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:

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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.

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