When screenwriter and tabletop game designer Spenser Starke suddenly lost his mother in 2016, he immediately shouldered his father’s emotional burden, as well as that of his grandmother and maternal aunt. Hunkering down like that, he told Polygon in an interview, left no emotional oxygen for his own grief.
That came later, when Starke designed Alice Is Missing, a collaborative storytelling RPG set in an imaginary Pacific Northwest town where a group of friends search for their missing friend. The mystery, told through cards and set to a bespoke playlist of moody indie tunes, twists the familiar by limiting the players to nonverbal, indirect communication: no speaking, no noises, no body gestures, only text on a cellphone.
Now, Starke is gearing up to crowdfund Alice Is Missing: Silent Falls, an additional collection of cards — clues, locations, suspects, and more — that nearly doubles the original count and complicates the search for Alice. Players can add as many or as few of these cards to the core deck as they please. Nothing is mandatory, and every addition has been designed to fit seamlessly into the little box that became a surprise hit when it launched in 2020.
Many of these new ideas have been kicking around since the beginning and were shaved off the original production of Alice Is Missing to create what Starke referred to as an MVP, or “most viable product,” for Kickstarter.
“I’ve been tweaking the cards in the expansion literally since the game launched as a way to give people the opportunity to tell new stories with the game and to provide an added level of narrative challenge,” Starke said. “It was a game I never thought people would play because it’s just weird and emotional and Type-2 fun. But it comes from a very real place.”
Alice Is Missing follows the disappearance of Alice Briarwood, a Northern California high schooler with a group of friends — created and embodied by the players — hellbent on discovering what happened. Over the course of a single, roughly three-hour session, players discuss via one-on-one text conversation what they think happened as more clues are revealed and likely culprits emerge. Guided by card prompts and an ever-ticking timer, the group will discover how someone’s absence can tear through a community, revealing uncomfortable truths along the way.
“[The game] was originally born out of this desire to make a game that captured the emotional landscape I was traversing during that time, which is why you’re not going to solve it on your own,” Starke said “The game has to play out. You’re not going to Sherlock Holmes this thing. That’s purposeful.”
Starke said he’s always been drawn to “emotional, indie video games” such as Life Is Strange, Oxenfree, and Firewatch, and Alice Is Missing consciously draws on the “cozy but also fucked-up” vibes to construct its atmosphere of the familiar made strange, a cracked mirror through which you might view your own past. Not so much a rug pull as a mechanism for vulnerability, Alice Is Missing’s tendency to evoke surprisingly strong reactions while sitting dead quiet in a dim room has earned it quite a reputation within the tabletop community.
The Silent Falls expansion is designed for groups to tackle after a couple of sessions playing the core game. He doesn’t agree that this return should be called his director’s cut or definitive edition. He doesn’t generally enjoy touching his creative works again after they’ve been released into the world and the hands of an audience. But this project feels different, Starke said. The timing felt right.
Players will find three new suspects that might be tied to Alice’s disappearance, and each throws a wrench into how veteran players understand Silent Falls’ social fabric. The first is Officer Prescott, the town’s sheriff, whose implication means players can likely not turn to the police for assistance. Another, Alice’s estranged father, John Harwood, raises the specter of domestic trouble and rotten family dynamics. The last is a new student who quickly befriended Alice and inserted herself into the group, harshing the vibes and forcing everyone to reflect on their own ties to the now-missing girl.
Starke is obviously interested in interrogating power structures via the small-town simulacra of Silent Falls. What does it mean when the people you ostensibly trust might be using their authority to hide a heinous crime? How do traditional family roles curdle a relationship over long years of resentment? What do we assume about the people close to us, and what are they afraid to reveal, lest we judge them?
Revisiting Silent Falls should hopefully feel like reigniting a fire in players, Starke said. Even after all the playtesting, feedback, and iteration, he admits feeling more nervous than he ever did while designing the original experience. It’s an electric energy he craves from the creative process.
“The stuff that scares me is the stuff that I’m most excited about. If I’m not, then I haven’t done my job. I haven’t pushed myself,” Starke said. “It’s going to be really exciting for me to watch people use the prompts that I’ve given them to tell me stories. I love having that opportunity again.”
Alice Is Missing: Silent Falls launches on Kickstarter beginning Feb. 14 and will be hosted by publisher Hunters Entertainment, the company responsible for Kids on Bikes, Altered Carbon The Role Playing Game, and Outbreak: Undead.