Illusions the Game

The first Round Table of 2009 is as follows:

Putting the Game Before the Book What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

So, anyone who knows me well knows immediately what book I picked, but as fast as I picked that book I also ruled it out.  My first thoughts were of how impossible it would be to make a game that illustrates the same message.  I then spent several days trying to pick another book, another piece of literature, something else… but it was a fruitless search, and I knew that in the end I would have to accept the challenge and try to design a game with the idea that it existed in the same place as the book had the book not existed.  I racked my brain looking at computer games and card games and board games and schoolyard games and everything I could think of to craft my game out of, and it was then that I realized that it didn’t matter.

First, allow me to introduce you to the book, which I feel is one of the finest if not the finest piece of literature ever written, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach.  The story is about a man who decided to get away from the life he had and trying to figure out what live he wanted by getting in a biplane and taking up barnstorming (flying around, stopping at small towns and offering to take people up while you do turns and loops and whatnot for a small fee).  This man, Richard, has an unlikely meeting with another barnstormer, Donald, who is the Reluctant Messiah of the title.  Richard is a man escaping the world because of all the restrictions in it, and Donald is a man escaping the world because the people refuse to see it has no restrictions.  Donald teaches Richard that the world is nothing but illusions, that anything is possible and that the only limitations anyone has are the ones they insist upon themselves, and the only things that really matter are entertainment, learning and other people.

For our game, let me start by paraphrasing a quote often found on the back cover of the book:

Here is
a test to find
whether your mission in game
is finished:
If you’re playing,
it isn’t.

If Illusions were to be a card game, it would be like Mao, only it isn’t just the dealer who knows the rules and unveils them, everyone participates.  If Illusions were a schoolyard sport, it would be like Calvinball.  In fact, if you look around, other variations of the “make up the rules as you go along” game exist for pretty much any medium.  Even MMOs have their sandboxes (Second Life, etc), and even in more rigid MMOs (World of Warcraft, etc) the game itself has no defined end and it is up to the player to decide under which conditions they consider the game to be “finished”.

Of course, getting people to want to play a game that has no rules (but potentially has all rules) is tough.  Without the rules, most people won’t know what to do, and whether they realize it or not, their dislike of the “game” is probably tied to its similarity to “life”.  The game is what you make of it, as much as life is what you make of it… and that is the point.  In whatever form the game were to be presented, a player could easily make up a rule that allows them to instantly “win”, however the question isn’t whether or not they won but if they enjoyed it, if they got something out it.  Maybe by throwing down the “I win” card in the first round they do get something out of it, they smile, they laugh, and yet if they do it enough they might find that no one wants to play with them anymore, which itself is an opportunity for learning: if you want to play with other people, other people have to have the opportunity of winning.

As you make up and play with new rules, you discover how they affect you and those around you, and you can find which rules lead to the most fun in the game, for everyone, and those are the rules that you will end up keeping around.

Back in High School, a group of friends and I would play cards at lunch.  On days when people were angry at stuff we sometimes played Egyptian Ratscrew (though we used the F-word instead of “screw” because we were teenagers), but that could lead to much pain, so more often than not we played Mao (mentioned above).  And while one guy was the one who brought us the game and the initial set of rules, each dealer was allowed to craft their own set, as long as they named it (so that players could file rules learned under a heading for later play).  We had tons of fun making up rule sets and yelling at others when the rules that were made stunk (the lunch monitors had to drop by and ask us to quiet down at least once a day as we got into heated disputes).  In the end, the rules that stayed and made their way into every dealer’s set were the ones that made people laugh, even when they forgot the rule and got penalty cards.  By the time we crafted the master rule set that we settled on (called “Neo-Einteinian” if I recall correctly), players no longer cared if they won or lost the game, they just loved playing it, and to me that should be the goal of every game.

So, as you can see, I deviated from the stated purpose of this month’s Round Table as I didn’t actually design a game for my book, but I think that’s because the fundamental message of the book is actually the fundamental message of game design in general.  The creation of any game is an exercise in the game of Illusions.

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  1. That’s a pretty cool post. It puts nicely into a nutshell what I’ve been writing about in some posts about the Usability in Games. Applying usability to games sometimes makes little sense since dealing with the “problems” of the interface is often the whole point of the game.

    As for a game where you can make up the rules – ok, but there are some rules. There is a process in which all participants discuss and determine if a given rules is acceptable. So there is a wrapper, a meta-game so to speak, isn’t it?

  2. That depends on if one of your rules is that everyone has to agree upon the rules. “The only rule is that there are no rules.” Technically, if we were playing a card game, Player A could state that the 4 of Clubs is the “I win” card, lay down the 4 of Clubs and declare that he has won. Player B could then state that the 4 of Clubs is the “I lose” card and that Player A has lost by playing it. Then the game moves into the shouting and blame phases on the fly as both Players A and B agree that the other is wrong. Eventually Player B declares that “fists” are allowed in this card game and punches Player A. Player A would prefer that “fists” not be allowed, but when hit with “fists” he is unable to preclude them from the game and now much decide if he wishes to agree with Player B and also employ “fists” or if he wishes to try some other tactic.

    Essentially, no one ever has to agree on anything unless they insist upon continuing play with people whom they would rather disagree with.

  3. Yes… and no. You are allowed to make up rules, unless one of *my* rules is that no one else can make up rules, which means that if you play with me then I will not recognize any rule that you make. Now you have the choice, play with me where I make all the rule and you make none, or don’t play with me.

    If you have never read the book, I highly recommend it.

  4. Sorry that I’m late to the party, but I thought you might be interested in two other Mao-like games that are (relatively) in the mainstream gamer consciousness: Quao and Fluxx.

    Quao is, as near as I can tell, Mao with some extra backstory and humor added. Fluxx is a game in which the rules and objectives are a function of what cards are in play (thus the rules and objectives are constantly in flux).

    Board Game Geek pages for each are here: (Quao) (Fluxx)

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