This is a short piece I wrote after a particularly devastating night’s sleep, and the appropriately scouring shower in the morning.
When I came to the shower, I was bottle-thrown by a mob of complaints; I got black leather caught under my thumbnail when peeling an avocado last night, and it remained tender as if, I’m not sure, two years before, a hammer had gulped its Adam’s Apple across it. The last of a cold hung from my nostrils. My back was sweaty, my thighs zip-locked, my beard plugged in and powered, and I felt cold air molesting my stomach for the first time in a day. I reach in and break an eager moss of limescale, and as it falls it is the cold air, not the water, that reaches me first. Imagine experiencing this with sound and light, I tell myself now, hours later.
My father would have had a shower before work three or four hours ago, and the atmosphere inside the glass door has only just recovered from all of that nonsense. Now I come along, its barely nine o’clock, and ruin it all over again. Air doesn’t want to be heated, I don’t think; what would want that roiling tumble, that hazing from liquid to gas and back again?
The water in the tray is still cold, and my feet look like aubergines under the surface. But the stream is hot, and the air too, and as it rises I smell everything the night has given me. First the shoulders go under, which I forget to dry everyday and where I am now tormented by pike skin. The hammered thumb disappears inside a pillar of gravity, and that black leather is sought out and sorted into the only file the shower has. I grope for the shower gel, which claims no fruits or flowers but smells simply soft. This shower gel paints a myth that soap oozes from the trails of slugs, and we collect it with strygils as a folk activity.
My legs are mottled roasting joints now, and the heat is really getting to me, it’s in my nose. I fart and plot the acoustics, before my neck is plunged into the transparent throat like that of a ringworm, full of teeth. That nibbling is really what we all go to bed for. It is so marvellous I think I faint briefly, though as I am still half-asleep it is hard to make the distinction. You can scour a hangover off your flagstones with something like this, at least temporarily. Nothing hangs about too long with such a feeling drumming on your spinal column.
I rock forward and my ears and the crown of my head are under now. I am swallowing water by the cupful, far more than eight. I try to focus on the differing roars in each ear, trying to echo-locate the unique tunnels of air that exist on each side, and then realise that there is a hiss in the middle. I didn’t realise that my head had a centre, I thought that such revelations were for people calmer and more introspective than I am, but there it is, a hiss that uses my cheekbones as an amp. I stand for ten minutes like that, puzzling out that hiss.
I always try to turn off the water as quickly as possible, to leave my body shocked. It barely realises that it has thumbs, now, let alone one in pain. My beard is like a painting against my face, my thighs see daylight between them, and as my chest hardens in the face of the open window (opened by my father before dawn, to prevent mould) and the brisk rubbing of a towel that cannot dry in this damp air, I walk away trouble-less, at least until dust begins to settle on my shoulders again, and my feet gather dirt, and all the fluids in my body come drip, drip, dripping out of hiding, to see what a tidy state the shower-water has left behind.
This one did not take quite as long as the last one. The canvas is about the size of an envelope, and was a gift from my girlfriend when I gave her the Totoro painting. I have a couple of plans for my own paintings in the future, but there was another Ghibli character that I had always felt drawn to in a distinctive fashion.
The Radish Spirit.
This character is not actually named in the Japanese version of Spirited Away, but has garnered a healthy digital respect from all quarters. He does look a little like a radish, I suppose, bulbous and peppery off-white, with hints of red about him giving the suggestion of discarded skin; the Japanese certainly have a certain soft spot for the vegetable. He treats Chihiro with a silent kindness, and I believe instantly struck a chord with many Ghiblians. Of course, in painting him I found another attraction; his shape. Like Totoro, he is eminently symmetrical, composed of simple, soft shapes and easy shading. He was certainly an excellent candidate for my second painting.
With this painting, I wanted to see how quick techniques could bring about a more spontaneous finish. I was less concerned about quality, but how organisation and quick iteration could still produce an image that had depth; after all, Ghibli thrives on creating complexity from simpler tableaux. I completed the painting, from drawing to final touches, in around three hours, which is much less than the ten hours or more that I spent on Totoro. Granted, that painting was bigger, but in this instance I split the process into distinct stages of colour and increasing detail.
As you can see below, when held up to a light behind, the painting shows the flaws that such an approach can bring; the weave of the canvas and my speed meant that I missed many of the hollows and divots, especially around the black outline. This gives it a piecemeal appearance if viewed in such a manner, but of course paintings are rarely viewed like this. I think that this can be solved by painting the outline after the larger blocks of colour; I tended to be quite timid with my colouring brushstrokes, afraid to go over the outline even though I could paint it back in later.
I have a couple of other paintings to do, which I will post as soon as I am able. The Radish Spirit was a lesson, at least, and he still looks good on my wall.
Despite the tags that I have designated for this piece, designed to provide humour to the eagle-eyed and cater to some whineless, almost-human organisation system of which I will have need in the future, this is not an essay. The word “essay”, coming from French or Latin or Greek (I feel a little ridiculous looking it up, when a hyperlink would serve just as well and make me look no more stupid) implies study, careful thought, attribution, development of argument, structure, and a thousand other conventions which are designed to provide a consistent language in which new thought can be accepted by an establishment coated in self-awareness.
I have not done any of these things. I have not researched, to see if my thoughts have already been thought. There will be little attribution, except to those individuals who form an unwitting subject of my watchings. It does have some structure, but it is too vestigial to be called anything so stentorian as an essay.
What it comes down to is that these ideas are, collectively, something that will not go away, that even if previously expressed I have never heard expressed in this way. Also, that title has been sitting in my draft queue for about three months and it is about time I did something about it, before the idea disappears completely.
