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August 2019

Silk is About... Religion

Sapadbizes CoinWe don’t talk about religion, right? That’s what ‘secular’ has come to mean... we don’t talk about religion. Unless of course you want to make criticisms against religion, which are still fair game – indeed, are all but encouraged among the intellectually respectable. Liberals are only credible if they are willing to speak out against Christian nonsense, while conservatives positively thrive upon their distrust of Muslims... So we end up in this strange situation where ‘not talking about religion’ becomes a blanket cover for racism because religion and non-religion are intimate elements of culture, and so if all you’re permitted to do is to speak ill of religion, you have created an environment where racism not only festers, it achieves a kind of illusion of intellectual honesty that, in my lifetime at least, distrust of skin colour has always been mercifully denied.

Because it’s set in 200AD, Silk can be about religion without dealing with the immense baggage of contemporary religions. Islam has yet to be founded, while Christianity and Judaism are a very small part of the world of 200AD, which is dominated by what we tend to unjustly collect under term ‘Pagan religion’ or, perhaps even more misleadingly, ‘polytheism’. The civic religion of Rome and ancient Greece spreads throughout more than half of the Ancient Silk Road, and collides in the Kushan Empire with eastern Buddhism, which is still a very young religion at this time. It’s also worth noting that the very term ‘religion’ has no real analogue at this time: our capacity to talk about cultural mythos as a package deal emerged via the Enlightenment... the Romans had no equivalent term at all. ‘Religio’, the root of the word, carries the meaning of a sense of duty or responsibility in 200AD, and mostly in the sense of social obligations.

Religions that are huge today are minorities in 200AD. What we call today the Hindu traditions are not entirely absent from the game, but what we usually associate with these spiritual paths are definitely on the fringes – you can sacrifice to Shiva in the Kushan Empire, for instance, but most temples there are dedicated to the Lion Goddess Nana, whom nobody remembers today. In the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrian fire temples are the core of civic religion, and although Islam is still several centuries away you can feel the connectivity between the Parthian Empire and Islamic culture in many ways... like everything else in life, religions have a history, they are not as isolated and static as we tend to imagine, and in 200AD this is far more evident than it is today.

Not that long ago, I was interviewed about the portrayal of religion in videogames by a PhD student, in part because my game Kult: Heretic Kingdoms had on the surface a vehemently anti-religious stance. (The actual story in that regard is much more nuanced, but this isn’t the place to explore it...) One of the things I took from that discussion was the manner in which a huge aspect of the portrayal of religion in videogames is the priest or priestess as the healer – a debt from Dungeons & Dragons that seems to have been tangentially influenced by Hammer House of Horror movies of all things! I became interested in finding another approach to this issue. I didn’t set out to make a game about religion, but once I knew I was making a game about 200AD I knew that it was inevitably going to be about religion in addition to whatever else it was about.

As I came to develop the class of Ritegiver in Silk, I began to see them as an opportunity for a different way of approaching religion in games. The Ritegiver is, in effect, the diplomat: by being able to perform rites at different shrines and temples, the Ritegiver allows the player to make friends with people in new areas, to stave off rebellion by performing sacrifices that help bind them to their captured citadels through civic religion, or simply to ask for aid from strangers. I leave it to the player how they interpret this – cynically, as social manipulation, or idealistically, as a marker for what religions do best when they do not lose their way: binding people together into communities of care. Both ways of understanding religion have some truth to them, and always have.

Silk isn’t a game about religion as most people understand the term. That’s because it’s about the religions of 200AD. I happen to believe that this could tell us more about religion today than it might first appear.

Next, the final part: Brexit


Silk is About... Glorantha

RuneQuest TableauKnowing I wanted to make a game in tribute to The Lords of Midnight, the question was: how? Because making a direct spiritual successor to it was clearly not going to work – Legions of Ashworld had already tried, and it had struggled because it was solely fans of the original who could possibly appreciate it. No, if I was going to create a game that spoke to why The Lords of Midnight was important to me, I was really going to be making a game about a square-based map. It was mapping, and using other people’s maps, that made those early game experiences for me, and this was especially so for The Bard’s Tale, which I painstakingly mapped by hand with graph paper, and then took great pleasure in my friends using my maps to complete the game after me.

So I knew I wanted to make this tribute game about exploration, but I also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to experiment with radical unexplored possibilities in narrative design, and for this I had another influence: King of Dragon Pass. I had always regretted ‘missing out’ on RuneQuest, possibly the only classic 1980s RPG that I never got to play. King of Dragon Pass let me participate in Gregg Stafford’s extraordinary game by having been set in the world of Glorantha and being, in a very tangible sense about Glorantha. To play King of Dragon Pass is to enter into a fantasy world that’s not like any others out there... it’s more Bronze Age than Medieval, it’s a world where gods and spirits are tangible and pressing in on mortal life. David Dunham’s game is an incredible achievement, one that came to my attention because my colleague at International Hobo in the 2000s, Ernest Adams, waxed lyrical about its achievements in narrative design.

