Ophthalmology Is Not an Option
T.C. Petty III’s My Father’s Work is the sort of game that gets called “thematic.” Shiny with chrome, bursting with colorful verbs and adjectives, and narrated via an app, it’s the latest title to blur the distinction between storybook and plaything.
But it’s also thematic in the more universal sense: that it contains themes. Actual honest-to-goodness themes of obsession, selfishness, generational trauma, and the bewildering hilarity that tends to accompany the macabre. It’s a rare game that strives for commentary; this one could constitute an entire shelf’s worth of literary references.
On a hill above an Eastern European hamlet there stands a house, haunted by rumor and perhaps actual shades, where some who enter never emerge and all who do escape its clutch are forever altered. This is your birthright. Petty establishes the scene with images and sounds drawn from more than a century’s worth of touchstones. It never seems to be daytime in this hamlet; if there is sunlight it’s the crepuscular sort, filtered over gray mountains and stands of pines. The locals are superstitious, and why not? Children go missing in these parts. The wood growls and lurches. The narrators, if you opt to listen rather than read aloud, speak in the ominous tones of an English accent. Shudder. You’ve journeyed to these parts to claim your inheritance, but there’s a catch: an unfinished blueprint, scrawled in your father’s half-legible griffonage. It details something wondrous. Wondrous and wrong.
I hesitate to declare that any one detail accounts for the pitch-perfect tone of My Father’s Work. Its success is an amalgam of factors, a congruence of design and illustration and fire-crackle sound effects. What sticks out most, however, is the game’s acknowledgement that this is all faintly ridiculous. Where did Dr. Frankenstein get the idea to stitch together his monster? Did Crawford Tillinghast really have nothing better to do with his resonance engine than to feed his servants to monsters from a parallel dimension? Would you visit an ignominious count’s castle in the Carpathian Mountains?
My Father’s Work understands that all obsession is foolish. Thus the game threads a crooked needle. Where other titles emphasize the horror and gore of Gothic fiction, resulting in a lurid, sickly air — Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein springs to mind — My Father’s Work embraces another brand of horror altogether. What begins as the pursuit of your father’s unfinished masterwork becomes a comedy of errors, a sequence of shocks, a procession of boiling blood transfusions, horse stilts, and spousal abandonment. Somewhere after the villagers bar you from their town but before your hapless scientist willingly sheds the last scraps of their sanity, it sinks in: this is a deeply funny game, and all the more unsettling for it. Its terror lies in the inescapability of the absurd. Try as you might to break free, your entire life has been consumed by an earworm.
The format for this tale of obsession couldn’t be more appropriate. At its baseline, this is a worker placement game. Every round opens with a handful of workers ready to do your bidding. There are locales in town for gathering resources — chemicals, contraptions, the occasional live or deceased specimen. That last offering will slowly clue the villagers in to your nefarious purposes, possibly locking you out of town until you make a few appearances at the local chapel. Back at the estate are more options: a laboratory for conducting experiments, a drawing room for managing your income or hand of cards, an office where knowledge may be passed on to future generations.
There are two major upsets from the usual worker-placement formula, both of which elevate My Father’s Work to a realm of its own. I mentioned future generations. As it happens, your scion’s life will be spent pursuing their father’s dream — fruitlessly, it turns out, because a few rounds into the game they return to the dust that constitutes us all. Then it’s their heir’s turn to continue the family tradition. Eventually, a third generation will succumb. Whether they complete their ancestor’s original project is hard to tell. It depends on the scenario, the narrative, the choices you make, even whether you feel it’s in your best interests to finish your now-great-grandfather’s masterwork or pursue other objectives entirely. In one session, our accumulated decisions saw the hamlet grow into a thriving urban center, renewed by science. In another, some error in judgement caused the town to descend into a blood-baked approximation of Mad Max, complete with dueling contraptions and the thrill of embracing our darker natures. One time, I became a vampire and worked through the night conducting experiments. Another time, a debilitating disease passed from one generation to the next, lingering in the blood.
As with a handful of other app-driven games, its sheer volume makes digitization an economic decision at the very least. This is already a hefty game. With three scenarios, each with its own box of tokens and cards, plus branching narratives, it’s easy to imagine a wholly analog version outweighing Sleeping Gods and then some. This isn’t to say the app is always welcome. Sometimes constraints are beneficial. Free of the need to actually print all his words, Petty’s prose slows from a gallop to a meander in short order. How many ways can one describe a crumbling manor? You’ll find out. Oh, you will find out. Elsewhere, the app occasionally requires somebody at the table to read a private message. This is fine, even exciting the first time or two. But then it might require everybody to wade through their own morass of text in sequence, driving a spike through the game’s pacing. On another fateful instance, we painstakingly entered stats for a handful of robotic gladiators. The app walked through each step of the battle. One by one, the robots were destroyed, leaving only one standing. And then one of the destroyed robots was declared the victor.
