The idea of a backstory, or the lore of a place that visitors come to know by reading or, in virtual worlds, exploring, can be related to the "fan fiction" that has expanded the canon of works about Sherlock Holmes, the fictional universe of H.P. Lovecraft, or any number of popular science-fiction series. Poe's tales seem linked thematically, so in crafting the backstory that follows, we borrowed primarily from his own work.
The need for an Usher backstory came to designer Joe Essid after reading this post by Urizenus Sklar, avatar in Second Life for Northwestern philosopher Peter Ludlow. Ludlow was discussing the idea of how two different types of gamers react to online spaces in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs):
Ludologists think that MMOs are all about play. Narratologists think that MMOs are about spinning collaborative narratives. . . . In Second Life those narratives have to evolve organically in the lore of places . . . .Good back stories have uptake -- users pick up on them, expand on them, and write them into their own narratives and game play.
Both Lee Carleton and Joe Essid (who has designed paper-and-dice games for more than 30 years) are first and foremost Narratologists. With that in mind, we began to craft this for Usher.
We wanted those role-playing the Ushers to be free to interpret several reasons why Madeline is ill and Roderick going mad. These could include a history of incest in the family that Roderick wishes to continue, in order to assure the survival of the family; a supernatural agency such as the spirit of their mother or even the House itself, regarded by some readers as a living thing; a nefarious plot by the unnamed family doctor (deliciously known as "Doctor Renfield Allan" in our simulation) to steal away Madeline's body in order to win fame for himself by solving the riddle of sleepwalking and catatonic states; even a servant who may be in league with the doctor or operating on his own to ruin the Ushers for financial reasons or merely because he is goaded, like so many Poe characters or the author himself, by what Poe calls "The Imp of the Perverse." We named the servant Jenkins, a sideways reference to The Brown Jenkin from H.P. Lovecraft's tale of entrapment and madness "The Dreams in the Witch House" .
The Imp must have been working as we did our Beta testing, since we found that we could not resist moving odd props about, as long as we remained true to the backstory. We did have some "skeletons in the closet," though they also migrated to the crypt, the attic, and elsewhere.
We placed the House on the North Yorkshire Moors, an area of frequent rainfall and mists, in the year 1847, when Poe suffered his greatest loss. That year Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, Edgar Allan Poe's cousin and wife, died. One might argue reasonably that this began Poe's terminal decline.
We invented several subplots for the story and some background for Madeline and Roderick. First, we envision both of the Ushers as artists. Roderick is a poet (and many of his poems--famous ones by Poe) can be found throughout our House of Usher. At least one--Roderick has slipped it between the ribcage of his mother's skeleton--has been crudely copied out by someone and used as part of a plot to discredit the Ushers. We leave other hints of actual Victorian practices, such as a hair wreath that Lee Carleton placed, after he discovered the practice of leaving such mementos of dead relatives in plain view in homes of the era. Without being able to control fully the lighting in the House, we used morbid tapestries and other elements of gloom to simulate the oppressive air (literally and metaphorically) in the building.
Roderick is at or beyond the edge of sanity already; he has a terrible fascination not only with the late mother (we have left hints of an Oedipal relationship) but also with Sir Howard Usher, named with a tip of the Victorian top hat for Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Sir Howard is a mad ancestor who built a small maze on the first floor of the House and who disappeared on the North Yorkshire Moors. Roderick commissioned a morbid painting of Sir Howard as a decayed corpse, based upon the ancestral portrait that hangs at the entrance of the maze, known as "Sir Howard's Folly," but Madeline was so disturbed by this that she had Jenkins remove it to the cellars just above the family crypt.
Madeline is a writer, but her gift lies with painting, and we have a few paintings of hers, notably a study in reds of her brother and a less disturbing portrait of their father; for this image, we altered a photo of Vincent Price, posing as Roderick Usher in the 1960 film version. We wanted the main female character to come to life (so to speak) in a way that she never does in Poe's tale, where she does not speak a single word. We imagined her sanity as shaky, yet her primary problem is a physical malady brought on by one of several causes that the visitors to the House, playing the role of the Ushers' friends, must discover to save her and, one hopes, her mad brother.
All visitors to the house got the letter below from Roderick but it's only the start of what they will discover in and about the House and its occupants:
My dear friends,
I need you to come to my ancestral home! Madeline and I are ill, and I fear for her demise. Since you have long been close to me, I share with you a terrible dream I had. It expresses some sense of the turmoil in my ravaged soul.
I saw my sister before me, stretched upon her bed, able to speak but not move. I had used the science of mesmerism to try to calm her shattered nerves. The doctor and Jenkins looked on as I tried this desperate measure. As she lay in the trance, suddenly, these were her words to me.
"For God's sake! --quick! --quick! --put me to sleep --or, quick! --waken me! --quick! --I say to you that I am dead!"
I was thoroughly unnerved, and for an instant remained undecided what to do. At first I made an endeavor to re-compose the patient; but, failing in this through total abeyance of the will, I retraced my steps and as earnestly struggled to awaken her. In this attempt I soon saw that I should be successful --or at least I soon fancied that my success would be complete --and I am sure that all in the room were prepared to see the patient awaken. For what really occurred, however, it is quite impossible that any human being could have been prepared. As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of "dead! dead!" absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, her whole frame at once --within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk --crumbled --absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome --of detestable putridity.
Please, make haste! I fear this dream to be a portent of things to come.
Your humble and obedient servant, and dearest friend,
(letter adapted from the ending of Poe's "The Facts in The Case of M. Valdemar")
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