Research: Induction not Compulsion

Richard Burton compels.

As discussed previously, one of the sub-questions currently under observation is

  1. How can a system induce without compelling?

If this video game is supposed to encourage but not enforce dramatic inter-player interaction, there must exist sustained stimuli to make them do so. However, their dramatic contributions should be drawn from imagination and creativity rather than dutifully rendered to comply with some preordained objective. Paradoxically, the problem spells out something along the lines of “Players must do X but they mustn’t feel like they have to X but they need to do it anyway.”

Earlier I analysed the narrative device known as the MacGuffin, which is an object er event that propels characters through a narrative without having very much meaning in and of itself. Translated to the video game grammar, this would mean an obvious, concrete objective to reach within the confines of the game, that is not as essential as it initially seems.

Collectible scarf simulator.

Journey appeared to be about journeying to the mountain. It involved journeying to the mountain, and ended with you ending up said mountain. The game, however, was not about the mountain. The featured some light platforming and collecting stuff, but it wasn’t really about that either. It was about the subtle, anonymous multiplayer mechanic, where though limited communication two players, unaware of each other’s identity and with no way to discover it before finishing the game, forged a relationship between the two players, companionship for the titular journey. A game that solely dealt with this would be much harder to realize without the huge mountain-shaped MacGuffin (though the idea is not without merit), but within the confines of the concept, it works very well, as the objective-driven mind of the player is still concerned with reaching the mountain, even if he spends more time interacting than actually completing this goal.

On the other hand, if I really want meaningful, dramatic interaction in my game, it can’t solely rely on misdirection and subtle induction. The meaningful interaction would probably entail concerted effort from the players’  side, a will and a want to perform and interact with one another, something that is not featured in Journey. The interaction can’t just be incidental, a byproduct of more focused play. Therefore, we can conclude that the ‘MacGuffin’ in the game, the device that will induce players into performance, can’t be an all-encompassing, direct objective like a gargantuan mountain in the distance. Which begs the next question: Of what nature should the MacGuffin be in order to realize the goal of meaningful inter-player interaction? In any case:

Tenet: The performance-inducing MacGuffin cannot supersede the performance-focused goals of the game.

The MacGuffin

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized but did not invent the MacGuffin. The plot device predates its term. A MacGuffin is an object or element in a narrative that impels the characters to progress through the plot, while usually having very little or value in and of itself. The MacGuffin seems relevant, but its actual worth is often negligible. Like the titular Maltese Falcon. Like Rosebud in Citizen Kane. They motivate change but they do not offer any outcome.

This device may translate well to the sort of performance-driven ‘game’ I’m trying to coax into workable form. For players to interact in any meaningful dramatic form, some relevant, or seemingly relevant motivator is required. Any playthrough of any game might have been dramatically interesting if this weren’t the case. Assuming for now that it isn’t, the MacGuffin might be a mountain in the distance. It might be a crumbling bridge. More relevantly, it was the boat in the distance in my own game, Raft. You were never meant to reach the boat, but it impelled-first time players to use their performance controls, like panicked waving. And thereby laid the ground rules for inter-player performance.

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There is a boat in this picture somewhere.

It seems like, at least until testing proves otherwise, that this sort of approach is warranted to transport players from objective-minded play to dramatic-minded play. That is the assumption, for now, at least.

Tenet: A game-related MacGuffin Objective is necessary to induce players into a dramatic performance.



Chekhov’s Gun

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Chekhov’s Gun is a dramatic principle formulated by the playwright Anton Chekhov. Roughly speaking, it dictates that all elements presented in a dramatic framework must also be used within said dramatic framework. If something is not utilized, it is pointless and can therefore be omitted. Every present element becomes necessary and irreplaceable. Any piece of puzzle inevitably foreshadows a future event.

Though interesting and potentially useful, the principle does not translate well to mechanic. Video games implicitly feature choice, however little, down to choosing whether you play the game at all or not. Barring explicit railroading, there is no real way to force a player to use a certain object in a certain way, not if the object of a game is to allow expression rather than convey orders.