Pompeii was a great Roman city, as every British schoolchild knows. It rode the back of the world on pillows of black soil, its crop thick, its people rich, and the mountain Vesuvius at its back quiet, for most of the time. Like my classmates I defined it by its fall, the story passed down as a morality tale when really it was a combination of geographical necessity and geological ignorance. I never really thought abut that moralising element of my education until today, and I find it distasteful. The British public school system has a strange relationship with the Romans, at once venerating them as entirely countable generations have done before them, as well as seeing the era as a wonderful tool for teaching about the folly of pagan greed and fallen beauty, like a painting where an Imperial port is decked in ivy and Renaissance costume. I do not think it is coincidence that the elves have taken their place in our intellectual imaginations.
One of the most idosyncratic elements of the Pompeii story, aside from the causted molds of human beings in their last moments, which are so incredibly sad one cannot believe that nature created them, and instead they must have been made by the same man who makes the waxworks at Madame Tussauds and placed there as a metaphor, is the graffiti that was left behind by these reductions. The city was forgotten for thousands of years, and now that the concept of “misery tourism” has caught on, the arbitrary palimpsest of thousands of real people has been preserved, whereas anywhere else they would be covered up by something boring, like a beautiful fresco or a row of statuary.
Reading the translation of some of this graffiti, I see the same things that I remember from school (the knob jokes, the timeless catalogue of vaginas, questioning of virtue, accounts, lists, and more accounts; did you know that the first piece of recorded writing in human history was a bank statement?) but now there are other, more subtle things that appear, that escaped my notice when I was younger. Now I not only see the ephemera of people who were just like me, but I see a world that, while not digital, operated on the same soupy principles as our current Internet Age, principles that we feel are entirely modern but are, as with everything, borrowed.
The first half of my rather clumsy titular designation refers to the popular image-sharing website Imgur. For the complex, snobbish cultures of the internet it is a latecomer, Reddit’s nursing home, where memes and viral content are nurtured in a more homogenised, more instantly judgmental atmosphere. Imgur’s comment ranking system showcases a far more interesting strata than the images themselves; most are drek (this will always be the case, and has always been the case, with any culture, and for people to think otherwise is to rifle through memory dishonestly).
Imgur and Pompeii, if the portmanteau did not clue you in already, have much in common. Moment to moment, as is the nature of binary-based technology, and thus all technology in our civilization, Imgur performs a new archaeology upon itself – it moves forward constantly, onto the newest image, the newest comments, the most popular comments, a constant fakir’s rope (and I do not mean that unkindly) winding up on itself into the ceiling. Paradoxically, the site is never anything other than an archive for the human viewer; the actual nano-state of the website is a concept only. In logging into the site we view a flash-caught set of motifs. Using this metaphor, it is easy to triangulate Pompeii and its graffiti, not just in its archival nature, but its content; the racism, the sexism, the plumber’s language. But there is another point of contact that I have noticed. I call it “the strive for relevant community experience”. Or the Imgeii Effect.
I’m not sure if it is a linguistic meme or not, but on Imgur there is a formula which is resolved in the comments of almost every image on the website. It goes:
I am [profession or lifestyle relevant to image] and I can confirm that [original opinion or previous statement is correct].
I have no way of knowing if these people are who they claim. For there to be heart surgeons, volunteer mental hospital volunteers, undertakers, ex-prisoners and a thousand other professions represented on a website mostly populated by twenty-something students is dubious. For some, there is an intense interrogation process (which on Reddit is actively encouraged by the site’s moderators), for others instant dismissal (though this is actually quite rare) and for many rather blind acceptance. Their viewpoint is assumed into the milleu with all the others, but with a slight mirth of interest in the general millpond that is more than most commenters can hope to affect in a lifetime of online interaction. To call the activity of this website a millpond is only to extrapolate the activity to the scale that such communities operate at, with millions of active users. For one person to even register in its quotidian operation is remarkable.
Looking at the sort of Pompeiian graffiti that has survived the two thousand years since it was enscribed, this Effect is definitely prevalent. Here are a few examples (all from Pompeiana):
Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.
Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st Praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women.
I will admit, it is hard to find examples that do not have a scatalogical element. And one may argue that there is little difference between what I am positing and the universality, in time and space, of the “I woz here” desire for immortality. But what is interesting here is that much graffiti references not only the enscriber’s (or the subject’s) name, but often their position in society. Their job, their military rank, their friends or wives or husbands or lovers form a part of their title. Pompeii, like Imgur, like the web, like any society, is a network, an interaction of thousands, if not millions of people. A name is not enough, because everybody has a name (and now every user of the web has a portrait, a luxury once reserved for royalty). All of these scribblers, and their interactions, have been archived effectively for analysis, and the archive can be distilled into a clear verbal competition, a subtle jockeying for position, that same fakir’s rope that constantly rises faster than people can scale it.
In a society like Pompeii, reputation was everything. How one was thought of by others may not have affected your moods or self-opinion, but it did affect your audience, your friends, your standing and how much you influenced the millpond of day-to-day, furious activity. For a slave who visited a brothel, who knew that he could not stand on the Cardo Maximus and have his opinions heard or heeded, could write in his stall, on the pillar, the peristylum or the flagstone, and not be ashamed of his slavery. His slavery was what brought him to the brothel, and money, at least in those days, could not buy you performance, not even the richest senator. The earthy proclamation is better suited to the earthy individual, anyhow; the natural justice is sweet.
Turning to Imgur, we see Pompeii sped up past the rate of evolution. The size of the community means that affecting any change that is noticeable is a monumental achievement. Creating a meme that sticks is not about the content of the meme, but its relative immortality. And those that cannot create, legitimize. Reddit has its own subset of these people; the Ask Me Anything sub-Reddit, where people from marginal or esoteric professions answer questions set by the Reddit community. This was made more widely famous recently when Obama created one, but the (self-appointed) interviewees range from McDonalds employees and disaster survivors to those with physical deformities. These are not professions, in the strict sense, but they are markers by which an internet hungry for material correlatives will judge a person. They are a point of view that is not commonly heard in the homogenised web, and will be listened to if only out of penny-shop curiosity. For the interviewees, or the commenters, the reaction of their fellows is less important than the fact of the reaction itself. One’s unique position in life, whether formed by the curvature of one’s spine, one’s job or one’s bad choice to drive on an icy motorway, can often provide a relevance, a kink in the rope, that will allow one to rise above the warm crush that we all inhabit.
