And standing here, I want to ask: Why are they called plays? There’s no play involved in a play. Not if you’re on stage, not if you’re in the audience. It’s all pre-scripted. It’s like a cut-scene without the cuts. The most interactive thing you can do in the audience of a play is throw a tomato at the performers.
Play is active. Not necessarily interactive. But you have to be doing something, even if it’s only in your head. Entertainment, historically, is passive. It’s not a thing in which the audience can become actively involved. Shouting for a football team is doesn’t count, particularly if you’re shouting at the telly. And there’s two types of entertainment: spectacle and narrative. A circus is spectacle. Flouncing about on stage is narrative. But it’s not the same as ‘play’; you may feel involved in the story, but you’re not involved in affecting how the story plays out. In the early days you could chuck a drachma at Homer and ask to hear the bit about the Cyclops, but even then you couldn’t tell him to make the Trojans win this time.
Traditionally you can choose how you’re being entertained, but not the direction of that entertainment. Your only choice is to switch channels, switch off, or derail the show—throw a tomato at the soprano. And as entertainment developed through history the audience has been pushed further and further from the immediacy of the experience. Theatre, cinema, television. But the great huge spanner in the works of this is of course games. Interactive entertainment; playful entertainment. So what was the moment where the two worlds of entertainment and play crashed into each other and become inseparably entangled? Is there a moment we can point to and say—that was it? If there is, is it Space Invaders? Pong? God help us, Cluedo? Would you like to hear the story of three alert peas?
Paris, 1960: the author Raymond Queneau meets the mathematician Francois le Lyonnais, and together they form the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the Workshop of Potential Literature, OuLiPo.
The central idea of OuLiPo was that writing a book or play or poem was too easy. Any fool could do it, and many fools were. OuLiPo wanted to make it harder. So they said: use rules, use constraints. Build hidden structures into your books. Make language do things it’s not supposed to. Be playful. And they were. They wrote palindromes and lipograms. They wrote a book containing a hundred thousand billion possible poems.
They wrote spoof scientific papers about the effects of throwing tomatoes at sopranos. They wrote poems that rhyme for the eye but not for the ear.
Young Dick, always eager to eat Denied stealing the fish eggs, whereat Caning him for a liar His pa ate the caviar And left Dicky digesting the caveat
They wrote translations of works based not on what they mean but how they sound in the second language:
English: A thing of beauty is a joy forever French: Ah, singe d é bott é , hisse un jouet fort et vert (“O unshod monkey, raise a stout green toy.”)
They wrote a murder-mystery based on a mathematical formula. They wrote a murder mystery in which the first mystery is to work out who was murdered. They weren’t all writers. They were scientists, artists, mathematicians—Claude Berge, the father of modern combinatorics and influential writer on games theory was a member of OuLiPo. Most of them played chess. Marcel Duchamp, the dadaist, who had given up art in 1923 to play chess full-time, was for a long time the only member of OuLiPo in America. Probably the most famous OuLiPo book is ‘La Disparation’ by Georges Perec, published in 1969. it’s set in a world where something ubiquitous has vanished and nobody can name what it was. It was written entirely without the letter ‘e’. In 1995 it was translated into English as ‘A Void’, also without the letter ‘e’. It has 26 chapters, except the fifth one is missing. And if that wasn’t hard enough, it has its own rewritten versions of classics of English literature.
‘ Black Bird’ by Arthur Gordon Pym (a small part) Now my room was growing fragrant, its aroma almost flagrant, As from spirits wafting vagrant through my dolorous domain, “ Good-for-naught,” I said, “God sought you—from Plutonian strands God brought you, “ And, I know not why God taught you all about my unjoin’d chain, “ All about that linking symbol missing from my unjoin’d chain!” Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again!”
Then for an encore he wrote a novella in which the only vowel was the letter ‘e’. In French it’s ‘Les Revenents’, in English ‘The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex’.
The Exeter Text (excerpt) Deep dentelle screened, the seven green Mercedes Benzes resembled pestered sheep. They descended West End Street, swerved left, entered Temple Street then swept between the green vennel’s beeches, elms ‘n’ elders. These trees enkernelled Exeter’s See’s svelte, yet nevertheless erect, steeples. Pecked men were pressed between the themes’ entrees. The screened Mercedes’ secrets perplexed them.
Italo Calvino wrote ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ which begins with the words ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller’, except you discover at the end of chapter two that the book you’re reading isn’t ‘If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller’, it’s another book that’s been accidentally mis-bound into the cover. What they were doing, by applying filters and constraints, was making text playful. The writing of an OuLiPean text was playful; reading it is playful you engage with the text, and it engages you. As you read it, you’re playing it, exploring and unravelling it. Let’s be honest, with forty years of perspective, a lot of what they wrote is unreadable. The experiment crashes and burns. But when you you smash play into entertainment, when you throw a tomato at the soprano, you don’t know what the end result is going to be. So: would you like to hear the story of the three alert peas?
Would you like to hear the story of the three alert peas?
