Every so often a project hits this sublime target of subject matter and form that sends a ripple of excitement down the spine. The latest such example is the currently crowdfunding gamebook The Exquisite Corpse in Maggots’ Keep, which mixes the parlour game of collective creativity with a reader-driven story about a jewel-encrusted skeleton.
Published by indie RPG design cooperative Sandy Pug Games, The Exquisite Corpse in Maggots’ Keep tells the story of a collection of bones and wealth abruptly reawakened deep within a cavern and possessed of naught but the compulsion to escape. The writing style and format is poetic and rich in its descriptions while also adopting an uncomfortably familiar second-person perspective. Below is a quick excerpt:
“No flesh can hold you back now, best beloved. You are bone and stone and precious metals.
Oh, you are magnificent
Oh, you are
And now you are awake in the dark.”
Like other gamebooks, the reader-player is offered a choice of actions at the end of each section that will determine what path the unfolding story takes. In the Twine-powered preview, the Corpse can venture immediately beyond their mahogany coffin or deny the impulse and stay within its cold comfort. Here is where the design wrinkle of the book comes into play - each choice-driven section is composed by a different author from among the eleven contributors.
They pass off control of the story much in the same way folks play Exquisite Corpse, a parlour game popularized by French surrealists (accounts of its initial creation are unclear) where someone would begin a story or drawing, fold the paper along the bottom to conceal their contribution, then pass it to another participant in a large - and likely drunk - group. At the end, the resulting creation is read or shown, often resulting in a hilarious mess but sometimes creating a surprising bit of beauty.
The Kickstarter description explains that the writers were allowed to take the story in whatever direction they desired, using the situations, characters and settings established by their predecessors to carry the narrative along. It claims the resulting book reads “like a short story collection by way of DVD menu, or like a group of friends taking turns telling a story around a campfire.”
The Exquisite Corpse in Maggots’ Keep is the initial creation of playwright and designer Gabriel Komisar but involves over a dozen other writers and editors, with illustrations throughout the book provided by JN Butler. Sandy Pug Games previously handled the 10 Million HP Planet, the RPG of excessive, violent revenge against an evil rock, and is currently designing the upcoming Ghibli-inspired Monster Care Squad.
Those who have never read a gamebook like this should check out the preview, as it does an excellent job of establishing the tone and intention of the project. The various writers’ styles aren’t so juxtaposed that it ejects the reader - I was instead increasingly curious to see how each would play with the toys in the sandbox, so to speak.
The Kickstarter for The Exquisite Corpse in Maggots’ Keep runs through September 19th. Backers can opt for a digital PDF, softcover or hardcover edition of the gamebook for $25 (£18), $35 (£26), and $60 (£44), respectively. Shipping is expected to begin in October of 2022.