Bad News

When I first entered the room for Bad News, I was pretty confused as to how the game would be played. He chose a member of the audience to be the main player of the game where she would have to go town person to town person to deliver the “Bad News” of who had passed away. They ran a simulation program and generated a virtual town with backstories and different characters that the player could ask questions to as the main actor would pretend to be those characters.

What stood out to me was how real the “fake” characters actually were. Each backstory was perfectly woven into the narrative even though it was completely simulated. Another thing that stood out to me was when the game was over and the creator of the game insisted that these virtual people were very real. It had a Westworld vibe in that the characters had back stories and could interact via code. It was interesting to get that perspective. Over the course of the game you do in fact get to understand the characters better and feel like you know them even though they are not real.

I was reminded of the writing in S.E.E.D creating and implementing an Alternate Reality Game when discussing different forms of Alternate Reality games. They define ARG’s as “These media may include (but are not limited to) videos, radio broadcasts, blog posts, social media, and invisible theater performances that unfold in public or unconventional spaces. As players move through the narrative, they encounter an assemblage of short games, puzzles, and playful experiences that use both physical and online spaces as their platforms. Explicit gameplay challenges may require players to crack codes using cryptography, engage in social engineering experiments with non-player characters and actors, and play traditional digital or analog games.”

We used many elements of this while playing the game. For example, there was an invisible theater performance with the unseen actor, and we were all encountering a puzzle on an online platform. I was also reminded of the Yes, and : Acceptance, Resistance, and Change in Improv, Aikido, and Psychotherapy by Earl Vickers. The entire performance was essentially a “Yes And” where the actor had to improvise given the descriptions of the characters he was given.

Overall, it was a very unique experience. I was skeptical of how it was all going to work at first, but it was very fun to participate and watch.

Gameplay Experience

For my gameplay experience this quarter, I took part in a playtest at the MADD center run by Peter McDonald. The game began when the group I was with was invited to participate in some wine tasting. The researchers in lab coats then informed us that they had tested our DNA and discovered we shared DNA with the 500, a group who came to earth a long time ago. The researchers told us they needed our help to fix their interdimensional portal so they could get back to their city of Gnighton. Then, we were handed a notebook which contained clues for a scavenger hunt. Once we collected all the test slides and the box that we found during the scavenger hunt, we went back inside and fixed the portal using the test slides which had colors marked on them as clues. Using these color cues, we matched the correct wires to their outlets, completed a circuit, and solved the game.

One thing I noticed during this gameplay experience was how much it reminded me of an escape room challenge. This could be due to the fact that we were a small group–only about seven of us were players in this game–making for a more intimate, collaborative experience. Furthermore, this was simply a playtest, and for that reason the experience felt like a one-time experience of an escape room.

Considering this is a game-in-the-works, upon reflection I was wondering what the aims of the final game could be. It seemed to me that this game as a final product would have the moral of either conservation or climate change, because the box which we had found through the scavenger hunt contained flowers and seeds. Additionally, the researchers from another world relayed how they came back to Earth to bring supplies back to their home, since their city was experiencing a drought. Additionally, the notebook contained letters with a lot of color used as imagery; these colors also related to things like Lake Michigan and the Chicago sky changing color due to pollution. In thinking about this, I thought, too, about Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan’s research on embedded games. In their work, they “introduce the concept of ‘Embedded Design,’ through which potentially sensitive, controversial, or counterattitudinal ideas or themes in games are crafted in a way that is less overt and less obviously didactic or ‘message-driven’” (3). I felt this to be the case with this playtest as well, for the sci-fi aesthetic of the game and the nonmoral and purely-for-fun scavenger hunt helped to override any explicit messages about climate change. While a game like Awkward Moment cited by Kaufman and Flanagan inserts specific “bias cards” into the game to get their message across, the fact that this game’s (speculative) ethic is embedded into the gameplay as well as interwoven into the actual game story makes it at once less didactic and more pervasive.

