In 2011, I started designing indie tabletop roleplaying (RPG) games.
No, not computer games. Tabletop games. Like Dungeons & Dragons. Games with funny dice. Games in which you and your friends sit around a table and pretend to be elves or dwarves or whatever.
My first game (The Play's The Thing) was about Shakespearean actors. I always thought Ophelia got a bad shake. What if the actors who were playing the parts got to argue with the director?
My second game (Our Last Best Hope) was about the end of the world. I always love the last session of a long-running game when all the chips are down and the heroes have to overcome impossible odds.
After a few years of designing games, I started having conversations with people in the community about representation. And as a Mexican-American designer, I had a terrifying thought: no one could look at my games and know anything about my life or my history or my family.
As far as anyone knew...I was another white guy game designer.
I immediately had another disheartening thought: I have no idea what a Mexican-American game looks like.
Fast forward: four years later. I've got a bunch of credits. I worked on the new Firefly RPG, wrote a bunch for other gaming systems, and designed an urban fantasy game called Urban Shadows. And as I'm working and designing, I'm thinking about these four-year-old questions:
What makes a game Mexican?
Does this kind of game even matter?
Am I Mexican enough to write it?
I float stupid ideas, like a game about a farm in northern Mexico where you play an ordinary family. (That idea even bored me, and that's not a good sign for a new game.) And I keep designing and trying things and working on stuff. Nothing fits. I start to think that maybe I'm not supposed to do this kind of work. Leave it to the next Mexican.
I'm from Albuquerque. I can't go anywhere or do anything without someone asking me about Breaking Bad. And for a long time, I avoided the show. I grew up there (and live there now). I don't need to see it on screen.
But I hear it's good, so I start watching it. And it's better than good. It's amazing. And it captures my city. (Mostly. I still have issues with an ABQ show that's completely focused on white folks). But it blows my mind. It's so tight and dramatic and funny and... everything I love about crime fiction.
Then it clicks. My game needs to be like this. And it needs to center on Mexico. On the cartels. On the horrific violence that's spread over the border like a wildfire, that threatens to throw a generation of people into darkness. On stuff that matters.
And that's when I started writing Cartel. A game about the people whose lives are caught up in the drug war, for better or worse.
Spoiler: it's usually worse.
It's not done yet. I released an early version last August, but my other projects keep me busy. I've gone through about 10 iterations of it, and I'm feeling like it's close to done. It's like The Wire meets Breaking Bad meets Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Tense. Tragic.
It's the best damn work I've ever done. It's not easy or pretty or safe. But it's the game I had inside me four years earlier that I couldn't see. And (as it nears completion) it makes me wonder what comes next in my story.
Mark Diaz Truman