But what I really fell in love with in King of Dragon Pass was the Clan Ring, the set of people who advise you as to what decisions you could be taking as the game progresses. I became obsessed with how this worked, and dug into its designed systems and internal language (OSL), becoming ever more convinced that what was ‘just’ another clever extra feature in that particular game could become the central element of a narrative design that was based upon an entirely different kind of play. Perhaps, the kind of play that would see the player striking out across three million square miles of wilderness....

The Clan Ring in King of Dragon Pass became the Advisors in Silk. They’re your party, you hire them to your Caravan, and once you hire them they’re with you until the end of the game. That wasn’t how the design began – for a while, the paper design allowed the Advisors to die if they failed a skill check spectacularly. But as time went on, I came to realise that what I was doing with Silk in terms of letting the player explore the cultures of 200AD (just as King of Dragon Pass lets you explore the culture of Glorantha), was stronger in some ineffable sense if your Caravan was more than just a set of interchangeable pawns. The Caravan is your family in the game... and by necessity, it’s going to be a family of misfits, just like every party of adventurers in RuneQuest. That’s something that speaks to me as a player of games, and a lover of the strange. It’s why even though Silk is set in 200AD, it’s also in a strange but understandable way, about Glorantha.

Next: Religion


Silk is About... 1984

Lords of MidnightIn 1984 and 1985, amazing things were happening in the British videogames industry. The following year, Japan would overshadow this with titles like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda that transformed videogames forever by having the ability to preserve player progression (the genesis of save games), but for these two years nobody anywhere in the world can match the inventiveness of British bedroom coders.

One of these stories is well known... David Braben and Ian Bell made Elite, which with its vast feeling of player freedom would go on to directly influence Grand Theft Auto, and thus give birth to the open world genre as we now know it. But even that’s not the whole story, because Elite is a descendent of tabletop role-playing games, specifically Traveller and Space Opera, and it was the infinite agency of the tabletop RPG that inspired Elite’s radical approach to digital agency. It’s always a mistake to think videogames sprung into life from nowhere... they flowed down the river of artworks like everything else.

Two other great precursors to the open world game that came out of these two years are both from 1985: Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid – which I still suspect was an influence upon Grand Theft Auto’s car stealing (although I have not yet proved it), and Paul Woakes and Bruce Jordan’s Mercenary, that took Elite’s wireframe world and made a fantastic story out of it (Surely the faction system in the original GTA was inspired by this game...?). Paradroid is actually my favourite game of the last century, but I don’t feel quite the sense of debt towards it as I do to another 1984 classic, perhaps because I got to work with Andrew Braybrook and Steve Turner in the waning years of Graftgold, and so our stories already intersected in some way.

The last of the four harbingers of the open world is Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight, the best adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to never have had the license. Singleton was not influenced by tabletop RPGs as far as I can tell, but was just interested in how to take the two threads of Tolkien’s epic – the adventure story and the epic war – and represent them in the 48K of the ZX Spectrum, Europe’s most iconic home computer. I was spellbound by The Lords of Midnight, even though it was actually terribly difficult to play, and even more difficult to play well. My appreciation of what it achieved grew when I started giving talks about the history of games, and peaked when I finally sacked Ushgarak (let’s not call it the Dark Tower of Mordor...) in Chris Wild’s outstanding port of the game.

Singleton did not rest on his laurels. The open-world-before-open-worlds concept was revisited in a sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge (which also has a fantastic port by Chris Wild) and later in Midwinter and its sequel, games that moved into polygonal 3D and were equally astounding, perhaps even more so, since they attempted the immersive presence we now expect from first person games before the hardware was in any way up to the task of rendering them. But there was just something about that square-based world in The Lords of Midnight that maintained its magic. It’s a mystical wonder that can also be found in Eye of the Beholder and The Bard’s Tale, which also built their world on squares, although both had so much more computational resources available that they cannot possibly count as the technical achievement that Mike Singleton’s classic was.

I felt a debt of honour to him. I don’t really know why, but I always have. In the 1990s, when I was working on the Discworld games, I tried to make a game in that style, but it was impossible to make the argument for it then. It’s not that much easier now, to be honest! But at least now we have a thriving indie community who sometimes welcome the strange and wonderful into their hearts. So I made Silk, to pay off that debt to Mike Singleton. It’s why even though the game is set in 200AD, it’s also inextricably about 1984.

Next: Glorantha