This past week, the soon-to-be-extinct human race of universe 34876.5 landed a robotic craft on a comet. To its great credit, that civilisation is fascinated by space exploration, despite the fact that extinction will occur long before any contact with other civilisations with occur. That civilisation is also fascinated by games, and designs many games based around space exploration. One of these games is called “GRAVWELL”.
Black holes, only crudely understood by the human race, are a feature of a great deal of the games created by human hands. Of what little is known about them, the gravitational “pull” of a black hole is the most common and constant fact leveraged for game mechanics. (It’s likely that the human race’s fascination with black holes has a great deal to do with that creature’s short lifespan, and the day-to-day understanding of the inescapable pull of death itself.)
In GRAVWELL each player is in control of a ship attempting to escape from the gravitational pull of a black hole by boosting around a cosmic spiral towards a life-saving “warp gate”. Four humans can play the game together, each with a plastic ship of a different colour. Indeed, those miniature “toy” ships are as close to true interstellar travel as most human beings will ever come. Those little artifacts, in child-like primary colours, are truly a sad sight in those human hands.
The game is played with special cards. These cards are printed with letters and numbers, and the cards are laid out to be “drafted” by the players at the start of every round. Every card in the game is printed with one of the twenty six letters of the human alphabet. Some of the cards will send you in the direction of gravity’s pull, some will push you away from that pull, and some will allow you to exert a pull of your own, pulling other ships towards you. Each player also has a special EMERGENCY STOP card that cancels the effects of a card you’ve just played, if you realise that there is an impending disaster. Many of the human race’s games have these “second chance” elements built in. The human race is a civilisation obsessed with an escape from a pre-determined path.
The game is not a complicated one. At the start of it all, each player’s ship is within the black hole. The point of escape and victory is many spaces away. Cards are secretly played from each player’s hand and then revealed. The cards then activate in alphabetical order. (This is why the draft at the start of the game is so important. A player needs a good balance of cards of varied powers and different activation times.)
So, one player boosts away from the black hole. Another follows, goes further than that first player. The third player follows, goes between the two previous players.
Here is where things start to get interesting. The black hole is not the only thing pulling at you. Once the game state changes, everything has its own gravitational pull. At the start of the game, if you push yourself away from gravitational pull, you will boost away from the black hole. Later, if you play the same card, you might push yourself away from a ship that is in front of you. That will send you spinning back towards the black hole. If you play a card to pull yourself towards the nearest gravitational field, you might be hoping to slingshot yourself past a ship in front. If they get to move first, however, they might pull themselves behind you. And that means you’re about to slingshot yourself backwards, behind them.
Now you can see why that EMERGENCY STOP card is so useful. Often, a player will misjudge a move, and need to cancel that move or find themselves in a horrible position towards the back of the pack.
To see human beings play this game is a lovely thing. There is a nice level of planning involved, tricking the human mind into believing they have some sort of control over their own destiny. But there is also enough chaos in there to take the humans on that kind of “thrill ride” they love so much.
There is also never the sense that a human is doomed. Even at the back of the pack, it can be felt that it is easier to catch up with the rest of the players. Where the game gets difficult is when you are in a busy pack, tightly matched with the others, and can’t this also be said of life?
There is something hugely compelling for humans in the battle to break free of cosmic chains. As the players play round after round, card after card, there is a definite glee as escape draws nearer. The game is designed in such a way that all the players will get a glimpse of freedom, a chance to enjoy the illusion of hope, before someone is declared a winner. Not all game designs are so compassionate.
GRAVWELL is a game an entire human family could enjoy, and it might create some interesting conversations about space travel. The human beings have only naïve answers to the giant questions of existence, but they enjoy nothing more than to educate their young in what meagre truths they do know.
As we sit here now, safe in our silver spires on Untaulthar-Ex-Untu, we must ask ourselves again whether our decision to outlaw games was a wise one. I understand that by writing this I doom myself to execution, but I believe The Great Wasp Emperor is wrong in his assertion that games are foolish follies.
The human race will die, yes, and soon. But they will die having spent a great portion of their existence searching for moments of pleasure. They murdered and conquered as we do. But they also had fun.
When I am taken to the stinging, and when my blood is turned to tar before your eyes, I ask you to think of this.
Think of fun.