My good friend Nick Henderson, who is discovering, beneath his romboid, flaky frame, the heart of a filmmaker, is currently unemployed. This is a tragedy, until you watch this video, and decide that you can spare a few pounds a month to keep him physically, if not spiritually, alive; it pulls some excellent things from him.
This is the first in a series, where I painfully and hatefully analyse concepts and portions of the boardgame that I am currently developing, and will no doubt be developing in fits and starts for some time. Expect my prose to become hairier and more rage-filled every time I write an entry.
I’m part of a thick wedge of society who love boardgames. As a Western person of means, they have always been a large part of familial and general social life, part of an infinitesimal ritual conducted on holy days in lieu of actual worship. I am sure that many of you know the stations of this journey:
- All of the food has been eaten. This is the most spiritually dangerous time of the day.
- Awkward yet homely bigotry commences amongst the ancient of the clan.
- Sensing a descent into violence due to hunger and disagreement between the more idealistic of the youth and the “venerables”, the beatific sound of the creaking cupboard door is heard, and, with solemn procession, the play is enacted.
Many of my special memories revolve around screaming at my grandma that she can’t have any more wheat (both in her diet and fictious feudal economy), or my mother taking on the role of Victorian mill-owner, shrugging benignly as her entire workforce develop shadowy lungs in the name of progress. I remember once, whilst playing Monopoly, that she constructed a deviously complex loans system to aid struggling opponents, opponents such as her young son who were still coming to grips with economic responsibility. We were around five turns in, and she had already won, but delighted in turning the rack for as long as she could.
I believe that it was from her that I received my “get-up-and-go” attitude. As well as my flinch.
It is now one of my jobs to write games. The emphasis is still on “writing”, but I am learning to structure that writing in many different ways. One of the most important things I have learnt is that some people, deep down, don’t really like reading. This may not strike you as a revelation, but I do find it difficult to accomodate. They do like the content, and the delivery, and the style, and all those myriad parts of writing, but the act of sifting through it in a linear fashion; well, it’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not the only way I like to see a story told.
I have always wanted to write a board game, and I am surprised that it took me this long to realise that there is no license that I require to do so. I can just, well, do it. So that is what I am doing. And while I will be levering in mechanics like an elderly farmer trying to reset his cow’s gently steaming innards after a winter birth, I am really here, inside this head, to tell a story.
I had been kneading a little idea for a while on the “Age of Discovery”, that incredibly febrile and astoundingly violent period when Spain and Portugal (limped after by England and some other naval underachievers) beheaded captains and set fire to pilgrim ships across much of the world’s oceans. Men like Colombus, Giovanni Caboto and Amerigo Vespucci had their names printed upon much of the world’s globes (novelty, light-up, regular and inflatable) as well as on some distinctive features of the moon. I have always been fascinated with exploration, with the idea that these men, coming from a time when the next village may as well have been populated with Mohammedan blemmyes or worse, had the maniacal ambition and arrogance to take ships not much bigger than a medium-city McDonald’s into open ocean. I struggle to see them as heroes. As I read more about them, the hideous mistakes they made, the murders they committed, the ludicrous titles which were bestowed upon them, and the innumerable new avenues for suffering that their travels opened up (avenues which, granted, ushered in the Renaissance), they strike me as very unpleasant and very interesting characters. Precisely the sort of character that many people like to pretend to be, in their private moments with friends and family. Like my mother, Bob Diamond with leathery wings, whipping the Monopoly Man into a lead mine to carve out shingles for her new Park Lane Mammonopolis.
So, Mappa Mundi is now in development. I won’t reveal too much about the mechanics yet, but I will lay out what I wish to evoke. Really, I can’t tell a single story with this project; a game where the outcome is fixed is not a game, but rather a long and pointless cleverness that I am too prone to. What is vital, before I fix any rules in place, is to work out what sort of stories I want to be told within the mechanics. I made a short list below:
- The fact that, as an explorer, one’s livelihood, continued existence and future glory rested upon men and women more hopelessly inbred and insane than you were. Kings, queens, merchants and patrons had to have their (very idiosyncratic) egos tickled before there was even a breath of bagayo.
