Playing the Fool

by G. Christopher Williams

30 March 2016

Cliff Johnson's 1987 classic, The Fool's Errand, is an homage to the tradition of the Fool in the literature and folklore of Western culture.
cover art

The Fool's Errand

US: 1987

Given the fast approach of April 1st, I decided that this week I would play the Fool.

We don’t often celebrate the Fool, as indeed he is usually the butt of our jokes or he makes us the butt of his own clowning. However, Cliff Johnson’s 1987 classic, The Fool’s Errand, is certainly an example of an homage to the tradition of the Fool in literature, folklore, and culture generally.
Johnson’s version of the Fool is most obviously influenced by the traditions of Tarot. Indeed, the structure and plotline of The Fool’s Errand is based on the imagery of the Tarot deck. It is a puzzle game in which you play as the Fool sent on an errand to locate 14 treasures that have gone missing in a kingdom, a kingdom populated by familiar faces from the Tarot, the Magician, the Hierophant, the Hanged Man, and the like. This concept is a rather common one in interpretations of the Tarot with “The Fool’s Journey” often cited as the central “story” told by the cards. The Fool is the protagonist of a journey in which he will encounter various archetypal individuals that make up the major arcana of the Tarot deck, gaining experience through each encounter.

In Tarot, the Fool typically represents youth, inexperience, folly, and the beginning of experience and knowledge. However, the archetype of the Fool is one that pervades folklore and Western culture generally.

The Fool can be an idiot, the aforementioned butt of our jokes. Indeed, the notion of the Fool is sometimes culturally associated with a group that can be denigrated as silly or foolish broadly. Consider, for example, the pervasiveness of Pollack jokes or Blonde jokes in American culture.

Or a Fool can be a simpleton that we root for because, despite his bumbling efforts, he manages, with a bit of luck, to make good. Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series or even the Homer Simpson of the early seasons of The Simpsons come to mind. 

The Shakespearean Fool, though, suggests that the outward foolishness of this kind of individual may mask an inner wisdom. Indeed, the appearance of a Fool in literature can suggest something practical about seeing the world in the most simple way possible. The Fool in King Lear is the most insightful character in the play, knowing immediately that Lear’s plan to divide his kingdom among his daughters is obviously just trouble waiting to happen. He is not blinded by the complicated motives of his “betters.” He understands very basic human motivations and what kinds of ugly actions they tend to drive people towards. No sophisticated psychological theory is needed to understand what three rich girls are going to do to each other when daddy divides up a pie between them. Things are going to get real ugly, real fast. Any fool could tell you that.

There is something of this kind of Fool in the Fool of the Tarot, both simple minded, but also a representation of the beginning of wisdom, and in the Fool of The Fool’s Errand, a character in search of someone else’s treasure, whose initial search for a map in the game becomes both the thrust of the entire story (each puzzle that you solve results in gaining a piece of that map) and in many ways the goal of the story. Finding the way, in other words, is the goal. It is expressed very plainly through the idea that the map of the game world is only seen fully once the terrain that it represents has already been explored by the one who “needs” it.

The structure of the game rests on an extended textual narrative about this Fool’s journey. As the player reads brief chapters of The Fool’s Errand, puzzles emerge within each section that, when solved, merely produce a piece of the map and that also unlock other parts of the story, other paths, other puzzles. All of these puzzles are familiar ones, word searches, mazes, word scrambles, and the like. Some of them are quite straight forward, some of them are quite difficult, but they are all based on very simple principles and very basic knowledge.

You are familiar with the way that these puzzles work, for the most part, already. You even likely have developed strategies for solving such things. They are often clever subtle variants on what you already know, but their cleverness, once again, lies in their simplicity, revelations of things already understood, just not something fully realized before.

If you are familiar with language and if you are familiar with solving things through the process of trial-and-error, The Fool’s Errand is eventually solvable. Even a difficult maze, for instance, always contains a simple solution and a simple strategy. When you hit a dead end, double back and try the other direction. As long as there is an entrance and an exit and we can assume that a path exists that connects them, any fool can solve a maze, which is kind of the point. This is essentially the underlying principle of all of the puzzle design in the game.

This is also the larger point of the narrative and of the larger goal of restoring the map. Assuming that a journey has a goal and a path to get there allows you and the Fool to actually get there by pressing forward and using the most simple kind of deductive logic as a means of progress. Double back if you make a mistake. Learn from error. Learn from experience. The puzzle will become fully realized by the process of solving it, an dthen you’ll discover that you knew it (you were “knowing it”) all the time.

Of course, the “foolish” thing about the game is that when all of the map’s pieces become available by the end of the game, you have largely solved the game already. The journey through the maze itself is certainly less than clear, but that is the point of exploring it, to become aware of the path itself. This is the simple message of The Fool’s Errand and its action as the reconstruction of what you already know. Wisdom exists in experience, not in directions given or dictated externally, not in someone else’s prior knowledge of the world. Discovering the world is the only way to know what the map really represents.

Wisdom, the game argues, emerges simply simply in the act of seeking, a concept well suited to a video game, which isn’t a medium well suited to promoting passively learning about a universe as it is about learning about a world through action and activity itself. The Fool’s Errand is a series of revelations of what you already know, but you simply haven’t fully realized yet.

The Fool’s Errand is available for free on Johnson’s website. If you want to play the game on PC, though, you will need a Mac OS emulator, like Executor, to play it with, which Johnson also kindly provides a link to, once again, on his personal site.

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