The principle can, however, be bastardized into useful form. Leaving aside for the moment the imperative of actually using an object, the very presence and possibility of using an object can add to the character and possible execution of a scene. Slathering a scene with weaponry adds violence and threat to a scene even if they are not used. Whether this still qualifies as actual use of Chekhov’s Gun is doubtful. The necessity of use appears to be paramount, so, by definition, it would appear that it cannot work well within an interactive environment.

Research Proposal

Now that we have excised the previous limp attempt at a thesis, let’s take a pot shot at a new one. Bearing in mind the previous criticisms of my initial proposal and the insights that came with the ‘puppetry’ definition, this:

“How can I induce players to interact dramatically with one another inside a virtual space?”

This one seems to cover most, if not all objectives I had vaguely formulated inside my head. The sentence assumes players don’t usually interact dramatically with one another inside most video games, playing usually as themselves or from the comfortable distance that the character they control is not really them. This is a sweeping and slightly bent statement, but thus far my research has not found a game that explicitly features dramatic interaction as a key feature, so we’ll let that be for the moment.

‘Dramatically’. What does it mean in this context. Can general correspondence not be dramatic? It probably can. But explicitly, intentionally so? Probably not, but this has to be substantiated and the term has to be more well-defined within the context of the project.

‘Virtual space’. For now, we’ll define this as ‘within the confines of the program that will result from this research’.

‘Induce’. It’s not as strong a word as ‘compel’ or ‘force’, but still, it suggests external guidance by either design or a directer influence, like another player. Is this necessary? Probably, otherwise there would be far more games featuring intrinsic performance.

‘One another’. What does the existing relationship between players mean for the relationship they establish through their characters. More importantly, can this be reliably synthesized and implemented inside a game?

From this short analysis, I believe we can glean the following sub-questions:

  1. How can a system induce without compelling?
  2. What does ‘drama’ entail within a game?
  3. What role does an existing relationship between players play inside a game?

Undoubtedly I am forgetting something here, but now it’s regarded for posterity, and more importantly, future me. I will now set about filleting these questions until I can produce a more pure, accurate form.

Enter Joost Bos

©Roland Volbeda

Joost Bos. Valued classmate. Inscrutable designer. Notorious misgiving-haver. Frequent accordion-fondler. Opinion-possessor.  And mime. When I was discussing the sorry state of my project with him yesterday he said something along these lines:

“Basically Raft was a game in which you create a performance with another player. Sort of like puppet theatre.”

Fuck. Although puppet theatre and puppetry in general was somewhere on my list of research priorities, hearing it formulated like this greatly cleared my head on what I am trying to achieve. It is puppetry. ‘Direct embodiment of a role through an avatar’… I should have just called it puppetry. Also, ‘creating a performance with another player’ far better describes the intention than ‘Two players interacting defines the narrative within the specific time frame of play’.

So, from here on out, it’s off to redefine the aims and parameters of the project, greatly aided by the perspicacity of this blonde agitator.

Post-mortem: Raft (2013)

Raft was a game I made at the end of my second year of Interactive Performance Design. The project brief was essentially ‘whatever’ with some parameters previously established through the course itself (at least some basic interaction and ‘audience’ participation, leaving aside for the moment what an audience actually entails). I was then, much like now, haunted by  ghosts of nondescript ideas, like games where the only things happening are the things you’ve initiated personally, things where games function as stages rather than tableaux, characters that allow enough expression so as to stamp out any ambiguity between the player and their avatar, as far as communication is concerned.

