Non-Fiction: “Crossing the Mirrors ”, by Pierre Cardascia

What do people escape from when they escape from an escape-game ?

The answer seems to be naively in the question, but the question replays all the drama of ontology and of metaphysics in one move.

The explicit tautology implicitly asks us to make the off course evasive link between the question of escapism and the answer of an escape-game. The link between a question and an answer is seldom like filling a void in the question or filling a MCQ : multiple-choice questions are preformattive[1] and they are the a-priori and analytical form of a question; where one and only one reality meets one and only one idea. But more frequently, the questions are given without any hint about the form of the answer they are craving for.

Let’s take an example : what was the colour of Henry IV’s white horse ? You may think it is quite rhetorical, but this tautology is not neutral : it forces you to assume the existence of this « pale horse » and triggers a series of identifications and focalizations[2] which are not neutral … and furthermore, which were not given before. More subtlely, more deeply, it gives you the feeling that you can answer without giving a damn eye blink to the world, the reality, the being, whatever…

It gives you the feeling that you can avoid the metaphysical questions and hélas, this is still a metaphysical position (and maybe the poorest).

All of these are nor fictionnal nor passive. They are negative projections of unthought contents, mirror-shaped entities of your personnal (but still hegelian) reversed world, « ghosts ». Or « echoes ». Or worst « doppelgänger ».

Don’t be afraid, it is just the normal work of the mind, they are just « transitory objects » which cause no problem. In most cases. But some rare times, it is another business …

So, let ask it again : what do people escape from when they escape from an escape-game ?

Do we really escape from the game ? Or do we escape from reality when we play this kind of game ? Is the wage we earn, to return to the reality ? And where stay the ones who failed to escape ?

Implicitly, these questions suppose that the game is as an activity out and distinct of the common life (aka the reality?). This supposition fits with the very questionnable definition of game from Huizinga : game as a voluntary, rule-ordered, futile and distinct of common life activity, which happens in a magic-circle.

But what kind of definition is it ? Huizinga cherry-picked five (not-so) characteristical aspects of game to create an argument in a discussion which has no connection with game : the problem of the puerilism of the civilizations. In this debate, he created a glue-definition[3], which is designed only to feed an aporetical argumentation. In Huizinga’s opinion, the only way to separate serious from game is the moral consciousness. To make the long story short[4], to « save » his conception of morality, Huizinga proposed the most general and useless definition of game he could. The more inextricable the situation is, the more necessary is the jump into morality (and in maturity).
But from the point of view of a game designer and of a philosopher, this definition is just a trap.

Games which are not games but traps. And furthermore, escape-games which are not games, but escape-traps, whatever it could be. (I imagine something like a thrash-chute or a crawlscape in the fabric of our reverted world.)

The case could have been closed, but a whole army of ludopedagogists reclaimed this definition to build their own realm[5]. Here, games are played in a magical circle, a safe place where the possibility of repetition guarantees a learning by trials and errors. The rules simulate[6] and repeat the world in another world free of the fear of the Death. And thus fell the activity of gaming under the category of mimesis.

Maybe Huizinga’s definition has some interests out of the aporetic argumentation of Homo Ludens, but as a game-designer and as a logician, I have reticences to go beyond with it. In what a concept, full of thick unthoughts and raw misinterpretations could involve us ? Nobody knows….

Third and last time : what do people escape from when they escape from an escape-game ?

In some regards, escape-rooms are anti-games.

When, as a game-designer, I draw a « magical circle » around the specific place where the game will happen (the smallest place I work on was a confessionnal, the biggest a museum), I didn’t do it as a priest or an arbiter. I didn’t make a separation between « common reality » and « sacred space of the game ». I even try to not say what is in game and what is out. The lines I drawn come from technical and commercial requirements[7] and not from a functional or metaphysical aspect of the game. 

Even with that, « our lines are omnivores » : when the limitation are no explicitly required for the immersion, we like to blur them, to make them vanish[8] and to cross narrative technics. We re-enchant the world by thickening or enlightening its semantics (a semantical clair-obscur), not by repeating a world aside the world. We escape always from meaninglessness[9].

But if the rules don’t repeat or simulate anything, what are they ? Here is the little subtlety : the rules of the escape-game are not given. Sure, the security guidelines are always given. But for the objectives, it is not always the case. And finally for the rules, they are generally embedded in the objects, but not as a sentence or a symbol. It is the materiality of objects which incarnate the rules. For example, the materiality of the lock contains the rule « if you have the key, you can open the chest ». When you (= collective you, the team) understand these rules, the game is finish : you can solve every enigmas[10]…  Thus, the game is backboned by its curve of learning but not the one of the repetition and « trials and errors ».

The escape-game doesn’t forbid the « trial and error » as a strategy of exploration, but inside only one play. The format is generally « one shot » : whatever the end of the game could be, you know at the beginning you will never come back again. Almost nobody returns to the same escape-room[11] again. All games are singular and has this unspeakable smell of nostalgia.

Even sharing out of your team what really happens here will be hard (at the beginning). You will be able to tell the big lines. If you discuss about your experiences with your teammates, you will refine  your common story[12]… 

Now, the gaming fits with this definition : “an activity in which a person (a group of persons here) brings something into being that did not exist before.” In other words, and it is what I wanted to show in this labyrinthic article[13], game has its own poiésis.

