If a rule, in general, is a constraint placed on an agent by the agent’s cultural situation, then in a cultural zone understood as appropriate for play that general sense of “rule” transfers nicely to a sort of constraint that allows a player to make choices (cf. Sid Meier’s famous definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices”; it’s also worth noting, for my future plans, that “metaphor” means “transfer,” etymologically speaking). The constraint of such rules of play at the same time creates what we can call a practomimetic possibility-space–what many critics of games would call a “gamespace.” A game-rule constrains players of a game in such a way as to create a range of possible play-actions; a game’s ruleset is the sum total of those play-action-defining constraints in a given instance of game-play.
In this post I argue that that same understanding of what a ruleset is applies equally well to a literary text, and that this application is worth making because 1) it allows us to critique games and literature commensurately, and 2) it allows us better to locate both games and literary texts both in current cultural experience and in relation to older cultural experience.
In the first post in this series I used the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire to illustrate this idea; now, having at last received my DVD copy of the HBO version of the same work, entitled Game of Thrones, I might make the same illustration by means of that masterly performance of Martin’s ruleset. Better, a comparison of Roy Dotrice’s audiobook performances of the books, John Lee’s audiobook performance of one of them–A Feast for Crows (Book 4 of the Song)–, and the HBO team’s production of A Game of Thrones (Book 1 of the Song) as Season 1 of Game of Thrones, will help me make my point much clearer.
The seeming pedantry of enumerating the exact titles, formats, and book and series numbers of the above works (all equally instructively viewed as a single work, as the Iliad is viewed as a single work despite being a patchwork-quilt of lays sung by different bards) is actually quite germane to my point: each of these instances of A Song of Ice and Fire is its own playing out of the ruleset established by the text–which, as we saw in my last post, is itself a playing out of a ruleset established by the set of cultural materials GRR Martin drew, and then elaborated, upon in composing it. They must all both be seen as a single work, and seen as separate works or, perhaps better, as separate instances of the single transmedia work. Definining art in terms of rulesets can lead us, that is, to a new understanding of how what we now call a “work” organizes itself in culture apart from the individual agency that we used to think of as the province of the author.
This notion of what a work is when seen in terms of its rulesets is very well illustrated by tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons & Dragons (an illustration that will both help me fulfill a promise made in the comment thread of my last post and connect to Andrew Devenney’s recent post here on PtP). Tabletop RPG’s, in which a group of players together craft a narrative performance within a multiply-determined ruleset (multiple in that some of the rules come from the game-rules, others from the game-master, and still others from the players themselves) demand to be seen along different, though parallel, lines when we discuss the relationship of works of art to game-rules.
The thought experiment of a tabletop RPG based on the world of A Song of Ice and Fire helps greatly here: such a ruleset (including of course such content-driven and -driving constraints like choice of character-class, choice of origin, and narrative geography) would allow players (in which category I would include the gamemaster) to create performances that would stand as individual instances of the work, analogous to e.g. HBO’s Game of Thrones.
In these blog-posts I’m trying to establish the “Great Chain of Practomime” as a theory on which to base a critical methodology that can ignore the false border between games and literary texts, and by extension between those things and other kinds of practomime like film and painting. According to that schema the hypothetical A Song of Ice and Fire: the RPG’s ruleset would be one link in the Great Chain, while D&D would be another; their positions in the chain, though, would be crucially, though also deceptively, different. It’s the deceptiveness that will round off this post, and point me towards the next.
D&D organizes many of the same performance materials Tolkien organizes in The Lord of the Rings (indeed, some of its performance materials, like halflings and rangers, come directly from The Lord of the Rings) and Martin organizes in A Song of Ice and Fire; in that sense D&D, as a ruleset, “hangs” on the chain from multiple dependencies, while the hypothetical Song of Ice and Fire RPG seems to hang directly from one–the text of the Song.
But of course such a practomime would hang also from D&D itself, just as Roy Dotrice’s performance hangs both from Martin’s text and from the incredible range of dramas he has performed in, and which he both uses to shape his reading of the audiobook and evokes in his listeners’ memories. Just as HBO’s version hangs also from the films on which its visual style draws (notably Ridley Scott’s period work and HBO’s own Rome). My chain is becoming a web, or perhaps a hauberk.
Each link, each knot (nodus, a Roman would say), is a performance–that is, a re-compositional enactment. When we read the records of such performances as A Song of Ice and Fire–even when we read such records silently–we are ourselves performing such a re-compositional enactment: the text is enacted in our imaginations, and because we are individual agents, unique both as individuals and also even from ourselves the way we were the day before, we must re-compose the text as we enact it.
The ruleset of our performance is first and foremost the textual record left by a performer like Martin, but just as Roy Dotrice re-composes that ruleset when he records the audiobooks, just as a dungeon-master re-composes the ruleset of D&D, allowing his players to do the same; just as a bard re-composed the Wrath of Achilles, and allowed his audience to do the same–just as all those performances draw on uncountable numbers of other performances–, our own re-compositional enactments of Martin’s Song play by a ruleset that is itself determined by our performance, in the moment of that performance.
That last formulation seems to me to imply that rulesets are bigger than we usually give them credit for; one benefit of analysis across the text/game boundary may be that it allows us to read game-rulesets (that is, what’s there in the code–or the box–and only what’s there in the code, or box) as occasions for performances that complete those rulesets, rather than as artifacts usefully analyzable in themselves. In the next post in this series, I want to see if the comparison to text, and its transformations, can add some cogency to that argument.