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Cardboard Children: Venice, Gone

AN EXCERPT FROM THE WRITINGS
OF LAURENCE LUKE-BAZA

And in Venice, the game ended.

There were five of us, meeting in a little downstairs bar in Campo Santa Margherita. Benicio was there, of course, he of the silver hair and great unpublished novels. Umberto joined us late, peering over his little glasses like a drunken owl, the scent of many prostitutes still on him. Emma, my beautiful Emma, was dressed for a grand ball but her famous good humour made it seem like a brilliant joke and not a naïve mistake. Lu-Belle, that mystery, was like a flame flickering in the corner. Her red lips and red hair warmed the room, but her eyes were still and cold. And then there was me, Laurence Luke-Baza, “The Thought-Traveller” who had been exposed in Il Gazzettino just that morning. I would be dead soon. This much we all knew. I would be hunted and removed.

“So your travels end,” Umberto said sadly, entering the games room.

“All you have now are your painted women, Umberto.” Lu-Belle had been his lover once. She didn’t look at him as she spoke.

I started to open my travelling trunk as Benicio locked the door. The trunk was battered, its hinges rusting. It had been everywhere and everywhen with me, but it would travel no more after this night. I handled it like a sickly child.

“Our last game,” I said, and removed High Frontier from the trunk. The group gathered round and examined the work, this artifact from another time. Their fascination had not waned one bit over the years. I went behind the bar and poured myself a drink. Our last game, indeed. The last of many.

The first had been a thing called Munchkin. It was a nonsense, but a curious artifact nonetheless. It had given us a taste for these strange designs from the future, by men and women who had not yet been born. I travelled again and again, every month, returning with masterworks of increasing complexity. We read them, analysed them, played them and wrote about them.

Benicio had been so fascinated by a work called Arkham Horror that it inspired a brilliant novel called “The Clock Within.” His novel was about the hidden workings of secret organisations. The narrative reflected the relentless tick-tock of the game mechanics within that Arkham Horror game. The book was too truthful, too painful, and no publisher dared print it. There were deaths, disappearances and rumours of Illuminati interference. Benicio eventually burned the manuscript and buried its ashes. We all sat on that mound of earth and played Cthulhu Dice, a silly little distraction inspired by the same as-yet-unwritten horrors that inspired Arkham Horror and, ultimately, Benicio’s book. “We are dead children,” Benicio said, under that giant moon that night. “Unborn children, making play with thoughts unthought.”

Emma, my raven-haired muse, produced a one-woman opera called “The Space Hulk”. She performed it, quite brilliantly, at La Fenice. The audience were astonished by this tale of a mechanical Pope fighting off demons in a hanging church in the sky. With the piece, Emma challenged the misogyny of The Vatican and questioned gender itself. I will forever be haunted by the sight of her doomed female Pope moving through the shadows of this myth of human construction, trapped in an eternal overwatch for things that may not exist. I made love to her on opening night, and we were both weeping. I wish I could travel back to the place where I found the artifact that inspired Emma, that strange room full of lonely and awkward young men throwing handfuls of dice, and tell them that their obsession was a romantic one indeed. All play is romantic. All things that can capture an imagination and make an ageing face express some joy are things of love.

Lords of Waterdeep made Lu-Belle smile. She was a woman ignored by good fortune. Hers was a hard life, made harder by the hardening of her own heart. Her third husband had drowned only two weeks before I returned from the year 2012 with Lords of Waterdeep in my trunk. I hadn’t even considered the title of the piece before I set it on the table. Eyes turned to me. After a few moments of silence, Lu-Belle said “Well, open the bastard.”

Games do distract your mind from the sadness of life. Lords of Waterdeep, so elegant and simple, has you sending warriors and wizards on quests. The process is a pleasant one. The central message of the work, that everyone in life wants the same things (happiness, fulfilment, the completion of personal goals) but that there isn’t enough room for everyone to succeed, is actually very comforting. We saw Lu-Belle smile as she claimed victory. She had enjoyed an evening of order – the game had told her that life was something that could be controlled and shaped just as she wanted. A lie, of course, but a compassionate one.

“This is… astonishingly complex,” Umberto said, the High Frontier rulebook in his hand.

“It features space travel,” I said. “But not from the usual purely fictional standpoint. From a place of science.”

I watched them sit and open the box. This was like a ritual to them. They would all help assemble the game’s components, and Benicio would set it up. They would handle it like fine art. They would give it the respect it deserved.

Emma came to me and took my hand. “Come down into the cellar with me,” she said. I understood, and followed.

The cellar was candle-lit and damp. I sat with Emma on a broken old bench, my hand in hers. We sat like this for a while, listening to the drips and scratches around us. The leaks and the rats.

“Who will kill you?” she asked, eventually.

“The system will.”

“Why?”

“I’m an exception. I’ve broken the rules.”

“Like in Cosmic Encounter.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “I’ve always wanted to ask… Why games?”

“Everything is touched by everything else, Emma. What would a book from the future tell me about its author? Very little, apart from how the narrative created by the establishment of that day has infected that soul. Creation is never pure. A writer may write because he is in love, but society tells him who and how to love. A writer may write because he is angry, but society instructs him who to rage against. But games, Emma, are different. Society may instruct on theme, of course, but play is pure. Play is the child in all of us. Play is the innocent, and games cannot function without that part being unsullied by the machinations of the secret rulers of the world.”

And of course, with that, my darling Emma was gone.

And the floor beneath my feet, gone. And the broken bench, gone. And that damp Venice bar near the University Ca’ Foscari in Dorsoduro, gone. And all my friends, gone. And Venice, beautiful Venice, gone. The world, gone. The stars in the sky, gone.

All bagged and boxed and gone. All on the shelf for another day.

All real, and true, and pure, and gone.

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