Some time ago now I presented a definition of my term “ludic narrative” and a brief rundown of the development of the form over the course of the history of games in general, moving from the abstract games of old to games that simulated ever more specific contexts with ever more immediacy and detail, finally culminating in the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons, the first full-fledged example of ludic narrative. I want to look at history from another angle today.
All of the terms that we use to describe the sorts of works I’m usually talking about on this blog — “ludic narratives,” “story games,” “interactive fictions,” many others — pretty clearly describe them as being a fusion of two older forms, story and game. From time to time some designer or blogger or other will pop up with a condemnation that derives from this fact, claiming that ludic narratives are the unsatisfying result of splicing two very different art forms together. Stunned by this insight, the Twittering classes go to work, and so the carousel of life on the Internet goes around once again. Yet the idea that an art form is somehow illegitimate or aesthetically depraved if it subsumes other art forms is pretty absurd. During the heyday of Wagnerian opera that form was praised precisely because it incorporated within it virtually every other respectable art form extant at that time: music, theater, literature, the visual arts (in the spectacular stage designs), even architecture (ever been to Bayreuth?). So, and while it may be overly simplistic, let’s at least for today unabashedly accept the idea of ludic narrative as being woven from two strands, that of game and that of story, and let’s not judge that to be a bad thing. In that earlier post I followed the former strand to the point where it met its mate in the form of D&D. Today I’d like to look at the latter. As we’ll see, games and stories have never been complete strangers to one another.
One of the oldest literary forms of all, so old in fact that its origins are lost in antiquity, is the original fusion of game and literature, the riddle. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between riddles and modern ludic narratives. As with a ludic narrative, a really first-class riddle must succeed as both a game, in being challenging but solvable, tempting, and, well, fun; and as a story, with writing worthy of aesthetic appreciation and some nugget of wisdom or deeper truth to convey. The Riddle of the Sphinx is one of the oldest and probably the most famous riddle in the canon, and a fine example of one that succeeds as both game and literature:
Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?
The answer, of course, is “man.” Not only is this riddle an interesting puzzle in its own right, but it conveys something about the fleeting nature of even the longest life in a lovely, metaphoric way. Indeed, in being a puzzle you must solve this riddle possibly makes you ponder that very theme more than you might if it was presented in some other form. Although it probably predates Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (429 BCE) by many years, it was embedded into that larger work of literature, something that I’ll come back to in just a bit.
While riddles, at least at their best, are definitely literary, they usually aren’t really stories. Yet there is also a definite tradition of play in even narrative-oriented “high” literature. I could trace a line from Tristram Shandy through Moby Dick and Ulysses to Gravity’s Rainbow. All are works that present themselves at least partially as puzzles to be cracked, a trend that’s increased dramatically in the wake of the Modernists and Postmodernists. (“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality,” James Joyce wrote.) Maybe I’ll try to look at that tradition at some point. For today, though, let’s set our sights on what may be the most long-lived of all traditions of gamesmanship in storytelling: the detective story, which would appear to be just about as old as jurisprudence itself.
Some versions of the Old Testament Book of Daniel include the story of Susanna, the young wife of a respected elder of the Jews who was as beautiful as she was virtuous. (It’s generally agreed that this tale, along with a few others, was added to Daniel somewhat after the original authorship, and thus its place in the Biblical canon is in some dispute. Catholic Bibles include it, Jewish and Protestant generally do not, although exhaustive editions, such as the King James, often include it with the Apocrypha.) Two other elders take a liking to Susanna. They therefore hide in the garden until she comes in to take her bath, then spring out to offer her a choice: let them have their fun with her, or else have them tell her husband that they found her in the garden with a young lover. Much to their disappointment, she cries out loudly, thus apparently opting for the second choice. They proceed to tell their lie when other villagers rush in to Susanna’s rescue, claiming that her cry was one of surprise at being caught in the act, and that the unknown young man was able to get away before he could be caught or identified. Being respected elders, they are believed. A tribune finds Susanna guilty of adultery, for which the punishment is death. As she is being led away to her fate, the procession passes by the Prophet Daniel. God comes to him at that instant, telling him that Susanna is innocent. With nary a moment to lose, Daniel rushes to stop the procession, saying that he will prove Susanna’s innocence to everyone’s satisfaction. A brief stay is reluctantly agreed to, whereupon Daniel interviews each of Susanna’s accusers separately, asking under exactly which tree Susanna had her tryst. They’ve of course failed to get their stories straight, and each names a different tree. This is proof enough for the tribune, who proceed to execute her accusers in lieu of Susanna.
