The Worm Ouroboros is a proto-fantasy (the in the genre sense) novel by E. R. Eddison, originally published in 1922. It is an amalgam of mythological traditions, Greco-Roman epic poetry, and invented fantasy worlds. A historian of fantasy literature could probably draw a line of influence that ran from Dunsany, through Eddison, and to Tolkien. I am not going to talk much more about the story here, though if you are curious Patrick wrote a lengthy post over at False Machine that is worth a read.
The pacing and characterization are occasionally rough going for someone used to contemporary fantasy novels, or even contemporary novels of any kind, but the overall effect is something like if Homer wrote an adventure epic in the early 20th century adventure novel vernacular based on the fever dreams of a five year old.
The real point of this post though is to spotlight a recently released edition of this book by Easton Press, one of the publisher’s 2021 “Reader’s Choice” titles. I do not usually care for the Easton Press house style, which involves aggressively conventional leather binding, extensive gilding, and overly literal cover designs. In this case, however, the style fits the title reasonably well, and Easton Press does at least put out durable products (real leather, stitched bindings, acid-free paper, and so forth). The interior is a facsimile of an earlier (perhaps the first) edition, and includes all the original illustrations by Keith Henderson, which, as black and white line art, also come out tolerably well in reproduction. Given the strangeness of the story, this might end up being the only game in town for someone that wants a more substantial edition. I lack much experience buying from Easton Press directly (this is actually the only book from them I own at the moment), but my understanding is that the Reader’s Choice titles are only available for some unspecified but limited period, and then rarely reprinted.
frus·trat·ed fan·ta·sy nov·el·ist, n. A caricature of a tabletop roleplaying referee who has developed a complex imaginary world, or particular plot, and would really much rather show players around or tell a predetermined story than play a game.
The frustrated fantasy novelist approach has rarely, if ever, tempted me. Perhaps, though, there is another loosely related set of motivations that might apply to some degree: frustrated fantasy architect. By architect, I mean specifically a planner of built spaces. I find few things as compelling as exploring, or watching players explore, the remains of a vast buried city, or derelict spacecraft, or lightless underworld. This thought occurred to me many times as I was listening to Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel Piranesi. Though the setting for the novel is primarily a stage upon which to present the protagonist’s experience rather than an unknown expanse to explore in a cartographic sense, the end result brings to mind the mysterious otherness of the best tabletop roleplaying game dungeons.
I will avoid talking much about the plot, both because part of the pleasure in the story is gradually realizing the nature of the situation along with the protagonist and because I want to focus more on the evocation of imagined space. What drew me in was the limited viewpoint that grows to slowly encompass greater realization, and the sense of destabilization and shifting beliefs that accompany the expansion of knowledge. The story begins in a labyrinth, which is also the world; it is a tangle of architecture, tides, and uncountable statues; an endless expanse of halls. If you have seen etchings by the historical Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Venetian artist, you probably already have some approximate image of this space in your mind. The Piranesi of Clarke’s story knows of 15 people, and for Piranesi the labyrinth is the whole of existence.
In a roleplaying game, satisfying architectural exploration for me requires some degree of concreteness and detail, akin to procession through a region in Dark Souls or a creatively designed stage for a first person shooter. Different areas must relate with a strict spatial logic. Though this logic need not by conventional or Cartesian, it must involve more structure than a narrative sequence. As a tangential point, practical architecture that is suitable for use in the prosaic world is too repetitious, predictable, and symmetrical to be ideal for exploring as a dungeon. The most effective and interesting dungeon spaces are like expressionistic recasting of identifiable architectures. The labyrinth in this story is too abstractly depicted to be a good example of a roleplaying game dungeon, being loosely sketched to evoke the feeling tone of the story protagonist. Though Piranesi often mentions specific halls by name, and describes distinctive features in detail, the spaces are floating vignettes that emerge and fade away to support scenes rather than spaces of complex relation. I intend this not as negative judgment, since the depiction works well in the context of the story, but instead to make it clear how the story communicates the feel of a dungeon-like space without taking the audience through a process of exploration.
The story was not what I was expecting, though afterwards I can see similarities to Clarke’s other work. Though much shorter than her more well-known novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Piranesi still reaches a length that I think most people would say “counts as a novel” (a web search tells me 272 pages). Despite this, it feels like a short story, and I mean this in the best possible way; the story is tightly crafted, with few extraneous events or digressions when seen as a whole, and though the pacing is languid on the surface, I found the story to be enthralling, even riveting. It is without question one of my favorite novels published somewhat recently (recently in the historical sense; say, after the year 2000). Despite that acclamation, Piranesi is a concept album of a book, and while Clarke avoids ostentatious experimental literary technique, the approach is still something other than conventional third person realism. I could see how this might lead some people to come away feeling like the book is somewhat contrived or affected, but the approach landed for me.
