Nearly as long as there has been a Wikipedia, there have been games that use it as a playground. There’s even an entry for ‘Wikipedia games’ among the virtual bookshelves and filing cabinets of the internet’s free encyclopedia. Some task investigators to navigate between two subjects in as few clicks as possible, while others are more of a race of furious hyperlink bouncing from one corner to another.
The new digital TRPG Archives of Alexandria is an altogether different beast, slowing down the physical action to make space for a surprisingly tense and emotional experience about two eternal cataloguers desperately searching for each other, and thereby escape, among the infinite halls of their vessel.
Created by Adam Vass of World Champ Game Co. (Babes in the Wood 2E) and Will Jobst (Campfire) Archives of Alexandria brings two players into the eponymous spaceship as BiblioTechs, conservators of all human history stored digitally into what the authors describe as the “escherian labyrinth” of the Alexandria’s virtual library. Meant to last in perpetuity, the information is threatened by a virus that forces the BiblioTechs to use their paired keys to access an escape pod, fleeing before they are lost to the spreading corruption.
This scenario plays out over three phases composed each of three turns. Beginning from a random Wikipedia article, the pair of BiblioTechs narrate their flight through the Alexandria’s gradually warping and crumbling infrastructure using the page’s contents as flavour or metaphor. Players cannot speak any words that appear in the page title, though the description can be as imaginative or explicit as they like.
For example, I began on the entry for the Martin 4-0-4 aircraft and described a scene where my character immediately jumped into a winged vessel that soared over an ocean of data, trails of virtual clouds streaming behind me and the roar of engines drowning out the Alexandria’s warning klaxon. Then, both my partner and I had to click a link on our page as we fled deeper into the ship. Crucially, you cannot return to a previously accessed page. Purple was the colour of corruption and doom.
It didn’t take long to realize the unwritten danger of our situation. Because both of us continued moving after each scene, we had to think ahead of of our own descriptions and estimate where our partner might be headed. Translating too accurately only ensures your partner stays two steps behind, while vagary invites a horrifying amount of potential for misinterpretation.
As the phases progress, players must click through a larger number of links - starting with a single page and ramping up to three per scene - which does an incredible job of building tension as we both stared frantically at these Wikipedia pages, then each other. The BiblioTechs can ask a single yes or no question at the end of a round. Otherwise, the game recommends keeping table talk to a bare minimum. A tight grimace became a normal sight during our ill-fated run.
We could feel ourselves circling each other’s pages at several points, someone vigorously nodding as the other narrated a room of chairs facing inward and the feeling of cultures and civilisations collaborating - I had just been on the page for the United Nations and had a good idea where to go from there. Three navigation laters, though, and the connection was gone. We ended up dead and trapped on the Alexandria, locked in stasis mere heartbeats from each other. Tragic, but sublime in representing our frustration at being so dang close to success.
Beginning with a strategy is fine, but that plan likely won’t survive contact with the first random article, forcing both players to rely more on instinct than experience. I personally learned to exult at the sight of an entry for Russia, The Philippines or some other country - one can travel so many places from these major information depots.
The magic of Archives of Alexandria’s design is its use of hidden information. The ostensibly simple game - the PDF fills all of four pages with some killer layout - unfolds during play, revealing a complex conversation using poetry and inference instead of words and internally linked databases instead of grammar. How do you convey not only position but direction without the use of exact phrases? Do you understand how your partner will translate encyclopedic entries? Can you learn the steps of a dance both of you invent on the fly before time runs out?