In contrast to so much in the Bible, it’s odd how contemporary this story sounds to our ears. Remove the explicit prompting of God that put Daniel on the case and the determination to punish every crime with the one-size-fits-all sentence of death, and it could easily be an episode of any of a hundred crime dramas. One can imagine Columbo shambling up to each of the two elders to deliver his questions, complete with lots of mumbled asides and self-deprecations, until… gotcha! Like all those detectives to follow, Daniel essentially treats the crime as a puzzle to be solved using logic and intuition — along with in his case, being a prophet and all, just a little bit of divine guidance.
He plays detective again in another Apocrypha-banished tale, “Bel and the Dragon.” Here the king has rejected his claim that a rival god to Yahweh, the dragon god Bel, is a fraud of his priesthood. The king cites the sacrifice of meat and wine which he leaves in Bel’s sealed temple every night, which is always gone in the morning. Daniel therefore scatters ashes over the floor of Bel’s temple just after the sacrifice is placed and before the temple is sealed. Sure enough, next morning there is a trail of footprints showing how the priests entered from a secret door to retrieve the meat and wine themselves. It’s a story that could easily be a text-adventure puzzle — and a pretty good one at that.
Ancient as it is, the detective story really exploded in popularity during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the idea of Science and Rationality as an answer to all the problems of mankind was also very much in vogue. The classic modern archetype of the form, at least in English, is Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he introduces his detective C. Auguste Dupin. There’s much about “Murders” that feels typical of Poe — the florid diction, the long philosophical digression that opens the story, the Gothic darkness that encloses it. (“It was a freak of fancy in my friend,” writes the narrator, Dupin’s version of Watson, “to be enamored of the Night for her own sake.”) Yet, surprisingly from a writer known for his obsession with irrationality and madness, Dupin is ultimately a living testimony to the power of what Poe calls “the analytical facility.” Dupin and the narrator read in the newspaper about a seemingly impossible crime: a woman and her daughter found murdered in an apartment that was still locked from the inside, and witnesses who all report hearing the assumed murderer speaking in a different language. Treating the scant physical evidence and witness reports as pieces of a logic puzzle, Dupin concludes that the murderer was in fact an escaped orangutan, and his “language” meaningless gibbering; tellingly, each witness reported the murderer to be speaking in a language she herself did not understand. Dupin then proceeds to track down the ape and its owner without ever venturing from his apartment, using only the newspaper.
Dupin appears in just three stories by Poe, but his influence on the generations of detectives that followed was immense. Nowhere is it more pronounced than in the most famous detective of all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In addition to the character of his detective, even the structure Doyle chose is the same, an everyman narrator describing the adventures of this impossibly brilliant fellow in terms to which you and I can relate. There’s a telling “lady doth protest too much” moment in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), where Doyle acknowledges the elephant in the room. Dupin, Holmes tells Watson when the latter points out how similar Holmes’s methods are to those of Doyle’s inspiration, is “a very inferior fellow” compared to him, although his reasons for saying so aren’t exactly rigorously worked out.
At this point I need to pause for a moment to describe what makes the nineteenth-century detective different from those who would follow. In her 1985 PhD thesis on Adventure (one of if not the first to be written about a videogame), Mary Ann Buckles makes an important distinction between “game as literature” and “literature as game”:
The object of the work is the determining factor: if the main goal is for the reader to decipher some veiled meaning or to figure out the answer to a question or puzzle posed by the work, it’s basic character is game-like. Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” mystery/detective literature, and some aspects of hermetic and Baroque poetry can, I believe, be viewed as games. On the other hand, if a puzzle posed in the work is also answered in the work so that the reader is not responsible for the solution, it is not a game. There might be clever, playful literary devices in them that can be considered as little games, but these are used to enhance the meaning or beauty. It is then the depiction or representation of some meaning or aesthetic experience that is the main object.
