When I look at games, I always ask myself about the systems and processes being played out and what the design of those processes is attempting to say about the game’s message or its world. With this, I am inspired to look at “Ask Again Later” in terms of its procedural rhetoric.
In terms of design, Bogost argues that procedural rhetoric allows designers to “[author] arguments through process” and affords them “a new promising way to make claims about how things work” (emphasis his,Bogost 29). Looking at the set-up of Ask Again Later, we see the storytellers already making arguments about the fictional world of Oshtigwanegon as well as the “real” world around it. In the setting information on the site, there is an apparent attention to social and political issues, including things like inequality and changing economic structures. Other parts of the AAL “system” include the stats, challenges, and “true selves” features that affect our gameplay. Notably, these would also affect the design of our characters and their abilities. Other than that, though, we had a lot of freedom in terms of our personal narrative and perhaps some potential objectives.
In play, the main mechanic that affected our decisions and abilities was the act of drawing cards. This would likely qualify as a “procedural trope” – a “common” form of interaction that players would be familiar with (Bogost 13). Rolling a dice would be another example of this, in terms of LARPs and table-top games. Notably, drawing cards is largely based on chance, unlike almost all other parts of the LARP. Our stats were decided based on our character profiles, but our activities could be severely limited by the cards we chose. There was no way for us to “game” the system by controlling the cards we choose, so we were at the mercy of the deck and the storyteller. This already sets up a sort of argument about how much we can control in our narrative and, more importantly, what we choose to do when faced with failure or obstacles.
This sort of procedural rhetoric also sets up a space where no one can be “good” or “bad” at the game, since it is down to chance. Lastly, it adds an element of surprise and instability to the narrative. For example, during one part of the game I had wanted to conjure a storm. Unfortunately, my drawing was bad, so I had to make a different plan. Other constraints appeared in the form of formal processes that the storytellers asked us to complete. If I wanted to create a poisonous potion, I had to go through the steps of foraging for materials, going back to my home, mixing the potion, and then coming back. While these constraints might seem limiting – especially since it would perhaps take too long to finish the potion – it added an element of realism that would stop the LARP from devolving into free play. In these two examples, I think the procedural rhetoric of AAL included a balancing act of giving players enough freedom to experiment while also providing constrictions that would keep the narrative on-track.
Even with those constraints, though, the LARP format still allows the player a lot of freedom, enough to create completely new and divergent storylines. Bogost notes on page 37 that “the player of a videogame is usually not allowed to change the rules of play. Many critics have objected to this, tendency, calling for games that allow players to alter core simulation dynamics to allow alternative perspectives.” While it is true that we could not alter the rules of play during AAL, we could still decide what our objectives and activities would be within those constraints. We could choose to side with the devil, or we could keep our souls and turn away from our supernatural family members. The constraints would then kick back in to add structure to our plans, but we could still make decisions that would spin the narrative into different directions. This form of play gives the player a lot of agency over their character and storyline.
Lastly, I have already mentioned the role of tropes in terms of procedural rhetoric, but I also think that AAL demonstrates a lot of Sawyer’s points about the role of cliché and the ready-made (157). Since we were playing a theater-style LARP, I think his discussion is especially relevant. Sawyer notes that “all improvisers draw on ready-made motifs or cliché as they create their novel performance” (157). In using a fantasy/mystery genre, AAL is able to pull players in with an expectation of how to proceed: in order to solve the mystery, most of our actions included some kind of investigation. The presence of clichés and figures like vampires, witches, and other supernatural characters afforded players the ability to step into well-known tropes while also making unique contributions to gameplay. In addition, due to the collective and collaborative nature of the game, all of the players took part in taking clichés and making them into something new, just by virtue of forming fictional relationships with each other.
For me, since I was a bit nervous about participating in my first LARP, stepping into a Witch character allowed me to more easily create and act out my character. It also gave me room to experiment in interesting ways, since I ended up killing my beloved black cat. Overall, ready-mades and clichés add an accessibility to the gameplay, since all of the players can pull from narratives and characters that are familiar to them. The fact that these tropes were built into the system of Ask Again Later perhaps speaks to the storyteller’s goals of mixing magic with realism, encouraging us to inhabit figures that we normally would not. With this, I think the rules and tropes within AAL contribute to an effective blend of freedom and constraint, which afford the player space to play and opportunities to think through “failures” and situations that do not go with our plans. These skills, I think, could be some of the things we take away from this LARP.
Bogost, Ian. “Procedural Rhetoric” in Persuasive Games, 1-65.
Sawyer, R. Keith. “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity.”