Monday, February 7, 2011

Book review: The Castle In The Pyrenees

The Castle In The Pyrenees speaks of ghosts, fate and scientific method

Book: The Castle In The Pyrenees
Jostein Gaarder
Orion Publishing
256 pages

Rene Magritte’s painting ‘La Chateau des Pyrenees’ features a giant boulder floating in the sky, with a castle atop it. At one point in The Castle In The Pyrenees, (the book refers to the painting) one character tells another: “If you’d witnessed (that scene) today, you’d have tried to explain it away. Maybe you’d have said it was a trick. Or that the rock was filled with Helium… whereas I’d have just sung out ‘Hallelujah’.”

Pyrenees, at heart, is about this divergence in world views. Solrun and Steinn were a young couple in love in the 70s. Thirty years after they broke up and vowed never to look each other up, they happen to meet. Something of the old attraction is still there, and they start exchanging emails. The discussion turns to whether they consider their meeting pure chance or divine intervention.

Steinn thinks it was pure chance — he’s very analytical, avoids all supernatural ideas, and is content to accept the world as it is. Solrun, on the other hand, is desperate to find a greater meaning to the world beyond the visible, and turns to any spiritual theory she can find. She thinks Fate brought them together again. But as they explain their views in detail, one common thing begins to stand out: they are both frightened by the idea that death is the end of everything. Their preoccupation with this concept began 30 years ago, with an odd incident that drove them apart. They can’t explain the incident even now. While Solrun has accepted that they had a supernatural experience then, Steinn tries to explain it scientifically. Neither budges from their stand.

Gaarder brings out how seemingly simple incidents can shake one’s beliefs. It may be something as simple as meeting someone unexpectedly, or injuring a stranger by mistake — but your interpretation of the event is just as important as the event itself. Here, Solrun and Steinn look at the same incident in diametrically different ways, and their personalities become very different as a result.

The book takes the format of email exchanges between Solrun and Steinn. This trick is only partially successful. While it works well when the two are debating the existence of Fate, this format doesn’t work when a straight narrative tension is to be built up. Gaarder chooses to have one character “remember things better”, and thus single-handedly narrate the critical parts of the story.

Not much actually happens in the book. The aforementioned debates over ghosts and the scientific method run into dozens of pages, and the pleasures of the book are to be derived from the philosophical points discussed. But through these conversations, we learn about the characters through each other’s eyes, and the ending of the book actually packs a punch.

Jostein Gaarder shot to fame with Sophie’s World, which was an introduction to Western philosophy on one level, and a startling study of the relationship between writers and their characters, on another. The Castle In The Pyrenees is comparatively smaller in scale, but the ideas it presents are equally absorbing.

A book review of Jesse Schell’s THE ART OF GAME DESIGN

You may have noted that, even though I myself write books, there are never any book reviews on the blog here.

Well, I’m making an exception today, because somebody took the trouble to ship me a gratis copy of Jesse Schell’s THE ART OF GAME DESIGN. I strongly recommend reading this work.

I’ve never seen a better book about games for people who have zero interest in games. For intelligent people who can’t understand why these weird amusements compel the allegiance of millions, this is an excellent primer. It won’t make you play any games, but you’ll fully understand why and how they work, and also where they’re going.

If you are already a veteran game designer, you might find the book’s coaxing, limpid, rather sing-song approach to be mildly irritating. Jesse Schell is not a guy who normally writes long, abstruse texts, and he might have been more terse. Also, he’s so in love with his industry that he rather soft-peddles its harshness to the labor force.

However, if you’re nineteen, and you have no idea why you adore videogames — you’re just enchanted by them, you can’t help yourself — dude, is this ever the book for you. You are the core demographic for this particular textual experience. Put down the hand-controller, read the book right now. I can promise you that you will grow in moral and intellectual stature.

Instead of remaining a twitchy, closeted, joystick geek, like you are now, you will emerge from this patient master-class as a surprisingly broadminded adult who quotes Herman Hesse and appreciates improvisational theater and Impressionist painting.

You will no longer kill off parties with your Warcraft fixation. Instead, other people your age will find themselves mysteriously drawn to you — to your air of quiet sympathy, your contemplative depth. Wise beyond your years, you will look beyond the surface details of shrieking monsters and into the deeper roots of human experience.

That’s especially if you’re nineteen. For gamer hard-cases, I particularly recommend page 318, which bears an astonishing graph called the “Interpersonal Circumplex.” This is an all-purpose geek gamer introduction to genuine human emotion. I’ve never before seen anything like this. I think it might really help people. A mild case of Asperger’s could likely be cured by this diagram.

Then there are book’s various interludes, called “lenses.” I’ve never seen another work on design with any “lenses” in it. They don’t make much sense because they are contradictory.

However, as you accustom yourself to the Schellian weltanschauung, you’ll come to realize that computer games are syncretic patchworks by their nature. As evolving platforms for player interaction rather than static art achievements, they must contain multitudes. They just can’t make a lot of coherent sense. They’re too multiculti, too multipurpose, too much of everything spread over a buzzing screen that has a lot of buttons.

There’s so much going on there that gaming truly needs a plethora of “lenses” — a proper game designer needs as many lenses as a housefly. These “lenses” are the miniature creative disciplines for the apprehension of miniature worlds.

The text features some exceedingly interesting work about imaginative worldbuilding. Especially in the second half, when Schell realizes that the dumb kids have all left the lecture hall and that he can get down to brass tacks. This business about indirect control of players, the power of game aesthetics, managing online communities, the nature of transmedia properties — that discussion may look rather crude, because it’s new. But that is serious, state-of-the-art material.

It makes one realize — not just how poorly-understood this burgeoning gaming enterprise is — but the alarming scope that lies beyond its frontiers. Not just “game design” — experience design.

Schell has become mildly notorious for a recent speech he delivered on the game-ification of reality. Reading his book makes one realize that this facetious speech was the Disney candy-coating for a technosocial project that is in deadly earnest. Schell was modestly underplaying the truly weird potential there. The game-ification of the Internet? Just look at that browser you’re using. The game-ification of politics? Is that so hard to figure out, this year?

This big, floppy book is an unruly patchwork-doll. It’s a polygonal Frankenstein, made of revived and electrified bits of earlier artforms. It concerns itself with game technology (of course), but it’s also about game iterative testing, game sketching, game experience design, game amusement parks, game puzzles, game psychology… Game stage magic, game mathematics, game architecture, game brainstorming, game creative teamwork, game business practices, game prototyping, game music, game mechanics, and game literature.

It even has some handy tips on public speaking.

Obviously it’s impossible to be superb or even any good at all those things. Yet Schell convinces the reader that all these matters directly impinge on game design, that they all have a real place in the work. In gaming, a hackerly knack for raw polymathics will get you places that doctoral degrees never could.

Schell’s creative approach is full of autarchic frontier self-reliance. Out there on Tomorrowland’s Gameification Frontier, a theorist intellectual has to slaughter his own hogs and parse Aristotle’s Poetics on the back of a shovel. But boy, it sure is roomy over there. It’s a large, free, democratic book. It’s Emersonian in its cheery disorganization. The book’s like a barbaric yawp from the top of a Nintendo console.

I’d read it now, before things get out of hand.