1. Would you like to hear the story of the three alert peas? a. If so, go to 4 b. If not, go to 2 ‘ Un Conte à Votre Fa ç on’ by Raymond Queneau (1967)
2. Would you prefer the story of the three skinny beanpoles? a. If yes, skip to 16 b. If not, go to 3
3. Would you prefer the story of three middling mediocre shrubs? a. If yes, skip to 17 b. If not, go to 21
4. Once upon a time there were three peas dressed in green, sleeping sweetly in their pod. Their round faces were breathing through the holes of their nostrils, and one could hear their soft and smooth snoring. a. If you’d prefer another description, go to 9 b. If this suits you, go to 5
5. They were not dreaming. These small beings never dream, in fact. a. If you prefer that they’re dreaming, go to 6 b. Otherwise, go to 7
6. They were dreaming. These small beings always dream, in fact, and their nights secrete charming fantasies. a. If you want to know these dreams go to 11 b. If you do not want to, you go to 7
7. Their sweet little feet were swathed in snug socks and in bed they wore gloves of black velvet. a. If you prefer gloves of another colour go to 8 b. If this is the colour you want, go to 10
8. They wore blue velvet gloves to bed. a. If you prefer gloves of another colour, go to 7 b. If that colour works for you, skip to 10
9. Once upon a time there were three peas who rolled themselves along the highway. As evening came, tired and weary, they fell asleep very quickly. a. If you want to know what comes next, go to 5 b. If not, go to 21
10. All three had the same dream: they loved each other tenderly, and like proud reflections, always had the same dream. a. If you want to know their dreams, go to 11 b. If not, go to 12
11. They dreamed they were looking for their soup in a popular canteen and that on uncovering their bowl they discovered it was a soup of ers. In horror, they woke up. a. If you want to know why they wake in horror, look up ‘Ers’ in the dictionary and say no more. b. If you feel no need to investigate the issue, go to 12
12. Opopoi! they exclaimed on opening their eyes. Opopoi! What a dream we dreamed! “A bad omen,” said the first. “Yes, yes,” said the second, “it’s true, I am sad.” “Don’t let it trouble you,” said the third who was the smartest. “No use worrying about it without understanding it. In brief, I shall analyze it.” a. If you want to immediately know the interpretation of this dream, go to 15 b. If you want to know the contrary reactions of the other two, go to 13
13. “ You bore us to tears," said the first. “Since when do you analyze dreams?” “Yes, since when do you analyze dreams? Yes, since when?” added the second. a. If you want to know how long, skip to 14 b. If not, go to 14 anyway
14. “ Since when?” cried the third. “How should I know? The fact is that I practice the thing. You’ll see!” a. If you want to see too, go to 15 b. If not, go to 15, or you will not see anything else
15. “ Well! Let’s see,” said his brothers. “Your irony does not appeal to me," replied the other, “and you know nothing. Moreover, during this rather tense conversation, don’t you feel the horror has faded? Even been erased? So what good is it to stir up the quagmire of your papilionaceous unconscious? Instead, let us go to wash in the fountain and gayly welcome this morning in hygiene and holy euphoria!” No sooner said than done: they slip out of their pod, let themselves gently roll onto the floor and then trot joyfully to the scene of their ablutions. a. If you want to know what is happening at the scene of their ablutions, go to 16 b. If you do not want to, go to 21
16. Three skinny beanpoles were watching the peas. a. If you don’t like the three skinny beanpoles, go to 21 b. If you’re okay, go to 18
17. Three middling mediocre shrubs were watching the peas a. If the three middling mediocre shrubs displease you, go to 21 b. If you agree, go to 18
18. Seeing they were being watched, the three green peas, who were very modest, fled. a. If you want to know what they did next, go to 19 b. If you do not want to know, you go to 21
19. They ran very fast back to their pod and, closing it behind them, went back to sleep. a. If you want to know what follows, go to 20 b. If you do not want to know, go to 21
That’s it. And the first thing you notice is that it’s not very good. Think of it as a tech demo. But this three-page French experimental story is directly responsible for a large part of the games industry as we know it today. Not in a hand-waving B. A. Hons English Literature way. Directly responsible. Deep breath.
Recognise this? Fantasy fiction using Queneau’s numbered-paragraph system. There had been other series of solo gamebooks, notably Choose Your Own Adventure, which had been inspiring games designers in the US since the mid-70s, but this was something else. Fighting Fantasy sold 14 million copies, and the series is still in print. The authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone set up, as you may know, a games company called Games Workshop. A year after the first Fighting Fantasy book came out they published the first edition of a tabletop game called Warhammer.
Warhammer was a kick in the pants for the D&D-style fantasy of the early 80s: instead it posited a world of fantasy races, all at implacable war with each other. Also, it was the first appearance of the green-skinned orc. Up to that point nobody agreed on what orcs looked like—Tolkien said they had grey skin, D&D said they were men with the heads of pigs—but it was GW that introduced the staple of the greenskin with upward-pointing fangs.
