At the age of about eleven years old, my parents put on John Boorman’s kaleidoscopic Excalibur, a full-bore barrage of British fantasy and an untethered re-telling of the story of King Arthur. After what felt like seventeen minutes of extremely awkward sex scenes, the story kicked off in earnest, and I was treated to my first encounter with Arthurian legend. A boy pulls a sword from a stone, becomes king of England, is mentored by an erratic magical genius, is betrayed, and (sort of) redeems the ideals he fought for in the end.
I never really recovered. Something about it nested in my brain. Partially all of the sweaty, writhing sex, but mostly the idea of honour. Valour. Courage. A lady in a lake. There was something about it that drew me in.
And that was my last interaction with Arthurian myth, until I played Inkle’s quietly stunning new game, Pendragon. It’s ostensibly a board game, but the storytelling within it revolves around a glorious premise. At the end of King Arthur’s story, our toppled monarch, whose idealism has been quashed by the creep of fascism, walks into battle, alone, to fight Mordred. What if, Pendragon asks, you could change that outcome? What if you could tinker with fate a little? Tip the odds? Try and salvage something from the ruins of Camelot’s magnanimous legacy?
I sat down with narrative director, Jon Ingold, and asked him how Pendragon would play for people who had never read or watched, anything Arthurian before at all. Would the game translate if it was their first delve into the depths of mythical Britain? ‘As a British person, as a boy, I’ve had Arthur in my cultural bag forever. I’ve always known the legend of Arthur – I don’t even know how or why, so I find it really bizarre when I hear people talking about the game, and they don’t know how to pronounce Guinevere or Mordred!’ I tell Jon about my relative lack of understanding of Arthurian canon, and tell him about my love for Boorman’s interpretation.
‘I love that film! Yes. Yes. That was such a strong reference point for Pendragon. But one of the things I wanted to do was replicate the take on King Arthur that you see in Disney movies or just one version of it. I produced our own version of it. Because when you’re dealing with myth… look. Arthur isn’t really a core story. It’s a kind of concept that comes out in lots of different ways, over the last one thousand five hundred-odd years. So if you replicate any one of those tellings… you’re doing it wrong! Because you’re not really talking about Arthur. So the question becomes… what does Arthur mean to me?’
I laugh. ‘So what does Arthur mean to you?’
Jon looks thrilled. ‘Well it’s also… what does he mean to me now? What does Arthur mean right now? And how does telling his story make sense now? And if people read or play that and go, ok, that’s the definitive telling of the story, then that’s their mistake to make… but it is a mistake! I think it’s more important that we use Arthur’s story because we have something to say! We’re not doing this just because we’re fans of King Arthur, we’re doing it because it’s a metaphor, right? And it’s a metaphor that makes sense, in this context that we find ourselves in, in 2020.’
One of the thrilling things about Pendragon is its replayability. And much of this comes from the storytelling, which allows ferociously ambitious re-tellings of the end of the tale. In Cornwall, there are accounts that after his death, Arthur’s soul ended up transferring itself into the body of a crow, so that he might one day return to save England. I point this out to Jon, and tell him that I’ve only now realized that Arthur isn’t a single story: it’s a playground for storytellers to make things happen.
‘Right! That’s exactly the thing! And that’s really baked into it, because when Thomas Malory was writing Le Morte d’Arthur, he was a prisoner, and he was borrowing things from French romances. But he invented Lancelot and Guinevere! Or just drew them from another story and bunged them in there, and now it feels fundamental, and it feels right! Because it’s the right sort of thing to happen. Arthur has his court pulled down by this very base instinct between these two people who can’t keep their hands off each other. That feels right! So it’s got a place in the legend. But is it “authentic”? Well, what does authentic even mean? And I love that about it, that’s really part of it’s power. Its so mutable.”
One of the most iconic versions of the story is The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which Jon insists I read. ‘It starts as a kids book and turns into something which is very much not a kids book. When White was writing it was in the thirties, and it’s really about the rise of fascism… he never talks about fascism in it directly, never talks about Nazism or anything like that. But it’s very clear that’s what the writer is thinking about. He’s saying, how do we try to be good in a world in which the people who are cruel, and vicious, are doing… so well? And are so popular, and so widely respected, and believed above all those who try their best to tell the truth? How do we deal with that? That feels… very relevant in today’s society!’
And then Jon laughs, the kind of jubilant laugh born from talking about something he loves whilst living through a time he profoundly does not.