Clearly the years have not made the quandary any less problematic. Regardless, this rolled out:

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The opening ‘scene’ of Raft

In Raft, two players each control a character through a controller. The characters, a fat, short one and a tall, thin one, are stranded on a tiny raft in the middle of the ocean, and that’s basically it. All video game staples apply: Both have controls for movement and jumping, plus, more importantly, very limited expressive controls, namely being able to turn their head left or right. They were also able to wave wildly. The animation of these are slow and deliberate, and meant to fit into each other. The short character will always look up whether looking left or right, same as the thin one will always angle down. This was because they were meant to be used to either deliberately look at each other, or away from each other, each implying certain emotional statements, understanding, love, confusion, rejection, resentment, any host of things people are wont to project on simple expressions by cartoon characters. All these were free to utilize whenever and for whatever reason by the players. This, and the design thereof, aren’t new. They are well-tested dynamics best demonstrated by these people:


Well-trodden waters. A familiar dynamic most audiences have no trouble latching on to. Ernie and Bert were an inspiration, and hearken back throughout the spine of the author’s existence, but core to the concept, even more so than these two puppets, was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play that basically has two people in it who do nothing while waiting for someone who never shows up. I wanted to capture the situation in interactive form, put two players in a void with nothing to do but wait for something inevitable, or perhaps, evitable. In this case, I wanted no literary or narrative context, or at least as little as possible, so a complicated concept relying on dialogue like ‘waiting for person X’ would not do. Instead, the raft idea came up, which at once trapped the characters in a certain space, immediately (and visually) convinces the players of their situation and goal, and brought with it an inevitable end, and possible means of averting said end.

Raft was a finite experience. Time would pass, night would fall, rain came down. All these little vignettes were short 1-minute bursts. These were techniques employed to give the players a sense of temporality, an idea that time was passing by, that they were trapped for the days on the raft rather than the five minutes it took to finish the game. After each scene faded into the next, their characters would be in different positions, implying that things had happened or dynamics had shifted while the audience was ‘away’.  The camera itself would also vary it’s position, using cinematographic techniques to both illustrate the passage of time and a growing sense of isolation. Most importantly, every time a scene switched, the raft would become a little more undone. Until finally, in the last scene, it had split in half, separating the characters, while the fragments of debris they were still standing on slowly sank into the ocean.

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The end.

In the end they died. Accompanied by the dulcet tones of Brian Eno. Some people professed to be touched, but, realistically, there was Brian Eno music and the staging, involving the fat one drowning first, was designed to elicit a little sympathy. None of that sympathy was generated; it was designed. So that is a failure in itself. Now, a certain amount of Mise en Scene and dramatic design is to be expected. I experimented with this in the first level of Raft where a mist horn can be heard in the distance, and later a boat can be seen crossing the horizon in the distance. This was designed to lure the hypothetical players into believing, for a moment, that there was a mechanical goal attached to the game. That perhaps by waving hard enough they could attract the attention of the boat and so be rescued. Of course, the boat can’t be called. In the second level, there is no boat, but the mist horn is still present in the sound mix, mooting the idea that the boat is a recurring mechanic in the game. Sure enough, there was waving, but again, to no avail, as designed. By this time, the desperation was meant to set in, but the game simply wasn’t polished or well-thought-through enough to elicit this.

This was the game as presented and ‘finished’, here ‘performed’ by Leon Tukker and Jim Strolenberg. The performance in-engine worked well enough, I suppose, although I should stress the players are both people that are wont to the sort of thing I wanted to see in this game anyway. The Vine shows a far more crucial mistake I made: I paid zero attention to the physical presence of the players outside the game. I just seated them in front of a computer behind a desk, while, as some teachers later pointed out, the the on-screen placement of the character can so easily and beautifully be mirrored. I completely failed to utilize the already spontaneous and human contact going on outside the box that only translated vaguely into the box. I wrote an addendum to presentation later that somewhat picked up on this but not nearly enough.  This project is probably going to end up as a video game, mostly because of visibility and mobility, and because it is a relatively virginal medium, but the interpersonal space between players, their characters and each other’s character should not be left unused.

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All in all, I am slightly surprised about some qualities I’d forgotten about in this little game, but it still stands as a totemic representation of bad research, bad testing and bad execution. It is relevant source material, however, as encapsulated inside its ugly little innards is the same kind of enthusiasm I hope to bring to this project. Just more of the things that were in it. More of the things. Things.