For all their gamesmanship, the stories of Dupin and Holmes fall into the category of “game as literature” for one reason: they don’t present to us, the readers, any truly solvable puzzles. The chain of logic that leads Dupin to his murdering orangutan is absurd. If we know who the killer is, it’s possible to follow his logic back from its conclusion, but any given link on the chain of logic is equally admitting of dozens of alternate possibilities. As a bemused Poe wrote in response to the praise heaped upon him for his Dupin stories, “Where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?”
Doyle is an even worse offender. Not only does Holmes always choose the correct of a myriad of possible explanations for even the most trivial of evidence, but Doyle often keeps his reader in the dark about crucial elements of the cases, letting Holmes solve the case with inside information, as it were. The typical Holmes story begins with someone visiting 221B Baker Street with a seemingly impossible case, proceeds through Watson bumbling around and Holmes being cryptic, and ends with Holmes explaining to everyone, not least the reader, how brilliant he was. The poor reader never has a chance; the games in the Sherlock Holmes stories are all internal to the stories, to be played and solved by Holmes alone while we look on admiringly. Dupin and Holmes are not so much examples of the Power of Logic in the real world as they are of naive faith in logic as a semi-mystical force, more superheroes (“Logic Man!”) than practical examples. One of Holmes’s classic tricks is to give a rundown of a stranger’s character and life circumstances in minute detail, all from observing their appearance and behavior for a scant moment or two. There are a few occasions in the stories where he invites Watson to have a go at the same thing. Watson, not being graced with Holme’s superhuman Powers of Logic, makes a series of very reasonable inferences and deductions — and, of course, gets everything spectacularly wrong. Suffice to say that we — and anyone living in the real world — would be more like Watson than Holmes.
But what if the puzzles imbedded in these stories were fairer, actually solvable by the reader, so that the reader could play detective right along with the protagonist of the story? It’s not an untenable notion by any means. In 491 BCE Sophocles told in Odeipus the King how Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx to win the hand of Queen Jocasta. Let’s not dwell on what an ugly match that turned out to be, but instead note that the reader/playgoer has a chance to ponder and solve the riddle right along with Oedipus — or not. It’s game as literature and literature as game intertwined, to be taken as the reader/playgoer chooses. Another famous example is of course the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, which Bilbo ironically wins by ignoring the proper rules of riddling and simply asking, “What have I got in my pockets?” Sometimes the only way to win is to cheat a bit…
In the early twentieth century, some authors started to write tighter, fairer mysteries, where all clues at the disposal of the detective were also available to the reader, and where the killer could be reasonably deduced by following the trail of evidence, however tangled. Eventually, in 1929, one R.A. Knox codified ten rules of good practice that made a fair, solvable detective story. Like Graham Nelson’s later Player’s Bill of Rights, they’re a sometimes hilarious mixture of the general and commonsensical (“All supernatural and preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course”) and the author’s specific pet peeves (“No Chinaman must figure in the story,” a reaction to the absurdities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels).
While I’m not sure I want to push this point too far, there is a certain parallel between the development of the text adventure and that of the modern detective novel, of unfair early works prompting reactions like those of Nelson and Knox, who began to codify better design policy — at least if we are interested in reading detective novels primarily for their game-like aspects. (Certainly the Dupin and Sherlock Holmes stories have other appeals that have made them more enduring than most of the later, fairer works.) The cruel irony in the case of the text adventure is that such rigorous public discussion of design policy did not take place until the form was already commercially dead, arguably partly slain by the very design sins Nelson belatedly railed against.
The 1920s and 1930s are often called the golden age of detective fiction, when the genre reached a far larger readership than it has before or since. The queen of the era was of course Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time. She wasn’t always completely fair — she wasn’t above withholding the occasional key bit of evidence known by her detective from her reader, and on two occasions even made the murderer the narrator himself — but she generally gave the reader at least the ghost of a chance of figuring it out for herself. Christie was not interested in plumbing the depths of her character’s souls, but rather moved them around in her books like chess pieces, components of the puzzle that was her real concern. Indeed, there’s a feeling of unreality about classic whodunits that is unusually pronounced even for genre literature. Murder, about the ugliest business there is, becomes just a target for intellectual curiosity. The golden-age whodunit is all about the puzzle.
Given that, a logical next step might be to remove the trappings of the novel entirely, to just throw all of the evidence into the reader’s lap and challenge her to solve the crime herself. We’ll talk about the first person to make that leap next time.