- The fact that these men had very little qualification, at times, to be leading such voyages, and that maritime knowledge at the time consisted of the pictoral equivalent of a shrug and a witch-drowning.
- The ludicrous percentage of national wealth that these expeditions required, and the mentals that I mentioned above that freely gave such wealth.
- The tendencies of mentals to decide that you aren’t so useful after all, and to ask you back to Portugal to be dipped in pitch like a doubletted sundae.
- The constant and terrifying boredom and danger of the open ocean without an on-board wave machine and karaoke buffet.
- The aforementioned wankerosity of these men.
Anyway, I will keep you updated on my progress, and will provide early versions of the game for playtesting. Fair winds!
I can hear gulls, or rocks, or one or five machine-guns, or the breathing of twelve men, or one hundred.
I am souped, a bowl for this idiot’s head. There is a last clutch of aftershave about his hair, and the hooting noise of sweat. It irritates me, awfully, when his hair grows. It seems to grow in fits, at night when he is asleep so as not to distress him.
What about me? Why won’t he take me off when he sleeps? Is he afraid of the rocks falling? Will the gulls shit on him, and so instead he uses me as shelter? I hope I have a rim that cuts into him and gives him a blood disease.
I have been tucking into Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun In Game Design, and realise that my own writing, whilst dense and perhaps texturally sound, is particularly bad at expressing complex pieces of information. Koster has no such limitation. The first few chapters of A Theory… plunge the tent pegs in rather hard, laying down a base of cognitive neuroscience to explain, at a biomedical level, why we enjoy playing games. The reasons are broadly similar to the reasons why we enjoy anything, but differ in some major elements. The main point, that I can seem to find, is that games encourage replication of pleasure, in the form of repeating patterns discovered by the player. This may sound like the player is little more than a furred associate of Glaxo-Smith-Kline2, harnessed onto a pseudo-spine rigid with dull liquids, not potions but real chemicals, and fed occasionally from a tube. This is not far from the truth, and as the truth it loses a little bit of the fear we feel for it. I am happy to be a dumb ape.
My reading brought up several questions, not all necessarily criticisms of Mr. Koster’s approach to storytelling, games, and their place in our lives:
1 – The Magic Circle
The Magic Circle is a concept put forward by Johan Huizinga in his 1938 book Homo Ludens. I have not read it yet, but from what I can gather it is a rather anthropological study of play and games in human society. The Magic Circle is the protected (a word I think is more useful than Koster’s other word, “sacred”) space in which games take place. They are rhetorical, hypothetical spaces, a sandbox in a philosophical sense where the consequences of that which play emulates are not apparent; to give a recent corollary, Skyrim’s world of experimentation, casual murder and alchemical strategy. For Huizinga, the Magic Circle is something that cannot be transgressed; to do so would be to “break” the game, and introduce the real world into the gamespace.
Now, having not read Homo Ludens I cannot say whether these transgressions Huizinga mentions are moral or not, but this is the strata that makes the most sense for many modern games. To transgress and introduce the real world would be to introduce real consequences of morality, real questions of how the actions taken in the game affect the real world. Whilst they are stored in the gamespace, these consequences are severely neutered. The Magic Circle, to me, is what is transgressed when organisations attempt to boycott games following actual crimes by their players. I imagine that they would not deem it the Magic Circle. A certain degree of disgust would be apparent; the Sticky Circle, perhaps.
It is also interesting to note that these gamespaces are not “consequence-free”, as we may imagine; a digital consequence, such as a city guard detaining your character, still affects your brain even though it is comprised of visual and aural data removed from physical harm. When you are invested in a gamespace, your brain still distinguishes consequences as threats or rewards. The intensity is dulled, yes, but a digital punishment is still a punishment, and to be avoided. If they were not, games would be an infinite plain of no significance, each decision as pointless as the next.