Dissection of a ramschackle presentation

Last Friday all Interactive Performance Design and Theatre Design students were supposed to deliver a quick presentation on their thesis, such as it is, their proposed methods and schedules and their inspirations. Obviously I was one of these students and followed suit. In retrospect, however, I fear I may have given the wrong or at least a flawed impression of what I intend to do. Let’s cast our mind’s eyes back to last friday and run through a handful of these slides:

The title slide.

In a sudden, weariness-induced flare of inspiration I went with Exit Pursued By A Bear as a working title, partly because the stage direction from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale makes me laugh but also because the simultaneously trivial and suggestive nature of the phrase might reflect some of the things I want to achieve in this project. Thus far it has little bearing on anything, save that I might add a bear to the game regardless of what it turns out to be about.

The second slide.

This second slide was meant to clarify what it was exactly that I was intending to make, and it does not do that. At all. A ‘game which prioritizes play over priorities or one where play ois the priority’ does not sound especially good on paper but it makes even less sense when approached with some measure of scrutiny. The game is about playing, yes. Does it have a goal, or is play the goal? More accurately, I suppose, would be to say that it requires a goal that emphasizes play, or needs a goal that requires a lot of play to be met.

Third slide.

This slide is meant to clarify the previous slide and fails to do that. I build my slides as visual company to my nattering, so excluding the confusion that stems from that, this slide alone does little to convey any clarification whatsoever. The three points it emphasizes, ‘Embodiment‘, ‘Story‘, and ‘Stage‘ are absolutely relevant in a gut-feeling kind of way, but they are relatively non-descript and without context. ‘Embodiment‘ was supposed to refer to directly performing a character rather than performing it as yourself. ‘Story‘ refers to the creating a story through performance rather than expressing a story created beforehand. ‘Stage‘ refers to the ultimate function of the product: A playground that is both a level for the players and a stage to experience for an audience.

Another slide.

A few more slides which basically emphasize the same things. A story does not work especially well in an interactive environment, but interactions taking place in said environments can make for good stories. How can I adequately push players to interact in a way that makes for an interesting narrative? And, more importantly, should I?

Relevant slide.

This slide deals with Raft, a game I made in my second year, which attempted to deal with similar problems in an inadequate fashion. I’ve gradually come to realize that a lot of pitfalls in my current project can be avoided by accurately understanding what younger me was trying to achieve with Raft, so expect a detailed post-mortem of the game soon.

The ‘thesis’.

My so-called thesis ran something along the tracks of ‘How can I induce players to express themselves freely through an avatar?’, which is, at best, a problematic sentence, and one in dire need of replacement.

Other slides dealt with vaguely relevant things like intended demographics (‘Jaded Adults?’) and proposed areas of research (Lubbock, Propp), but when my presentation ended and questions were asked, I noted that the gist most of the teachers gleaned from my presentation was either playing like children, regression studies, and other things involving a lot watching children fumble with wooden blocks, which is both something I’ve done before and a gross misreading of my intentions, which was clearly my own fault.

First priority now is to reformat everything I intended to deliver with the first presentation and make it actually deliver what it was supposed to do in the first place. And hope a proper thesis rolls out of that either artifice or by magic.

On graduation and the flotsam that comes with it

For the next few months this blog will largely serve as documentation for my graduation project. As of this moment ill-formulated thoughts and barely relevant interests are haphazardly coagulating into a workable thesis. It’s not done, but for the moment, it goes something like this:

How can I encourage participants into spontaneous play, free from all inhibitions of adulthood, without losing maturity?

This thesis is atrocious and will probably nothing more than a harrowing memory tomorrow. Regardless, some of its content is valid: I am interested in getting people to play with same kind of carefree spontaneity as they would have when they were eight-year-olds. To recapture something about that direct connection between the brain and the toy, to express oneself through a tiny artificial avatar. To escape reality at the drop of a hat. To combine this largely lost intuition with all the bagage and vagaries of an adult. To develop a platform that allows and facilitates these practices, informing and performing, playing and being played.

A quick glance at the previous block of text will tell you that we are still in the indeterminate flowery language stage of conceptualizing. Savour it for now. We are off to dreaded practicality next.