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!

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! —