My girlfriend and I have a certain inner core that claps at the same bell. This is no different, I suppose, from any other couple. To say that we have a lot in common is not understatement, but certainly misleading; it is not necessarily activities that we enjoy together (she views horses with a keen agony, whereas to me they are countryside installations; I play Dungeons and Dragons, and video games, and to her they are a fascinating but ultimately untroubling phenomenon, like an iridescent insect on her shoe) but more of an aesthetic. I’m not sure, if we ever sat down and really talked about it, we could pinpoint exactly what it is that we share, but we could formulate a vast astrology of interconnected chips of culture and art and music that sets that core running in both of us. I suppose, when I think about what the world looks like using all four of our eyes, there are certain expressible elements; we see the world both in a painterly style, where trees and fields take a precedent, where the city is a wonderful tap that runs brown after a while, where quiet mixes with cacophonous engine noise and belches of flame from a very old fire. There are television programs, films, pieces of music, that evoke slivers of the whole mythology, but which never quite latch onto it fully. We both know when something “has the right stuff”, and we accept it into the fold as if it had always been there.
I had told her about the Studio Ghibli films before. She knew of them already, of course; with the success of Spirited Away the “Japanese Pixar”, a national treasure in that country, had spread itself into the United Kingdom with unsurprising ease. Miyazaki and Takahata both adore the West, subsuming it into their own shared core, and converting it to sit alongside Japanese mysticism and romantic poise. All of their films have something of the Weald about them, a rolling openness interspersed with dark natural intimacy that is distinctly European. In Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki was directly influenced by the landscape of Wales, the philosophy of its miners, and its healthy respect for innocent community. Everything they produce has a solid column of environmentalism running through it, an advocacy for appropriate silence and appropriate cacophony (each in their own time), and a love of nature that is so pure it has been mistaken for childish nostalgia. I had loved them for many years, and I knew that she would, also. She began to watch them, with a friend of hers, and both of them became enamoured, as I had been. 2012 was the year in which she caught up on the oeuvre, and in our speech and interactions we began to emulate what we saw on screen, in the best way possible. We were quiet, contemplative, prone to brief but beatific exclamations, watchful, and above all, open. And so, when Christmas lay its belly on the cold ground, and neither of us had much money, I knew what I would be making her as a present.
I’m not sure if many people know that I can paint. I’m not that good, and I often work with artists on projects, preferring their more refined, professional vision over my own self-doubt. I have always been more comfortable with words. I never painted flat images in any great number, but I did paint an extensive array of miniatures. I was a Games Workshop acolyte for many years, rarely actually competing but amassing figures in the tens and hundreds, painting them with an increasing degree of precision. I recently sold my entire collection for nearly £600. I have neither the time, money or inclination to participate these days, but my knowledge of colour, my steady hand, and my homesickness for the smells of acrylic and burning hair in the glare of the Anglepoise drew me back, to my mother’s paints and a gifted canvas, to try again.
I knew that she would adore my efforts, even if they were terrible. I chose Totoro, the gargantuan wood spirit, because of all Ghibli’s films his evokes most purely the miniature wanderlust of youth, of straying too far when too far is only a meter or three into the briarbush, and what you can find there if you just slow down and look. It evokes my own childhood so strongly that I can rarely watch it without crying, and I knew that my girlfriend is a fan also. Totoro has a nice symmetrical shape, and with a couple of sketches I pinned him down for painting. I did not think about the composition too much, or mistakes at all; I just ploughed in. This turned out fairly well, especially in the case of the potentially agonizing fur. My steady hand didn’t do too badly.
As I moved onto the colours (mixing that distinctive grey and yellow was difficult, but with a couple of tries, and the forgiving nature of acrylics, I managed it) I realised just how simple Ghibli’s process is, how refined and elegant. Almost all of their films are hand-painted, and so the sheer work that goes into each is unfathomable. The characters are distinctive yet cohesive, easily drawn by one who knows how, and the colouring is perfectly complimentary, with even garish tones fitting in a way that I struggled to replicate. With only simple shadows these characters are given depth, and as I ran a slick of Titanium White into the pupils of the wood troll’s eyes I saw instantly the picture transform. I fell in love with painting again.
I did change the colour of his umbrella from my reference picture, and this is the only part of the painting that I was not entirely happy with. I would have added a little more depth to those patagiums, if I had had time, but this painting was barely dry when I wrapped it and, fretting over the rain, caught a train across the Midlands to see her, to exchange presents. I had no idea what she was going to make me; she knew what I liked, could quantify it herself in her own head, but I was excited for her to see what her cack-handed boyfriend had managed.
She loved it. She was amazed that I had kept my painting a secret from her, when really I had given up on it completely, until both her and Ghibli had inspired me to take it up again. I had insisted that she open her present first, and so now it was my turn. What did she make me, cooped up alone in the middle of a flooded river valley, an accomplished artist with only this shared core between us?
She sewed me my own Totoro, out of an old jumper of hers. We had barely talked about Christmas, or presents, each terrified that we would disappoint the other. For this to happen, for ideas to fall into place like this, has sent me back to London in a whirlwind. A few more Ghibli paintings, and then I’ll try my own designs, mapping my own core, our core, onto a canvas that makes the brush jump as if on the contours of a ricefield.
1. At a party, the character plays a trick on an associate of his, a woman who he only knows through a friend who performs poetry in her spare time. It is a fancy dress party, and he is dressed as a dentist. He is standing on the other side of the kitchen, speaking to a much closer friend, someone who he slept with at university, and rummages through his cupped hand with his nose until he has only one peanut remaining.
A ship is a dreadful, dreadful reaction to the problem of ocean.
I say this with all the fullness of respect for beautiful shipwrighting, ingenious seamanship, and my own memories of lying in the strung netting of a catamaran with my brother, treading lightly over the waves of the Caribbean sea. I love ships. I love them because they are an imperfect solution to the fact that our universe, in its codes of elements and interactions, decided that carbon-based life needed a hideously dangerous compound very close by, just in order to process energy.
