Entry updated 3 October 2023. Tagged: Theme.
A frequent shorthand in sf/fantasy Terminology for tales whose outcome is controlled, and whose characters are usually weighed in the balance, by a god-like figure. The term was coined by John Fowles to describe the scenario of The Magus (1965; rev 1977), whose working title was in fact «The Godgame». His magus-figure Conchis ensnares the young narrator in a maze of delusive scenes that challenge Perception; a kind of manipulated Pocket Universe which can be escaped only when Conchis permits, after he has judged the narrator to have become a competent human being.
The most extensive analysis of the godgame appears in R Rawdon Wilson's In Palamedes' Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game, & Narrative Theory (1990), in which The Magus is discussed at length. "In a godgame," Wilson says, "one character (or several) is made a victim by another character's superior knowledge and power. Caught in a cunningly constructed web of appearances, the victim, who finds the illusion to be impenetrable, is observed and his behaviour is judged." It is, Wilson continues, "a narrative category that has existed since the tales of ancient mythology ...". The essence of the godgame, for Wilson, is threefold: (a) there must be a victim; (b) there must be a plot through which the victim must struggle, his/her every action in truth a reaction; and (c) there must be an owner of the game – a magus, a magister ludi, an actual or equivalent god; (see Gods and Demons) – who is in some sense present while the game is being played, and who stands in judgement. To use the term "godgame" is not, therefore, to describe in a general sense the relationship between the creator and the created; a godgame is a tale in which an actual game (which may incorporate broader implications) is being played without the participants' informed consent, and which (in some sense) is being scored by its maker. As such, the magus of a godgame may be usefully distinguished from Secret Masters, figures who may covertly rule the world but who do not normally play games (however uplifting) with their subjects.
There are obvious Godgame elements in the complex ordeal to which Sir Gawain is subjected by the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (written circa 1400; many translations from 1839), but the most compelling and comprehensive instance is the text which famously underlies the sf film Forbidden Planet (1956): The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) by William Shakespeare. This takes place on an Island (a natural venue for godgames, because controllable: The Magus too is chiefly set on an island) governed by Prospero, who controls the actions of the entire cast, manipulates their responses, and judges them all.
Sf examples are numerous. In Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" (April 1941 Astounding) and many other stories, human godgames played with "lesser" creatures provoke a surprising reaction; George R R Martin's memorably black "Sandkings" (August 1979 Omni) continues this tradition, as does Greg Egan's "Crystal Nights" (April 2008 Interzone), whose manipulated beings are AIs evolved in Virtual Reality. A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970) is orchestrated in some never entirely clarified fashion by the "cosmic chess-player" of whom the protagonist eventually discovers himself to be an avatar. Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy can be viewed as a godgaming magus whose Psychohistorical predictions manipulate untold billions of galactic citizens. Political opponents in John Brunner's The Squares of the City (1965) play a literal game of Chess with their city's unknowing inhabitants. Successive inquisitors impose bizarre and often arbitrary godgames on the lone rebel figure of The Prisoner (1967-1968) – who, it is ultimately suggested, may be playing an overarching godgame of his own. The self-appointed Hindu pantheon in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967) plays such games with an entire colony world, judging its inhabitants and inflicting karmic rewards and punishments through the sf device of Identity Transfer. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) features godgames run by their own subjects, reaching back through the Corridors of Time (see Time Travel) from an apotheosed state to ensure that they become themselves.
Further sf novels permeated by the theme include Jack Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977) – together with its sequels, and much of his other work – Orson Scott Card's The Worthing Chronicle (1983), Andrew M Greeley's God Game (1986) and Danny Tobey's The God Game (2020). Very evident godgames govern the moves of characters in two Television series involving intensifying story arcs, such as Lost (2004-2010), Westworld (2016-2022) and 1899 (2022-current). Videogames in which the player takes a godlike role are separately discussed under God Game. [JC/DRL]
- R Rawdon Wilson. In Palamedes' Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game, & Narrative Theory (Evanston, Illinois: Northeastern University Press, 1990) [nonfiction: hb/Ann Twombly]
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