The Play's the Thing

The Play's the Thing
an essay on game design – played on Psyche's Board

This game shows how the moves in a game can “build” on one another until an almost three-dimensional structure of ideas appears. This is a fairly scholarly game composed of ten quotes about time, written to explore the various ways we can think about time and their impact on narrative structure in the arts, and gameplay in computer games…

Let me emphasize here that the specific content of each move is the indented quote: in other words, it's the quotes that are being played off one another, and that constitute the game. The surrounding text provides both setting and commentary – and hopefully allows the piece as a whole to be read “straight through” as an essay…

As we shall see in move 8, the difference I'm exploring here is between synchronic and diachronic readings of the same text.

Even if the theory of game design is not an interest of yours, we still believe you'll find this an intriguing game, and possible even a beautiful one – because time concerns each one of us, and what's true for stories and for games is also true to life…

Move 1: "Life" in position 6

Move 1: "Life" in position 6 Gameplay is generally admitted to be the crucial element in game design, but nobody quite knows what it is.

The present essay suggests that whatever else it may be, it has something to do with the nature of time – and that for our games as for life itself, there are really three ways of approaching time… For the sake of convenience, let's call them linear time (the time of most narratives), branching time (the time of most games) and ritual time (the time of myths and dreams). All three times are found in a lifetime – but it's the interaction between the three which gives life its challenges and its mysteries.


Let's begin, then, by taking a look at life…

Think about it: a life is structured pretty much the same way a game is.

By which I mean, life works like a game: it offers us a dazzling array of choices, which could in fact be represented by a logic tree – but making those choices defines a singular path through life which thus becomes our story. So that in retrospect, “looking back from the high hill of my old age” as Black Elk says, narrative is what makes sense of the whole thing, while in prospect, looking forward from the almost infinite potentialities of youth, making choices is the thing to understand.

Life is a matter of reconciling multiple choices with eventual plot. Gameplay, it seems to me, is the facilitation of learning life itself.

I wrote these words in an article published in The Cursor, a magazine for game developers, and I wanted to start here, with life itself, because games and play are, before all else, means of modeling life: and I believe we game designers ignore this simple fact at our peril.

Move 2: "Play" in position 10

Move 2: "Play" in position 10

But this is not only true of games, it is also true of art: and one of my concerns in this essay is to suggest that our computer games are in fact artforms in the highest sense of the word, not primarily because a great deal of brilliance goes into the graphics of a game like “Zork Nemesis”, but because they are imaginative devices which allow us to play at living.

What I wish to explore, then, is the ways in which games can handle time and story, and I would like to begin with “straight” narrative, in which time can be seen as an arrow (“time flies”).

This is the time of story, of classic narrative, and I could have chosen to use fiction as my example here, but prefer to use the stage-play, because the very name “play” suggests that theater is a game – as is life itself, a point Shakespeare makes tellingly in his phrase, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: / They kill us for their sport”…

All the world may indeed be a play, but there are gods in the wings, and at times their play with us can be vicious indeed.

There's something fatalistic about this particular view of life, something doom-laden, and it goes exactly with the sense of life unfolding inexorably from womb to tomb – with life as a story without real choice. And that's indeed what a stage-play is, or a novel – a story in which we as readers or viewers are carried along without choice.

If the thing is well done – if, in fact, the artist has already made superb choices in the devising of the plot – we will be carried through the action with anxiety, uncertainty and surprise, as if there were choices for us to make. The play itself will mimic precisely the blending of free choice and destined story which I have argued in position 1 is the essence of life itself.

The poet and literary critic Frederick Turner expresses both elements nicely:

A story, like a melody, is any sequence of events that are retrodictable, that is, can be shown to have been inevitable once they have happened, but not predictable before they have happened; because the events themselves bring about a new kind of universe in which their antecedents now add up to an irreversible chain of causes. (The most crass example of this is the detective story, whose solution is obvious once the sleuth unveils it, but not before). … The unpredictability of a story is what makes us want to know what happens next – and this is why the Sultan spares the life of the storyteller Sheherezade, and Minos spares the life of Orpheus.

This is the essence of successful drama, and hence of story: to achieve through choice what will seem at last inevitable.

Move 3: "Forking Paths" in position 8

Move 3: "Forking Paths" in position 8

And yet in the drama, in the novel or short story, the reader has no real choice: and this has worried novelists and dramatists of late, the novelists writing in forms which discuss or encourage multiple readings, and the dramatists working to include their audience in their action by staging improvisational pieces in which audience members can suggest topics or otherwise intervene.

Jorge Luis Borges' short story “the Garden of Forking Paths” is a classic example of the former strategy, and an important precursor to what the games industry knows as “interactive fiction” games.

