Balancing Game Mechanics and Audience Emergence
A lot of my work was based around trying to find a good compromise between giving the audience the freedom for emergent gameplay, where they can create, tell, experience and play their own story through their agency, and giving the audience clarity, context and goals to work toward.
I discovered through several playtests that in general, more game mechanics and more rules equals less possibility for creative play. It’s the endless Ludus versus Paidea argument. It’s not that more rules makes emergent play impossible, it only creates an expectation with the player that the decisions portrayed by the rules, are the only decisions they can make. Because, well, it says so in the rules, innit? It’s the same sort of code that tells people watching theatre to shut up and clap at the end of the show.
I’m a massive fan of emergent play, especially for Vloedelingen. The power lies in the fact that the decisions and therefore the story are created and caused by the individual. Therefore, they have influence, impact and control, and their role in the experience is important, most of all for that individual. Because of this, every decision they make hits home much harder. They didn’t screw over the Vastelanders because it would mean a high score, or more upgrades, instead they did it because they wanted to survive, gain power, get revenge, find love, or any other human drive.
Did I manage to find a balance? Not yet. It’s still too much toward the Paidea/theatre side of things. It’s too free, which means that certain types of audience (which I’ll get to later) have little clarity or context, which should be given by a set of rules and mechanics. I think that having a Game Master really helped though, and I”ll get to that too.
Don’t be scared of clarity, and being a Game Master
Leading from the above conclusion, I shouldn’t be scared of just explaining the rules and mechanics as-is. Sure, it can ruin the audience’s immersion for a short moment, but overall it serves to make the game mechanics clear from the word go, and for the rest of the show the audience doesn’t have to worry about figuring out the mechanics.
It’s also why I eventually decided to have myself be present as a Game Master. I can’t make rules for everything the audience might possibly decide to do. Myself as Game Master solved that. But there’s more!
As Game Master I can:
-Give clarity to the audience.
-Provide feedback on their actions.
-Improvise new mechanics on the spot if needed
-Give people cards with suggestions, thoughts of that character, states of being (eg sick), relationships, and missions, so I can direct the story to turn a certain direction, or make someone’s experience more interesting, or build on an existing story which that individual has started.
-Direct the flow of the experience by dividing it into days, and dividing the days into morning, midday and night. When an dramatically exciting thing is happening, I often wouldn’t want that to stop, so I prolong the time. It’s a great mechanic I derived from LARP techniques (fastforward, rewind, replay, pause, etc)
There are several types of audience, and each should be facilitated
I noticed that my audience ranged between gamers and roleplayers, and everything in between. Some wanted to play more as their character, and some played more as themselves while attempting to solve the game mechanics. It has mostly to do with the personality of the audience member, and also partly to do with what type of character they had. Characters which tied in with the mechanics, such as the Oude Monteur who could fix things twice as fast, tended to play the mechanics more. Characters which didn’t have that, and has strong emotional experiences on their cards, were played more theatrically.
Besides that, some of the audience was more active, others wanted to observe more. From my feedback I can conclude that Vloedelingen facilitates all these types fairly well. I do not want to reach either extreme. Too gamey, and there’s no context to relativise yourself to the story and subject matter. Too roleplayey (eh?), and you play your character so much you don’t act according to your personality as much.
Vloedelingen is a personal experience.
Unlike for example Early Days of a Better Nation, Vloedelingen is a much more personal experience for my audience than I anticipated. Many of my audience felt that they were shown a mirror, in which they saw what they would do in such a situation as portrayed in Vloedelingen. I think this has enormous power.
Thanks to my current setup where the core mechanics don’t regulate themselves, and actors and a Game Master is needed to make it work, the show can very easily and quickly react to every individual audience member. This means that every experience is partly catered for each individual, making it that much more effective to get across what I want to tell.
It’s also why I want to conclude that I really don’t want more than about 12 audience members!
They were so much fun to work on.
There were a few design questions when writing them, however:
-Balance between conciseness, easy to read, simple to understand, and wanting to tell their characters in a subtle way. Eventually I settled for a step down from explicitly stating “I don’t like people who are rude”. It worked fairly well, i think. It made sure the characters could be read and understood in a few minutes, while leaving it open for interpretation and not pushing an extreme opinion on that character.