The ship is a depiction of mankind as a child.
The image above shows a variety of caravels (though not galleons, as these were not built until the 16th century) and carracks typically used in the 14th and 15th centuries, around the time that Mappa Mundi is set. They were light beasts, in general, designed for the lazy buzzing that accompanied European ocean travel. Though there was still danger akeel in the form of pirates and submerged sandbacks, the sight of land on one side mitigated that terrifying expanse of water on the other.
But, as Andre Gidé said, “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
These ships were woefully unprepared for the open ocean. Many chose to swing on Iceland’s hook and up to Greenland, tripping over ice floes and sticking fast. Those that did take a more direct route across the Atlantic regularly had half their fleet sunk, and thought it fortunate it were not more.
Mappa Mundi is what Richard Garfield calls an ‘orthogame’; one which ranks players by their ability and luck into clear ‘winners’ and ‘runners-up.’ Most of what we would consider ‘games’ or ‘sport’ function in this way. A winner is a conclusion to a game that persists in record, and serves a shorthand to the play of it. But a winner on its own is nothing; that winner has to have fought with skill or merely determination to reach that state. And the game, a good one, will challenge them every step of the way, especially if the other players have bad luck or little ability. The game itself becomes an opponent.
I have spoken about randomness in the context of games before, but usually with more than a little trepidation; it is hard to balance a game, and strategise for its execution, where many of the mechanics rely on blind luck. I am still trying to add some elegance to these other systems in Mappa Mundi, but one in which I think randomness works well, both mechanically and narratively, is the system by which these leaking, disease-heaving bowls of human soup traverse the wide ocean.
In both the game and history, the ocean is a process, not an end-state; no sailor wished to grow wiry and white in the middle of the Atlantic. The ocean was an inconvenience that held everything by chance; the weather, the tides, treasures, dangers, and more and more and more, all dipped into this vast expanse that would cost many months to cross on foot. For all its weaknesses, the sailing ship was fast, faster than anything else at the time, and its size made it more than fast, but self-sustaining for a time, packed full of everything needed to keep men alive for their ultimate goal; the New World.
In Mappa Mundi a ship in the waters surrounding Europe may move as it likes, north, south, into the Mediterranean, docking and setting out again as if it had legs and it was on a dry path known to all. But as soon as it creeps onto the white expanse of the A3 sheets, as yet uncharted, as yet unexperienced, they are at the mercy of the ruler and the Wind Dice, poor facsimiles of a navigator’s tools, included in the rules so that players may have some physical interaction that resembles those of the characters which they are playing. I’m not one for abstraction.
The distance in days a ship can travel (a number of inches on the board) is determined by the number of days of supplies that it carries. This is consistent across a player’s fleet, to avoid confusion and micromanagement of individual ships. I wanted player’s to be able to split their fleets at a moment’s notice, to give them flexibility, while keeping strategic resource management centralized, in the manner of any well-made campaign game. If they run out of supplies out of sight of land, they lose a ship and are returned to port; this seemingly light punishment is to stop something which may occur frequently (for some) prematurely ending a player’s game.
A player chooses a direction they wish to travel in, and throws themselves into the waves. They cannot change direction mid-way; using sails and the wind, our explorer’s ships would not have had that luxury. They then roll the Wind Dice, a specialised six-sided dice seen above. If they roll one of the arrows, they instead travel in that direction, at the mercy of the squall. If they hit the whirlpool, they may travel in their chosen direction, favoured by the zephyrs.
To make such a basic mechanic random is fairly risky; gameplay could devolve into merely tacking around the board like birds in a gale. However, I believe that, to properly replicate the experience of being at sea at the time, the random element is essential. To mitigate this randomness, there are several items, cards, and character traits which can add a little more certainty to one’s direction. There is a key symbolic value to the Wind Dice, also. Originally, I included a normal dice for other mechanics. This, however, made little sense; it complicated the ruleset, creating a pair of objects with very different functions but similar appearances, and just reeked of awkwardness. By making every dice roll playable on the Wind Dice, I not only made my system more elegant and easy to understand, but symbolised the nature of chance in the late Middle Ages. For sailors and explorers, aspects of their lives relied more on the vagaries of nature, and the wind, than those of landbound men. The will of God had little to do with cyclones and riptides. And so, instead of remaining safe in their ports, these men and women went out and fed on that chance, allowed it to take them to places where the rewards were greater than all the mines and fields of Europe could offer.
I’m nestled in a little quotation silo, so here’s one more, by William Shedd; “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
However, with just the wind and the white paper for company, these parts of the game would be very boring. Considering how random the Landfall mechanic is, a player may spend several turns or more at sea. The Deck of Oceans provides something for that player to focus on, to rely on for reward and fear for punishment. At the end of every section of movement, no matter how long or short, the player draws an Ocean Card, and plays it immediately. It could be a storm that rips one of their ships in two, a tide that pulls them to their goal, a sinking ship filled with treasure, an island, an omen, or leviathan of the waves. I have tried to match positive and negative fairly equally, but this is always hard when water is so dangerous, and ships so failing.
This weekend, I will be conducting the first playtest of Mappa Mundi ever! I’ll post some pictures and some feedback, but I am woefully underprepared. After that, I’ll make some big changes, write some more cards, playtest it again, refine it again, and then open it up to public playtesting. The website should be up by then, but for now I have added a new section to my website’s Project section, for games exclusively.
I’m off to play some music in Kentish Town now.
BLISSFUL PASSAGE ACROSS THE HUDOREAN, STRANGER
This post is for my good friend and fellow writer Rob Gordon, who told me that he reads all of this nonsense! Thanks Rob!