Borges' story is a curious blend of espionage thriller and Oriental wisdom, which itself circles around a mysterious Chinese novel by one Ts'ui Pên, and a no less mysterious labyrinth built by the same Ts'ui Pên.

Just exactly what the relationship between these two works is becomes clear at the denouement of Borges' story – when the spy (himself a descendant of Ts'ui Pên) is about to kill the refined gentleman whom he nonetheless much admires (the European student of Ts'ui Pên who has finally solved the “novel and labyrinth” riddle) in the latter's garden.

The Chinese scholar explains to the spy who is about to assassinate him that Ts'ui Pên's novel, itself named “The Garden of Forking Paths”, is in fact the labyrinth – a garden of paths which fork in time.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts'ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.

Julio Cortazar's novel “Hopscotch” – another work from the school of South American “magical realism” of which Borges was the preeminent master – takes this business of forking paths a step further, in that it is written to be read in two contradictory ways, each chapter bearing a different meaning as it is read in one or other of the two possible “sequences”.

Move 4: "Murder" in position 9

Move 4: "Murder" in position 9

Another tale of violent death, TS Eliot's play “Murder in the Cathedral”, uses the forking paths of time to explore motive. It deals with the killing of Archbishop Thomas à Becket.

Eliot's play supposes that Becket might have two very different motives for accepting death at the hands of the knights sent by the King to kill him. He might do it because he perceives that his death will be viewed as a martyrdom, and he will gain an undying glory among men by it… or he might do it because in the purity of his heart he must stand up for the Church against the King, asserting the primacy of the Kingdom of Heaven…

What makes the play so interesting is the fact that in either case he will die the same death – and that the Tempter who tempts him with the prospect of a glorious martyrdom, and the still small voice of conscience which prompts him to give his life in service to his Christ, speak the identical words – the words which form the text of this move:

You know and do not know, that action is suffering,
And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.

In game terms, Eliot's Becket could choose to go down either one of two very different “timelines” into two very different worlds, but in each case he could indeed “utter these same words” as Borges puts it – though in one case he would have maintained his integrity, and in the other, traded integrity for glory, thus being true to himself in the first case, and a “sort of mistake, a ghost” of himself in the other.

Move 5: "Time Travel" in position 3

Move 5: "Time Travel" in position 3

For it is the branching of universes that we are dealing with here, and whether the branching be in time or space, this is something very hard for the story-telling mind to conceive.

Concerning the difficulty of thinking in terms of time-travel, we have the word of the master science fiction novelist, Larry Niven:

The English language can't handle time travel. We conclude that the ancestors who made our language didn't have minds equipped to handle time travel. Naturally we don't, either; for our thinking is too dependent on our language. As far as I know, no language has tenses equipped to handle time travel. No language on Earth. Yet. But then, no language was ever equipped to handle lasers, television, or spaceflight until lasers, television, and spaceflight were developed. Then the words followed. If time travel were thrust upon us, would we develop a language to handle it? We'd need a basic past tense, an altered past tense, a potential past tense (might have been), an altered future tense, an excised future tense (for a future that can no longer happen), a home base present tense, a present-of-the-moment tense, an enclosed present tense (for use while the vehicle is moving through time), a future past tense (“I'll meet you at the bombing of Pearl Harbor in half an hour.”), a past future tense (“Just a souvenir I picked up ten million years from now”), and many more. We'd need at least two directions of time flow: sequential personal time, and universal time, with a complete set of tenses for each. We'd need pronouns to distinguish (you of the past) from (you of the future) and (you of the present). After all, the three of you might all be sitting around the same table someday.

To my game designer's mind, there is something immensely clarifying as well as reassuring in these glimpses of writers wrestling with the unaccustomed bifurcations and reintersections of a narrative which embraces a non-linear view of time –

Move 6: "Many Worlds" in position 7

Move 6: "Many Worlds" in position 7

– as there is in the following very similar quotation from Hugh Everett, founder of the “many worlds” theory in physics:

At this point we encounter a language difficulty. Whereas before the observation we had a single observer state, afterwards there were a number of different states for the observer, all occurring in a superposition. Each of these separate states is a state for an observer, so that we can speak of the different observers described by different states. On the other hand, the same physical system is involved, and from this viewpoint it is the same observer, which is in different states for different elements of the superposition (i.e., has had different experiences in the separate elements of the superposition). In this situation we shall use the singular when we wish to emphasize that a single physical system is involved, and the plural when we wish to emphasize the different experiences for the separate elements of the superposition. (E.g., “The observer performs an observation of the quantity A, after which each of the observers of the resulting superposition has perceived an eigenvalue.”)

