The World Unbuilt – Dark Books

Dark Books are the Thorian, or rather Eadratic name for magical tomes that have been corrupted by magic diseases. For the purpose of this discussion it should be noted that a) “magical tomes” refers to any book imbued with magical energies, not necessarily books of spells; and b) “magic diseases” are in fact varieties of a yeast-like organism which feeds on magical energies and causes them to undergo changes, as in fermentation. Dark Books were either invented or popularised in ancient Lazulide by the scholar Eadranismus, whose writings were inspired by his experiences and are the basis of the legends which in turn informed the Caudex Magnus and the Church of Eadra. The effect on the reader of a corrupted tome may involve hallucinations or out of body experiences, much like psychotropic drugs, or some documented cases of religious euphoria.

The idea for Dark Books came to me first as an interactive feature. There would be so many of them scattered throughout the game which would give the player insight into the world around them. The player might might be able through use of such books to meet historical characters and ask them questions, or go on voyages to distant lands and other worlds, and maybe a few jokes and Easter eggs as well. I also wanted them to figure into the main story. I had always intended that the multiplayer co-op mode would be simplified to provide parties with quicker access to raid content, so I reserved most of my energy for a more elaborate and, I hoped, properly canonical single player mode. To that end I plotted that each level of the final dungeon would be locked by a magical gate, and the player would have to find a particular Dark Book with which to open it. For the sake of avoiding busywork it seemed best that the book to open the next level should be dropped by the boss of the current level. This device would lead the player, assuming the player was reading books and following some of the threads within them, to question approximately how much of what was happening in this grand finale was “real”. I felt that this would work mainly because the bosses encountered are the supposed demon lords of Draxiaadem. The player would fight such characters of the Caudex Magnus as Aguantiad, Meldivenor, Kalamdan, and Arktoris at the end of each level. As has been established, not even Eadranismus, the source of the stories in which these beings feature, was sure that what he saw on his adventures was real. This is the main point of contention among scholars of corrupted tomes. That the mind or spirit is the medium through which they operate is not disputed, at least not generally, but the question of whether the mind contains the experience or is contained by it has fuelled many sleepless nights of inebriate debate at favourite watering holes of academics in Port Elidea, Lazulide, and other cosmopoleis around the world. If the former is true, then presumably the Book operates like a mind-altering drug, and the reader’s subconscious is the author of their experience; if the latter is true, and the mind or spirit is literally transported to another place, then the Book is some kind of portal. (It should be noted that, while seemingly similar in concept to the books of Atrus from the Myst series of adventure games, the exact nature of a Dark Book experience is not, indeed cannot be the result of authorial intent.)

In Thoria, Dark Books are illegal to create, distribute, possess, or use. It is the position of the Cathedra Magna that the books are demonic in nature and cause the corruption of the spirit. Because of this illegality, means of procuring corrupted tomes made in accordance with established, safe methods, is practically zero, unless users are willing to travel out past the Thorian borders to find independent trading posts, or other lands where magic corruption is either legal or at least easier to get away with. Within Thoria, people are left with the choice either of not using, or of seeking out sellers of Books made by organisations that create cheap, inferior products, using bad strains of the magic yeasts, which are cultured using harmful substances like nitrosamines derived from rock salts cut out of the Tocanum mountains. Those particular salts are very attractive to the yeasts, having formed within the magic-infused rock of the mountains, but the toxicity of the nitrosamines kills the best yeasts and leaves only yeasts that have adapted to it and which are hazardous to human health in themselves.

Dark Books strongly affect the underclasses, and denizens of the Labour District of Arch Thorian are particularly afflicted. But the Books are now a growing cause for concern among the upper classes in the richer cities of Thoria. Popular among their youth are “Book Clubs”. These are underground orgies, Dionysian in nature, where Dark Books are used in conjunction with alcohol. Because of the Cathedra Magna’s staunch position against Dark Books, it has proven especially difficult to conduct research into the effects of Dark Books on someone who is already intoxicated on drink or some other mind altering substance. As such there is currently little being done to tackle the issues besides Tribunal raids on suspected Book Club gatherings. Death counts are also kept secret. While the official position of the government in all its bodies is staunchly against these events, it also declines to offer commentary on them, taking a naively hopeful “out of sight, out of mind” approach to policing the issue.

In other parts of the world, Dark Books are not such a concern. In the International Zone they are used freely and openly, and scholarly research into their effects in the tradition of Eadranismus is plentiful. Owing to the maritime nature of the IZ, scholars claim that the place of origin of both a Book’s energies and the yeasts used to alter their composition plays a factor in determining the nature of an experience or trip. It is thought that sea voyages, where the Books are unavoidably exposed to a higher concentration of salt in the air, affect Books in unpredictable ways which cannot be corrected for in testing, and that therefore the differences between a Book created in Lamantaleòrna and one created in Udghan, both using locally sourced yeasts, cannot be properly tested and recorded.

