“The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn” is a phrase that Richard Dansky, game writer and narrative design veteran, said to me over drinks at Nanocon, South Dakota’s premiere gaming convention. At my request, he also wrote this phrase in the front of my copy of the second edition Wraith rulebook when he autographed it. The phrase is an important one to me, a magic incantation or mantra, on the order of Abracadabra and, for individual and creative reasons, much more powerful.
Let me explain. Dansky was one of the key writers on a tabletop roleplaying universe called the World of Darkness, consisting of a group of interrelated horror games each focused on one monster or creature (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, fairies, magicians). All of these separate game systems and worlds were intended to co-exist, allowing for many interconnecting threads that ran between them in terms of cosmology, mechanics, plot, and theme. When I asked Dansky how the World of Darkness evolved into a world of interlinked settings, he said that the process was organic and, at times, competitive. The various lead designers working on the separate gamelines at White Wolf would attempt to aggressively co-opt each others’ continuity, like narrative black holes swallowing up adjacent universes. Phil Brucato, designer of the beautifully esoteric and metaphysically profound Mage: The Awakening, sparked what I will dub (referencing Mage‘s own chronicles of cosmic conflict) the Continuity Wars. Brucato attempted to surreptitiously subsume the factions and plotlines of other gamelines into the tapestry of the Mage universe, which was already infamously obscure. (Dansky recounted a joke going around the White Wolf offices that only n people in the world actually understood Mage, and there were n + 1 authors listed on the title page).
But Dansky would not let this creative incursion go unanswered. “Two can play at that game,” he thought to himself, cracking his knuckles for emphasis when he recounted the moment over drinks at a dive bar in Madison, South Dakota.
He then proceeded to quietly absorb the entire Mage universe into the bleak metaphysical afterworld of Wraith. Emphasis on quietly: Dansky didn’t tell anyone that he was doing this at the time, and nothing in the Wraith book overtly spells out the relationships and interconnections. This brings us full circle to our incantation: “The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn.” In Mage, the Nephandi are black magicians of the darkest ilk: warlocks who forge pacts with foul infernal gods. In Wraith, the Neverborn are a pantheon of eldritch entities who slumber at the bottom of the Labyrinth, a maze beneath the underworld. The Neverborn are so powerful that their mere dreams can influence the most maleficent shades and spectres of Wraith to devour their world. And, at a meta level, they are so mighty that they can reach across competing continuities.
In Dansky’s vision, implied but unstated in the Wraith rulebooks and modules, the Nephandi warlocks, who view themselves as Faustian sorcerers boldly harnessing the power of demons, are actually worshipping the reveries of entities within another universe. The Nephandi revere not just ghosts, but the dreams of ghosts.
In “Howard’s Law of Occult Design,” one of the principles published in 100 Principles of Game Design based on a talk I gave at the GDC Narrative Summit (“Occult Game Design: An Initiation into Secrets and Mysteries”), I argue that the most powerful connections in narrative design are those that remain hidden, implied as intimations rather than explicitly proclaimed revelations. Such connections are the narrative equivalent of a secret passage or hidden door in a dungeon. The poet and interactive fiction author Robert Pinsky and the novelist Richard Powers both rhapsodize about the poetic connotations of secret passages in early interactive fiction of the Adventure and Zork eras. Neither Pinsky nor Powers provides a compelling example from games of a hidden revelation that would function both at the spatial and the narrative level, because at the time of Zork the thematic potential of secret passages was still only potential. One of my favorite examples of a fully-developed hidden passage with secret narrative content is the Painted World in Dark Souls, which is another universe altogether.
Or is it?
This morning, Hidetaka Miyazaki (lead designer of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, as well as producer on Dark Souls II), tweeted “What you see is often of far less importance to that which remains veiled.” Miyazaki is the only game designer whose communication style in-game and out of game has been referred to in the popular gaming press as “gnomic,” referring not to an elfin man with a pointed hat but rather to the cryptic tone that results from deliberately leaving out key information. Universes like the Souls franchise and the World of Darkness gain more of their haunting power from what they omit or imply than from what they state, because omission and implication have the power to spur our imagination toward hidden connections. After Keats’ negative capability and Lovecraft’s supernatural horror, one might regard such an approach as common sense.
But it’s not common sense. Many narrative designers understand the power of negative space, but more than one gamer has approached me with the misunderstanding that “Dark Souls has no story,” when instead it has a world bursting at the seams with narrative clues whose interconnections must be actively sought by players. The desire for narrative hand-holding caused the designers of Dark Souls II to hock a “more accessible narrative” as a selling point for the newest installment of their franchise. And, while I’m deeply enjoying aspects of Dark Souls II, Miyazaki’s relative distance from the sequel is clearly visible in the game’s comparative lack of subtlety. One might speculate that today’s tweet was (gnomically, by implication) a commentary on the path that Dark Souls II may be taking: not a dark path, but a path of too much light, too much clarity, too much mundane obviousness in the name of accessibility.
So, say it with me, if you will. Recite the incantation. “The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn.” Help us save our secrets from ourselves.