What's in a Rose
Līlāvatī means the Playful One.
As Wikipedia would tell you, it is the name of a mathematical treatise written nine centuries ago in Karnataka. It was authored by a certain Prof. Bhāskara, ostensibly for the benefit of his daughter Līlāvatī, who was adequately named, and seemed to enjoy arithmetic and geometric games (as long as they were framed as stories about monkeys).
This makes it one of the few historical examples of decent math education. But the treatise is also a case of gaming, scientific knowledge, and literary qualities meeting in a single work - a work that is played and studied at the same time.
And of course, the name might evoke another playful young Lady, who enjoys puzzling mortals and trifling with the all-too-serious laws of the material world, and who happens to be the protagonist of a certain project in active development.
Hermann Hesse's novel Glass Bead Game tells of a game that conjures discourse, debate and poetry out of beads on a board. A game that one can use to ponder a theory, draw a solitary meditation, or humiliate an adversary in a public display. Something like philosophy-as-chess, or a scientific I Ching.
If the idea of such a game arouses nothing in you, you might want to consult a shaman about the fact that you have no soul. In any case, Lilavati was conceived in the steamy aftermath of this literary encounter, and while we're not actually trying to replicate this game, just borrowing a beautiful metaphor, I do feel that our games have some kinship with real attempts at designing a Glass Bead Game.
While I might have been throwing around the literary game label for our projects, I claim no relevance to literary critcism or its enclave in game scholarship. Here are however a couple of lineages to which I hope Lilavati shall belong:
- Interactive Fiction: Of all the game narratives that I have experienced, the most enlightening or mindblowing, the most different from books and film, the most satisfyingly gamelike I found in games made entirely of text. Many of them not even pretentious about it.
(Then again, it may help that narrative is not an arthouse luxury in IF, it is the medium itself. Plus, assembling clever people who like stories and puzzle solving, and asking them to solve the puzzle of designing stories for a new artform? Sounds like a plan.)
- Dialogue as a genre in philosophical and scientific writing, for proving that deep insight - even legit scholarship - can be framed into a conversation and made entertaining. Especially the Dialogues of the Dead subgenre, because what is better than a verbal melee of historical celebrities?
- The Scholastic method and especially Disputatio, the scholastic art of learning through debate. Most important is the fact that, whatever your position, you must always defend the opposite - which is great practice for designing a discourse game, if you do not want to end up with a one-sided Author Tract.
- And, to some extent, Rationalist Fiction. While it is fair to have reservations on the genre's codifier (author of the previous link) and its assorted community, I can only empathize with the aim of depicting characters acting truly intelligently, i.e. demonstrating abilities that the audience can actually reproduce and learn from, rather than plot-driven mental superpowers. This is, in fact, what makes some literary genres so game-like: in a good detective story, there is an element of play because readers have the possibility of finding the answer themselves, rather than wait for the detective to come up with a solution. It is a sad fact that very few games have a narrative even halfway as game-like - and cognitively challenging - as an Agatha Christie short story.