-Relationships. The audience loved relationships. They needed them. From the first playtest, I got the feedback that some context as to what their connections were with the other audience members was definitely needed. I designed the characters so each had one to three relations, while trying to keep it scalable (It’s silly if someone has a relationship with a character that isn’t in the show). However, the relationships could be more defined (do I like my brother or not?).
-Tying them in with mechanics. Some characters begged to have perks and flaws when interacting with the core mechanics. Now, the fishermen can fish twice as well, while old folks can do only half the work, for example. And everyone needs a Doctor! It worked in giving the audience very concise roles. The downside was that the very functional characters were very often played in a very gamey way, with less attention to the character itself and more to what it could practically do.
The Eilanders and Vastelanders each had a different experience, but alike.
This should be obvious, of course, but I was never sure how different or how alike their experiences would actually be.
I was a bit wary of my assumption that perhaps only the Vastelanders would understand that it’s about discrimination, but
thankfully this was not the case. Because it’s a game, the audience can easily have moments of self-reflection during the
show, and after of course.
The Vastelanders’ experienc revolved predominantly around feelings of powerlessness, frustration and in some cases either desperation
(taking the fight to the Eilanders) or apathy (giving up and going along with the Eilanders).
The Eilanders’ experience revolved predominantly about suspicion, us-for-ourselves, pride and fear for their wellbeing.
But because both groups needed to survive, and often the power structure would be disturbed or turned around, these feelings did
bleed into each other.
Rules versus Suggestions
To compare with several roleplaying and board games, the idea of a core ruleset, with “rules” which aren’t rules, but suggestions
which players can ignore always or some of the time, worked very well in Vloedelingen. For example, it’s a rule that you need Diesel to
power the Generator, but it’s a suggestion to talk to the Burgemeester personally about your views. That suggestion would come in the form
of a verbal comment or a card with something written on it, from the Game Master. Also, on the back of the character cards, the rules & suggestions
were listed. Morning, midday and night is a rule that always happens, but how that time is used (discussion, then action, then reflection) is a suggestion.
This worked well to allow for emergent gameplay, and spur on audience members who were unsure if they were allowed to do certain things, like move props
about the place.
I’m a Dramaturgist
I didn’t really know what that actually meant. I can conclude now that my design and research process is very much focused around dramaturgy.
If I place that framed picture here, what story is it telling? What effect will it have? What does it implicate? Does it have cultural associations?
Not only before a show, but during as well. Because I’m a Game Master, i can react like a dramaturgist would while working with directors and actors on
a traditional theatre piece, but I can do it live in an interactive manner. I’m an interactive dramaturgist.
And that conclusion can be brought further. I didn’t only work as a dramaturgist, but also as a game designer, visual designer, storyteller and director.
Why pervasive? Because I can design from these perspectives or disciplines before, during and after the show. Sounds pretentious but
I like the title Pervasive Director.
Facilitation of the “Beers after the show” Discussion
Coney’s philosophy of stories starting when you first hear about them, and ending when you stop talking about them, is an idea I subscribe to.
I wanted to try it out, at least the latter part, in Vloedelingen. The common occurence that people will discuss and reflect on a piece of media they
just saw, whether it’s a concert, theatre piece or movie, tells what the audience thinks about it. That moment of reflection which often coincides with some
sort of realisation is so often lost by the makers of these pieces of media, as they don’t often facilitate those moments. I tried to do so by inviting
the audience to discuss the experience and the underlying themes directly after the show. It worked well, though I really have to find a practical, structured
way to facilitate it. It’s nice to let everyone share their experiences, but eventually I want to ask direct questions and steer the discussion so that I
can get the information I need. I think practice makes perfect in that regard, and a better grip of the Dutch language would help too.
Concluding, then: Interactive theatre is effective as an activistic tool, if the audience is submerged into the situation which you as a maker want to
address, and have the freedom to come to their own solutions and their own conclusions. However, that situation needs to be designed, and the solutions and
conclusions need to be facilitated.
