The game design of Isabel Allende’s “Ripper”

[Note: this is spoiler-free!]


Literary heavyweight Isabel Allende published in 2014 a crime novel, Ripper. A fascinating, swirling study of character and relationship that studs its narrative with mysterious killings but doesn’t really turn into a crime novel until well past the halfway mark, it seems to have divided readers for its disinterest in fitting either literary or crime genre expectations. (I found it compulsively enjoyable, for what that’s worth.)

A major thread of the novel is “Ripper”, a game played online by a globally-distributed group of young men and women. “Ripper” began as a online chat-based role-playing game set in 1888 London, with four players taking on characters who faced many obstacles and enemies as part of a hunt for Jack the Ripper; and one, Amanda, serving as game master: “Amanda was responsible for plotting these adventures, carefully bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of the players’ alter egos… her role was simply to oversee the game and make sure players respected the rules”.

The characters were “a cunning and curious gypsy girl” named Esmeralda (played by a New Zealand boy in a wheelchair), a bigoted English colonel named Sir Edmond Paddington (a teenage boy shut-in from New Jersey), a psychic capable of manipulating memories, reading minds, and communicating with the dead, named Abatha (played by a teenage girl with severe eating disorders who lives in Montreal), and Sherlock Holmes (a 13 year old genius orphan boy from Reno).

This sounds very much like a typical online role-playing group, save the (stereotypically) extreme confluence of social isolation cases represented here. There are also references in the book suggesting the group had played Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire before beginning Ripper.

Before the story even begins, however, things have changed. A celebrity psychic in San Francisco has predicted a bloodbath in the city, and the intrigued Amanda convinces her group to bring their game into the present day to investigate this prediction.

As the novel opens, the group are settling into a new mode of play. Over a Skype hangout, Amanda (the only one local to San Francisco) presents the group with information about a recent murder of interest, and they discuss the events and try to develop a solution to the mystery. During this exercise they all talk in-character, emphasizing the perspective and skillset of their character. The psychic, Abatha, even announces visions and dreams she has had about these real-world crimes, and this information is accepted by the other players as part of the overall picture.

In another change, Amanda introduces her grandfather Blake to the game as a “loyal and obedient hunchback” with the anagramatic name Kabel. Kabel follows the instructions of the group, performing missions into the real world and returning with information. Conveniently, Amanda’s father is a police chief investigating the crimes, and through dramatic contrivance Amanda and “Kabel” are able to regularly get hold of confidential information about crimes.

After their first session discussing real-world crimes, we are told: “Ripper, the kids agreed, had evolved into something much more gripping than the original game, and the players no longer wanted to be limited by the dice and the cards that had previously dictated their moves. It was therefore decided that players could only use logic to solve cases, with the exception of Abatha, who was allowed to use her psychic powers.

Sure enough, as the game proceeds, a series of strange murders are looked at by the group, and their investigations begin to uncover some connections between them. The novel proceeds in this manner, with the “Ripper” players contributing throughout as a sinister plot slowly comes to light.

To describe the “Ripper” group’s activities as a “game” is odd, to say the least. What we see of them in this novel does not involve much of anything that appears like a game – they are simply discussing murders and trying to think of ways to solve their mysteries. Yet Allende persists throughout in calling “Ripper” a game, a perspective she also gives to the group of players. The players continue to present themselves as their characters; at one point a player objects to the special treatment given to “Kabel” as against the spirit of the game.

What manner of game is “Ripper”, then? Although it strikes me as a strange concoction, probably one that is unsustainable beyond the specific events and characters of the novel, I think this is a fascinating mode of play. It reminds me of some of the different approaches to the idea of “game” that I saw in David Schirduan’s 200-word RPG project – lots of games that are basically tools to promote new perspectives on self and the world.

This, surely, is Allende’s interest as well. One character in the novel is a professor of artificial intelligence, who comes to know the Ripper players. Allende writes of his perspective on the game: “The kids who played Ripper reasoned using logic, something a machine could do with unbelievably greater power, but they also had something unique to human beings: imagination. They enjoyed complete freedom in the game, playing simply for the fun of it, and could therefore access inner spaces that, for the moment, artificial intelligence could not reach. Pedro Alarcón dreamed of the possibility of harvesting this elusive feature of the human mind and applying it to a computer.

The suggestion is that the Ripper players, through the creative format of their character-play and their high personal engagement, are able to collectively muster some capacity beyond the standard structures of police investigation or mechanical intelligence or any other such procedure. If there is a ghost in the machine, Allende seems to say, then the shared imagination of a small and enthusiastic group might be the nearest thing there is to recreating it.

This is an ambitious claim about the kind of shared storytelling that often devolves into rote wish-fulfillment performance or recitations of Monty Python jokes, and yet I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand as the misunderstanding of a non-gamer who just doesn’t get it. I find it all too easy to believe in that ineffable something that arises out of a group on the same wavelength creatively building on each others’ suggestions. And while I think Allende, for the purposes of her fiction, downplays the many ways in which this potential can be squandered or misdirected or perverted, I am inspired to think that her vision for games includes something so inspiring.

Allende acknowledges her granddaughter, Andrea Frías, who “initiated me into the mysteries of the role-playing game of “Ripper”.” I would love to know more about this, but google has given me nothing. Perhaps there is something out there in Spanish (Ripper was written in Spanish and released in Spanish and English simultaneously). Links would be welcome if anyone finds something!

Previously: The game design of Pitch Perfect

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