I also believe that this game aligned with Guy Debord’s situationist definition of play. He asserts that “the new phase of affirmation of play seems to be characterized by the disappearance of any element of competition” (l. 4). This was very apparent to me while playtesting: because so much of the game relied upon our help as a group, the scavenger hunt was a completely collaborative effort. While I figured out one clue was by the school bookstore, Aaron figured which statue would harbor the next clue. However, I agree with Debord’s other sentiment, that “play cannot be completely emancipated from a competitive aspect; its goal must be at the very least to provoke conditions favorable to direct living” (l. 20). Though here Debord is speaking on a larger scale, making a claim for how play should factor into an overall capitalist world, it holds true for this specific game as well, for it still maintained competition, just in a different form. What I mean is, we all worked together to beat the game itself: to finish the scavenger hunt and fix the portal. It was the players versus the game. It seems, too, that this form of competition is another form of “embeddedness” that the game utlizies; necessitating collaboration to solve a problem forces players to be more aware of their own responsibility and to keep each other accountable. This is the case with climate change as well, to learn how each individual’s part plays a role in the large scale maintenance of our planet and home.

The Apocalypse is Here Let’s Solve Puzzles: Subversion and it’s Flaws

Over the course of the ARG presentations, I had a very interesting time seeing how the formula was played with. For our group, we sought to create something very conventional to the extent that ARG’s can be conventional, playing on the tropes while emphasizing a potential for players to connect to one another through the experience. Though we laughed certainly about the campiness of time travel, having difficult explaining how the timelines worked even to one another, this wasn’t questioned. We hadn’t even considered the more simplified parallel world aspect envisioned by other teams. Additionally, we sought to avoid emphasizing explicit education in our ARG. Yes, we expected players to learn and grow from the experience, but we didn’t fully elucidate those objectives among ourselves ‘til after getting ideas thrown back at us by the other groups. However, the most interesting subversion for us was the idea that puzzles not be the essential aspect of the ARG. Seeing the ARG that eschewed puzzles and the this is not a game mentality for character creation and roleplaying, along with the group that replaced it with policy writing it struck an interesting chord with me about the essential role of puzzles in ARGs.

In the process of exploring ARGs, the idea of explicit creation of characters for an alternate world seems on some scale to be a betrayal of the principle of ARGs. At their core as alternate realities, when players step into the ARG, they are inherently playing a created character of themselves. When players joined secret societies in UChicago ARGs, they certainly were not literally joining the society. Rather, the themselves of the alternate world joined the society. In this context, creating a character to explore an alternate world strikes me as on some level leading the world of ARGs entirely. If playing a character in an alternate reality is ARG gameplay, then doesn’t one eventually come to the conclusion that all games are essentially ARGs. The explicitness of the ‘This is Not a Game’ mentality places what I consider explicit requests to role-play as  a breaking of that. Even if players as characters need to participate in disruptive activities or signal support for fictional organizations, the fact that they remain in some way themselves makes it ARG.

Additionally, the group that converted the core gameplay loop to policy struck me as an interesting divergence as well. In some ways, writing a policy is sort of solving a puzzle, and the entire conception of the twitter response and the appeals to a council were brilliant in the format they were explained to us in. In some ways, the policy writing is still an act of puzzle solving, solve the problem of how to both craft an effective policy that is able to be passed. However, it just struck me as sort of boring. I was fascinated by the idea of ARG’s as an escapist environment, and the notion of spending my free time writing essays gave me a degree of pause. In addition, it sort of explicitly signals the gamification, you must do this to advance. We fell into the same thing in our game in terms of gamifying the structure, so this is not intended to criticize, simply ask how we maintain the idea that THIS IS NOT A GAME.

The brilliance of puzzles in the THIS IS NOT A GAME mentality is that a puzzle is an explicitly gamified object. In the constant struggle between problem-solving and problem-finding, the distinct question emerges of which giving someone a puzzle to get through represents. Hacking into a computer is not normally a game, but in the world of ARGs, hacking disguised or as a limited form of the legitimate version of itself represents a gamified element. However, puzzles don’t need to disguise the gamification, because they are explicitly gamified. Since in real life, puzzles are games naturally in the game world they are as well. Thus, when a puzzle is deployed in order to provide a gamified end to the problem-finding, it is a gamification that stays true to our THIS IS NOT A GAME mentality. Naturally, the person hiding something might believe that only the brave heroes with his clue will solve the puzzle, rather than the dastardly NPCs, a feasible in reality reason for the puzzle to exist in the exact format it does. In our arg, puzzles are the player’s informants way of keeping the information in our hands and out of the hands of our enemies. The puzzle in the ARG is so essential because it allows for the creators to directly gamify without breaking from the THIS IS NOT A GAME principle.