John Stewart said of American democracy that ‘Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history. … That’s what’s exceptional about America. This ain’t easy.’ Looking at the world right now, it’s hard to dispute that the idea of a functional democracy is, indeed, lofty. Lofty and, perhaps, idealistic. But it’s something that should be fought for, strived for, regardless. Over and over. Which, given Pendragon’s glorious gameplay loop, makes total sense.
‘The game’, Jon tells me, ‘is, at its heart, a tactics game. It’s fundamentally a game where you play, you die, you try again. It’s replayable. The game wants to be replayable. We wanted to put a narrative on top of that and integrate it really tightly into the tactics, but that means the narrative needs to replayable, which means the narrative can’t go the same way every time, it just can’t. But at the same time… you’re telling the story of Arthur. So it has to go the same way each time.
‘So how do you solve that problem? And I love problems! So as you’ll have seen (Jon knows at this point that I’ve played thirty hours of the game), what Pendragon does is it says there are some things you cannot change. The battle at Camlann is going to happen, Mordred is going to kill absolutely everybody he possibly can. Camelot will not ever be rebuilt. It’s gone. It’s over. It’s done.’
Jon sees my face fall, and laughs before continuing. ‘And so the question becomes… what do we do in the face of something which has already died, and already broken? How do we deal with that? So in that sense, it sort of becomes a tragedy, and you’re constantly fighting against the knowledge that this is not going to work. And that made sense as a structure! Every playthrough is a re-telling of this legend, and different angle. And that’s what Arthur is! There is no fixed chronology, no fixed ending, none of that. But there is a fixed tone, and a fixed point. You can’t make Arthur the bad guy, and you can’t make Camelot a bad idea after all that no one should have tried. You can’t make the knights just go… you know what? We’re not gonna bother. It’s fine. We like Mordred, he’s ok.’
I point out to Jon that in every playthrough, however, someone does or says something to prove that even though Camelot is gone, some small part of it remains in some vestigial form. The spirit lives on. Even the darkest characters, the most pessimistic, say things which hint at the game – and by extension, Jon Ingold himself – is fundamentally optimistic.
Jon, again, laughs. ‘Look, it’s a struggle at the moment! But yeah, I am. I am. I think one has to be to survive. Also, I think its kind of the point of the Arthurian story, in a way. Right? So here’s the thing: King Arthur probably never existed. Or if he did exist, he was probably just another vicious warlord in a chain of vicious warlords. But this story, about Arthur and the round table, which has been in the British consciousness for 1500 years, and as a result exists everywhere else… this idea that government should be like this, that your king should be just, and fair, and kind… the idea of a round table, like, that’s in our heads in a way that we can’t actually get rid of! And when they were founding parliament, back in the 1500s or whatever, the people who did that will have had the story of the round table in their heads, somewhere. They may not have mentioned it explicitly, but that idea that you should have government by consensus is there in this story, reminding us that we can be better than we’re being.’
‘For me, one of the contexts where it’s really relevant at the moment is Brexit, and the destruction of the European Union. You look at those pictures of the European council chamber, and it’s… a round table! A round room, with lots of voices in it! That’s what it is! Arthur probably didn’t exist. But if he did, he died. And his round table was destroyed, it fell apart. And the hypocrites and the fascists, they came in, and they made everybody argue, and they took the power and they broke the consensus, and they ruined the country. But even though they managed to do that… the idea is permanent. The idea has not died. The idea will never die.’
Jon has a faraway look now, the kind a knight of the round would wear mid-way through a quest. ‘Making this game, I realized that the Arthurian legend mattered to me now precisely because I didn’t feel like I was living in a world that is fair and just, and where the best interests of society win out, and where people in charge feel compassionate care for those they’re looking after. Because I felt like the world was moving towards a position of cruelty and dominance, felt like something was being lost! And at that point, the stories became much more relevant and I finally understood what they were about. I think Arthur is the hero we need right now! Luke Skywalker is not going to save us right now. We need people who are tired, and who are broken, but who are trying anyway.’
Pendragon’s gameplay loop has you gradually unlock a roster of exhausted but unrelenting Arthurian heroes as they run towards Arthur’s final confrontation. After one particularly depressing day during lockdown, I was finishing a Pendragon run, and I’d somehow managed to reunite Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain and Sir Kay. As a weary Arthur trudged towards his doom, there was a thundering of hooves… and there, behind the tired king, came his old friends. Faux-history was changed. Arthur lit up, and we turned the tide. Camelot was gone, but Mordred was bested, and nobody else had to die. Some vestige of hope survived.
And if that doesn’t convince you to play Pendragon, one of the finest and most unexpected games I’ve played in many years, I don’t know what will.
Thanks to Jon Ingold for his time.