Speculative fiction and games, multimedia edition

For a few posts now, I’ve written about the kind of speculative fiction in NOVEL FORM that explicitly examines its status as literary game-playing. What of other media? I’m thinking film, long-form streaming episodes and feature-length. I’m thinking the visual arts. I’m thinking amalgams of words and visuals like comics and graphic novels. I’m thinking music. Dance. I’m thinking–duh–games themselves, speculative fiction laid out like a game to be played, making no bones about its nature. I’m relying on our understanding that “fiction” is not just about storytelling, especially literary storytelling. Think about a scientific hypothesis or the concept of the “legal fiction,” for example. Think about war simulations.

Any type of model or modeling can be considered “gaming” something: a concept, for example.

Yet if you enter the term “fiction” into your search engine, you’ll invariably get page after page of discussions about storytelling. The term “fiction” is a lot more complicated than that, but beyond my scope. I’ll just refer you to the concept of fictional entities, and you can explore it from there.

If we do think of speculative fiction as a kind of game-playing, where else besides speculative fiction novels does this type of play appear? Here are just a few examples. In the interest of not going on too long, I’ll save all the other fascinating types of speculative games to be played for another day and focus this post on:

Games themselves

Classic games like chess and Go have been described as elaborate metaphors for or models of life. Here’s a statement about the many ways chess has been considered so: “There is one tradition that views the game as a precise model for demonstrating causality, even the syllogism. Another, prevalent in medieval Europe, viewed it as encapsulating the divine-ordained, hierarchical social order, with the monarch at the top and the expendable commoners beneath. George Eliot would reintroduce the image of society as a great chessboard in the novel Felix Holt. And then there’s another tradition, in which the game contains the key to understanding the underlying harmony – or tragedy – of the universe.”–Dan Taylor, “On Chess.” And see William Pinckard’s discussion of how “the three games,” chess, backgammon, and go, reflect our humanity.

For many, games like chess and go are profound models of what it means to be human. What about the more frivolous game-players among us? Think of a game like Monopoly, which models, riffs on, criticizes, and jokes around with capitalism. Or . . .what exactly does it do? What was it originally designed to do? Read around and find out. Especially HERE. We can all think of favorite card games, favorite board games. Some board games were specifically designed to model out historical events and alternate possibilities, such as the Avalon Hill games based on Civil War battles and other great battles and events in history. Here, thanks to the inestimable Wikipedia, is a complete list of Avalon Hill games.

But if we restrict “speculative fiction” to storytelling genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopia, what kinds of games do we get? As I thought about so-called tabletop games, I found the “7 Types of Board Games” classification showcased in the Nerds on Earth web site to be a great resource.

Online and computer gaming have introduced a whole different dimension. To pick just one genre, fantasy: single-player games like most of the Zelda franchise (mostly on Nintendo) have their diehard adherents. Originally designed by Japanese game geniuses Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the Zelda games have spun off into anime and manga, tie-in products, multiplayer modes, at least one really bad movie attempt (not speaking personally–haven’t seen it–just reporting the consensus here), and many failed projects leaving eager fans with broken hearts and unmet expectations. Many, many great single-player games have shown up on the fantasy gamer scene since, such as Skyrim from the Neverwinter Nights folks, to name one of the best. These can be available for PC or on consoles such as Microsoft’s X-box and the PS-series of consoles by Sony.

Multiplayer games are their own entire book-length topic, so I’ll restrain my natural tendency to go on and on about them and again restrict myself to fantasy (easy there, SWTOR fans. . .or *sob* Star Wars Galaxies). A quick trip through fantasy-gamer history: literary objects Beowulf and The Faerie Queene fed listeners’/readers’ appetites for epic fantasy, although they didn’t call it that. . .scholars J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis wrote about these works in an academic setting, then, fascinated, wrote their own (Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien; Narnia books, Lewis). . .the Tolkien craze/revival in the 70s led to readers hungering for more and thus board games like Gary Gygax’s and Jeff Perren’s Chainmail (or, more accurately, a miniatures game, another whole subgenre of tabletop game, yikes). . .leading down one path to Dungeons & Dragons and down another, with the advent of Arpanet and bored computer programmers in the middle of the night, to MUDs (“multi-user dungeons”), text-based computer fantasy strategy games. . .and then, coupled with graphical user interfaces, to the first MMORPGs (massively mutliplayer online role playing games). It’s debatable what game holds the honor as the first MMORPG, but the one popularizing the genre was Ultima Online (1997). All you rabid MMORPG-ers, correct me in the comments if I have anything wrong here! The game that made the genre go nuclear was, I suppose, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (2004), although we fanatical Everquest (1999) and Everquest II (2004) players don’t like to mention it. Ours being, you understand, much the better game (passed around, alas, from game studio to game studio), and WoW stealing all of our game’s best ideas, and. . . *duct-tapes mouth shut here* Since WoW swept onto the scene, many have tried and few have succeeded in creating a game as popular. There have been, before and since: a D&D Online attempt, a Lord of the Rings Online attempt, a whole lot of Elder Scrolls single-player spinoffs produced by Bethesda Softworks, including the 2014 MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online (borrowing a great deal from the studio’s hugely successful Skyrim single-player game), the very successful Final Fantasy franchise produced through Square Enix–a mixture of single-player and multiplayer iterations, which actually began well before most of these games in 1987 but only released an MMORPG version (FFXI) in 2002. There have been newer attempts like the graphically crude but to some really addictive Valheim, Amazon’s beautiful but (imho) lackluster A New World. Dare I mention the always-forthcoming but never actually released Pantheon? Prove me wrong, fans! But there are other iterations of these types of games: the Lego-like kiddie smash hit Minecraft, and now a ton of hugely popular battle royale and arena games that have actually organized into e-sports leagues with paid players/media stars and their own YouTube and Twitch channels.