Ask Again Later – Crusading can become Embarassing

During the Ask Again Later role playing session, I took on the guise of Fitzgerald Gray. In designing the character, I neglected to realize I had designed an absolute combat powerhouse out of a normal non-supernatural character. Upon receiving my character sheet, I saw that many of my combat abilities had been taken away, while one was added: Holy Warrior. Suddenly rather than simply being an aimless, orphaned drifter looking for purpose, I was a witchhunter greatly concerned with keeping that a secret and wholly willing to do what was necessary to keep it that way. This resulted in some conflicts between my personal desire and what my character desired. A crucial personal factors bled into the character, under Bowman’s definitions. Through my outside knowledge bleeding into the character, I assumed that the supernatural player characters weren’t the overall antagonists of the story. I was suspicious of Jameson, the eventual villain from the beginning, and would’ve taken steps to dispatch him if I’d realized that there were opposing player factions. Additionally, my personal desire to be nice and friendly, made me nervous to be as standoffish as my character would be. Since I was interacting with strangers, I wanted to avoid seeming unlikable due to my character actions. Thus, when my companies Jodie and Boom were attempting to stop a stranger from following us into the mines on our dangerous quest, we found it difficult to be mean and simply reject him as our characters might have.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end, I truly reached a unity with the emotions of my character. In the dark back staircase of the Gray Center, there was both great tension and satisfaction when I put my gunplay skills to work striking holy bullets at the creatures spawned from the pit. After the actions in the mine, the nervousness about being Fitzgerald faded and I fully assembled into the character of a holy warrior trying to keep the unnatural under wraps. I held another player at gunpoint, until my companions refused to support me, because my holy bullet had winged her and she was a confessed witch. Then, it was a matter of finding the escaped hellhounds to avoid word of them getting out.

At this point, a second problem emerged with my character that he was a direct block to the knowledge of other characters. A core principle of improv as discussed in class is the idea of always yes anding other people’s ideas and stories. Back in the pit, I would’ve loved to have entered the pit and seen what that would cause. However, I also recognized that my character wouldn’t so I tried to give room for another character to, but noone was interested. This meant the true nature of the pit went undiscovered as it had little to do with the main story of the game. Additionally, when chasing the escaped hellhound, I discovered it had moved into a pack of civilians. Rather than engage them in the story and answer their questions, I lied and insisted it was a normal dog with rabies until they agreed to not dig further. Though it lead to them eventually joining the mayor in a campaign against the evil, simultaneously, I had avoided really engaging with their characters. Thus, in the context that roleplaying is improvisation, there is a clear divide their. In comedic improv, you can generally continue to evolve things for the comedies sake. Whereas in a larp, without a good overhead perspective, you must behave as your character even if you don’t think its contributing to the best story possible. I had always viewed narrativist roleplaying as a way for characters to intersect to construct stories, but it was interesting to see how I was as an individual able to carry out a story that diverged from the main one. My plotline with the pit, the hellhounds, and finding my ally Boom’s missing cat had almost nothing to do with the town civil war most of the rest of the players were involved in. However, despite its lack of mention in the epilogue, I had a pleasant little time in my own private war with the forces of hell.

The Derive and Spatial Storytelling

In “Theory of the Derive”, Guy Debord defines the situationist practice of the derive as an activity during which “one or more persons during a certain period drop…all their…usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord). It is distinct from a stroll or other types of wandering, because it is not, as it may first sound, entirely random, but rather driven by a space’s “psychogeography”. In other words, going on a derive involves taking a walk, but it is a walk based upon a high level of awareness of your surroundings in a way that allows them to guide your wandering as certain spaces lead into others and encourage different paces and means of entry and exit.

