A PDF version of this game is available here.


The following game was written for Mr. Mark Vallianatos during the “True Meaning of Friendship Design Challenge.” The challenge was to design a game for someone else– and to base the game on a brief, anonymous paragraph about the person’s life and game preferences. Mark’s description was the following:

I’m an environmental advocate. I think that ordinary life and material things can hold more wonder than fantasy worlds or the supernatural. I dig themes drawn from 18th/19th/20th century modernism. I like games with political/ historical/ real world dimensions. I enjoy games designed to explore serious or quirky topics – documentary or docudrama games.

As a result, Retrospective is a documentary-style game with influences from early Modernism; namely Impressionist art and French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theory on Duration. The idea behind Impressionism is that people don’t see objects; they see light. Bergson believed that no two people could ever experience the same moment, and even in remembering something, you could never experience the same moment twice.

Our most important experiences– the things which really shape us as human beings– are not marked with eidetic memory; no matter how keen our thought processes, when something changes who we are or the world around us, it is impossible for us to divorce our emotions from the events. Not that we should! Ignoring how the events make us feel is also changing the experience.

Basically, the point here is this: four people, in the same small space, sharing the same pivotal experience, will in fact, experience it in four completely different ways.

Preparing to play

Players should decide why their characters are gathered together, and what they’re going to be reminiscing about. The topic of the retrospective could be anything– the characters could be war buddies remembering about Viet Nam, high school football players talking about the big game at their 10 year reunion, or even a rock band on Behind the Music; whatever the group can imagine. The important thing is that the topic is an event, or series of events, which shaped who they are today; it should be a truly pivotal moment for each character involved. Every detail doesn’t have to be decided here– as a matter of fact, the more room there is for interpretation, the more divergent the memories can be later. For example: three friends remember participating in a protest which became a riot, and saw another friend get brutally beaten.

Each player writes down three descriptive words or phrases that describe how their characters remember their own mindset and personality at the time of the story. After sharing these with the other players, each player writes down three descriptive words or phrases that describe how their character remembers each of the others. The descriptions do not always have to be in direct conflict or diametrically opposed to a character’s memory of themselves– just different, either in slight or meaningful ways.

Then, everyone collaboratively comes up with the other important players in the story. There’s the friend who was brutally beaten; perhaps there’s also a memorable policeman, and a girl that one of the characters was dating. Once the supporting cast has been figured out, everyone writes down three descriptors for them as well.

How to Play

There are two types of scenes: Interviews and Flashbacks. Inteviews establish the variations between Flashbacks through a series of questions; Flashbacks are the memories themselves, played out by the characters as the Narrator tells the story. You’re also going to need a coin or token, which we’ll call the Interrupt. Hand the Interrupt over to the second player.

The initial interview is a special case: instead of being based on a previous Flashback, it is instead a collective endeavor. The group of characters is confronted with a piece of information recounting a version of the event in question– a newspaper article, or documentary, or letter from an absent friend, or yearbook story, whatever fits. No one actually writes out this piece of information, but the characters establish a basic timeline of events by correcting its story anyway:

“Can you believe the article in the college newspaper said that Mike threw the first punch? Mike couldn’t even throw a decent party!”

“Well, he did just start dating the editor’s ex-girlfriend, so that explains the yellow journalism.”

When the first player feels enough details have been established, he says the phrase which closes an Interview scene: “I remember it clearly…”


Within any one game of Retrospective, each Flashback begins with the same sentence, and ends with the same sentence. Usually the beginning sentence is something like “We were all at the library when someone burst through the door with a flier.” Once the scene begins, everyone plays out the established timeline; however, everyone plays their character using the descriptors written down by the player controlling the Flashback.

The player controlling the Flashback acts as a narrator of sorts, occasionally popping out of the story to say things which direct the plot, for example: “Of course, we didn’t know that Jenny was going to betray us that same day by tipping off the dean of students to our protest.”

At any point, the player holding the Interrupt can use it: the interrupting player hands the token to the person narrating the Flashback, and interrupts with a correction: “Wait, wasn’t it Allen who tipped off the dean?” The player narrating must accept the correction, and gets to take the Interrupt for future use. The scene comes to a close with the final sentence; as an example: “Once we got out of jail, we never heard from Jack again.”


Once the Flashback ends, the next player starts the Interview by saying “That’s not what happened?” The other players question and debate with the player, and three things must be revealed: an aspect of the last Flashback that the current character agrees with, an aspect that the character remembers completely differently, and something that the character thinks was close but not completely accurate. For example: “Sure, Jack was beaten by the policeman, but I tried to help him, not Allen! And Jenny wasn’t just flirting with you– she could not keep her hands off of you.” Once the perameters of the next Flashback are established, the player closes the Interview with “I remember it clearly…”

Concluding the game

Once every character has had their turn to narrate a flashback, the game fades to black. As with many documentaries, there is a conclusion; using the items which have been agreed upon in the Flashbacks, the first player narrates a little conclusion. Then, he narrates a brief bit about what the next character’s life has been like since the events of the retrospective, and what that character is doing today. The second player takes over the role of narrator for the third, and so on; the last player narrates for the first one.

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