Move 7: "Interactive Fiction" in position 4

Move 7: "Interactive Fiction" in position 4

It is this branching quality which makes “interactive fiction” – by which I mean that genre, part game and part literature which includes Michael Joyce's hyperfiction “afternoon, a story” as well as Gareth Rees' IF game “Christminster” – so fascinatingly difficult to write. And the problems are precisely the problems of writing good story while leaving the choices which build story up to the reader / player – problems facing computer game designers in general.

Gareth Rees writes of “Christminster”:

I only had a little over 50 rooms, and about 380 objects altogether … but with NPCs [non-player characters] who can wander all over the map, a complex system of timed events, many short scripted sequences lasting from a few turns to several dozen turns, and 37,000 words of prose, I found it very difficult to keep it under control and internally consistent. Quite a few bugs of the form “If the player gets to location X before character Y does, then strange things happen” (reminiscent of the bug in some released versions of “Suspect” whereby you can reach the murder scene before the murder happens) or “If the player abandons such-and-such a sequence of interactions halfway through, it goes wrong” turned up in playtesting.

It is a relief, then, to turn to the third and last way in which “time” can be expressed in narrative structure – and so to another way in which what I propose we call “time design” can contribute to the delights of gameplay.

Move 8: "Synchrony" in position 2

Move 8: "Synchrony" in position 2

It was the literary critic Northrop Frye, I believe, who proposed that when we read a poem such as Dylan Thomas' “Fern Hill” or a rich work of prose such as Conrad's “Heart of Darkness”, we unwittingly read it in two ways: sequentially, from beginning to end, and “timelessly”, when the whole of piece comes together for us at the end. He termed the first kind of reading “diachronic”, meaning that it is a reading “across time”, and the second “synchronic”, meaning that it comes together “all at once”.

The second, “synchronic” reading focuses on those symbols and phrases which have recurred, often with variations, in the course of the text: and it was Frye's observation that these repetitions are layered on one another in the synchronic reading so as to lend a dimension of “depth” to the piece – a dimension of meaning which may in fact be “perpendicular” to the sequential meaning.

Frederick Turner (see move 2) has a poem – happily enough, about a time-traveler – one verse of which illustrates the point nicely:

What sweeter to a space-time traveller
Than be a carpenter in Nazareth?
From a stone cup at dawn I drank goat's milk,
At noon I sweated myrrh,
At evening felt the ocean's breath,
From a stone cup at dawn I drank goat's milk…

The first cup at dawn is followed a day later by the second in a diachronic reading of the poem, but falls on it like a repeated hammer-blow (lightning striking twice in the same place) in the synchronic. It is a day later, yes – but also at the subliminal / synchronic level, always the same day.

Move 9: "Symphony" in position 5

Move 9: "Symphony" in position 5

The synchronic reading, then, is a reading which propels us outside time, by means of repetition within it: and thus partakes of the nature of ritual, as a device for engaging what are known as “altered states” – states in which time “opens” on what some call “eternity” and others “the present.”

Little matter what it is called – pro footballers and priests, racing cyclists and shamans alike have experienced times, moments, when time itself seemed both to speed up and to slow down: for this state itself is the fruit of both acceleration and stillness.

From Mozart, then, I take this glorious description of the state full blown, as he experienced it while composing music:

my subject enlarges itself and becomes methodized and defined and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue – at a glance nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once. What a delight this is, I cannot tell.

And that, my friends, is the ultimate experience of time – the experience in which times redouble upon themselves and overlap.

Move 10: "Glass Bead Game" in position 1

Move 10: "Glass Bead Game" in position 1

Ah, but is there a game genre to go with it?

Happily, there is..

The Glass Bead Game is a game of comparisons – of holding two or more thoughts in the mind at one time – and thus inevitably a game which emphasizes the synchronous rather than the sequential.

Hesse describes the future Game Master's realization of this fact while playing a game in which he saw the sweeping changes of a language across centuries – in the course of a few minutes of play:

And I was powerfully gripped by the vision of transitoriness: the way before our eyes such a complex, ancient, venerable organism, slowly built up over many generations, reaches its highest point, which already contains the germ of decay, and the whole intelligently articulated structure begins to droop, to degenerate, to totter toward its doom. And at the same time the thought abruptly shot through me, with a joyful, startled amazement, that despite the decay and death of that language it had not been lost, that its youth, maturity, and downfall were preserved in our memory, in our knowledge of it and its history, and would survive and could at any time be reconstructed… in the recondite formulations of the Glass Bead Game. I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game… every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery, and innermost heart of the world…

In the gameplay of the Bead Game – played at the speed of thought – all human history and culture is simultaneous.

– Charles Cameron

an essay on game design -- played on Psyche's Board

The Play's the Thing: an essay on game design -- played on Psyche's Board

Game and original Board by Charles Cameron

HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright © Charles Cameron 1995, 96, 97.
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