Memories of Childhood Storytelling
The Nine-Year-Running Stuffed Animal Game
After my post several weeks ago about some of the books I read as a child, I realized the next thing to talk about after the stories I read is the stories I made up. My sister and I, throughout our childhoods, constructed an elaborate long-running narrative with our stuffed animals. We both enjoyed it a lot. I didn't realize till later how unusual it was - now, when I hear my young cousins or my friends' children talking about their stuffed animals, I can't help wishing their play could be richer. I know it impacted us a lot, and I also think it gives some examples of story development from an unusual direction.
We definitely had different perspectives on the game. My sister - who goes by the alias "Windward" these days online - is four years younger than me; the game started somewhere around when I was nine and she was five, and continued until I was eighteen and she was fourteen. I'll be majoring on my perspective here, but we've reminisced together several times and she's helping brainstorm and edit this piece.
This's going to be a two-post series - this week, I'll talk about how we told the story and how it kept continuing; next week, I'll analyze it as a story and talk about how it influenced us.
Even before this grand narrative, the two of us played a lot of elaborate games together telling stories - first with little toy plastic animals, then with our stuffed animals. Legos and plastic people and several other things got in there too, but those two were where we clearly spent the most time and told the longest-running stories. (We sometimes involved imagined versions of ourselves too at the beginning, but that dropped out over time.) What's more, the stories developed and built on each other in continuity over time.
I think the first real storyline started with our plastic animals when I was about eight and she was about four. As you might expect, I was the one who built most of that story. The later backstory retcons involving alien robots were definitely all mine, except insofar as they were inspired by Dad's comparisons with his old sci-fi collection. But, I'll pass over Beardom and the kingdoms around it (with their periodic King Elections, and the constant travel of the peripatetic animals giving us an excuse to keep building new cities with blocks, but also plenty of cringeworthy childishness and very few characters who even had one clear dimension) to move on to the later and more elaborate stuffed animal storyline of Beanbag City.
(Yes, "Beanbag City" is a pun on Beanie Babies. I was bad with names as a kid. Spot and Black Spot the dogs, and Mus the mouse, will attest. Frankly, the one thing which's saved me in my later stories is Internet baby name sites.)
I don't really know when the stuffed animal Beanbag City storyline started. In some ways, I'd been creating stories about Henry the dog and Dumbo the elephant and some others as long as I can remember. I think the storyline organically developed over time with incident over incident. One day our stuffed monkeys would go do parkour all over the room; another day Henry the dog would be a farmer; another day the dogs and cats would fight each other or work together to fight the invading snakes. There were some animals which were always mine, and others which were always Windward's - I don't know how that got so settled, but it always was.
Or we'd bring them into board games with us. A lot of the time, when the two of us played a board game with room for more than two players, we'd bring in stuffed animals to take the spots of the others. Sometimes it got more elaborate; when we played the game Take Off which involved moving airplane counters around a world map, each plane would have a full crew of stuffed animals with frequent interpersonal drama between them. (I still remember when the dogs on one plane complained about their interminable rations of teriyaki chicken jerky. Unlike my current actual dog, our stuffed dogs were more human in that they liked variety.) This's my clearest early memory of characterization, actually - I remember one time when George the monkey (played by me) had a chance to take a move in Sorry which would be great for him but horrible for me. I decided to play him in character, and took it. Later in the game (or maybe another game?) another animal played by Windward had a chance for a move great for him but horrible for Windward. She didn't take it. But then, she was really young at the time.
I think our stuffed animals' first clear character dynamics were the cats and dogs arguing and fighting with each other, and the cats fighting among themselves. There was a gang of robber dalmatians... but the first real personalities came out when Silky the Cat was insisting on "Feline Etiquette." We never really spelled out the rules of Feline Etiquette, but it clearly involved acting stately and speaking primly and disdaining non-cats. Some other cats, such as Prance and Omny, didn't care for it.
Eventually, these events gained a consistent chronology. I think that was around the time I decided to give them a Town Council, but I'll talk about their politics later. Even after that, though, I hardly remember any long character or plot arcs for a long while. We had a few multi-day events, but the stuffed animals mostly had comparatively static relationship dynamics which we could always bounce off each other. We'd pick up a few of them and have the known dynamics get at each other in an episodic narrative. There would be tie-rods referencing previous events and their consequences, of course, but the narrative as a whole was episodic.