I don’t believe that the Magic Circle cannot inhabit physical spaces. The real world is not the great destroyer of the game. Games take place in the real world all the time, especially in the arena of sports, and therefore transgressions of the Circle can be harder to notice. When one breaks the “rules” of the game, it is usually obvious that one has done so, but if, say, a person’s real-life emotions and worries began to affect their performance in a football game, and affected the other players, this transgression is less easy to spot. It is in this notch that ARGs and other real-world games (as opposed to sports) sit, and they still prove interesting. However, this ambiguity as to transgression means that they are harder to make well, and maintain successfully. We’ll keep trying, I’m sure.
2 – The Problem Of Climax
This is as big a problem as the title suggests, but in the realm of games it is one of pacing and tempo. If a game is the replication of successful patterns, how can story sit alongside this? A story, the trapping of the world laid over hidden patterns, does not necessarily encourage repetition; exposition can only really happen once, at least in my experience. After a revelation, it cannot be repeated with the same emotional weight. Games, it seems, squirt different glands, and a story is planed down by repeated iterations. One could argue against this, citing folktale and the endless reinvention of myth, and I would take that point. This is more of an open question. There seems to be a large gap between story and game that I cannot define yet. I believe that it can be defined and healed, but the difference in mechanics is one that causes many games to either reject story or practice it badly.
I do not think that all games need a climax, or need a story at all. For many the story is only a handhold for conscious brains to latch onto whilst the subconscious or the “grok” brain does its work. But something that Koster writes troubles me. He states that a game “[needs to] teach… everything it has to offer before a player stops playing.” This seems difficult to me. If one is taught everything before one stops playing, there will be no climax, or satisfaction. There will only be a decline into non-playing, and for many games this seems a shame. I am of course looking at games in a traditional narrative sense, and one could argue that satisfaction is spread more thinly in a game, and more regularly, as opposed to the linear, crescendoing satisfaction of another mediums. Many games in fact teach new mechanics until near the end of the game, at which point the narrative takes over and concludes with the aid of the tools the player has acquired. I do think, however, that a climactic conclusion to a game, at least in terms of its playability rather than its narrative, could be useful. However, would this mean that the player would wish to continue playing, and instead could not? I am not sure. This is something that a lot of people are wrestling with, myself included.
Related to this is the problem of learning. With the linear progression of content revelation in a narrative, without permutation, can anything be learned from repeated visitations? Obviously some games have branching storylines, but if they all function in the same way with the exception of content, can we really say we are learning anything new? Does content stand on its own as a tool of learning? Is the game element pointless, in this case, as the mechanics only serve to advance the story, something that could already be attempted lineally? And can story become a mechanic in and of itself, rather than a dressing? I was going to delete this paragraph, as it is a mess, but I will leave it in place because I think that the questions are valid ones. It also leads nicely on to the next title:
3 – Attention Span
Koster mentions attention span from a biological rather than a social perspective, but the social ramifications of perceived degradation of attention span are regularly debated publicly. I do believe that this is generally a bad thing, but I also have begun to question whether it is a product of advancement rather than decay. As our brains crave more and more patterns to learn (to use Koster’s metaphor), traditional patterns (such as reading) are not satisfactory. When we work as a society on new ways of disseminating information and teaching our brains, we may find that reading is hopelessly inefficient, and other forms, such as games, are better ways of learning pretty much anything. I’m not convinced in any way, and owe most of my education to books, but is an interesting topic to watch, nonetheless.
4 – Chunking
“Chunking”, the approximation of the sensory world by the brain, is central to Koster’s writing, and is generally portrayed as biologically inevitable, and therefore entirely neutral qualitatively. Games rely on the deletion of erroneous information. This is why games with overly complicated plots, narratives, or even mechanics such as mini-games or side-missions, can wear thin quite quickly; the brain recognises these elements as inessential to the completion of the game, and attempts to discard them. A player may consciously wish to play them, and may create a smaller “Magic Circle” within their own minds in order to enjoy them fully as games on their own merit, but chunking usually prevents this.
I am questioning whether chunking can be considered “bad”, and whether anything could ever be done about it. It seems that there is no way to train the brain to see what is actually there, hear what can actually be heard, and relate to a complicated game fully. I have a feeling that “chunking” is the basis for those erroneous claims that humans only use five percent of their brainpower. But, with the advancement of technology, it would interesting to see if the chunking problem could be bypassed digitally, and allow games, and all other sensory stimuli, to be analysed at an actual rather than allegorical level.