My biggest hurdle was finding enough, and suitable, playtesters. I did all my playtests except the final ones at VERS Vlees at the HKU. That meant I did have
a fairly good access to lots of people who more or less fit my target audience, but the last few playtests were very difficult. Most students were very
busy with graduation and other projects. My fear of failure kicked in more than once too, so that meant procrastination.
To conclude, in order to solve the problem of playtesters, I’d like a group of people who are always ready to playtest. How do I get that?
I think I have to think outside the box and look for communities that I can get in touch with. Maybe organise a community of playtesters and developers!
The playtests have to be more “official” than a hastily put together test. Offer more than just “an interesting experience”. When I mentioned people would
get free biscuits, they were more eager to come along.
One of my research questions was how to begin the show. My conclusion is that an informal introduction by myself as Game Master works very well to focus the
audience into the code of “we’re going to play a game”.
After that, actors are needed. Actors can tell the story and the setting, which is the first step to immersion. Then follows the contextualisation with that setting.
The audience get their characters which tie themselves to the setting. The actors then need to tie the audience to their characters by addressing them
directly as if they were their characters. The actors and GM can then tie the audience to the game mechanics by walking them through the rules.
Although audio and visual elements were throughout my process a low priority, they did turn out to be immensely important.
I consciously chose for a low-production setup, trying to use only the bare bones which were functional in explaining the game mechanics and the setting.
I wasn’t focusing on immersion. The Dogville style worked functionally well. Masking tape to cordon off the locations with posters to say which locations they were.
Some props from the theatre prop attic to tell about the fishing culture, the traditional Dutch culture. Posters explaining the game mechanics on the relevant
locations. Using biscuits as a symbol for food and water in jerrycans as a symbol for Diesel. It was all very functional, not meant for immersion.
My conclusion is that this style has three main effects:
-It works well to quickly explain the mechanics and to reflect the setting.
-It works well to keep the attention to interaction with other audience members. It doesn’t distract from the most important interaction, which is social.
-It didn’t work well in the sense that it still felt like an unfinished work (which it was, but still).
-The lack of walls ensured everyone could observe everything, so they could keep track of what was going on more easily.
The Audio elements worked very well. Audience loved it when the radio went on, and the raging storm was exciting and immersive. I’m not sure if
I want to use too much audio, however, as that may distract the audience from the discussions and social interaction.
I never focused on immersion, and my conclusion is that I don’t need to. At least not in Vloedelingen in its current setup.
I think it’s important that the audience is allowed to periodically step outside of the gameworld to observe and reflect. It shouldn’t happen
too much for risking that the audience ceases to take the problems within the game seriously, which happened sometimes in my playtests.
If I had a million bucks, however, I’d certainly like to try a rendition of Vloedelingen with a lot more immersion.
Working with Actors
I had never worked with actors as a director before. I was lucky that my two actors were experienced improvisational actors, and could understand
interactive theatre and my vision pretty well. I should have been much clearer and more concise about the information (whether it’s setting, mechanics
or the order of events). Once we did a full playtest, they had a much better grasp on things. I should have done this much sooner. The best way to try out
and explain interactive theatre is to DO it, after all.
People are incredibly nice. (Creating Conflict)
I was oh-so upset when it emerged from my first playtest in which both groups were present, that they started to co-operate from the very first moment.
Vloedelingen is of course all about conflict and discrimination, so of course it needs to be present in some form, certainly throughout Act 1 and mostly in Act 2.
It was hard to convince people to hate the others, and even harder to keep that prejudice going, to maintain it. But i’ve discovered some ingredients that worked.
-Scarcity. There’s not enough for everyone, and our group is more important. This mechanic did not work on its own.
-Actors. The two actors helped enormously to stoke up conflict. They’re authority figures, and have the most knowledge both meta and ingame. People believe them, because there’s little else to believe.
-Peer pressure. I found that the bigger the audience is, the more likely they’re going to support and go along with each other, certainly with a Leader calling the shots.