To be clear, these hiccups are exceptions. More often, the app is stable, a useful and knowledgeable (if too talky) guide through its twilit country. But the presence of hiccups raises important questions about the utility of digitization in board game design. By necessity, most board games afford utter command to their players. Removing the burden of pesky calculations, shouldering the task of flipping through a storybook, having a professional voice actor read aloud to the table — these can all be advantageous, even lowering potential barriers to entry. But they also run the risk of taking control out of the players’ hands. The app includes an undo button, as it should. But when something goes awry, there’s very little recourse available to players. Even if nothing went wrong, it’s impossible to verify the results. We can’t pop the hood to see why a dead robot won the cage match.
It’s a shame, because the rest of the time My Father’s Work uses its app to tremendous effect. By spreading itself over three generations, the game avoids the usual trap of letting one player snowball the others. Every few rounds nearly everything is reset. The major exception is a brilliant tradeoff: either your scion uses their hard-earned knowledge to conduct further experiments (thus earning more victory points) or records it for their next-of-kin. In the latter case, recorded knowledge is one of the only things that transmits across generations, allowing your progeny a leg up on their own efforts. In the meantime, the app tells you how the town developed. I have yet to see a session that didn’t see the map altering three or four times, and usually with an extra sprinkle of systems for good measure. It’s marvelously handled, and solves the problem that’s dogged worker placement since its inception: with the town always changing, it’s nigh impossible to memorize an optimal sequence of placements. You’re always adjusting to new limitations, squaring off against your cousins in some contest, and navigating the novel social circumstances of the village. There’s simply no room for your actions to become rote.
The second upset has been a long time coming for worker placement games: your workers are actual people.
This isn’t to say My Father’s Work goes overboard by providing them with backstories and hobbies and healthcare plans; nothing so fine-grained as that. Instead, your workers are divided into four classes. There’s your Self, you, the avatar of your ill will, capable of doubling the produce of any space in town and working in the laboratory without penalty. Your Spouse, who conducts your business about the village and is largely identical to Servants, a detail we probably shouldn’t read into. Last, there are Caretakers, products of experimentation who are best suited to helping out around the house, usually by jolting corpses with electricity or serving as amanuensis for your recorded knowledge.
Some have noted that worker placement games are an overseer’s fantasy, allocating labor without the slightest concern for their wellbeing or payment. Payment gets short shrift in My Father’s Work, but wellbeing is never far from your thoughts. Certain actions will cause workers to leave, usually because you showed them what really happens in the basement or drove your Spouse and Servants away via sheer insanity. Despite the stigmas surrounding “sanity” as a game resource, its inclusion here is a perceptive touch, both as a reflection on Gothic horror and as an exhibition of the compulsive behaviors that often signify neglect or abuse. Because this game is called “My Father’s Work” and not “My Healthy Family,” insanity is often desirable to your scion, the byproduct of dangerous methodologies or profound experiments. An effective obsessive is a frayed and potentially abusive obsessive, a truism all too familiar to those who’ve survived manic or compulsive episodes.
Rather than sweeping their consequences under the rug, Petty pens these concerns directly into the text of the game. As your scion goes insane, you draw compulsion cards. In one light, a compulsion is an opportunity. Each card tells you something you must do: collect knowledge, renovate your estate, drive away your spouse, go to church. Real crazy stuff. In exchange, you earn a point or two. These are almost never worthwhile exchanges; the action economy is far too tight for that. Fail to placate your compulsions, however, and they may develop into a maladjustment. These are potentially ruinous: low self-esteem shedding points whenever the villagers disapprove of your actions, a tendency toward clinginess forcing your spouse to travel to the village with a companion, a spinal abnormality taking up a caretaker’s time in assisting you, a constant addiction burning through chemical resources. Notably, maladjustments are visited on the next generation, not your own, the result of a parent’s inability to properly nurture their offspring. Feeding your obsession is how you win the game, but My Father’s Work is clear-eyed that its protagonists are deeply selfish people who break everything they touch.
Sum these addends and the result is very nearly profound — although My Father’s Work is so tongue-in-cheek that any statement is easily overlooked. Look past the winking and there’s something to be said about the single-minded pursuits that dominate nearly every board game. Somewhere between the cracks are lives being lived or neglected. My Father’s Work puts those lives front and center even as it subjects them to the same contortions of industriousness we’re so often asked to enact. The result is a legacy game of a different sort, one that tackles three generations in a single sitting and refuses to pretend that the “winner” isn’t the most miserable character in the telling.
As a game, My Father’s Work is grand, foolish, ambitious, shaky, eccentric, and alternately boisterous, thoughtful, and long-winded. It joins that oddest of fellowships, a morality play that doesn’t flinch from the consequences of its wrongdoing while nevertheless letting us revel in its wickedness. It understands why bad behavior is both attractive in play and repellent in fact.
Best of all, it uses that understanding to raise one hell of a good time. As an exemplar of its own thesis, it’s as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as any scientist determined to overcome death. I sincerely hope T.C. Petty III didn’t ruin any relationships in designing it — but if he did, at least he completed his masterwork.
A complimentary copy was provided.