Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Games that don't exist

Greetings, devoted bloggees. I am Andrew Plotkin -- or, as some of you know me, the Internet's Zarf. You have no doubt seen me on the Gameshelf, abetting werewolves and villagers in their mutual slaughter. I also write text adventures, review games, and generally mess around with the notion of gaming. And I am delighted to join the Gameshelf Blog.

For my first post, two variations on the theme of "games that don't exist"...

Invisible Games is an occasionally-updated collection of... of... you know Italo Calvino? He wrote Invisible Cities, a collection of brief and wonderful accounts of cities. Magical, impossible cities -- cities that do not exist, but ought to.

Fantasy author Catherynne Valente has created a few such cities herself. Thus her Invisible Games: the games that might have been. A story here, a photograph there -- redacted, uncontexted, obscurely indexed.

In 1971 a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of Scientific American. It read, simply:

Never Be Alone Again.

It has been estimated that some thirty-five people responded to the ad, and another seventeen the following year. However, it cannot be ascertained at this point whether these fifty-two participants comprised the entirety of mail-in replies or merely selected out of a larger pool. In either case, each of the fifty-two respondents received a package approximately six weeks after enclosing twelve dollars in an envelope and sending it to a P.O Box in St. Paul Minnesota. The package contained a simple lightboard, various cables, a 103A modem, and a black button that depressed with a satisfying click.

(From The Loneliness Engine.)

Caverns, in contrast, is the story of a game that was never invented. As a child, David Whiteland played a game of dungeon exploration, assembled out of hand-drawn bits of cardboard.

Although I was told at the time that what I was seeing was a copy of a real, commercially-available game, it was over a quarter of a century later that I finally saw the original on which it had been based. By which time I had played it for years, grown up, and made several versions for friends' children.

The "original" that Whiteland eventually discovered was The Sorcerer's Cave, by Peter Donnelly. But Caverns is not The Sorcerer's Cave. Donnelly's game was a solitaire adventure; Caverns has players competing to finish quests (a mechanic taken from a different Donnelly game). More interestingly, Caverns gives an eliminated player the option to keep his hand in, by controlling monsters for the rest of the game. And Whiteland describes the fine game-balance that he remembers from his childhood Caverns set.

Where did these differences come from? New rules are big changes. Game balance comes from months of variation and testing. Someone invented each element of Caverns -- presumably a child, playing the eternal metagame of "Let's try it this way!" But this was no game-design studio; it was a kid's basement. Quite possibly the players didn't think of their work as game design, or testing. They were playing their favorite game. And what came out the other end was a coherent game, recalled by an adult who went on to make sets for more kids.

Whiteland does not include the rules of Caverns on his site. He merely describes them. If you play the game, you will invent it too.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Jason McIntosh (Feb 6, 2008 at 6:47 PM):

Oh, the Loneliness Engine story is great. I only skimmed the site when you first mentioned it elsewhere, and I assumed it was an ARG or a puzzle collection.

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