The version to which I listened, from Audible, was read by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It may be the best audiobook performance I have come across, and I have listened to quite a few audiobooks since covid began. (Also, one of my parents worked in audiobook publishing for a stretch, so I heard many when I was younger. Even considering all of those, and with the caveat that it has been a while, this may still be the best reading I have heard.) The publisher has made available an excerpt you can listen to on YouTube. Chiwetel reads slowly, very clearly, in a way that perfectly captures Piranesi’s curious demeanor but also his fundamentally strange and alien beliefs about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, I see only a few other audiobook performances by him, but at least one of them is an audio dramatization of Othello (along with several other performers), which I am now anticipating.
I conclude with a brief nested quotation. What follows is Thomas De Quincey quoting a section from book two of Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. Before this quoted section, De Quincey described (with considerable creative license) Coleridge recalling a plate from Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.
With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:
The Appearance, instantaneously disclosed, Was of a mighty City—boldly say A wilderness of building, sinking far And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth, Far sinking into splendor—without end! Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold, With alabaster domes, and silver spires; And blazing terrace upon terrace high Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright, In avenues disposed; there, towers begirt With battlements that on their restless fronts Bore stars—illumination of all gems! By earthly nature had the effect been wrought Upon the dark materials of the storm Now pacified; on them, and on the coves And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto The vapours had receded, taking there Their station under a cerulean sky., &c. &c.
De Quincey (1986). Confessions of an English opium eater. Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1822)
Piranesi (1761). Carceri d’invenzione. Rome.
Wordsworth (1814). The Excursion. Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.
You Died is a book about Dark Souls, written by a pair of game journalists. It was first published as a simple paperback and then reimagined as a deluxe hardcover funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The book is printed offset in Italy on 140gsm Magno Natural uncoated paper and plentifully illustrated. In keeping with the profession of the authors, many of the chapters have a journalistic flavor, describing the origin of Dark Souls and vignettes about its reception, often via experiences reporting about the game. However, the book also includes thoughtful chapters on game design, player motivation, and creative influences. The chapters alternate through essays, brief discussions of locations within the game, and there is a brief appendix discussing the setting and important characters. This book was clearly a labor of love, attested by the attention paid to sturdy construction, the careful design, and the reverential art direction. I think it should be obvious that the text itself will contain many spoilers, but I think I have kept this post free of spoilers.
Let’s get the discussion of weaknesses out of the way. While the binding and cover are excellent, the black inks could have greater depth, and this is especially noticeable on the pages with white text on black background. In keeping with the celebratory aspect of the work, occasionally the prose shifts into a sentimental register noticeable even to me as a fan of the game. Jason also has a penchant for punchy wordplay, which I suspect works slightly better in short form web writing compared to a longer text (sample chapter titles: You’ve Got Chainmail, Knight & Subscribe). Along similar lines, while the layout is excellent in general, there are a few flourishes that would be more at home in a magazine or web site, such as the occasional pull quote. Honestly though, taken in perspective, these are all minor issues. The book as a whole is an impressive accomplishment; as a physical artifact, as a thoughtful discussion of game design, and as a consideration of the play culture around Dark Souls.
I enjoyed all the chapters, even the human interest features which tell stories about the importance of Dark Souls to various individuals, but my favorite parts were the interviews with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, whose words are rubricated within the text. Just about everything Miyazaki says is revealing or insightful in some way, but I will highlight two quotes as examples. The first is about respecting the accomplishments of players, even those that might be considered exploits:
During lunch with Hidetaka Miyazaki in London in April 2012, I asked him if his team had designed that … spot especially for grinding. He assured me they hadn’t, but since players had discovered on their own how to manipulate it for their gain, he didn’t want to patch the AI behaviour and steal away something that now belonged to the community.
You Died, p. 60
The second is about the interplay between exploration and ambiguity in design:
This philosophy of ambiguity derives from Miyazaki’s teen years reading fantasy novels in English. He had a particular fondness for the Fighting Fantasy series, written by UK game-industry pioneers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Because of the language barrier, much of these stories remained mysterious to him: he was left to fill in the blanks with his own imagination.
You Died, p. 311
Considering 1974 D&D, there is a case to be made that slightly incomplete rules prompt (or demand) some degree of customization or finishing on the part of the referee. While this might be a flaw for some purposes, it also creates a degree of investment and uniqueness in the realized game. There is also the more general idea that a void can be fruitful. The ambiguity and obscurity of what is ultimately going on in Dark Souls works similarly, creating both curiosity about the details scattered throughout the game (encouraging exploration) while also creating a space for the player’s own idiosyncratic interpretation, given weight and shape by extensive mythological symbolism.