At the height of Beanbag City - maybe around when I was thirteen and Windward was nine? - we were playing the game somehow or other almost every day. We were both homeschooled, and we didn't have any TV, which gave us a lot more time. We'd bring out some of the animals to play out some event which might then snowball into other events involving more of the animals. Maybe it would reference something else we'd played out yesterday, or maybe from the previous year, or maybe not. Maybe it would resolve that hour, or maybe it'd continue the next day - and sometimes it wasn't even clear which.
Or sometimes - even without grabbing an animal from the bin - Windward might mention "Hey, Tartan says to Henry such-and-so" and I'd respond in-character as Henry and we might play through the whole scene without actually grabbing either Tartan or Henry or anyone else from the stuffed animal bin. "Talking games," we called that. That was really convenient when the games went beyond Beanbag City itself: we didn't have to actually buy or ask our parents to buy stuffed animals for everyone who showed up. Or, sometimes we'd even use stuffed animals like standins for other characters of the same species, like the one stuffed rabbit and one stuffed dragon who became standins for any number of rabbits and dragons, or the iguana who became another dragon and the giraffe who became a rabbit. Though, we did tacitly agree that only actual stuffed animals could vote in Beanbag City elections.
We kept this up for years, but what sort of story it was changed. Random incidents changed to adventures to the organized civic life of Beanbag City. The characters continued on, sometimes developing new traits (like when the insertion of the neighboring Roman Rabbit Warren revealed that Benjamin Bunny was in fact Consul Benjamin Lepus.) But which characters were most in focus also changed - long before the end, the monkeys were no longer doing parkour and were in fact hardly in the story at all, and the dragons had their heyday around the middle of our game before our interests shifted once more. The episodic narrative allowed for that without any need to retcon or cut off plot arcs.
There was almost no meta discussion in all of this. I'm shocked looking back at it, but it was the case. While writing this piece now, I was just marveling over it with Windward. Neither of us remembers more than one or two cases where we negotiated out of character. Neither of us ever really announced "I want this to happen"; we just did it. And then, like in improv, the other person implicitly continued from there with "yes and..." We knew each other well enough that worked.
(Windward does remember a few times when I explicitly asked her "do you want such-and-such to happen or else end this sequence of events now?". I forgot them completely except for once. She says she was surprised because we hardly ever did that.)
In all the years of the game, and hardly any meta discussion, there were only two sort-of retcons. Some of the early incidents didn't fit inside Beanbag City, and its surroundings were - I think we agreed about this explicitly - changed from what was later spun off as a different continent ("the Southerlands") to some of our other one-off game concepts such as the Roman Rabbit Warren and the Hill Foxes. That cut off some story arcs, but it didn't disestablish any incidents. Aside from that, maybe one incident was retconned - Silky the Cat's wedding - but that was very early on, and we never really contradicted that she had a husband out of town.
The retroactive Southerlands spinoff included all the early stuffed animal incidents that couldn't get established as part of Beanbag City itself. Stripes and Blizzard the tigers were adventuring in the Trackless Woods, there were emissaries from the cat country of Felinus (which was sort of a crossover with the Beardom game), and there was an entire arc around King Charles the Corgi misruling Dogland before getting invaded and deposed by King Leo the Lion. Eventually, it was established that Beanbag City was separate from those countries, King Charles the Corgi was hanging out in town after being deposed, Stripes had given up adventuring, et cetera. That did cut off some story arcs, but some of them (say, Charles's misrule) had already come to an end, and I think it established their characters better.
I think it was around the time of that official split that we also played through our most elaborate quest line in the Southerlands, which we called "Dragonquest." (I've got one of the few chronological markers there; I know it started when I was nine and Windward was five.) One evening, I was bored with playing out Larry the dragon being sick, so I decided to have the snake Greensboro sneak into the doctor's to poison him, and then have him abruptly leave citing important business. And then a couple days later, we agreed to play out what came next... which turned out to be a coup against the king of the dragons by dragons who were tired of peaceful coexistence with other animals, and Windward's self-insert with some animals had to sneak into the Great Gorge and find where they were keeping him and rescue him.
