Monday, 24 September 2012

A little bit of Proust, Games

I have to admit that I have not actually read À la recherche du temps perdu, but I've read works by other authors that riff on its themes, foremost amongst those works is Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Bechdel seizes on Proust's theme of how we are cast in those moments of our past, and her treatment of the subject is something that I've found to inform my own reading of games. Things I associate with games include the scent of summer in the town of my childhood, Oakville, Ontario, which was not so much a town as a city pretending to be a town, like an old courtesan trying to fit into the rags she had worn as a streetwalker.

Originally Oakville was a lumber-camp, a stopping-off point for loggers to head into the Ontario wilderness, and logs heading in the other direction. Later it metastasized into bedroom suburb of Toronto, conveniently positioned by rail to make an hour's commute into Toronto a miserable proletarian experience for otherwise fantastically wealthy office drones. Yet the smell of all the maple trees makes me think of summer afternoons playing Game Workshop's Bloodbowl with my brother (and my Orc team taking it in the teeth from his Skaven), or the Games-Workshop/Milton-Bradley game Battle Masters, the game known as Epic: Space Marine/Titan Legions. Essentially the scent reminds me of good times playing the good, the bad, and the ugly of games. I do admit to crying after my umpteenth bludgeoning at the Dirty Player hands of my bother's Skaven, but I also admit to being something of a high-strung 12-year old at the time.

Of those games, however, Blood Bowl was the best, and it was the best, I think, because of how it treated failure. Failing to meet the threshold for success was dubbed a "turn-over", meaning that while the players alternated turns by team, and within turns moved player-pieces one by one, there was always the chance that one player's turn would end with every roll of the dice. The effect was two-fold. The first part of the effect was that players had to negotiate two distinct payoffs - the payoff where their turn ended in the current configuration, and usually with a player down, the ball not in hand, and the rest of the team grossly exposed to an impending beating, and the payoff where their turn ended in the desired configuration.

There were lots of opportunity to fail, and to end up in sub-optimal situations, in Blood Bowl. The second part of the effect was that players wanted to encourage failure on the part of their opponent, to exploit failures on the part of their opponents, and to plan ahead in the same play-by-play fashion. Each play was the prisoner of involuntary failure at earlier points in the game, and desperation (and perhaps excitement) would build, and often crescendo at the very end of the game when a last-ditch Hail Mary pass could decide the game on a dice roll if you had managed your luck correctly (or incorrectly, as the case often was).

Hence I've often held up games that I've played to this unrealistic smell-test, in that it needed to inspire me in the way that Blood Bowl did when, one Christmas, my brother and I tore open the wrappings of a disappointingly small present to find a box covered in pleasantly garish box art (box art that was surprisingly consistent with events in the game). I believe that's actually part of the game-play experience in most successful games, for a certain value of 'success', notably in Chess and Go where the piece-by-piece play encourages players to enter into a dialogue, and in particular into a dialogue where negotiation happens at a pace and granularity that means the background, or context, of the dialogue changes as the foreground, or individual piece-moves, banters back and forth.

The notion I'm trying to get at is the way in which our perception of the past changes as the present ticks quietly by in conversation, and how that notion of an inconstant past (or context, or game-state) is vital for creating the fabled 'depth of play' that game designers look for when attempting to create a game. Okay, hardly anybody looks for this; most designers look for fun, or for some way of actuating the imagination, but like novels there are thousands that are created, and only hundreds that are read fifty years after their time, let alone one hundred.

Walking into a bookstore in my teens it occurred to me that my illogical aspiration to be a novelist (illogical in that I didn't write stories, or have anything I wanted to say) was pointless because whatever I wrote would be lost amongst the hundreds of books published every year, of which a certain amount won prizes, landed on best-seller lists, or happened to be written by brand-name authors. What could I add to everything that had been written, beyond what was contained in a massive bookstore, especially since I hadn't read anywhere near most of it?

Yet in these latter years, where I have something to say, and occasionally attempt to sketch out short stories and novels, I realize that I'm both ill-suited to the work of character development, plotting, and the development of narrative. I'm rather more suited to the writing of orders, instructions, and the exploration of frameworks within which other sub-creatives can hang their characters, plots, and adventures. And there's something to be said for creating use-documents, as well as what I'll cheerfully call the pornography of the literary voyeur now that I've come to terms with not sharing the sour wine of literary grapes.

What I think there is to say is that while a story is only a vague approximation of life, the rules of a game are the shape of both our gaming pasts, and social experiences yet to come. Some works of fiction make good use of their nature to make salient points, and to entertain our imaginations (see above for Fun Home, etc), but they are the fruit of a process, rather than the process itself, and hence not my thing as a writer of processes, procedures, and other manual trivia that fills up the spaces in between drama and history.

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