father, who is overbearing and abusive and oppressive. She thinks her mother weak, for always capitulating to her father?s outsize personality. While both her parents speak of an impending marriage, Rifkele is rather cold to the idea. While Yekel and Sarah think is is her shy and demure personality, Rifkele has in fact begun an illicit affair with Manke, one of the young sex workers in her father?s employ. Neither of her parents know. She is smitten.

The play then proceeds through three predefined acts, each of which offers an additional prompt for each player, and tasks them with delivering a monologue. This is made dynamic via a simple mechanic employing the face cards and aces from a deck of cards, which are used to randomly determine the order in which characters will speak and to which other character they will address their monologue (or if it will be a self-focused soliloquy). At the end, all players then discuss each character and their actions over the course of the game to wrap things up. The per-act prompts are designed to keep things on track with the story while still requiring some original ideas:

Sarah – Describe your feeling of your daughter having the opportunities you never did. Do you feel her distance is based in her shy nature, or is she ungrateful? While combing her hair and helping to ready her for a party to commemorate her father?s commission of the scroll, you ask her what sorts of things she wants. A Golden necklace? A pearl comb? She only asks for a new pair of slippers. Describe what you wanted at her age. What are the things you wish you could tell her about yourself?

It could be said that the greatest strength of God of Vengeance — and the reason it won the Best Adaptation category — is also its greatest limitation: though the prompts leave the door open to some creativity, the game clearly aims to encourage players to stay fairly close to the plot and characterizations of the original play, and it feels like replay value with the same group of players would be minimal. On the other hand, there is something immediately and obviously tantalizing about the framework JR Goldberg has designed: it could easily be adapted to other plays, or other stories entirely. But in its current form, it stands tall as a careful and successful adaptation of an old work that made a huge splash a century ago, but is increasingly unknown today. It also raises interesting issues, not just within the play itself: apart from the aforementioned overturned obscenity conviction, in 1946 the play’s author leveraged his copyright to prohibit any staging of the play in any language. The game is a mature and thoughtful take on some very challenging material with a complex history, and a very good example of why it matters to have a robust public domain for modern creators to explore.

You can download the instructions and prompts for God of Vengeance from its page on Itch, and don’t forget to check out our other winners as well as the many great entries that didn’t quite make the cut. I’ll be back next week with our final game jam winner spotlight!

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