But all the Southerlands had to get replaced. What stayed were the other surrounding countries from the Snake Wars and Flat Cat Wars. Back in the days of isolated incidents, sometimes we'd have the stuffed animals work together against the invading snakes or flat cats (represented by socks). There was one time Silky decided the flat cats were also cats and tried to be polite friends with them until they betrayed her. As we developed the continuity of Beanbag City, we'd refer back to these wars as past events. None of these flat cats or snakes got real characters, and few of them even got names. The periodic wars continued and grew, with other surrounding powers added.
These new surrounding powers conclusively set Beanbag City away from the Trackless Woods and Dogland and Felinus and those places from the earlier era. It'd really felt different (even back in the earliest days of Walter Dalmation), and we hadn't had any crossover since Dragonquest. Instead, we populated the new surroundings with other remnants of isolated games: the snake wars were definitely linked with my imaginary snake farm (which I'd used to tease Windward and Mom back when I was very young and I knew they disliked snakes), and to go with that we added the Roman Rabbit Warren (from one game just after I'd read Watership Down), the pigget farm (other imaginary animals Windward invented when she was very young), and some others. Windward had put herself on the pigget farm, and I'd put myself on the snake farm, but now she spun off her farm owner as a different character and I said I'd become an inactive absentee landlord of the snakes.
Really, this was a microcosm of how our later game incorporated the previous incidents. Everything was accepted as canon, but sometimes reinterpreted - sort of how fanfiction of children's books sometimes takes a completely different tone on canon and spins fanon behind the scenes to make it make sense on an adult level. That's how the pigget farm Windward made up at age four got into the same universe as the tigers who'd been designing bikes in the Trackless Woods and the etiquette-obsessed cats from later. Other events from when we were young like the "Take Off" airplane crews were never really mentioned, but the established characters had still arisen from them. It might not have been the same level of continuity as later, but (except maybe Silky's wedding) it was all canon.
We each had our own characters that we could intersperse (a slight majority of the animals overall were Windward's, but only slightly), and our own typical themes. Windward might start a scene with a few of her characters, and then one of mine might show up, and if I wasn't feeling like continuing too far they might run on after a few lines. I was almost entirely the one running the high-level politics, and she happily joined in there (usually including two of her animals on the Town Council, usually against three of mine). She had more domestic scenes, and I happily joined in there. I have to say that I can't remember anymore all her animals' personal and interpersonal drama, but it was very engrossing at the time. If I was DM'ing the politics, she was DM'ing full story arcs there. Her animals might have been less flashy characters than mine, but they had much more interesting personal lives.
Windward says she sometimes came up with ideas of what her characters were doing outside the scenes we both played together, but that felt differently even to her at the time. I don't remember really doing that with my characters, except early on when I was very young - I suspect that was a difference in our ages. Though, what happened there was canonical. I remember parts of that did get referenced in the scenes we did together.
I don't know for sure what were the factors that led us to create this huge narrative. I don't know any other kids who had such an elaborate or regular narrative, so Windward and I are the only data point. That said, I've got some guesses.
To start with, we had a lot of stuffed animals. I'm looking right now at the Beanbag City voter registry from the last election we had (just after I turned 18, but I'll tell that story in the next post), and we had 99 voters there. This collection was built up over time, of course; I don't remember just how many we had when the game started out. But, it couldn't have been under 40. That was a collection large enough for many different sorts of adventures exploring different character dynamics.
Also, we didn't have a TV. We technically did have the Internet, but only dial-up, so it was too slow for much of anything except text. Instead, we had a whole lot of books. I think that trained us to use our imagination and appreciate story in a more abstract medium.
In addition to that, Windward and I were both homeschooled. Even though at the time I complained about how long school took, looking back, homeschooling did give me a lot of free time at home. Without a TV, that basically meant I'd read a book or else play out some sort of story... and then once Windward was old enough, she'd want to join in, and we kept doing it together.
I wouldn't want to tell any parents to push things like this on their kids; we came up with this game pretty much all on our own without any real encouragement from our parents. But I do think it would be great if it's available to more kids. When I see my six-year-old cousin talking about her stuffed animals, most of which don't even have names, I wish her imagination was richer.
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