The Past is Never Closed, and other data storage problems

Remember that game five months ago, when you met that guy who got you that forged visa? Y’know, during that adventure when your ship was smuggling medical supplies past the blockade? Shifty little guy? Wore a monocle?

He wasn’t an important character, and he wasn’t the interesting part of the game, so maybe you remember and maybe you don’t. You’re more likely to remember if you were playing the character that talked to him, and you’re much more likely to remember if you were the player who said “hey, instead of blasting our way through, let’s find someone who can sell us a forged visa!”

Games only live in your memory, and memory has a nice way of tidying things up and conserving space. You remember the good (and the really, really bad). You remember the exciting parts but the boring parts fade away (except for the really, really boring parts, which may also become legendary). You remember the clever things someone said, the dramatic moments, and probably the broad arc of what happened.

Maybe everyone remembers the overall gist of the game, and then on top of that each individual also remembers the parts that were really interesting to them. I remember escaping the yeti in that Tibetan temple, because my adventurer guy was super-cool in that sequence, but a year later nobody else remembers that part because it just wasn’t that interesting (“Yeti? Uh, I think I remember something about yeti…”).

All of that is fine and natural — which is good because it’s also inevitable.

Sure we try to fight it. We write lavish game summaries to try to capture the moment in amber (And make other players jealous. And to impress teh internets.) but that becomes a thing all its own, a particular person’s perspective on the events. Even the most factual “actual play” isn’t actual play, it’s one point of view of what happened at the table, selectively edited. A creative interpretation. A biased report. It’s already one step removed from the game.

But when you’re playing and you don’t remember that guy with the visa from five months ago, well heck, it’s not the end of the world. Because so long as someone at the table does remember what happened they can remind everyone else (and let’s face it, if _no one_ remembered it wouldn’t come up in the first place — if everyone forgets it deserves to be forgotten). It can be the GM, another player, whatever. After a short refresher for the collective memory, everyone is ready to go. The necessary ingredients from the past have been encapsulated and reinjected into the present. The players can decide what to do and the game moves on.

Games are enriched by their history, but if they forget the past that’s okay, because they’re concretely in the here and now. What is your character like now? What is the situation now? What do you do now?

Not unlike the real world.

“Now” is a moving target

Why am I dwelling on something that is a) pretty obvious and b) pretty much inevitable anyway? Because Microscope is making me.

In Microscope, everything that has ever happened in the game is accessible, now. You can jump to any point in the history and start playing.

It’s all on top. It’s all fair game. There is no comfortable “oh well that happened a while back and it isn’t pertinent right now, so I don’t have to think about it.” The past is never closed.

While this is super cool (and super fun), it radically changes how you have to store game info. Instead of a nice serial stack, where the old stuff is way at the bottom somewhere and you only have to think about what just happened, a Microscope game is a big flat random access platter. It’s a DVD, not a cassette tape. You can jump to anywhere.

Once you do decide where in the history you’re looking, you focus there and it does become “now” for all intents and purposes of play and excitement. When you are playing out the scene where the civilian cargo ship suicide-rams the alien dreadnought during the last attack on Earth, you are playing in the moment, live or die. But then a minute later, when the scene is done, you step back ten thousand feet, look down on all creation, and decide where to look next. Zooming in and out and then in again. Like, um, a microscope.

Building a structure for that kind of game — even thinking about it at the table — is a whole different ball game. The normal rules don’t apply, so I’m trying to figure out new ones.

(for the curious, I’m generally talking about Microscope development over in the Lame Mage blog, but when it has interesting implications or broader game theory I’m putting it over here)

    Ben Robbins | May 14th, 2009 | game theory, microscope | show 6 comments