"And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

Friday, December 28, 2018

Tagged: agency, the dark is rising, design, interactive fiction, interactivity, susan cooper, if

I took some of my holiday time to re-read The Dark is Rising. It's still good. Shorter than I remember.

Prompted by nothing but the season, I began to wonder: what sort of game might be made of this book?

It must be twenty years since I last read through The Dark is Rising. It was written in 1973, long before fantasy -- much less children's fantasy -- became the battle-hardened marketing category we know today. The devouring gyre of media resurrection has almost entirely overlooked it. (The 2007 movie was reviled by absolutely everybody, as far as I can tell, and vanished in a knot of shame.)

So perhaps nobody has even considered the idea of transforming the story into interactive form.

In some senses, the book is ideal. Young Will Stanton is sent on a quest to find six magical Signs to hold back the Dark. It's the original "collect the plot coupons" story, the very first as best I can tell. (Tolkien had his rings and jewels, the Pevensies their Christmas presents; but it was Susan Cooper who set up entire books around hunting the damn things down. I love them, I love them, but.)

Equally, it's an absurd and unworkable concept. Will Stanton isn't a fighter or a leader or a riddle-solver. He doesn't do game stuff. He acquires magical powers, but not in the well-charted struggle of a student. The magic of the Old Ones is inconceivable. It's the stuff of miracles, and Will gains it entire as his birthright. Yes, he reads a book -- once through, zero to Merlin in a night. After that he isn't human.

(Harry Potter's magic was more than game mechanics, but it could be reduced to game mechanics without much difficulty. Alohomora the door!)

So, we put aside the idea of easily-grasped "light" and "shield" and "open" spells scattered in pages of Gramarye around the English countryside. That's never going to fit the story.

What is The Dark is Rising? Yuletide. Snow. Time out of mind and places out of the world. The vast powers of the Light and the Dark, locked against each other by unspoken rules and rituals. The Great Game at cosmic scale: one misstep will crack the mundane world apart. Will's successes are all doing the right thing at the right time. His failures are of impatience, overstepping a rule, being baited into reacting... thinking as a mortal rather than as an Old One.

You can put those choices into a game. Elements of the environment have a glow, or an audio cue (music!), and that's how the player knows the right thing to do. Pick up a candle, put it in the candalabrum. Press the secret catch in the mantelpiece. You can guide the player through these moments.

You can't build the game around those moments, though. They're player interactions but not player choices. They don't reflect the most crucial junctures of the story, either. Will stands in the great hall, listening to his mother's voice cry outside the door, while his guides say "It's a trap, idiot." Rush to the rescue or stand firm? You check the walkthrough, just to make sure, and then wait dumbly for the scene to end. Continue to follow the bouncing ball through the rest of the plot. Doesn't work.

Let's go back to the idea of acting as an ancient magical being, versus acting as an eleven-year-old boy. The book circles repeatedly around this question. Will chooses to erase his brother's memory of the Dark besieging the church. Therefore, when they find the Walker in the snow, Will cannot warn his family against him. ("Of course, you can't remember, can you?") Will chooses to mock his brother (rather cruelly) to send an (unneeded) warning to Farmer Dawson. Will is repeatedly confronted with threats to his family -- his mother in seeming, and then later in reality. His household when the Rider walks in the front door. At the climax, his sister is held hostage. "But you know what I shall do?" asks the Rider, and Will denies him regardless.

And of course Hawkin, who is this choice in flesh. Who is the crumpled mirror of Will and his mundane relatives both at once. Hawkin, the mortal whom the Old Ones treated as a mortal, and who broke beneath that treatment.

(IMDB says the 2007 movie omitted Hawkin entirely. I can't even imagine.)

So what can we do with this? Make this the central choice of the game -- human life or immortal? -- and make it a free choice that matters.

The book contains this: power draws its opposite. When Will plays with fire, the Dark can find him. On the bank of the Thames, "...because the Rider was abroad, Merriman was near by again too." We can build plot variations on this foundation. Every action or refusal to act will move the plot forward.

At the very beginning, when Will meets the white mare, he decides not to ride her. Or perhaps he chooses to, and then the Rider may come at him with more strength. The mare will still save him, but not in the same way. Later, at home, Will chooses not to exert his strength against the Rider; or perhaps he does, and then the Rider may fight him, to the peril of the unknowing mortals. Either way, the Rider leaves with an advantage; but it doesn't have to be the same advantage.

In the great hall, Will hears his mother crying out. Say this is a real choice. Connect it to the end of the book, when his mother falls off a ladder -- to no very great consequence, in the text. Maybe Will could have prevented it. (Time is fluid to the Old Ones.) If he doesn't try, if he holds his ground, his mother is seriously hurt. If he does try, the Lady must spend herself -- as in the book. That's a choice. It can influence the storyline.

This is a Choice-of-Games story model. Some visual novels are also built this way. It's a chain of scenes with consequences, which might engender variations, but which don't entirely derail the plot. (We will still seek six Signs, and in the same order. Iron for the birthday, water from the thaw, you can't rearrange winter.)

The choices are all about the same thing; they are a long cumulative choice; a stat-based narrative. Will can ignore his family's concerns and throw himself into the work of the Light. Or he can set himself to defend his humanity at every turn. The book can't offer this option; but our game model could.

And then, all through the story, Hawkin. Allow the lost mortal to reflect Will's choices. Hawkin's liege is Will's mentor, after all. If Will chooses his family over magic, he is taking Hawkin's side against Merriman, in a sense. Is Hawkin now more liable to turn back to the Light? Or to betray the Dark and go his own way, perhaps? The story can still end; the Signs are joined and the Dark harried, either way. But we may consider our options, and Will's.

(Hawkin's betrayal "will mould the whole course of your quest, young Will," we are told. This too is an avenue for variation. If Hawkin's choices in the past matter, the story must adapt, scene by scene. Paradox is always worth a look. The book is most itself when Time opens to admit the Other, when Merriman narrates his own future in wry acceptance. Sapphire and Steel would feel at home, I think.)

There is a great deal of story design in what I've described, of course. I make it sound simple, but there are many branches to chart out, most of which Susan Cooper never imagined.

I don't intend to write this game. This is a design exercise. The nights are long and dark and invite contemplation. It's been pleasant to revisit Stantons' Farm, regardless.