-Character experiences/histories/prejudices. “Them pesky Vastelanders really did nasty things to me back then”. It worked fairly well to paint a picture of the others, but the audience didn’t act on them very often.
-Actual actions. Combined with the above, when the other group did something “bad” in the eyes of the other group (stealing food, refusing to share, scoffing, flipping the bird), it gave something to reference their prejudices to. One audience member only really started to hate the Vastelanders when they remarked they were coming to bring civilisation to the Eiland, for example. Then she could say “See! They’re arrogant pricks!”
-All the above wouldn’t be able to without the final sauce: Conflicting Goals.
I discovered that last one quite late. I sort of shoved that one aside. A brainwave came to me last minute on how to solve the lack of conflict. Eventually the scenario that the Vastelanders have to leave loved ones behind, get diesel and food on the Eiland, go back, pick them up, and sort it out, that worked. And it worked well. It was a bit of a problem finding a solution to what if they went back. Eventually I decided the ones left behind were just dead.
It’s a conflict of interest. The Vastelanders need Diesel to save their loved ones and to survive, the Eilanders need Diesel to survive. Whereas before, everyone needed Diesel to survive, and the best way to survive was to work together.
So, if the game mechanics tell a different story than the one you’re trying to tell, scrap ’em or change ’em. That addition worked well.
A Tool For Activism?
My most important question was whether interactive theatre could be an effective tool for activism. I think I can conclude that it certainly can be.
I don’t think it’s very effective to get a certain argument or ideology across. People already have their ideologies, and they’re often set in them.
I do, however, think it’s effective in explaining an issue in a very personal, first-hand manner. We don’t care much about the statistic that in 2014
3,500 refugees died in the Mediterrannean Sea. We would care more if we were put in that situation, even if it’s just a simulation. Now, Rot Op Naar Je Eigen Land
did this very well. It was a first-hand, real situation. But Vloedelingen isn’t. It’s not even a simulation, rather my interpretation of reality, simplified
and scaled down.
So yes, the experience of “what it’s like to be…” is effective, but can be done much better in a real-life situation than within the safe environment
of interactive theatre.
But then, there’s the nice thing about interactive theatre. It’s safe. That gives the audience room to play around with solutions to the perceived political
or social issue at hand. In Vloedelingen, the Eilanders had a solution to sink the Vastelanders’ boat. The Vastelanders had a solution to make friends with
the Eilanders personally. As a maker I do not want to say whether these solutions are good or bad. I don’t want to moralise in that way specifically.
Let the audience decide that for themselves.
That brings me to that next niggling question. Is interactive theatre, when used for activism, supposed to be objective? Yes and no. It’s impossible to be
purely objective, of course. It’s a human with their own ideologies making the piece. It’s also not a good idea to force your ideology, as an audience
is going to see through that. You want to criticise, shed light on, question and find solutions to a political, social, environmental problem.
Put your audience into your interpretation of that problem. Give them tools to (try to) solve it.
Translating social and political walls to game mechanics and dramaturgy.
I researched into topics such as political walls, national borders, immigration, refugees, discrimination, pillarisation and conflict.
Behind these topics are a plethora of causes, analysed through politicological, sociological, economical, philosophical and psychological means.
Around these topics are many arguments for and against ideologies, solutions, and underlying causes.
There are also experiences, emotions, memories and stories from the events associated with these topics.
I collected these, inventorised them, and tried to distill relevant causes, arguments and stories.
I settled on one example within this broad theme: immigration, refugee policy and discrimination in the Netherlands.
Because Vloedelingen is a sociopolitical situation based on refugees fleeing to another country which distrusts them, I focused my research on what causes and dynamics
were needed in real life to foster that situation.
My process was basically to find several different techniques (inspired from existing experiments and interactive theatre, LARPS and games) which
served to create conflict. See my conclusion on creating conflict for that! These techniques also reflected the conditions needed in real life to
cause conflict, whether they’re wars, racism or border protection. For example, Vloedelingen had Leaders to indoctrinate conflict. In real life, there’s
often a figurehead needed to act as the mouthpiece for conflict. That figurehead needs to be charismatic, populist and have authority.