Warhammer did that, along with multiple races of elves, and steam-powered gyrocopters loads of distinctive imagery, and these days Games Workshop turns over £100m a year and has given birth to countless video-game licences. But in 1994 another company, known to be GW fans, released a game about fantasy races at war with each other, and it had greenskinned orcs with fangs and multiple races of elves and steam-powered gyrocopters and other strangely recognisable imagery and that was Warcraft,
and that franchise is currently pulling down a billion dollars a year in subscription fees alone. Anyway, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone wrote more Fighting Fantasy books and got their friends to write more, including an American games designer called Steve Jackson—a very OuLiPo coincidence—who was setting up his own games company, Steve Jackson Games. The year after Warhammer, it published its first RPG, a comedic thing called Toon
designed by Warren Spector and Greg Costikyan, and if you don’t know those names then what are you doing here?
WARREN SPECTOR Wing Commander (1990), ORIGIN Systems Wing Commander: The Secret Missions (1990), ORIGIN Systems Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990), ORIGIN Systems Bad Blood (1990), ORIGIN Systems Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (1991), ORIGIN Systems Wing Commander: The Secret Missions 2 - Crusade (1991), ORIGIN Systems Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams (1991), ORIGIN Systems Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), ORIGIN Systems Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993), ORIGIN Systems Wing Commander: Privateer - Righteous Fire (1993), ORIGIN Systems Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle (1993), ORIGIN Systems Ultima VII, Part Two: The Silver Seed (1993), Electronic Arts Wings of Glory (1993), Electronic Arts System Shock (1994), Looking Glass Technologies CyberMage: Darklight Awakening (1995), ORIGIN Systems Crusader: No Remorse (1995), ORIGIN Systems Thief: The Dark Project (1998), Looking Glass Studios Deus Ex (2000), Ion Storm Austin Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), Ion Storm Austin Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004), Ion Storm Austin GREG COSTIKYAN Also a righteous dude
American Steve’s own RPG, the generic rules system GURPS—think of it as a game-engine---came out in 1986. The computer RPG Fallout was, for a long time, going to be GURPS Fallout. And in 1990, while preparing the book GURPS Cyberpunk, Steve Jackson Games was raided by the Secret Service. The fallout from that raid led directly to the creation of the EFF.
“ the leading civil liberties group defending your rights in the digital world.” ...Mitch Kapor John Perry Barlow, Esther Dyson, Cory Doctorow, Danny O’Brien you know
Back to Ian and Steve and let’s fast-forward: they leave Games Workshop. In 1995 Ian Livingstone becomes the first Chairman of Eidos and helms it through the launch of Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Thief, Hitman, etc. etc. In 1997 Steve Jackson co-founded Lionhead Studios with his mate Peter Molyneux. And that’s just two of the guys influenced by those three alert peas. So what’s my point? Well, the development of games as a form is iterative. Every new thing builds on what has come before. It’s almost unknown for something to arise without influences. Tetris, perhaps, was the last one. Even Raymond Queneau’s story wasn’t the first to use the numbered paragraph system: IBM had been doing that years earlier for computer manuals. But the key is learning from the previous generation, not just copying the flashy bits or the bits you like. It’s understanding why things work and why things fail. Look at something and think about how it could be done differently. Any idiot can design a computer game. A lot of idiots are. If you want to stand out, you have to challenge your players, and to do that you have to challenge yourself.. I’m not suggesting that you should go and create an FPS without the letter ‘e’ in it
But what if you set out to create an FPS without guns in it? Or without enemies to shoot at? What would that look like? Well, it might look like this.
Or it might look completely different. I know experimentation in games design is expensive, and risky. But what happens if you don’t sometimes go wild—if you follow one formula, tweaking the bumps but leaving the basic structure unchanged. Well, I got my start in the business in tabletop RPG design, Dungeons & Dragons and its followers. D&D is over thirty years old now, it’s spawned thousands of bastard children from Shadowrun to Vampire the Masquerade , and with a few exceptions they are all the same game.
The setting changes, the rules change, but the structure is still exactly what it was when Gygax and Arneson designed it in 1975: one games master leading a bunch of players with character-sheets through a pre-written adventure. This is a field in which doing away with dice as randomisers is regarded as dangerously radical. And the result is that the RPG market is moribund. New players are not entering the hobby. Right now a new game with decent marketing might scrape sales of 2000 copies. Ten years ago there were five shops with decent RPG departments within the Circle Line, including a whole floor of the Virgin Games Centre on Oxford Street, where Game is now. Today there’s two, and the RPGs are not front-and-centre any more. In one they’re tucked away in an alcove in the basement. Do not become like tabletop RPGs.
Innovation and experimentation are risky Sometimes they crash and burn The alternative is a slow death
I don’t care how loudly the fat lady is singing, throw the tomato.
Innovation and experimentation are risky Sometimes they crash and burn The alternative is a slow death
A Thing of Beauty is A Stout Green Toy A Playful talk by James Wallis (james@ spaaace .com) Texts: Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Harry Matthews, Marcel Benabou Images: the internets, Elizabeth Tonnard Most copyrights monstrously abused. Sorry.