All of this makes my jaw ache, but I’m now going to read a little bit about Gunpoint, and see if I can render this questions into something useful.
Have a think for me.
In a week and a small sleep I will be walking for twelve days along the Pilgrim’s Way, which doesn’t actually exist at all. It’s a hand-hold from before London, for hunter-gatherers afraid of heights. I suppose that the North Downs Way is where I’m heading. There will be a couple of nights in hostels in Rochester and Canterbury, mainly because municipal councils would not take kindly to a heavy-set rambler attempting to drive budget tent pegs into a Curry’s forecourt.
A friend of mine has made an 88-second film for an 88-second film competition. It is nice and taut, though I do feel that he is far too well hirsuited and booted for a working post-apocalyptist.
I have been thinking a lot recently about technology, and our acquisition of it. Technology is, quite rightly, an expensive purchase; just to come close to constructing a calculator requires hundreds of transmuted meteorite shards that are scraped off the inside window of the Earth. They require factories of technology to produce, to pulverize and liquefy in order to store information or output light. Technology changes daily, and, for the most part, our choice to change with it remains a choice. If I am a rich man, I may choose to upgrade my technology every time something new is released, and discard or recycle that which I used before. If I am poor, or merely comfortable, I may wait several consumer generations before buying again. I may also be an archaist, or a luddite, or anything in between the polarities, and buy once and wish to use forever. I may be content to only give the capitalist contract a cursory glance, and decide that I need nothing more.
This contract simmers down to this particulate:
“If you pay us money for an object that is advertised as a purchasable product, or an easily defined experience, that experience or object belongs to you, within the confines of common sense and ability. You may use it as you see fit within the bounds of already-defined law, and it remains yours until you sell it, discard it, or die, in which case it passes on to your descendants, until it crumbles into dust or is otherwise obliterated.”
As far as I can tell, this is the basis of all modern commerce. Some services and experiences may be defined more nebulously, but this is the crux of it. One may also hire, or rent, or license, or borrow, or interact with objects in many other ways. But, for an intelligent person, your relationship with your object is defined prior to the choice. You know, or can divine, in advance, whether you are hiring or buying.
This, it seems, is not a given anymore.
I am not actually referring to digital products which provide no concrete, ad infinitum link from consumer to product, like Kindle purchases that can be wiped remotely or Steam libraries that can only groan silently with weight and expense, and may, in fact, be wiped at any point and for any reason, infractious or not. These issues have already been raised, by many, and I for the most part agree with them, but there is a different paradigm for immaterial purchases; the practicalities of storage and the easily-broken promises of “forever-access”.
I am referring to good old-fashioned hardware. Those things that can be grasped, picked up in a car, and sit in the corner of a living room until the curtains glow with far-off oil-fires and the whoop of marauders pound at the door. Computer hardware is caught in an amphibian conundrum; its physical shell fulfills all of the tenets of the above consumer agreement, and is purchased with the ineffable promise of continual, permanent ownership. However, its blood is software, the cloud-like, undefined anti-stuff of which I talked in the above paragraph. The shell without the blood is nothing at all. The old Apple 2s and Valve, owners of the Steam platform, to realistically honour a refund of every transaction made if their servers were wiped. And their EULA protects them against such an obligation. And so we enter in this argument that we now own nothing, but pay the same fees as we do to own to instead license, with added convenience. If the prices were different, this would make sense. But they do not. The capitalist contract is being used incorrectly.
I am not sure if something needs to change legislatively, or if this instead requires a change in outlook. People need to realise the relationship to what they are buying, and how this may change in the future. That shiny computer you buy today will degrade, and gather dust and jam-prints and will need cleaning and maintenance like anything else; but those theoretical spaces that exist within them, and alongside them, in an unknown dimension, sit thrumming silently, waiting for the light to switch off. That computer is only a rental, no matter how much you paid for it.