Mappa Mundi is not a card game. It is most definitely a board game; look upon it (you can’t, yet), it has a board. The randomly-generated board (accomplished, I suppose, through the drawing of cards) is a mechanic I am proud of, as its incubator. However, the game does use cards – and a lot of them. At the moment, with intense whittling, I have managed to reduce the number of decks to four. If this sounds like a lot of cards for one game about sociopathic late-medievals, you would be entirely correct. But keep in mind that at one point I was considering seven separate decks of cards, each with an entirely different function. I quickly realised that I was descending into a faeces-on-the-walls cartopathy, and reined in my love of the mechanic.
I think one of my favourite things such a mechanic is its nature of compression. The best games in history have few rules and almost-infinite permutations; other games, have rules. Lots of rules. I have managed to keep Mappa Mundi somewhere between Dungeons and Dragons and 52-Card Pickup in terms of regulatory material, but at its heart is something to which brevity is anathema; established setting. Most people will come to this game with a preconception of what the Age of Discovery was like. The life of an explorer was often violent, and short, and full of floppy hats, but most of all it was varied. With half the globe to discover, there were far too many wondrous things out there to create succinct mechanics that cover every single one.
Cards! Cards are the solution (the poop dries hard). They are a modular system with little compare. Each card can contain a wealth of mechanical information, background and dispositions, but due to their inherently unknown nature, and the rate of slow revelation through drawing them, a player often only has to handle the information of a handful at a time. They are a universally-recognised veil that you draw across the gears, teasing only what is necessary for the player’s comprehension. Almost everyone on the globe knows what a card is, and what it represents. The drawing of a card is a preparation of the mind for new eventualities, and so the decks of cards in Mappa Mundi complement the relatively sparse ruleset by lurking at the edge of the board and puffing out their mantra:
You will have to draw us at some point. Don’t worry about us yet. Just remember that we are here.
There are plenty of games that use this philosophy; Magic: The Gathering takes a complex ruleset and distributes it across hundreds of cards, each relating to the core mechanics in wildly different ways. Carcassonne has a random terrain system technique similar to Mappa Mundi, and decision-making is drip-fed to the player a tile at a time. Even in Tarot, each card has a separate meaning and designation, that changes in comparison to other cards dealt. Only the cards drawn matter, and in most circumstances, are forgotten as soon as the mechanic is dealt with.
This gradual revelation and discard of mechanic has a drawback, though; it makes strategy very difficult. That last paragraph, despite its informative links and succinct, slender profile, contained a few factual voids. Plans lain by players in Magic: The Gathering are only possible because the player can see their own hand (of multiple cards) at all times, and so mechanics actually have to be compared and contrasted before play. In Mappa Mundi, the reason I pared down the number of decks was so that some things in each game were predictable, and could be used as anchors for a strategy. Otherwise, if everything was left to a literal luck of the draw, players would quickly become frustrated when their schemes had no weight.
For example, originally the traits of each character were drawn randomly from a deck at the start of each game, so that each character was different with every play. However, I found that this made it harder to give the characters any personality whatsoever, as well as not allowing players to focus on a particular style of play. An aggressive player will naturally gravitate towards the monk or the general, for example, while a player who prefers subterfuge the pirate or the spy. If their attributes are randomised, it does not matter which character they pick, and giving them any characteristics whatsoever becomes pointless. The power of choice is instantly negated, and players, obviously, do not wish to concede that the universe is a random collection of swamp gas and pain. By making the traits fixed, the characters now have very visible personalities, and the choosing of them becomes an act of strategy.
Cards do have their place in Mappa Mundi, however. If a player decides to make landfall on a foreign shore, they are at the mercy of the Deck of Wonders.
This deck is a lot of fun for me to devise. It gobbles chance as a fuel, a hodgepodge of blessings, beasts, peoples, artefacts, geography, psychology, and more, that represent pretty much anything that a European sailor in the 15th century believed lay for them out across the mare. Every card is different, and each has an action or effect that the player must invoke. A timely Wonder Card can destroy the best-laid plans, bolster an ailing defence, or take the player in an entirely new direction. They are an element of fate that a good player will use to their advantage, and in which an unlucky player will flounder.
For example, a player’s scouting party may encounter a hyaena that eats ten of them, or one’s character may catch a fever that makes their legs go black, or they may be called back to Europe to answer charges of witchcraft, or they may find the Fountain of Youth, or discover that they are the bastard son of the King Of Portugal, or impregnate a local, or merely lose at dice. The variety of pitfalls and ascensions is almost endless. Each card drawn changes their fortunes, for better or worse, and sometimes not in the most expected way. Some require revelation to the other players, others are kept secret for a time. I think that I have achieved the goal I set out to achieve with this mechanic; to invoke a sense of dread and excitement every time a player is required to draw a card, not just for the drawer, but for everyone around the table. They are drawn every time a player makes anchor on a foreign shore, and I hope that it will encourage the gamblers to ground themselves at every opportunity, just to see what they can find.
The other decks I have created fulfil similar functions; the Deck of Oceans is more dangerous perhaps, containing all the mutability and mythos of the ancient sea with its storms, gyres and leviathans; the Deck of Shores is slotted neatly into my favourite mechanic, the aforementioned random terrain generation. The fourth deck should not really be a deck at all; it is the Equipment Deck, with visible items that the players may purchase to help them on their voyages. I cannot work out how best to present this information at the moment, but cards are certainly not the way; as I said above, cards excel at gradual revelation, and when looking at available equipment, one needs to see every item at once for one’s decision to be informed.
I think there may be a neat dichotomy emerging here. Everything relating to foreign lands, in Mappa Mundi is mutable and wild, both cosmetically and mechanically, whereas everything relating to Europe is fixed, from the printed starting board to the characters and the patrons. This is an example, I believe, of embedding one’s story in one’s mechanics, and I am very pleased with it.
‘La Gran’mère du Chimquière’, a statue menhir outside St. Martin’s parish church on Guernsey. It was perhaps first carved in 2500 BC, and has since been split in half by huffy priests and draped in garlands every year. I wasn’t anywhere near as observant.
