Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts.
The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.
The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.
But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act; the hardest part. The part we call The Prestige.
Opening monologue from The Prestige.
Screenplay by Jonathan & Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest.
The Prestige should, if you ask me, be required viewing for any game designer.
Why? First, because it’s a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema. Second, because it credits its audience with an uncommon amount of intelligence. And third, and most importantly, because it is itself a game, and one that has a great deal to say about game design. It’s something of a riddle, too, of course, but I believe it’s an honest one. It tells you the rules and then it plays by them. The film may be a mystery, but it’s no trick.
It is a story of three men, three magicians: Angier, Borden and Cutter. Each man understands stage illusion differently, and while each comes eventually to understand the others’ methods and secrets, our protagonists are, in the end, consumed by their mutual obsessions. It spoils nothing to tell you this; the tale, as they say, is all in the telling.
Angier knows what the audience knows, that “The world is simple, miserable, solid all the way through.” He wants to fool them “just for a second”, to “make them wonder.” His trick is to create these moments. Angier is the showman.
Borden, his rival, has a secret. But he knows that “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” His trick is his own life, and to fool the audience he must nurture that myth above all else. Borden is the storyteller.
Cutter is the ingénieur, working behind the scenes to design illusions and build the apparatus. He understands that the audience “want to be fooled” even while they know that the illusion must, somehow, be real. He understands the illusion and enables it. His trick is to create the machine. Cutter is the engineer.
I think the film resonates with me because it is both entertainment and exemplar: a show about showmanship, a story about how stories are told, and a machine crafted to tell us something about how machines are made.
And, writ large, are the three types of game designer: Showman. Storyteller. Engineer. Which are you?
Or, to put it another way, what do you make: moments, myths or machines?