Every year around Mother’s Day I find myself reflecting on the caretakers that I have had in my life as well as the people that I have cared for. While I was in this contemplative mood, I stumbled across The Greatest of These is Love, by David Garrett. A rules-light, single-player RPG released to coincide with Mother’s Day. You play as a soul who has chosen to remain on earth and serve as a guardian spirit. Despite the biblical title and themes about the afterlife, the game itself is agnostic. Preferring to focus on the role of guardianship and leaving out the particulars of any religious doctrine. This game is for anyone who has ever wished their loved ones could see what they have become. If you are feeling slightly wistful and you are willing to put in a little creative effort, this game is worth your time. The book is a thoughtful and dignified meditation on quiet hopefulness and making small changes in another person’s life. At the time of writing this, you can pay what you want on David’s Itch.io page. You might still be able to get it for free, but it’s worth a couple of bucks if you have the means to support independent creators.
As a person who has been reading a lot of Indy RPGs lately, a friendly and well-organized layout can make the experience much more pleasant and I think Amalara Game Studio did just that. The typeface is clean, I love the cover pages for the chapters, and the blue highlight color works well. Although the text can feel cluttered at times. If I had the chance for a suggestion, I would have asked for more white space around the text and fewer highlighted/bolded words per page. Overall, I appreciate the effort that went into making this product presentable and fun to read.
In The Greatest of These is Love, you play as a guardian spirit charged with protecting and guiding another human appropriately called a charge. They could be your family, someone your spirit cared about, or just a random person. You follow them, unseen and unheard, as they age through the various stages of their life and eventually die. In each stage, your charge will face unique challenges. It is your task as a guardian to gently guide them through their trials without directly intervening. The existing mechanics are evocative; however, the game is extremely rules-light. For the best results, you will need some creative writing skills to fill in the gaps.
Clever use of keywords helps to streamline the game’s rules economy. They determine the kinds of behaviors that your guardian can do well (e.g., warm, whisper, scare) and limit the number of actions you can take. You start the game with extremely limited resources but grow every time you fail a task. While playing, I really messed up my kid’s childhood and adolescence. My guardian was stuck feeling powerless as she struggled to reach an increasingly disaffected youngster. These early mistakes eventually gave me the mechanical resources to help him come to terms with himself in adulthood, and finally, become a mentor in his golden years.
Even though there isn’t a lot of structure to help you narrate success and failures, the story still ended up feeling like a natural outflow of the game. The keyword mechanic helps to shape the arc of the story, but also the stages of your charge’s life provide strong building blocks for your story. At every stage, there is a small mini game to determine what difficulties your charge is struggling with. Then there are a few random tables that help you set up specific scenes to play through. This initial setup pays dividends in terms of inspiration and direction for the role play. It also helps with engagement since the rules change slightly during every stage of the game so there is always a sense of progression. You never feel like you are stuck with the same gameplay loop over and over.
From a storytelling perspective, I think the mechanics are an elegant way to keep the game moving. However, they shift a large mental burden onto the player. I kept a lot of notes during the game, but I still found myself overloaded at times. Trying to roleplay two characters simultaneously in my head while also considering the game state can take a lot of mental energy. I am OK with games that ask a little more from their players. However, I wish that they had included some tools for helping the player keep track of everything that was going on. There are multiple solutions to this problem, I would have liked a printable story tracker to make a physical record of my choices. This would solve several problems at once. It would organize the various mechanical interactions. Give space to explore your charge by asking about your successes and failures. Be a reference document for completed stages of the game. And ideally, become an artful artifact to remember the game after you have finished.
The Greatest of These is Love wears its heart on its sleeve. It came out at a sentimental time for many and touches on a sensitive subject matter without irony or apology. It knows what it is and the places that it wants to take people. If you have made it this far (and I have done my job right) you should know if you want to go on the kind of journey this game has in store. To you specifically, I highly recommend this game. It hits all the wholesome notes you want with a dash of melancholy. The rules provide a great framework to build from but don’t have any extra baggage to get in the way of your story. Ultimately, The Greatest of These is Love was a heartwarming way for me to spend an afternoon.