Post-scriptum : When I write this short article, I grew obsessed by the song from Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine, « Narcisse 81 ». I dared to try this translation, knowing that I won’t be able to restitute the density of HFT’s poetry. But as the last word of the article is poiesis, I can propose this piece of poetry. Its last word is silence, so we are saved.

It rains waterlilies
On the mirrors of our slipping bodies,
But all fades away, leaving room
To larsens and distortions
You put your punch card to escape[14]
In a freaky pinball machine[15]
And you pretend to rock and roll
To make believe you are alive.
[chorus] : Narciss, panic your track[16]
There are tire-tracks on your flips
And your lit'sister steals your fix[17]
[end chorus]
You go back to the suburbs
In this tunnel where you disguise
You make-up your eyes
With a brand new anonymous gaze
Future snorts you backward
and leaves you high and dry and retro
Did you save enough love
To take the last mélo[18] ?
Dogs awaits you on the platform
With feathers and tar
They sell orgasms in pills
But vomits are only on rent.
You believe you could cross the mirrors
Without changing your face
You spit your blood in your bathtub
And wipe with a dirty shroud[19]
Night freezes you in this wagon
Where you though you'd find Oblivion
Early morning's traveler
Arriving from your Insomnia
You strike out pointless references
On the register of your absence.
And you hang on the wire
Which brings you back to your silence.

[1]            They give a preformatted framework. Beware : everybody wants to oppose performative and preformatted structure, but it is not so easy. It can be both. For example, « Once upon a time » is both performative (as act of opening a fiction) and preformattive (as it gives the mainline of the structure : it will be a tale).

[2]             Make the test : the focus is put on the colour and the existence of this specific horse. Who matters about Henry IV ?

[3]    « I’m rubber you are glue, what bounces on me sticks on you. »

[4]    The long version of the story will be available for the ones who read french in my article Lady Huizingaga [codename].

[5]    This is not an exception in the history of ideas and of philosophy. Some ideas are developed retroactively, or from out a domain, or to complete a big classification, or are born as a negative counterpart (etc)… For example, what we call « the           classic Greeks » weren’t classic before classicists and modernists invented classic against them. Often, we say Athens for     Alexandria, Homer for Orpheus (etc). The history of ideas in aesthetic is full of concepts made against what they mean. 

[6]    Even when the game is not a simulation. Don’t forget what we said in the first exposition about analycity, implicit metaphysic and repetition… Being a simulation doesn’t imply that the game simulates anything. 

[7]    The format « 1 room for 1 hour » is the classic format of the game. But it comes from the business plan, from the           psychology of the target-customer, and some other considerations which are not related with philosophy of games. Some specific thematics require the format : « you have been kidnapped and you have one hour to escape before the return of the killer ». For more specific thematics and formats, you shall be more creative. (And I’m game designer because I like to be creative…)  

[8]    In my game at the Fine Art Museum of Valenciennes, we create a true-fake exhibition to mirror the temporary exhibition. True exhibition because I requested the participation of a « true artist », Lan Phan ; fake because we mixed her original artworks with artworks made on demand. Visitors and players were free to visit both exhibitions. And furthermore, some people came only to visit the « true-fake » exhibition, without playing the game.

[9]    But meaning overflow can be dangerous. Players exposed to more significations than usually can act or think very strangely .

[10] It is a bit more complex. We have to dramatize this process : sometimes, you can advance without solving everything, sometimes objects cheat you (etc)…

[11]  They can return to the same center but play another room. Now, each center try to have multiple rooms, but it wasn’t always true.

[12]  Even it is a game of cooperation, during the game, the information is imperfectly shared.

[13]  The heroes of this article were never the players ; they have their own victories. No, it was a smokescreen. I planned to make evade the concept of game of its jailers.

[14]           The song speak both of evasion (to travel far away) and to change your mind.

[15]           In french, « dans ce flipper où tu t’enfuis » : the word « flipper » means the pinball machine but as a verb, « flipper » means   to freak out. I add « freaky» to restitute this duality.

[16]             Same ambivalence than before. In french, « balise ta piste ». Baliser means in classic french, « to mark out » and in popular french, « to panic ». One translation can be « mark out your slope ». But I have a little preference for the popular version : I like the euphony and the reversibility of « panic your track / track your panic ». With « slope », you have the idea of a descent and « The slope » is the title of another song from HFT.

[17]           This reference of Narciss’ twin sister connects the poem to Pausanias’ version of the myth; and not the one from Ovid. It is not the one of the freudian analysis and of the narcissism… Narciss seems to share common etymological roots with Narké, narcotic and narkolepsy. (The plant « narcissus » has some narcotic properties…) And furthermore, according to Julius Pokorny [Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1959], Narciss can be connected to narrow and s-nare, around the indo-european root ner- (“tourner, rouler”). The link with the “pinball machine” is here.

[18]  Stand both for “mélodrama” and “métro”…

[19]           « Tu t’essuies dans un linceul » . Linceul is « shroud ». So why dirty ? Because this « linceul » comes from a phonetic alteration of « linge sale ».

Pierre Cardascia is a french philosopher, game-designer and entrepreneur. After a phd in analytical philosophy, logics and game-semantics, he escaped from his university. Now, he creates the games, which provide the experimental materials he couldn’t find in the amphitheaters. One day, he will return from his adventures in the World, with new insights. 

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