You take a gamble walking a coastline. I always feel sure that gravity works differently there, that my feet are biased down the gentle shelf that forms everywhere that creatures do not have legs to fight it. The wind blows inland, making of you a billow, but you feel that it is only a clumsy old thing, and will soon remember itself and with a little ah! it will suck you out and lose you. I suppose that we all have family in the sea, but that’s no consolation; I am worried that I won’t recognise them.
Your health is uncertain too. Even though that philtre they called “sea air” made stencils under the hats of all those Victorian smokers, you are not sure that it will revitalise you. It certainly did not me. It gave me a chest infection that it had sharpened on Guernsey’s hundreds of drowning-rocks. I am not one for souvenirs, and I have certainly had better.
Visitors to the Channel Islands, spat out by Europe when it still blew its nose on the ice sheets and then pocketed them embarrassed, often say that it feels lost in time, just a half-step out of sync with the rest of us. Ignoring the ecstatic choirs of web servers buried like long-ago tenors all over the island, the preys of nodding lawyers in St. Peter’s Port whittled clever by tax cuts, and the airport built ten years ago with more charm than Gatwick has miles of filthy corridor, you could still say that it is a little… … … slower than other places. I spent a day walking covering more than a third of the coast, and I saw the same three bus drivers a dozen times, swapping routes like actors out of beloved roles. One of them certainly knew that he was famous for his shrill manner, cajoling passengers and traffic as if he was jousting. I have also read that people on the mainland are baffled by the island tradition of setting up roadside stalls full of vegetables without any attendants, relying on honesty boxes and an earnestness which that sea wind cannot dig out. How can you trust people to just pay without anyone watching them? What a simple life! They’re lucky that they do not know what it is really like!
What simple life? There’s nothing simple about it. You quickly realise that, if you were to steal some tomatoes or a pot of chutney (and I certainly did not), that nobody would chase you, or take your name. You would walk away, looking up at that sky which cannot decide whether this surprise birthday cake of fields and rock wants to be a paradise or a crag, and feel very stupid.
It’s the sea that sets things back a little. There’s only so much that progress can do to an ocean. We can go beneath it, or on it, or forsake it all together and just watch it twinkle dangerously as we come into land. The ferry is a curmudgeonly way to get to the south of France, and I stood and watched it heft itself up and out of the shallow harbour as if it were rising out of an armchair, trying not to spill the cold mugs of tea gathered on its arms. Guernsey faces two smaller islands on its southern side, Herm and Sark, and the former is so close to that harbour that I thought I could see people, mirroring myself, walking its mantling paths. I never really lost this perspective, in all my walking; the two islands, the sea cushioned between them, and then the hundreds of drowning-rocks, blotting that sea into something more like a dropped glass. On the other side of the island, near Vazon Bay and the Nazi concrete, they come before the tideline in a great jumble of ellipsis, tempting you to find out what comes next. Let me spoil it for you… it is Canada.
While the sea might keep some things ancient, or just dated, other things blow over it with the speed of sunlight. A whole drift of undesirables have come to Guernsey to pave this broad avenue that leads out into the world; Germans, French, and especially the English. The delicious bistros is which we ate gaze past those heavy little islands back towards the gargantuan shadow of France, proud of how far they have come. They are the product of striking out, as are the road-signs, the churches that sit a little squatter than those in Kent or Wiltshire, and the argot that only a few of the islanders still speak. People sailed here, thousands of years ago, in little boats that we cannot even begin to diagram. They found an island bouncy with sweet grass and wheat, squeezed by a belt of fish so thick that each swim was maybe a crunchy affair, tipped with creamy waves chubby with krill. On my walk I found two of these glutton’s tombs, seven thousand years old apiece.
At the first I met two Americans, who kindly told me where to find the council-installed light switch inside, as if we were queuing for a toilet. I certainly wasn’t, though I can’t say what they did in there. The space inside was low so that I had to crawl, and when I stepped out of the wind things got old once more. There was a spicy smell of earth that slipped into every sense. One of the vast boulders which formed the ceiling had a man’s face carved into it, mouth pursed, surprised to find himself hauled up from where he had used to stand as a god of small realms by the door. When I climbed back out into the sharp sunlight, the Americans were standing on the grass dome of the tomb, twirling bronze aerials as lazily as I would look for phone signal. I left them to it, and walked on.
The second tomb had grown a golf course around itself like a pringled beard. Two bank managers ignored me as I trod across the green up to the Millennium Stone, a far more modern attempt at lithomancy. The tomb, entrance overgrown, again forced me to bend and smell the soil, and as I climbed in I almost bottled it; there was only a rent of light from an opening above me, and one of the two pillars holding up the ceiling had the year “1898” chiseled proudly across it. It was certainly very impressive, but venerability is not what I look for in something holding up several tons of rock.
I clumped across the bowl of L’Ancresse Bay, in the very north of the island, buffeting across the leavings of low tide in Ladies Bay, letting the water spill over the top of my boots and keeping an eye out for ormer, that little ocarina of a mollusc that you will not find in England. The weather just tripped across the whole island and I think only one night passed without a storm. Guernsey changes all the time, and stays the same as well. My body cannot handle it, and I’m still sipping Benylin as I write this.
I think the moment when it really got into me, right down into my lungs, was at Fort Doyle. Originally a defense against the French navy, the raw brick, mimicking the lining of my throat, was pebbledashed by the Third Reich. It strikes out to the north, into the Channel, and I approached it as would many of the men who had worked there, from inland, though in my age I emerged from amongst tomato hothouses and mussel restaurants serving hot, limp dill to tourists.
I could feel my trachea narrow with the land. The rain came as I approached the redoubt of the front entrance. I climbed breeze block stairs to a roof which will celebrate its hundredth birthday very soon, still held up by the tricentennial clay that will scoff at kids these days. The rain worsened, and a cloud larger than the island itself, stretching up into space, shouldered its way to us, having finished with England. It hit me so hard I nearly sailed off that roof, and it put something into my lungs that has stayed with me, even though I am now many miles from that sea, and that wind.
Writing and designing a boardgame is hard if you are very intelligent. I am such a person.
I cannot speak for the experience from the perspective of a stupid person, but I imagine that it would present its own problems.