For some people, these computer games are the end of civilization as we know it. For others, a whole new way of telling/participating in stories. Personally, I find it pretty brilliant to marry this type of fantasy storytelling with game strategies and technologies.

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Speculative fiction and games–and The Culture–revisited

Find it at Amazon.

When I wrote my previous post, I mentioned two novels by the matchless Iain M. Banks from his Culture series: Consider Phlebas and especially The Player of Games. At that point, I think I had read three novels in the series. By now, though, I’m up to book eight (of nine or maybe ten, depending on how you count them). I can’t stop reading them. They’re that good. I have to revisit my whole previous post, though, to add this amazing quotation, from Matter, Book Seven in Banks’s Culture series. I’d reference the page number except that I’ve just finished reading it on my Kindle–no page numbers, but if you want to find it, it’s in Chapter 21, “Many Worlds”:

Holse, a character from a primitive planet caught up in a conflict between Optimae, higher civilizations like The Culture, comes to a realization about games:

. . .the idea that all reality might indeed be a game, . . .that all possible things had already happened, or were happening now, all together.

This [theory] alleged that life was very like a game or simulation where every possible course and outcome has already been played out, noted down and drawn up, as though on an enormous map, with the beginning of the game–before a piece has been moved or a move has been made–in the centre, and every single possible end state arranged along the outer fringe of this implausibly stupendous chart. By this comparison, all that one does in mapping out the course of one particular game is trace a path from that central Beginning of things out through more and more branches, chances and possibilities, to one of the near infinitude of Ends at the periphery.

. . . As Game, So Life. And indeed, As Game, So Entire History Of Whole Universe, Bar Nothing And Nobody.

[Holse continues to ruminate on this idea.] He immediately wondered how you could cheat.

What Holse is talking about is the so-called simulation hypothesis of existence. The main spokesperson for this view is Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom. Read his 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” here.

I’m working my way through the entire Culture series now. I should point out that–at least at this writing–two of the books, Inversions and The State of the Art, appear only to be available through used paperbacks. I’ve ordered them but haven’t read them yet. They are both volumes of short pieces.

The State of the Art is the title of the Culture novella in that volume, which includes a short story set in the Culture universe and another short story that may be. In the reading order, this volume of short pieces comes after Book 3, Use of Weapons, in the Culture series, making it, I guess, Culture Book 4.

Inversions is another collection of short interwoven stories, all set in the universe of The Culture. This book comes after Book 5, Excession, which makes Inversions Culture Book 6. To get Excession at all, I had to go to ibooks, although there must be a used paperback of it out there somewhere. These days, I prefer reading ebooks because my space is limited where I’m living now. I’d actually rather access books through Apple’s ibooks or Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader, except I’m so attached to the reading experience/eye-feel of my Kindle Paperwhite. And Kindle did not offer Excession. But Excession is the most difficult I’ve found of these books, and although I admired its ingenuity (mostly e-mail-like exchanges among a number of the sentient ships in the universe of The Culture), I can’t say I enjoyed it. I think I’d have to go off and make a meticulous chart of all the ships and then constantly refer to the chart as I read.

That said, the sentient ships and their amusing names are among the best pleasures of these novels. Elon Musk actually named several SpaceX support recovery drones after these ships: the Of Course I Still Love You, the Just Read the Instructions, and the latest, A Shortfall of Gravitas. Banks, he says, is his favorite novelist, and of course Excession is his favorite Banks. It would be.

For the full reading order, go here.