Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

There is a sense in which almost any written story can be described as a godgame – one being played by its author. That aside, a considerable proportion of Fantasy narratives can be described as tales whose protagonists search – almost always successfully – for the underlying Story which explains their nature and their world, a Story whose natural outcome is a structurally complete – and therefore all-encompassing – ending. A Story can thus be defined as a godgame whose rules govern its protagonists.

The most extensive analysis of the godgame appears in R Rawdon Wilson's In Palamedes' Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game, & Narrative Theory (1990), where he credits John Fowles with inventing the term to describe the action of The Magus (1965 US; rev 1977 UK), whose protagonist, Conchis, ensnares the young teacher who narrates the tale in a Labyrinth of Illusions which can be escaped only at Conchis's behest, after he has judged the teacher to have become a competent human being; Fowles's original, unused title for the novel was in fact «The Godgame». "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", in which a figure like Semele might be "played" by Hera into forcing Apollo to do the one thing – reveal himself to her – that will guarantee her death, guarantee in the most final sense that she has been found wanting. 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, a God) 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, or to emphasize the central power of Story in most full fantasy narratives; 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 term may be used to describe a large number of works.

An encompassing example comes very early. The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) by William Shakespeare is set on an Island (a natural venue for godgames, because controllable: The Magus, too, is set on an island) governed by Prospero, who controls the actions of the entire cast, manipulates their responses, and judges them all. It is almost certain that any novel which features a character named Prospero, or which evokes him, will either be a godgame tale or will flirt with the possibility – and this aspect is brought even more to the foreground in Peter Greenaway's movie Prospero's Books (1991). Other Shakespeare plays with godgame elements include A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) and Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623).

The literature of the fantastic is full of godgames. The works of authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann (and many others) manipulate the concept in very various ways; Wilson's central example of the importance of the godgame in recent literature is Thomas Pynchon.

Almost any Posthumous Fantasy – any tale in which a human Soul must work out the rules that had governed its mortal life – implies a godgame, though in most cases that implication is undeveloped. An exception is Susan Cooper's Seaward (1983), whose live protagonists find themselves in a land which can be defined, at least in part, as a Chess board; in the long game between the Goddess figure who represents Death and her father/brother/son who represents Life the two protagonists can be seen as acting out the moves of two conflicting godgames, which become reconciled only when both youngsters pass through the morally complex Recognition of choice and passage which concludes the book.

Most Fantasies of History hint at or directly incorporate godgames. The novels of Philip José Farmer – the Tierworlds sequence in particular – are often godgames. The Star Trek tv series (see SFE link below) comes close to fantasy in the very numerous episodes involving godgames only Kirk and Spock (and later lead characters) can hope to solve. The UK tv series The Prisoner (1967-1968) (see SFE) is centred on its godgame elements, as is Ursula K Le Guin's sf novel City of Illusions (1966). Godgames in Horror – except the separate category of novels about Satan – are not of much interest, a possible exception being Kim Newman's The Quorum (1994). Recent fantasy novels incorporating godgame elements include William Kotzwinkle's Fata Morgana (1977), Nancy Kress's The Prince of Morning Bells (1981), Hans Bemmann's The Broken Goddess (1990), Graham Joyce's House of Lost Dreams (1993) – a novel strongly evocative of The Magus – John Grant's Technofantasy The Hundredfold Problem * (1994) and Lindsay Clarke's Alice's Masque (1994). [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.