I started designing Mappa Mundi, a boardgame set during the European Age of Discovery in the 15th century, for several reasons:
1) There was a gap in the market for story-led, complex strategy games with a strong roleplaying element, which also provide a rich bedrock of mechanics and world-building to encourage divergence and replay;
2) It was a game that, if I described it to myself whilst pacing around my living room (an activity that quadruples as mopping, hoovering and exercise), I very much wanted to play;
3) There was a story that I wanted to tell, and I felt that it would be told best in this format;
4) By telling this story, I wished to teach people (secretly) about something for which they had cultural awareness, but perhaps less actual knowledge.
The story of the European explorers, almost all of them retrospectively diagnosable with severe personality disorders, and their frankly absurd drive to cross the sea in the rotting dandruff of the waves, haunted by mutiny, disease, loss, bankruptcy, loneliness, scurvy, religious extremism, not to mention the entirely fictional bestiaries of the day, is a very long and complex one. It involves so many different subjects that I scarcely knew where to start in terms of a traditional script or novel. What would emerge from such a process would be a runtish chimaera of influences, a book about the thickness of one American sandwich or three British sandwiches, and a horrid mess.
A game, whether board or otherwise, provides an excellent way to solve this very basic problem. Games thrive at the thinner end of the wedge. They offer ways to develop relatively few mechanics and allow the squelchy old human bonce to extrapolate out a theoretically endless number of permutations. This means that the story can be told again and again, each time slightly differently. However, though the world stays the same throughout each game – the world here being the “possibility space” of every conceivable game – the narrative, the specific game played, changes every time. As long as the gameplay itself is compelling, a player can experience as many narratives as they like. This is unfortunately less possible in a traditional narrative, such as a novel or a film, where the gameplay is, while slightly more involved than many game designers would have you believe, still restrictively linear.
I even considered turning Mappa Mundi into a stageplay for a while, but the last thing the London stage needs is more men in tights sighing or cackling.
I decided, then, that Mappa Mundi would work as a game. However, unlike other games, such as chess or chequers or, now I come to think of it, any that have endured, I would be guiding the narrative a little more than usual. Chess is eternally popular, not just because of its mechanics, but because the pieces, their movement, and their opposition, are so atavistic that they may substitute themselves for anything weighing on the player’s mind. Outside the obvious realms of war and conflict, chess may be a contest between lovers, a map of a realm, or political machinations between sons of some decaying fiefdom.
My effort is a little more focussed than that. It is set in the 15th century in Europe. It involves sailing ships, courting politicians and staking claim to new land, very explicitly. Metaphors have their place when playing Mappa Mundi, but nowhere near as broadly as its elemental brothers. Right away, we have an immediate problem; there is a channel already cut for the story. Hire a politician, sail across the world, gather gold, come back. There’s not much of a choice, on the face of it, past the first game. Not much room for imagination, or the unconscious pollination that players commit.
At this point, it’s probably best if I give you a quick overview of the game so far:
Players choose their characters (with differing attributes and wealths) from a limited pool, and choose a positive and negative personality attribute (randomly) along with it. They then enter into a bidding war, partially randomized with a dice, to secure the best patron in Europe, each of whom has differing motives and available funds. Each patron will give them more money for ships and equipment, in return for completing missions. These missions are secret from the other players.
After this the main game begins. Players strike out from the printed map of Europe onto blank sheets of paper, forming an unmarked map of the world. As their fleet progresses, they draw cards (containing both boons and obstacles) from the Deck of Oceans. If they receive a “Landfall” card, they start drawing from the Deck of Shores, sketching out sections of coastline on the paper according to the instructions on the card. They will find civilizations and other wonders, drawn from, appropriately the Deck of Wonders. Through trade, sabotage, conquest, subterfuge and exploration, as well as completing their patron’s missions, a player may win the game.
You see, therefore, that it is a complex game. This is unavoidable, as the mechanics needed to be broad and varied enough to provide variation within the sandbox. The setting defines many of the mechanics (the travel by sea, trade, the patrons etc.), but the player’s behaviour is an entirely unknown quality, at least until playtest. I knew from the outset that I needed to create mechanics that were both novel and at the thin end of that wedge I mentioned.
These are the mechanics of which, amongst the over-complicated mess that is the game after several sessions of brainstorming, I am still proud:
- Apart from the small, printed map of Europe, the game map is generated by the players, on blank pages that they attach to the original board . This uses a random mechanic (which I explained above) to ensure that the landscape, and therefore the tactical possibilities, will always be different in every game. This serves an anthropological as well as ludographical purpose; it correctly symbolizes the lack of navigational knowledge that these explorers had, as well as generating unique mementos from every game; a literal “New World”, created by luck, and the player’s choices.
- The deck system is still a good one, and I have whittled it down to the three main ones. Cards, as well as being instantly recognizable as a symbol of uncertainty and gamble, allow me to compartmentalize the learning of mechanics; after the players have learnt the basic rules (many of which are simply “draw a card from the appropriate deck”), they then learn more only when a card calls for it, and even then in small, digestible boli. This substitutes a much more complex basic rules system. Simply put, having many of the game rules on randomly-drawn cards staggers the rate at which a player needs to learn them. A card is also the best random mechanic for telling a specific story; I can put flavour text, specific encounters, and interesting narrative on each one, and at no point does the player feel that they are having the story told for them; they have chosen to initiate the card mechanic, and so the richness of the responses enhance, instead of diminish, their sense of agency.
- The roleplaying element is really important to me. As a player and Dungeon Master of D&D, I feel sure that players enjoy associating with a strong personality, good or bad. A feature of Mappa Mundi is that all of the characters have something wrong with them, as do the patrons; indeed, they could be characters in their own right. These faults are randomly chosen each game, which does add another deck of cards to the game, but ensures that each character is different every time one plays.
