In Borges’ ‘The Garden of The Forking Paths’ (1941) a German spy is on the run from counterintelligence and behind enemy lines in England when he stumbles upon a Chinese stately house. This curiously misplaced habitation gives the spy a much-needed somewhere to hide. Aware that his pursuant is gaining on him and that he has limited options to get a message back to central command, he shoots an unarmed custodian who shares a name with the town where the Allied artillery is kept. The plot of ‘Forking Paths’ is deceptively simple, belying its central idea: something the spy fortuitously stumbles across. The house contains the lost work of the spy’s grandfather, an enormous philosophical novel about time. The effect of this novel overpowers the minor espionage plot with an a definition of fiction which exceeds the printed book itself. Columnist Mark O’Connell argued in a review of Borges interviews that in the Argentinian’s fiction the real story is the performative nature of the narrative: that it constitutes ‘a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality.’
Our spy’s grandfather, Ts’ui Pên, had two grand projects which occupied his twilight years: a novel with ‘more characters than there are in the Dream of the Red Chamber’ and a labyrinth in which ‘all men would lose themselves’. The twist is that the two are the same, the one project enabling and fulfilling the other. Ts’ui Pên’s novel is a physical but broken text: a mass of possible fragments of narrative. The reader must rejoin the fragments through the work of reading and so supply the unity which the physical object lacked. What complicates this labyrinthine act of reassembly is that the novel is achronological. By eschewing temporality Ts’ui Pên finished his second project: a great labyrinth without direction or exit. The effects of removing time instils a great horror in the spy: ‘In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable [work of] Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them’, Borges writes. The novel’s infinite and cryptic possibilities mean Ts’ui Pên’s labyrinth can resound infinitely with a Kantian terror about what lies beyond human reason – a literature where ‘the hero dies in the third chapter, while in the fourth he is alive.’ As the spy is drawn into the mystery it alters his perception of the world. His narration is infected by the atemporal workings of his grandfather’s labyrinth.
Borges’ story was published at a fortuitous time. It was written in 1941, the same decade in which the first modern computers would make the peculiar fantasies of Ts’ui Pên a possibility. Computer code will gladly run forever with no internal reference to time, presenting data which changes and modifies itself with every execution. At the time, these new devices were built to calculate artillery trajectories or assist in breaking the German Lorenz cipher. Both of these problems required repeated application of arithmetic: for the Lorenz cypher a ring buffer of the speculated key was applied to the intercepted codes to find the configuration of the German code machines. These giant, baroque machines had to be physically programmed with plugboards. Many of them were not capable of running programmes beyond the specific algorithms for which they were created. Yet the limited and often classified status of these machines didn’t prevent experts from speculating. The American engineer Vannevar Bush wrote in 1945 about the massive reorganisation in data systems that computers would bring about. The computer would revolutionise humanity’s relationship with information by providing intelligible representations of abstract information. Even today much of the pressure on computer development is to increase the facility for data management, from photo tagging to speech synthesis. In 1943 the Colossus computer was the first which could follow a forking path of its own. In 1946 America’s ENIAC was first programmed to calculate artillery tables and later reprogrammed to assist in the creation of a hydrogen bomb: academics were realising the power of computing in diverse fields. In the sixties, as computers became more general and more powerful, programmers attempted to simulate human conversation. The program ELIZA mimicked the ‘person centered counseling’ of a Rogerian psychologist.
Human speech proved extremely difficult to simulate (a few classic issues still persist) but the field became integrated within video games nonetheless. Games like Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1980) were geeky implementations of Borges’ ideas thirty years after Forking Paths. Text adventures were written in a similar way to early programs like ELIZA. They parsed simple sentences such as ‘use sword’ or ‘north’ and used them as inputs within the game world. These incredibly basic systems (which could be less than a hundred lines of code) opened a new field in fiction. Reading became physically active: a game, not a Platonic ‘copying’ of a static text. The idea of a story buckles in this new world – how do divergent stories compare? Are they like Ts’ui Pên’s labyrinth, all different? There is an ontological commitment which comes with this. The book’s ‘contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts’ means that, like a player traversing a video-game world, ‘all things happen, happen to one, precisely now’.
Around the same time as the creation of the first videogames in the seventies there was a burgeoning interest in games as an academic field. Theorist of ‘play’ Roger Caillois believed that games were an eternal element of culture, reproducing patterns or parts of a culture in a fantastical way. He wrote that: ‘The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an eruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality’. Games have their own sets of rules which determine them: nothing external supervenes on their realities. They can include any possible relation between players. There are rules which suggest whether games will be popular, and these are far more constrictive. Caillois even suggested that fantastical games necessarily created playful alternatives to the cultures which birthed them: ‘Games involving special effects, and ghosts all lead to the same result—the creation of a fictional world in desired contrast with the ordinary life that is dominated by the conventional species and from which demons have been banished.’ However, he suggested that games would grow monotonous in their contrast – that this ‘disorder has been agreed to’. Games provide a ‘species’ of escapist fantasy, and the sacrifice is that they are conservative in structure. Video games today form a Polonius- like list of forms: action, adventure, roleplaying, fps, action-adventure, action-roleplaying…
Early games were vastly different from previous software, affording players enormous fantasy worlds to traverse, but their option remained limited, as the following example suggests fom Witness (1983) suggests:
The rain is falling heavily now.
> drink rain
(Sorry, but the program doesn’t recognize the word ‘rain.’)