While you have a bowl to put yourself in, there is a uniqueness that nobody else recognizes. Your head is an iceberg’s hat, a deeper-than-thought dwelling for you to place parts of yourself that require an intimate knowledge of every sniffed nose you have ever had. There is a thrift of understanding that causes you pain, and you wish that others would try to spend it.
They are. Everyone you ever meet tries hard to understand your point of view and foibles. It is a constant effort, and much of our brainpower is spent in it. Everybody fails. Don’t feel bad about it. You’re special, remember.
The wasted effort spent in trying to understand each other, and in that effort the knowledge that others are as unique as ourselves, and subject to that uniqueness in the same manner as ourselves, is what stops cheeks sliding from faces and the formation of ideas such as:
– What is this house for, anyway?
– What should I terminate?
– Starting things should cease.
The road is a process. It remains entirely unsame throughout its life, after which it is shaved off and used to keep the dishes quiet. Even a single second after the bitumen lorries have left, it is different. The chemical-smoke that worms off of it contains neat shelves of atoms, and in being different, it is hard to focus on the material. When I drive along it I see only the trees surrounding it, the bridges crossing it, and the personalised machinery using it; never the road. The road is a process.
Machinery can become filthy without human aid. This is not the prevailing opinion, but it is true. The road is the proof. No humans walk there, apart from when wrapped in evolutionary warning dyes to make of themselves sufficiently important to avoid death. Sometimes the lost or stranded are forced to wait, fearful of the wind that changes, always changes. They are quickly shuttled off, trying to forget the cold, and the noise, and the choking air. There is no hint of man here. He left with the bitumen lorries, and took his skin cells and eyelashes with him. There is no coating of man. And yet black films collect.
It is a natural process, shaped by the switchbacked throat that breathes up and down from where all the air is. You may see it in the sea, in the woods and by the rivers, wherever you live. Some things are swept along by the air. Others are not. The things that are swept along do not remain homogenous, they catch their slightest utilities on the claws of others, are knotted, and come to halt, the air trying to reclaim them. And still the cars come, and scratch themselves, and a matte-black dust settles over everything.
I have seen this more and more since I became a driver. Strange objects all coated the same, washed against the central reservation, wind-shoved between the rails of a pedestrian bridge. Bottle caps mixed with flat meat, hubcaps becoming carbonised and petrified with snack packets, toddler toys, cigarettes, apple cores, faulty radios, dustings of chocolate yoghurt biscuit pots, forming fungus that can make no roots and so is mobile, swept along until exhaustion or underpasses give them a little bit of peace.
Sometimes roadkill will be fresh, and it seems that lack of blood lets light, artificial or stellar, illuminate the interior and give the feathers or fur or puckered skin a lantern quality. This will not last. The throat gulps eternally, and the black cells come, filming everything and wearing down the catch until it drifts off again, and plasters the rear ends of vans and provides someone somewhere to write and draw pictures. This will only happen when they are drunk; they often will not wash their hands before they next eat, and do not know what they are coated in.
I knew somebody who wanted to walk the entirety of the M25 on the hard shoulder. I now imagine him treading slowly on, each passing vehicle stealing a infinitesimal part of him, until by the end of his journey his edges are rounded, and he does not know how close he came to becoming part of the black film, the sample of pheasant and badger and polyurethene, that moves along those roads where humans no longer go without a tabard and a cone.
Sandor Katz and Doc Fermento managed to convince me that gently rotting my own vegetables would not end up with a face the colour of greening tin and cured sausage for legs, blood for effluent and a corkscrew wedged in the duodendum. This fermented cabbage sat in my cupboard, in a dark warmth, for two weeks, and then was refrigerated to put everything to sleep.
I tasted it yesterday, with corned beef, a little creme fraíche, and some mustard.
It smelt… not wrong, as I had been trained by my reading to trust an actual smell from my food as evidence of health. The thing I noticed was a lack of vinegar, and a strong smell of salt. Which, considering there’s around 500g of salt in the jar, is to be expected. The caraway seeds had mostly sunk into a thick gound at the bottom rim, but I could feel them pricking up through the soup, alerted to my breaking of the seal.