I think that it all comes down to a wish to have as many variables as possible. When someone recounts a game of Mappa Mundi, there will be quite a few [either/or] situations which their play will resolve. For example:
“Oh billy-ho, what a great game! I played as the French Monk Jacques du Gris! I had the Confidence card, but also the Moor Hater card, which meant that I wasted some time kicking about North Africa. I missed my first patron, King Joao, who had more gold than Burgher Avalao, but he wanted me to complete more missions, so I was lucky to get the Burgher, really. I had to find the Fountain of Youth, and spy on the player who had Al-Andalus, the Moorish philosopher, as his patron. And don’t get me started on what I spent my cruzados on…“
Every coloured phrase indicates a variable, and there are many more generated by the decks in the main part of the game. These points of change string together to form something truly emergent. I am still pretty proud of that.
However, I do need to work on paring down the number of decks. I think there are just too many, and it shows inelegance on the part of the design. I am certainly a “kitchen-sink” writer, and I need to figure out how to cut any flab that may be forming. Is it a case of cutting some of those variables for simplicity, or amalgamating them into a smaller total number? With the Ocean Deck, Shore Deck, Wonder Deck, Arrogance and Disaster Decks and Mission Deck, things are getting complicated very quickly. However, as mentioned above, many of these cards lie dormant for most of the game, and a player may only ever draw a fraction of them. I’m still not sure. I’m also getting writer’s block from the sheer number of ships, special cards, wonders, pieces of shoreline, and oceanic ephemera that I have to get down.
I have a lot of other work on at the moment, but I want to have a second draft (hopefully playable) together soon. I will also be Kickstarting (or the UK equivalent, if it has not made it over here yet) this project, with all sorts of incentives and stretch goals and more work for myself.
I am looking for a graphic artist/designer to help me with the art for this project, and am willing to split profits pretty generously. I have little talent for it myself, but I think this could benefit from really sumptuous design, a real evocation of the period. Please email me if you think that you would fit the bill.
The buzzard washed the deer of its head
Its beak a tap.
Which of the three thousand badgers
That are watching us
Set the airpump going?
Who brought the smell of fish into these woods?
And the mudskippers
That once were flies
They share the same shoulders
For carrying off eyelashes by the bundle.
Firewood and headdress
The deer is dead
Tell the others
What an insult
To leave the eyes
To watch itself be amphibianed.
Made into water
Not much left
But my mum made a child
By how silly it all is
I hope you all remember PlaGMaDA. I thought that we had an understanding.
I would draw you attention to important elements of our existence, and you would remember them, and shower currency upon them as if it were the last days in Karakorum. Luckily, I’m here to remind you that you can now give money to <http://www.timhutchings.org”>Tim Hutchings and his tactile accomplishments.
Much like his dolphin-themed psychedelic tabletop RPG, Tim is Kickstarting is next project, “The Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord and Other Adventures”. I didn’t feel the need to insert a snide little [sic] there, as this project is knowingly, encompassingly innocent; a playable collection of homegrown D&D modules from the 1980s, produced by adolescents. Most of them are meticulously copied onto graph paper, the D&D logo traced with the care of growing bones, and even though the project is now funded (with a fortnight to go) there are still stretch goals, which are now a very welcome constant in crowdfunding.
So, go and give him some sukhe, please.
A few days ago, it was the birthday of German minimalist musician Nils Frahm. Though I am sure something beautiful happened in his physical presence, he chose to mark it digitally by releasing Screws, an elvish piece recorded in little over a week. The record is free, and is as blasted and delicate as the rest of Frahm’s work; it limps along in sensitive shoes.
For once, Frahm matches the wounded nature of his music. He broke his thumb, a black moment for any pianist, and settled in for nearly a fortnight of casted inaction. But, being a superb example of humanity, he decided instead to record an album, without his thumb. Every day he recorded a new song, and went to sleep to recuperate. The day that his cast came off, and his physiotherapy began, he had a new album, conducted to him in a haze of pain and cold worry.
I can’t tell from listening that the digit is missing, but that novelty was never going to be a big part of this record. He jumped on the opportunity as a way to help himself recover, not to desperately elevate himself as a tragic interest. The album is more delicate than “The Bells”, which is almost jolly, and little lighter than “Wintermusik”, a three-track work that is heavy on held bass notes and a mealy, wooly sense of freeze. I love it.
My father has had a telescope for many years. It’s an intimidating limb of utter precision, and I think he is terrified by it. Within it are more complex sciences than he, a former organic chemist doctor, has ever performed in his life. A zen machine, it is powered by light, and remains useless without an eye to witness it. The aperture through which you can view the stars is so small, you feel that you are on a spaceship in the 1960s, where the windows are so small because of the weakness of glass, and all of our primitiveness.
Those are my fears. Perhaps his were more concerned with a Galilean loneliness; nobody else in the family wanted to work out how to use the thing, least of all myself. Then, as with all people, I grew up and realised that absolutely everything in existence was interesting. This, indirectly, led to me clearing out my parent’s loft, discovering the telescope, and spiriting it off to my flat.
It’s not a powerful telescope, in a global sense; 600mm, with a 6mm and 20mm lens. I took it with me on recent trip to Devon, where you can make out the Battenburg of Milky Way into which we are baked in the night sky. But I was impatient, and couldn’t get it to focus. Luckily, when I returned home, autumn was setting in, and in between bouts of rain it was minty clear, with few clouds and a waxing moon.
The picture above was taken by my flatmate, with a 6 megapixel camera. The image is hazy, but no less wonderful for it. He has a 36 megapixel Canon, the adaptor for which is in the post from China, so I am very excited about the ensuing images.
The 6mm lens, when you have cleared the tears from your eyes and willed your eyelashes to stop drawing down over everything, brings the moon into such a relief. It is amazing that something so acned and repugnant should glow like that.
The craters seem to hang over its underside like dugs. The surface, where it meets that complete black, shimmers noticeably. We even thought that we could track it across the sky, but that may have been the soil underneath the tripod’s feet shifting.
When that adaptor arrives, and the forecast is clear and the moon haloes again, we are jumping in the car and going somewhere very dark, to take some pictures.
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.