The illustrations are a mix of digital pieces, which I think might be processed photos of actual gameplay, small sketches placed at chapter headings, and whimsical line drawings skillfully caricaturing various experiences of gameplay that will immediately be recognizable to longtime players. These small line drawings especially work to soften the seriousness of the text both in terms of the bleak themes running through Dark Souls the game and the risk of pomposity inherent in giving a book of game journalism such fancy clothes. This is in keeping with the tone of Dark Souls itself, which breaks the somberness with occasional levity. The book is adorned with religious imagery, such as the blind stamped cathedral window cover motif and the title lettering in the form of a cross, not to mention the aforementioned rubrication. The book looks and feels like a psalter from the outside given the cover design, ribbon marker, and gilt page edges. It is no exaggeration to say that obsession runs through the project and text. I know, because I recognize aspects of my own interest reflected back to me. But, like the caricatures throughout, the text is self-aware, and pays respect to the game without taking itself too seriously, most of the time.
As noted above, the book does contain some spoilers, including a few details I have missed in my own playing so far, and some of these made me curious about the online play component, which I have so far totally avoided, being primarily interested in exploring the worlds of Dark Souls on my own terms and through the interfaces the game provides. In a similar vein, apart from occasionally browsing Fashion Souls, and reading a handful of guides about what stats to level or how weapon upgrades work, my primary social engagement about Dark Souls has been limited to discussions with a small coven of Google Plus exiles that I met playing old school D&D and related hacks. Now I am more curious about some of the other culture and cottage industry that has accreted around the game, such as VaatiVidya’s YouTube videos interpreting the morsels of setting detail or the “Kay Plays” of Dark Souls, which chronicles the journey of a novice through the game.
Though I suspect the writing would be engaging for someone who is interested in video games or game design more generally but has minimal experience with Dark Souls, some of the references are obscure and others might seem trivial without the echoes of personal game experiences. You Died is first and foremost a scripture for those initiated in the tribe. Praise the sun! Or the dark, as per appropriate allegiances.
I will close with some additional details for fellow book nerds. When I emailed Jason to ask a few questions about the book’s construction (yes, the binding is stitched), along with answering my questions he sent back links to several videos of the production process:
One of my pseudo-quarantine entertainments has been to read or reread most of the vampire stories I have on hand. So far, this has included I Am Legend, Interview with the Vampire, and Let the Right One In, with Dracula waiting in the wings. Along with providing an effective symbolic or allegorical nemesis, the vampire story seems particularly well suited to tell a story with extended historical sweep. To my surprise, when I went looking for examples of vampire stories that take this approach, Interview with the Vampire (along with Rice’s other work in this fictional continuity) was the only obvious example, though Interview goes all in, with a narrative that spans several hundred years and themes of change and adaptation.
I brought this up elsewhere, and someone mentioned the “Anno Dracula” collection of novels by Kim Newman, which is set in an alternative history where the events depicted in Stoker’s Dracula occur, but imagines what might happen were Dracula victorious. Though this series does include entries that occur in various historical time periods, the stories themselves seem to be more like a collection of separate historical vignettes (based on a quick wikipedia dive). For example, it looks like there is a Jack the Ripper story and a modern Japanese schoolgirl story. I have heard some of these works are enjoyable, so this is not meant as a criticism, but they seem to have a focus different from what I describe above.
There are several tabletop games that use vampires as protagonists which feature the longue durée as a core design element, none of which I have played. (I have played Vampire: The Masquerade, a long time ago, but that is very much histoire événementielle if it has any particular temporal disposition.) There is Undying, by Paul Riddle, which applies the Apocalypse World design formula to vampires. I read this a while back but have yet to see it in play. This is how the game describes itself:
Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. … Then, the long years unfold and selfish aims ferment. Plotting and scheming over long periods of relative calm are summarized so that the narrative focuses on decisive events across the gulf of time.
Undying, p. 12 (2016)
There is also Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I have not read or played. This is a single-player journaling game, however, and I am mostly uninterested in solo tabletop play.
Though I am moderately-read in this area, I am hardly a connoisseur. It is likely I am missing some good examples of vampire stories that make use of historical narrative sweep. Does anyone have any recommendations for other hidden gems? In terms of style, I am more interested in works with kinship to the novels I mention above and less interested in urban fantasy or supernatural drama. So, more like Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive and less like True Blood or The Vampire Diaries.