Caillois thought that too much simulation in games would produce ‘an inexorable, total frenzy which in its most obvious forms appears to be the opposite of play, an indescribable metamorphosis in the conditions of existence.’ When the simulated world is stretched too far we are not dealing with a game anymore. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game (1984) capitalised on the weirdness of text adventure games much like its 1978 radio show parodied the form of traditional adventure narratives. It forced the player to input irrational inputs. These irrational inputs caused ludicrous events. A series of valid inputs to advance the story is:
> get mail
> lie down in mud
> follow Ford to pub
Hitch Hiker’s Guide gets a pass because it is supposed to be absurd, but game theorist Jesper Juul worried: ‘the incongruence between rules and fiction was an insurmountable obstacle for games wanting to emphasize games as fictional worlds’. If games wanted to be engrossing and have rules they would need to change. Juul’s solution was not to add rules, but to simplify them: from robust simplicity complexity will emerge. Just as Ts’ui Pên could only complete his labyrinth by removing the idea of time, so games can create a deeper complexity through simple rules which do not prescribe high- level realities. Mark R Johnson’s Ultima Ratio Regum (URR) (2011–in development) is a video game which makes just such an attempt: from a series of basic rules a civilization and culture is generated. It describes itself as ‘a game which aims to integrate thematic content on historiography, philosophical idealism and the rise of modernist grand narratives, with the deep, complex and challenging gameplay.’ It dispenses with the endless pursuit of three- dimensional graphical fidelity for a detailed- but-retro text based rendering system. At the same time it represents a rich potential genre that straddles literary experimentation and video games.
When URR is run for the first time it presents an interface for generating an entire solar system. Every object created is indexed in a game-wide database which cultural and scientific artefacts can refer to. The character generation is offered next, and the player is assigned a race, gender, appearance and religion. These qualities are similarly indexed in the games data and will all influence the player’s integrations with the game’s culture, which, in the lack of a more action-orientated presentation, stands in as the primary protagonist. The player is placed into a small part of a city, one of the many which that particular civilization will own. The player leaves this particular place and move to other cultures or through wild expanses, affording the choice of navigating the world for exploration’s sake.
Roger Caillois worried that new forms of play would be inherently confusing. He thought that they would push players to look backwards, to invest the game within a tradition and a culture. A comparison could be drawn between the kinds of cultural phylogeny we use to understand other artistic forms: the fin de siècle to modernism, romanesque to gothic. URR anchors itself to a certain type of video game history. With its procedurally generated graphics and ASCII-esque tile-set it mimics the expansive games of yore, the sort played in the eighties by engineers and enthusiasts – Elite (1984) or Rogue (1980). These games were enormous economy simulators which offered endless financial opportunities. The games moved between trade, travel and violence in a sort of endless cycle. URR is not too concerned with combat or statistics. There is no assumed drive to own a guild or a statistically powerful character. Instead the player is asked to travel, to observe, and to read. This inverts the classical assumption that electronic entertainment has clung to: that of the mastery of the creator over the created. When Borges argued that reading is a more creative art than writing he wasn’t being speculative: he was emphasising the raw creative power that we use when inhabiting textual worlds. URR is a collection of possible worlds of which the player can access once per game. Within that world all of the auto-poetic actions associated with reading are possible.
URR has a cultivated disinterest in the player. An effect of the rejection of stats-based systems is that the idea of ‘grind’ – repetitive play to increase player stats – is removed. In a phenomenological sense the game world is opened. The learned behaviour of finding systems to optimise is impossible. Instead you have to read and learn within the world. The game invites a slow pace, a reflective attitude. Like an Umberto Eco novel or an old dungeon-crawler it asks you to jot down information as the game is played. Mark R Johnson acknowledges an influence in Umberto Eco and magical realism. In Alejo Carpentier’s e Kingdom of is World (1949) a historical account of Haitian independence is seen through the eyes of a slave in a bleak and macabre world. As in a video game some characters are immortal, and some can change shape. In Wu Ming’s speculative fictional Q (1999), the Münster rebellion is experienced by a fatalistic character who has no faith in his own influence against the vast force of history. URR uses both tropes: one familiar and one more alien to games. As a video game the ordinary logic of time is broken, but the rules of history are respected. Perhaps Ultima Ratio Regum will allow the player to change the course of its world through grand conspiracies – for now Mark Johnson is keeping his cards close to his chest.
We are used to certain types of fiction being difficult, but with fiction the difficulty can be hard to define. What kind of complexity: linguistic, narrative or contextual, are we evaluating? The questions of what is being said, how is it being said, and what is going on are rarely asked. Complexity there is ludic. Difficulty is found in mastering systems. URR is generically different in its difficulty. It makes narrative the difficult thing: even in narrative heavy games like Dark Souls (2009) or Morrowind (2002) the story is refractory. Players can go through the experience in the standard video game way and miss almost the entirety of the meaning behind their actions. By removing their ability to engage with the game in this way, URR makes itself necessarily ‘literary’. Johnson sees his role as a developer as similar to that of the author. ‘There are a vast number of possibilities the game could produce. The way I’ve programmed URR, it only produces worlds which are logical’, Johnson told me in an interview. In each world the players will ‘plough our way through the twists and turns of history’, as Wu Ming’s Q exasperatedly describes his own historical construction.
Does the computer make Ts’ui Pên’s dream any more real? By a series of strange experiments, computers have made possible these familiar but quite unexamined forms of language and thought. I suggest that there is a continuity between literature and the sort of playfulness found in the games which have featured here. Vannevar Bush predicted computers which create the potential for intelligent art, for creations which can respond to our questioning. The act of reading then becomes reactive in the way that Borges and Carpentier anticipated. The results are confusing things: a byzantine lost novel gathering dust at the back of a cupboard, a video game which won’t give you a sword or a guide. When engaged with they are disorientating because expression ought to be. From disorientation new forms emerge.