I think that the concept of psychogeographical contours, that something about a space’s affect dictates the way you interact with and through it, is both intriguing and somewhat intuitive in a weird way, as well as very important to consider in creating ARGs or other games that make good use of spatial storytelling. If spaces have a unique psychogeography that draws your attention to certain aspects of them and not to others, or leads you into another space naturally or encourages you to enter it at a specific point, those are all things that would be useful to know when designing a game to fit inside that space. If a designer knows how players might be drawn to interact with a place the game is taking place in, they can arrange the puzzles and the gameplay and the engagement that happens within that place to utilize players’ natural inclinations, laying sequential trails and clues that lead players through a terrain in a way that is driven by its layout. To that end, it might be useful for game designers to take a derive through the areas their games will primarily take place in before the design process, to get the fullest idea of how to make the best use of the space.

I also wonder, however, how much of the perceived affect of a space is inherent to that space and how much is brought in by the person who is interacting with it. How much would different people agree, when making a situationist map, for instance, on how the spaces feel laid out and are experienced? Debord seems to posit that a place’s psychogeography is inherent and it is how much of it is perceived that is variable, mentioning different “levels of awareness” in different people. But it feels to me that at least some of the perception is always created through the act of perceiving and I think this would be interesting to explore as a game designer as well, seeing how spaces affect different people differently, based on different associations they may or may not have with various aspects of it or any other factors.

How to create a collective experience in ARG

Since this week there are no readings, I decided to expore a problem I encountered during the ARG game design process (which was what we are finishing up in this week).

When we started to design the outline of the game and the puzzles, a problem arose: how to allow the experience of puzzle solving to be collective, in which every person is able to have their personal experience. One danger we are faced with is the possibility that a few more competitive participant would speed on in solving the puzzles, and would allow the experience of solving the puzzles to detract for the other players. Since the puzzle is solved, the next part of the story is revealled, and on the forum where everyone would talk about the progress of the game, there would be mentions of the progress. This would lead to the people that were lagging behind in puzzle solving to ask about the new story arc, and thus essentially skipping the experience of the puzzle (as they would just skip the puzzle entirely). Also, there would be posts on the forum on how to solve the puzzles, where some players would just use the solution, and not really think about the puzzles themselves.

One way we thought about is to create multiple paths for the players leading to the same goal. The different paths would contain different puzzles. Therefore, we essentially split the players up into smaller groups, where the progress of each group would be more consistent. Another thing we thought up is to vary the kinds of puzzles created, thus a single person would not be able to solve all of the types of the puzzles (unless the person is really talented). SInce the puzzles include knowledge of different areas, adding on to the fact that there are split storylines for the players to choose, an individual would most likely choose a storyline where the puzzles are more to the individual’s type, and thus it would be easier to solve the puzzles.

Another thing that was considered and applied is that we created some of the puzzles to be mandatorily collaborative, thus a single person would not be able to solve the puzzle on their own. I have said that the design of the separate storilines would converge at a given point, and at that given point, we decided that each separate path of the storiline eventualizes in a clue that combined together is the puzzle to adance forward. This eliminates the possibility that a group of people in a particular storyline wound speed past other groups in their storilines and find the ending of the story before everyone else. We also designed other collaborative puzzles, the intent is to which slow down the faster puzzle solvers to allow the slower participants to catch up. One puzzle we designed was an escape room puzzle which allowed the participants to work together to solve puzzle, this puzzle is intended to illustrate the effectiveness of collaboration and how it would benefit for people to work together.

But still, I think there are always instances where the pace of the game would be effected by individual players who are just faster than others, and there always are ways to decrease the effect created by this out-of-pace, such as creating additional puzzles, level up the difficulties of the puzzles, adding shills to maintain the balance of pace, etc. And one part of the ARG is teh unexpectedness of how things would go, and how the game designers would improvise to maintain this balance.

Reflection on ARG gameplay experience

Just a few hours ago, I participated in an ARG designed by DePaul University students today in the MADD center, and it was a really fun experience.