Debate as to the nature of Dark Books and the experiences they provide in general, as was outlined in the third paragraph of this article, is split largely in two, but a fairly broad range of ideas exists on the matter. Despite research being extensive in both the International Zone and Ochvad, neither has been able to determine a methodology for handling the seemingly endless variables that must be accounted and controlled for in a proper study. As such, any research remains largely hypothetical, and the main hypotheses are thus:

  1. Dark Books provide the reader with fully hallucinatory experiences that contain no “real” content. In this case they operate like a psychotropic drug.

  2. Dark Books capture situations which the reader then inhabits and interacts with.

    • Some posit that these are literally captured moments in time. In this case they operate like a video, playing and replaying a predetermined sequence, but with some variables which are largely controlled by the user. Almost like some kind of… video game.

    • Others suggest that the “situation” captured is abstracted from time and space, and is a recreation of a moment but not the moment itself. This may appear to be a subtle difference, but proponents of this idea believe that, since such moments can be revisited and played out the exact same way like scenes from a play, they must be simulated recreations rather than the actual moments themselves.

  3. Dark Books are time and space warping talismans that literally move the reader to another time and place. This notion is often dismissed as fantastical by proponents of other views, but like any thought on Dark Books it has yet to be proven wrong.

  4. Dark Books project the reader into the consciousness of another being. Like in 3, the reader is transported, but not physically.

    • Some believe that this means the reader appears to that being as some kind of spectral entity. That is to say that, rather than causing the reader to hallucinate, the reader becomes the hallucination of another being in another time and place.

    • Others believe that this means that, like in Theory 2, the reader is inserted into a situation, but that instead of being placed there themselves, they inhabit a being that is already there. The amount of control the reader has can be observed to vary from one experience to the next, it is posited that the mental power of the reader vs. that of the host accounts for this discrepancy.

Since each book is different, it is entirely possible that all the above beliefs are true, but not for all books. On a case by case basis, it may be established that one Book provides an experience with features which correspond to Theory 1, but another may provide an experience with features which correspond to Theory 2, and so on.

It was my hope to have the player encounter at least some of these different theories, for the sake of having those who were curious about lore and such be able to think about what each Dark Book encounter actually signified for them, for the story they were playing through and for the world in which it took place. I didn’t want furthermore to provide a simplistic answer to the question of to what extent the things they were seeing were real. In The Matrix, when Neo awakens in the real world, everything is explained clear as day: superintelligent machines created a hyperreal simulation, plugged humans into it, and used them as living batteries. The Animatrix, probably the best thing to come out of the otherwise ponderous and self-congratulatory franchise (probably because the Wachowskis had very little to do with the writing or directing of any of its segments), explains further about the world before the fall, and how machines rose up against the humans in a manner shot through with underclass revenge fantasy. You can rely on this, in-universe it’s essentially documentary footage, doubt as to what is real only exists for the characters within the film, not for the viewer. I had written or at least plotted some Dark Book encounters involving Sapherion, Draxiaadem, the playwright Pynchonius, a couple of joke scenes with Thod the Coward and Robert of Cress (and you can fire up the old synapses trying to work out just who they could possibly correspond to), and other dialogues. While initially the opportunity to engage first-hand with the history of not just Thoria but of the world, of not just the world but of the universe itself, may seem enticing, if the player has been paying attention they’ll have more than an inkling of doubt as to the veracity of what they’re seeing. If possible I wanted these encounters—joke scenes and easter eggs aside—only to become available after you had already heard of a given character, read a book by them, or something along those lines, thereby suggesting that the mind of the reader is an integral component of the experience.

Beyond that, Dark Books, or anything that can seemingly take the player out of their immediate surroundings and pop them down somewhere else, give an excellent opportunity for secret bosses or other gameplay challenges. For example, how about a fight with Shiedar, the Aspect of Violence? It might seem to be of minimal interest to the discussion from a lore perspective, but suppose you gained an item, a weapon or some such, on defeating her. If you can take that back into what passes for the real world with you, what does that signify? Was the fight a real, physical thing? Was it a mental struggle, and you are somehow, through great mental exertion, capable of manifesting objects in physical space? Or is a spiritual encounter in itself capable of producing physical matter? The implications are manifold and potentially very interesting to think about. If these secret battles and items were part of the game, I would also have made it possible to talk to people about them, and, hopefully, depending on who you talk to, see a variety of consequences. For example, if you told a pious Church-goer about it you might possibly become wanted by the Tribunal for speaking heresies about fighting with the Aspects. At some point you reach a depth that is not possible to actually come up with in a reasonable amount of time, although to update games and integrate changes is fairly simple these days owing to the always connected platforms they are distributed from, and new features such as this, additional content etc. can be inserted seamlessly at any time.

I think of Dark Books as kind of tying the whole thing together. They bring the central theme of uncertainty to its logical conclusion, they are of great importance to several major historical figures, they are furthermore of great importance to the sociopolitical climate of present day Thoria, and their fruits offer the player another level of interaction with the world that is not possible through normal play instances, through dialogue, or through regular books. To have such a major player in a fantasy story be an inanimate object that did not operate as a MacGuffin, I felt, perhaps arrogantly, was a fairly impressive thing.

Further Reading

The Art of Dark Books

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