Playing with the Company: Kage Baker's legacy

"He'll be very clever, look at that score. And we'll take this figure for his strength, and this one for his alignment with the forces of good. Is that neat or is that neat?"
Kage Baker, The Life of the World to Come

In a series of books collectively known as the novels of The Company, Kage Baker tells the consequences of two technological breakthroughs in the 24th century: cyborg immortality and time travel. A company develops techniques to make people immortal (an ugly and unwholesome process) and to travel to the past (the future is out of reach) and back again. Intent on profiting from their technology, they send a cadre of technicians in prehistoric times. There -for simplicity's sake, let's use "there" instead of "then" when referring to narrative (rather than linear) time-, they kidnap Neanderthalian kids and pour all kinds of technology inside their little skulls. Essentially, they make them into cyborgs. They raise them, teach them everything they know in the 24th century, give them the keys to the past and then leave back to their clean and bland future. They instruct the new, permanent employees to retrieve all kinds of lost items and living things while staying in the shadow of official history, of the events that are already known to have occurred: history cannot be changed. The good little cyborgs do as they are told. They work for their employers, spiriting away treasures lost to time while Rome is burning, making the Company very, very rich in the process.
This article is not about discussing the books themselves. I urge you to read them. [For my French readers: only the first two have been translated.] The characters will grow on you and you will enjoy the humor, the action, the emotion. And, when you are done reading the main storyline and the standalone stories, while closing this last book you will be thirsty for more.
Gaming is a continuation of story by other means. This is the first in a series of articles about the gaming potential of the Company universe. And oh does it have potential. If you share the same belief and wish to contribute, get in touch with me, leave a comment and let's discuss.

Warning: the spoilers begin here.

Like any company, the Company is host to an ecosystem of stakeholders with wildly different points of view, each of which could be explored in games.
- Shareholders
- Management
- Employees
- Customers
(The list could be longer.)
Some elements in the story are perfectly suited for adaptation to boardgame gameplay.
- For example, managers are torn between, on one hand, the desire to get rich by creating and employing many cyborgs, and, on the other hand, the need to control and survive their creations, a conundrum that is evocative of many crises. Multiple players can compete to be the richest (best bonus) while the game retains a collaborative element (everybody loses if the cyborgs take over).
- Other example: who knows who owns the Company who owns History? Who indeed? The players/shareholders might not know at start their own identity.

A roleplaying game
Mostly though, I believe The Company is an employee-focused pen-and-paper roleplaying game begging to be born. Each player would play an employee created by the Company and working for it. The totalitarian dimension of this proposition immediately springs to mind. We are reminded of a game such as Paranoia, especially in the way a huge gap separates official corporate policy and the everyday life and feelings of the employees. I am also reminded of the French game Thoan : Les Faiseurs d'univers, about Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers series. In a nutshell, the characters of Thoan have been created by mad demiurges and try to take control of their life and assault the heavens. The Promethean dimension is very much present in the Company series. The fact that the cyborgs cannot be killed displaces the core of the gameplay from murderous fight to a space where players need to pick their brains. There are conflicting imperatives and dramatic tension at multiple levels: between the will of the company and the will of the individual, between known history and hidden history, between the need to blend and the need to perform. The cyborgs, who have trouble relating to humanity due to their semi-artificial condition, need to adapt to and interact with a number of environments and situations. Social situations are an area where roleplaying games shine.

Themepark vs Sandbox
The corporate nature of the setting lends itself to making a mission-based game. In the books, cyborgs are tasked with precise assignments, such as to retrieve a flower, a painting, or even a whole people and their way of life.
At the same time, the setting leaves ample room for players to build their own sandcastles. Recorded history cannot be changed, but so much can happen in its interstices. Many elements within this open world environments are set in stone and cannot be changed, but the rest is fair game and is actually the place where the action should take place, given the importance of meaningful choices in roleplaying games.
It is far easier to accept if you forget about the philosophy behind; accept the contraries, that you have free will and that history cannot be changed, merely discovered in the way that suits you best.

Gamism / simulationism / narrativism
(Using Ron Edwards's definition.)
Gamism: there is competition in the series and there could well be around a gaming table. Player characters are co-workers in a mission-based environment, but they can pursue different endgames using the sandbox, like Nennius and Labienus.
Simulationism: if you accept that History cannot be changed even by the mighty dice, there are still elements of balance and uncertainty that can be identified and used for entertainment.
Narrativism: I do not envision the problems typical to licensed environments -"don't touch the canon"- because not touching the canon is part of the genes of the Company: players need to insert their own story into the bigger picture that is our world with its rich history, and its extra layer of invisible, Company-related history.

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