Last week I had a chance to try out The Sundered Land with some friends, and more specifically the mini-game A Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future. I don’t want to speak for everyone – on the contrary, I hope that anyone who wishes to do so will add their contribution – but I found the idea of a game that welcomed such a large number of participants satisfying and intriguing. Here, however, I want to focus on an ambivalent and very interesting aspect, which reminded me in part of my experience with S/lay w/me: the nature of the constraints of the participants’ narrations, and the spaces for mutual maneuvering between each of them in determining the direction of the Pilgrim. I think my impressions since my last experience with Ron’s game have shifted in more curious directions.
During my first game, I participated as the “Bringer of Doom” for our Pilgrim, a warrior on his way to the Grey Hills and assaulted by the guards of a king, his mortal enemy. Mutual contributions drove our hero inside an abandoned tower to nullify the numerical advantage of his assailants. Here I was able to introduce a contribution of my own:
Pilgrim: they will not let me free to continue my journey. I sneak into the tower, and barricade the door with what I can. What do I see inside? Anyone can answer that.
Me: A half-destroyed room, covered in glowing phials and strange oblong feathers.
In my head, I already had an idea of what I wanted to see: a harpy and her lair of treasures, composed of vials of memories. However, contributions pushed in another direction:
Pilgrim: in the room I look for something I can use to start a fire. Do I find it? Anyone can answer.
another Bringer of Doom: you hit one of the cruets, half full of a yellowish liquid. As it falls to the ground it breaks, and the liquid turns into a blaze.
So much for the harpy, I thought. But I cared, and I wanted to see her in the game. So I introduced a human-faced kite upstairs anyway. I’ll spare the rest of the playthrough, but here’s the point: that modification had gotten in the way of a cool image in my head, and I didn’t want to see it modified. That’s something that puzzled me: did I not respect the player’s input? And if so, does that mean that the game pushes but doesn’t force you to incorporate other players’ contributions into your own subsequent statements? I don’t want to turn this into some form of justification for doing right or wrong, but the topic of constraints is intriguing and this seems to me to be a necessary point to explore.
There is, however, an interesting element to the story: when the hero escaped and the story ended, we never clarified what those cruets were doing there; the story of the kite – a member of a mysterious Circle and trapped in Hell in an attempt to pursue some ritual – never clarified what they were for. That element was left up to the interpretation of individual table participants; I found it oddly satisfying, as an element of lore not explicitly explained but certainly connected to the situation – something that for a Dark Souls fan turns out to be bread and butter.
There’s also a second element that reconnects me to S/lay w/me: the limits of the participants’ narrations. These are actually very loose, and the recommendation to “see the Pilgrim to his doom” left room for some interpretation in responses during the game. During the first game, for example, many of the questions were used to introduce elements of background, rather than danger to the Pilgrim: the kite and his membership in the Circle, or the crime of which the hero was guilty – the murder of a distant cousin of the king his enemy – did not immediately make matters worse, but provided guidelines to more vividly define the characters. Conversely, I noticed how much, both in the settings of my questions as a Pilgrim and in my answers, I tried to come across as narrow as possible. I had occasion to praise in my actual play of Swords of The Skull Takers the unstructured, unconventionalized nature of the narrative and its effects on the levels of fiction. I believe that leaving it up to the individual to delve into certain elements in their own ways and at their own pace is an engine for sincere and heartfelt contributions. This may have answered my firts doubts, but I’m curious to hear some other’s bell.