I’ve spoken about my love of Catherynne Valente’s writing before, but I’ve never really encountered anything comparable in a game. Until now, that is. The Book of Living Magic‘s writing is perhaps a bit more surreal and whimsical than Valente’s, but it resides in the same fairy-tale/folkloric space, and has that same combination of imagination and compassion that I find irresistible. The flaws I can see are that it’s a bit too short, and the fonts used don’t really match the gorgeous crayon graphics – a stylish cartoon font would have worked better, or even if they’d created a custom font to match the graphics. These are small nits to pick though. It’s a flash game, so you’ve got no excuse; play it now.
There’s another game set in the same world, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, which I’ve not played yet, but if it’s anything like The Book of Living Magic it’ll definitely be worth checking out. And the developer is apparently working on a full-length, commercial game set in the same Lands of Dream. On the basis of this game, that’s going to be something pretty special.
And to toot my own horn, you might want to take a look at No Longer Subject to Judicial Review, a short web game I made for the Super Friendship Club‘s inaugral Justice Pageant. I’m quite proud of how it turned out, and it seems to have got some decent word-of-mouth (it got picked up by the indiegames blog and pc gamer, though sadly not RPS, the one place I actually submitted it to). According to google analytics, visitors to the giant bear tracks site rose by over 3000%(!) as a result.
Anyway, it’s a kind of whodunnit-style detective game, where the only information you get about the case is via newspaper articles. I was trying to say something about the notion of justice espoused by the British media and mainstream politicians, only I’m not sure how well that comes across. The endings are deliberately ambiguous – you see the results of your actions (i.e. what happens to the person you convicted), but the game doesn’t tell you whether or not you actually convicted the right person. Something that really surprised me though was the way quite a few people read particular endings as the right ones – they seemed to need to create a kind of narrative closure for themselves even though it doesn’t exist in the game.
Which actually leads me on to the most recent book I read: Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe. I’ve always loved Thomas’ writing, but The End of Mr. Y had left me slightly cold, and I’d been dragging my feet a little getting round to her latest book. More fool me. Our Tragic Universe is a wonderful book, full of ideas and compassion (hmm, starting to see a pattern in my reading habits?), and I devoured it within the space of a couple of days.
The central idea is that of storyless stories; stories that don’t follow traditional western narrative rules, that aren’t interested in the Hero’s Journey. These are stories where things don’t really get resolved, obstacles aren’t overcome, and lessons aren’t learned. One of the examples in the book is the story of the fox and the tiger (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a well-known Chinese folk tale):
A tiger came upon a fox, and was about to eat it, until the fox cried, “Wait! How dare you eat me? Don’t you know I am the most feared creature in the forest?”
The tiger looked at the fox quizzically.
“Just follow me for a mile and watch all the other creatures tremble at the sight of me.”
So the tiger followed the fox through the forest, and everywhere they went, the other animals saw the tiger behind the fox and ran and hid.
At the end of the mile the tiger concluded that the fox was the most feared creature in the forest, and both fox and tiger went their separate ways.
(that’s also the plot of the Gruffalo, isn’t it?)
Thomas also posits that these storyless stories are what realist writing is aiming for. We tend to ascribe narratives to life to make it easier to understand, but reality doesn’t really behave like a narrative; things happen, and there are consequences, but there’s rarely any real resolution. The whole book seems to be about the tension between wanting to create comprehensible narratives and wanting to strip the narrative out in favour of a more realistic, honest style of writing. And I think the book’s main plot could be just as easily read as the kind of narrative it critiques, as it could be read as a storyless story.
It was a bit of a weird sensation reading it just after finishing Judicial Review though, as I quickly came to the conclusion that my game was almost exactly the kind of storyless story Thomas was writing about. It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me; do you ever get the impression the universe is trying to tell you something?