Writing for Dicey Dungeons
Now Play This: what next?
Over the last six months, every now and then, I’ve been doing a little bit of writing and story development for Dicey Dungeons. Dicey Dungeons is a videogame from Terry and Marlowe and Niamh and Justo, plus a bunch of other people (like me) doing other bits of work around the edges.
This is the first time I’ve written for a full-on videogame! I’ve made my own little text-based games, I’ve written prototypes for clients, I’ve written about games a lot - but this is the first thing I’ve done the thing of coming into an existing project and having a look at the bunch of stuff that’s slowly accreting into a videogame, and sitting down and trying to answer questions like “what is this ABOUT” and “who ARE these people” and “how do the players even KNOW” and “how long can this sentence go on before people STOP READING” and “wait WHAT do you mean the game mechanics have changed completely and our earlier cutscenes don’t make sense any more” and “IS this joke too rude”.
Playing the Picturesque (You+Pea, RIBA)
About five years ago, we ran the very first Now Play This. It was a prototype festival, with games running in six rooms instead of ten, for three days instead of the nine we’ve built up to this year; but a lot of the principles we’ve tried to stick to for the last five years were there already. A lot of the core team was there already as well: me and George Buckenham on curation, Jo Summers and Sophie Sampson on production (they’ve been joined in more recent years by Nick Murray).
We showed digital and physical and hybrid work and interactive art that didn’t generally position itself as a game, drawing parallels across pieces of playful work that might not usually sit next to each other. We commissioned new work. We brought together game makers and enthusiasts and families and a general arts audience. We behaved really hard as if nobody would be rude enough to question the part games play in culture, their status as a cultural form with strengths and trends and conventions; and we tried to make an event that could take this for granted, that could look at games and playful work in detail, pull out themes, examine experiments, without having to waste time and attention going “actually games are super interesting did you ever think about THAT”.
None of this was unprecedented, of course! There are festivals and exhibitions and events all over the world doing this work, bit by bit, year by year. But it was unusual, and it was all important to us.
So you walk up a wide street, arches and big white houses all around. LOOK AT THIS, the road says. LONDON. LONDON, 2019. History book London, olden-days London, extremely-rich-people London.
You go past a big steepled grey-white church and dozens and dozens of almost-identical white houses until you come to the public-facing headquarters of RIBA, an architectural organisation so fancy that its URL is literally just “architecture.com”.
Inside there are huge staircases; there are columns. The ceiling has these kinda bevelled recesses that must have an official design name. The windows are wide, but so tall that they look narrow. There is just a whole lot of architecture going on. I mean, you know what museums look like, but in this very particular case all the details are important, the road outside, the vista, the variety of columns. There’s a desk with a guy behind it, too, and you can go past the desk and into a dimly lit gallery space. It’s free.
The show in the gallery space is by architectural research duo / artists / game designers You+Pea, and it’s called Playing the Picturesque.
There are a lot things I don't generally want to do on New Year's Day, and one of those things is: desperately try to remember a hundred short poems while occasionally trying to grab something off the floor as quickly as I can.
Which is fine, nobody asked me to. But there's a game that asks its players to do exactly that - Uta-garuta, a Japanese game traditionally played in the first few days of the new year. So now it's 2 January, there's still a few days left to run in the Uta-garuta season (the Japanese championship is on 7 January), and GOSH it sounds like an interesting game.
It's played with a deck of cards that show 100 different five-line poems (from an anthology called the Hyakunin Isshu, which is around eight hundred years old). Each poem is split across two cards - the first three lines are printed on one card, and the last two on another. The hundred cards with the poems' openings are the reading cards; the cards with the ends of the poems are the grabbing cards.
And those card names, reading and grabbing, go a long way towards explaining how the game works. You lay out the grabbing cards on the ground, face up. A reader selects a reading card at random, and reads it aloud. All the players race to spot the card that finishes that poem off and to, well, grab it.
You'll need 3 to 5 players, and paper, pens and an envelope for everyone.
Give each player ten minutes to invent a memory of something you all did together. A party you went to, a movie you watched, a meal you ate. Something communal, something plausible but definitely untrue, something that "happened" within the last five years.
It should be a nice memory. Something low-key. Something charming. Something that could well have happened, something you kinda wish was true, something that would be true in a very slightly better version of your life.
Don't tell anyone else your memory - just write down a one-sentence summary on a strip of paper. Copy that exact sentence out once for each player. That Boxing Day when we couldn't find an open pub so we drank corner-shop beer on a bench near the river, sleeves pulled down over our fingers to keep them warm, and we saw three foxes run along the middle of the empty pavement. That night when we went out dancing and it snowed while we were inside, and we came out at two and everything was white in the streetlamps, and we were drunk and it didn't feel cold and we threw snowballs in each other's faces in the park and fell over a lot. That autumn morning when it was suddenly hot, and we went to the park and there was a power cut at the cafe so they were giving out their ice-cream free before it melted, and someone thought they were getting mint but it turned out to be pistachio and they were so sad, who was that anyway? That boat trip at sunset. That picnic where a squirrel ran up and stole a whole cupcake, what the hell.