It tasted great. Really great. I have a cold, but it still tasted great. Crunchy, as salty as a crisp, but with a wet, earthy strata underneath. It tastes like it has sat in a cupboard for two weeks, in a good way. It sat well in my stomach, and I am ready for more.
I’m fairly certain that this will not become a D&D blog. It is not what I intend, and I think I’m just missing losing my voice and having my hair stand up on end in its own effluent. Such are the weekends.
As you may have gathered, I run my own D&D campaign with a group of like-minded troglydytes. It generates some of the most entertaining passages of time in my current existence. I also usually write our adventures as a serialised, cheesed fiction, in a style that allows me to be as pretentious as possible, and actually be praised for it by an exceedingly small fanbase. We have fun, in our little world.
There are always locks when we are young.
They may be machined locks, impenetrable to adults and almost boring to us. They may be combinations, seemingly a teaching aid, containing as they do the numbers one to nine, the first we learn, and the only ones we need. I think that we wonder where the others are hiding. Sometimes the locks are simpler, more alien, a lid that won’t turn, a interior muscle not yet plump enough to pop the seal. If we were to train hard, we could remove the child safeties before our time. But we never did.
These locks were forgotten about. The perseverance of children in books does not translate into real life. But they stay with us, in a way. Many of them led to rooms that were not configured to our clumsiness. Others led to the Unguent Cupboard.
The Unguent Cupboard held liquids most often, and sometimes solids, though there is something more mysterious about a potion than a sheer block of stuff. It catches the light better, unless it is a precious metal, and then there is a whole other curiosity which we are encouraged to sate. The curiosity of young princes.
We knew that those liquids would poison us if we drank them. We had been told enough times that they were for killing other beings of varying sizes, that Mum and Dad did not like to kill but had to, to keep us safe. Red and yellow and darkness were things to keep away from. White powder on the ground was not seasoning. It would not taste good.
These liquids fulfilled purposes that were so sacred that they were only brought out for ceremonies – when Dad would sit at the kitchen table outside of mealtimes, his shoes laid before him, or when the floor was slick with oil. Only life’s big accidents called for the unlocking of the Unguent Cupboard; the water would flow from the tap, but would not disappear again. This was unacceptable, and had to be fixed. Mum would unroll the leather, Dad would clap the bristles, and work would begin. We would have to stay back; “dangerous fumes, son, one gasp and you’re done.” But the smell would rise, a smell that wasn’t earth, snot, gravy or other people, the only smells we had really smelt until then. This smelt of miles underground, of factories, of a great distance from us. We had been allowed snorts of it at petrol stations, but it was forbidden, a smell that was laid over the brain like a glass, or a pie case. It was wonderful.
Part of one’s training to be an adult is to learn where all the Unguent Cupboards are, and what they are for. I think that we are disappointed to learn that most are for cleaning, for maintaining what we have. Very few of them change our possessions into something better, or ourselves into others that we would prefer to be. But it is hard not to prize your access. You now know that one to nine are not the only numbers, that combined they are more powerful and useful. That it was not muscle needed to open those caps, but a push and twist, an ability to turn your mind sideways. And that a clean pair of shoes, and a clear sink, are compounds greater than true love or a handsome face.
I have just finished watching a documentary on Moebius/Gir/Jean Giraud, a man who has inexplicably escaped my attentions, despite being right up my strässe. I have yet to buy one of his books, and I feel that I understand his death as a great loss, despite only viewing his work with an outsider’s eye. I hope to change that soon.
Isn’t this the loveliest cover for a novel you have ever seen in your existence? You are right, it is. It is even better in real life, with a tactile, burred surface that calls to mind the craft paper it emulates. A clean image. I am not usually that interested in arty dust covers, but this, as well as the jacket for the UK release of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, are fine examples.
The cover was created by Peter Mendelsund, a designer working at Knopf. I really love his other work, also; professional and material. I wonder if he does more figurative, individual work of his own? His Kafka pieces come close.
The book itself is not bad, either; in fact, sod that, it’s rather good. I don’t like reviewing books, and so I will point you at the promotional video to whet your appetite. I’m not sure if it is on general release in the UK yet, but if you find a copy, snap it up.