The gameplay started with a mock wine tasting where the creators secretly took our cups after the tasting. Then we are gathered together and were told that they have tested our DNA and have determined that we were part of the 500, an ancient race of people that interacted with earth. We were then given a very old journal and were told that we need to find stuff to open up a portal to the other dimension. This took the form of a scavenger hunt as we searched through the areas (outside of the building) around the library. Each location of the hunt was given as a hint in the journal. In the end, we found all the pieces of the puzzles wich were pairs of glass test slides with two colors on each slide, and a final box with a code. Then we were led back inside and were told that we need to fix an engine that opens the portal. We used the sequence of color on the test slides and the color mentioned in the journal to plug the slides in the machine and also connect the wires (also with colors on them). Then we are shown a short video about the mission to go to the other side and revealed us the answer to the code. We opened the box to find a glove (with electric wires on it, amongst other objects), and using the glove and our bodies as conductors, we connected a circuit and opened the protal, which marked the end of the test trial for the ARG.

One thing I really noticed in my experience in the whole game was that I was unusually hyped and energetic, especially during the scavernger hunt. This feeling is kind of the feeling of the participant/player beeding out as the character of the adventurer affects the emotional state of the player. I was really interesting especially under the circumstance that first I knew that this is formost not a real adventure, and secondly that this is not even a real game, as it is a playtesting for the game. Also, it is weird that this bleeding affected me very unconsciously, as I was really unaware of this heightened state of mind until after the game ended. After that, I could recall how I was walking faster than usual, how my voice was louder, and that I was so eager to find anything. It is one thing to talk about bleeding in and out, but to actually experiencing it in person, is really something else. Of course, technically speaking, this should not really count as bleeding out as first the established character is maliable and thus not set in place, and also that the affect of the character on the person is limited, and a bit ambiguous. But still, it was a very interesting experience.

In our reading of Guy Debord, he mentioned that: “The element of competition must disappear in favor of a more authentically collective concept of play”, and I could really understand that in the context of the ARG I played today. When we were doing the scavenger hunt, we werea automatically assigned as a group, which implies the elimination of competition, and as a result the group of players were very much collective in collaboration as a team. We never disperesed anywhere away from the group, and we never even argued about what the puzzles meant. There was an instance when I thought one of the clues lead to a statue around the corner, and was wrong in that assumption. But is was very interesting that all the people in the group trusted my judgement (as they all followed me to the statue), and even when finding out that the goal was not there, there was no disagreement or anything. It feels like everyone was centering on the goal, and this made the gameplay much more affective, and much more whollistic, as it encorporated every single person as part of the experience. One more interesting thing is that when we were opening up the boxes that contained the hidden clues in the scavenger hunt, we took turns opening them, someone even said something like “there is no rush, everyone gets their turn, nobody is left out.” Which really exemplifies how the elimination of competition grants this more collective experience. When we finished the game, and were discussing the pros and cons of the game, the creators mentioned that they were at first undecided about whether to put the players together as a group (eliminating competition), or just have them do the scavenger hunt individually (allowing competition). And in a sense they did the right choice, and the experience proved the effectiveness and arguably the neccessity of the disappearance of competition for more collective experience.

When Spolin talked about imporvisation, he mentioned seven aspects of spontaneity. And one of the first aspect is the feeling of personal freedom, and how we should not seek approval/dissaproval from the other (in the context of an ARG, the game designers), as this action inhibits the freedom of the player and detracts from the overall gameplay experience. In this game, whereas most of the time we felt free to do stuff, at some instances this feeling of the need for approval or dissaproval kicks in. At the very start of the game, when we are asked to find the clues (the scavenger hunt), we are not really sure the limit of the search. More directly, we are not sure whether we should search inside the building or outside the building. And as a result, we took a bit of time looking everywhere inside the building and even thought we found a clue. But we were confused to whether the object we found was a clue, and had to ask the game designers to tell us the truth. While the game designers tried their best to be ambiguous about the truth, she eventually told us to go outside to seek the clues. And I feel that this is an example of having to look to the game designers to approve or dissaprove. Of course, I believe that situations like this happens a lot in ARGs, and that is why there are shills in the ARG, to approve or dissaprove when the players are straying too far from the game. But of course, as a game designer, one wants to decrease the possibility of such an engagement of an outside force. Although this experience correlates to what Spolin spoke about the inhibition of personal freedom, it is also neccessary for the continuation of the game. One aspect of an ARG is that it requires rules, and the rules are what keeps the storyline and gameplay together. One way I see of solving this contradiction is to allow the players to discover the rules, where in this case, it is less a thing about approving or dissaprroving, but more about the player’s own decision whether to keep with the rules or to ignore them.