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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.