It is Pitch Dark: Unto Tarsus


From August 31st through September 3rd, Aaron Gotzon ran a game of It is Pitch Dark entitled Unto Tarsus.  He has some excellent thoughts about the game in particular and Pitch Dark in general!

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“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.”

When I first contemplated what I wanted my game of Pitch Dark to look like, the first image to come to me was what would eventually become the character of the hoverbrain; a wet, greasy, beaten-up Halloween mask of a thing: amusing and sometimes helpful, a thoroughly good character, but unilaterally terrifying to look at.  This is what eventually came of Unto Tarsus: it sets a simple story of misunderstanding, reconciliation, and forgiveness against a bleak, disturbing landscape.

The setting itself (and I wonder how many players picked up on this and groaned) was a hodgepodge of various classic sci-fi tropes.  The idea of humans living in a tower that extends out into low orbit, a “connector” to space, was taken from Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001: A Space Odyssey. Even the location, Sri Lanka, was lifted from his futurist writings (matter of fact, Clarke would wind up living out his last days there convinced that humankind’s destiny was to reside in such an edifice).

The basic nature of the AI and its environs was heavily inspired by Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream, which was itself adapted into a computer adventure game in 1995.  Some insertions in the gameworld from the dystopia Ellison crafts include a canyon as the resting-place of an omnipotent AI against whom responsibility is leveled for a former catastrophic war.  Unlike Ellison’s machine, AM, who tortures the few remaining humans in a bid of vengeance, the being I took to calling “Jireh” hasn’t progressed to that point yet.  He is, instead, deeply confused about his role in life and the humans’ fearful, prodding treatment of him, as well as being concerned with the preservation of his own subjective experiences.

It wasn’t until pretty late in the game that I decided for sure how I’d like it to end, depending on the direction in which the players wanted to take their character, the slag jockey.  At first I thought maybe the Machine had “woken up” and was determined to release the last nuclear payloads on the last bastion of humanity.  Even after I determined (spoilers!) that the Machine wanted to deliver a message seeking understanding, with heavy biblical overtones (and we get a hint as to where that specific flavoring may have come from; remember the cassette tape in the alcove?), I wanted to keep the nuclear missiles around as a threat.  Eventually I scrubbed that element though, partially because I was running out of time and wiggle room for player choice, but also because Unto Tarsus is a story about getting to that place of removing the fear of the past; where you realize it can no longer hurt you.  Of course, getting to that place requires that it actually has stopped hurting, and nukes tend to hurt a bit (/spoilers).

So far as the Southern dialect goes, the narration just sort of fell out of my brain that way.  It seemed to fit, and to provide an interesting counterpoint to all of the technological/futurist stuff going on. Originally I was intent on shaking it for the actual game after having written my pitch in that cadence, mostly to avoid unintentional (and inevitable) comparisons to Bastion but soon after starting it became abundantly clear that the voice had to stay.  The stereotypically Southern voice is polite, brash and courageous yet prone to outrageous understatement; the perfect tone to carry one through a post-apocalypse (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us).

As I see it, the GM of Pitch Dark has three primary responsibilities (and fittingly a max of three tweets) each turn: (1.) contextualize player action, (2.) describe the results of player action, (3.) move story forward to the next impetus.  The first one has to do with keeping the player satisfied and entertained, and the last two with actually keeping the game running.  I’d like to think I stayed on top of the contextualization pretty well, but I learned some things about motion and attention to detail during this run.  A couple of times I failed to capture the entire action in the next turn (“check X, then do Y, then move Z”), forcing me to either let the missing step slide, or pick it up in a succeeding narration (using up valuable character space out of sequence).  Also, I sometimes forgot to leave off my turn with sufficient room for further action; simply responding to the players’ last forward motion by essentially repeating the action in-context.  “Well duh, that’s what I said,” say the players, “but what happens then, doofus?”  The reward for playing is seeing what happens next as a “result” of your choices, illusory though that choice can be. I learned a lot running this game of Pitch Dark, and I’m grateful to the players for being lenient and patient with my relative lack of skill (they were spoiled with Bill and Matt, two veteran dungeon masters, running the first two games).  I’d also like to think those who didn’t play but stayed abreast on Twitter, or read the finished product.  I hope you enjoyed Unto Tarsus, and more than that, I hope you join in on the next game and actually help us put the story together!  Pitch Dark really gets fun when the competitive element (that Matt mentioned) kicks in.  With more players there’s more frantic action as each person tries to get his or her choice in, more potential for exploration in the gameworld, and more conversation and cooperation regarding possible choices and the Best Path through a given scenario. Pitch Dark is definitely a more-the-merrier proposition, but ultimately the exercise is most gamelike for the game master, who must meet the aforementioned three objectives under varying constraints which tend to increase in difficulty as the story builds to a climax.  It’s sort of an exhibitionist public service, really, like “your caricature in five minutes!” Your mark on the story, your creative input, in three tweets! --