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New Leaf, pt 4: Now Play This Sample Platter

(Warm weather in London! I’m writing a travelogue called New Leaf as I seek opportunities for play.)

Exhaustion allowed me to sleep in a little, and my Personal List Of Goals For London insisted that I take the morning off for a second attempt to view the ancient Roman Coliseum under Guildhall Yard. As I arrived, I noted that Guildhall Yard was the kickoff site for the cosplay parade, and I thought about pageantry and costuming through the ages. Did Romans have returning and beloved characters to their stage of this Coliseum? Perhaps I would find out.

The receptionist at the Guildhall had never heard of a Coliseum under Guildhall Yard. My heart fell. Was its existence some kind of internet joke? As I I tried to explain, my quest seemed less and less plausible. I told him I was looking for the place under the Yard, the ruins, where the Romans watched games being played, before London, when this area was called Londinium… Suddenly his face lit up. “Ah! You’re looking for the Amphitheater!” Yes, apparently I was, and it was my use of the ancient name for a city that predated the one we were standing in that connected that for him (or so I choose to believe).

I made my way underground through an art gallery with several impressive paintings, each stopping me in my tracks. Every face was turned toward the viewer, and it felt as if each was the face of an actual person of the time. My excitement grew as I descended the stairs, and then I opened the doors to what a friend would later call the “rotten pile of stones.” These stones from the Roman empire had been uncovered in the 80’s while the space for what is now the art gallery was being excavated. This place was like a time capsule, not for AD 70, but for 1988. Glowing green line art dominated the wall, showing in semi-perspective where the far wall of the Amphitheater would be. Wireframe-esque athletes posed along the back wall and across a few pillars as if standing up to a strong wind. After taking in all the green, my eyes slowly descended to the rocks and rubble. I had come seeking majesty, but the ruins seemed more like benches: so much so that numerous signs warned against sitting on them.

And then I read the inscriptions on the stands, calmly discussing the slaves who were forced by the Roman state to fight until they died. Some gladiators, yes, but mostly just crowds of kidnapped people from other lands or this one, forced into the circle of stones and then slaughtered for the entertainment of the people in the stands. I began to feel a bit sick and righteously angry. There was another viewer there who spoke English as well, so we broke the silence of the space and spoke together about the tragedy of humans depriving other humans of freedom and safety and dignity, and imagined the possible life stories of those who died here so many hundred years ago. I left, shaken, but no longer angry.

Those Romans had it wrong, and though some games today celebrate depravity and gore in similar fashion, now it is mostly the minds of the players which are affected. Games have gotten much better since AD 70, and I was so glad the cosplay parade was scheduled to begin in Guildhall Yard so that when I rose from the ancient torture depicted as somewhat-unfortunate-but-none-the-less-glorious history, I was so relieved to see a couple dozen larger-than-life character costumes. Mostly characters I didn’t know, but there were some Luigis and a handful of anthropomorphic Tetris blocks. Heartfelt thanks to all those cosplayers socializing in the sunlight.

I took the Underground to Somerset House and walked into Now Play This for day 2, stumbling into a room full of people wearing colourful padded vests. On the floor, a table, and stuck to the participants were cubes in several sizes, semi-circles, columns, all manner of shapes. Everything was velcro! This was Affix, by Sabrina Shirazi, and it was so fun! A sandbox playspace with joyous strangers, I really couldn’t tell who had already been friends before entering the room. Some players tossed the pieces onto each other, cheering when they stuck. Though I enjoy building bridges between people, usually I do it metaphorically instead of with a series of velcro objects!

There was a ten-player platformer puzzle game called Pico Park (by developer Teco Park), each player controlling their own different-coloured cat person. Each stage took place on one screen (which is to say the levels didn’t scroll in any direction) and had its own puzzle, and most of the puzzles were collaborative ones in which all the players had to stack their cat people up to form a tower, or push on blocks together, or all jump as a ball flew from one side of the screen to the next. There was a lot of fun exploration and shared communication, though one annoying kid who played as the green cat always wanted to be on top of the stack or hold the key or whatever. The adult players were patient with him, no one losing their cool as the kid acted like a kid, which had its own meta-level co-op feeling.

Toward the end Jeremy showed up and grabbed a Pico Park controller too. We’d met at Novelty Automaton on Thursday night, and it was really great to see him again. He told me that the rest of his date with Laura went really well, and that the two of them had talked over dinner about how, though this was a date and so perhaps it would’ve been strange, they had both felt a twinge of regret for not inviting me along. The three of us had really had a great time together, and I hope we get another chance to. Jeremy came with me to the library to play Majestic Dinosaurs.

Majestic Dinosaurs’ second installment featured more spontaneous play than the first, but the audience who self-selects for watching interviews and a series of micro-talks is perhaps not the same audience who wants to run around as thunder lizards.

We did have an amazing arc featuring a young child screaming in fright when Shang Lun Lee, personifying a Stegosaurus, roared in the child’s mother’s face. Meltdown city! But then the child’s parents comforted her, and introduced Shang Lun in his friendly lovable not-a-terrible-monster form, and Jordan the interviewer swooped in to show the child how they could be pterosaurs together. Soon a flock of them were flapping around the room.

Jeremy and I walked out to the courtyard, where we bid adieu.

Out on the terrace, Ann and I found a game called The Explorers, where Peter Law instructed us how to role play as Queen Anne of Denmark (myself, obviously,) who’d just moved into this palace, and her Royal Architect (to be played by Ann). We would stroll the terrace in 1603 and discuss how to improve Somerset house during the reign of my husband, King James, and when the architect suggested something that I liked, we would haggle a price and then I would pay him in golden chocolate coins. While strolling, I was to remain blindfolded. Through this fine game I was able to secure such improvements for my palace as a series of baths with a sort of obstacle course between as well as housing for the blind musicians who would accompany my relaxation, and a viewing tower to better see the gilded copper rooves of the south bank, which my architect added to remind me of my beloved view of the sea back home in Denmark. He also constructed a library at my request, in which to imprison my cousin who bumped into me during my stroll, so that he might learn better manners. My cousin was also to write some new and fresh-feeling stories for The Bible, which my husband was in the midst of revising.

Eventually night fell and dinner and ice cream and laughter and London and the Underground and then I slept.

(I’ve fallen behind and am playing catch-up! The above occurred on April 8th, 2017.)