Obra Dinn and (the lack of) emergent narratives

Like most mystery stories, the Return of the Obra Dinn begins at the end, emphasizing the huge difference between narrative (by which I mean the chronological plot) and the discourse (by which I mean how the story unfolds for the player). Rather than driven by time or character arc, the discourse is driven by corpses, which reveal information that the player can piece together to fill in the narrative. Thus, this game resembles Jenkins’ embedded narrative model, in which “narrative comprehension is an active process by which viewers assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues” (9). By exploring the corpses, the player can piece together the narrative in a nonlinear fashion. Not only is the discourse nonlinear, but it is cyclical: the player may need to return to previous scenes of the book to edit and revise narrative information. With this nonlinearity, the player has to use logic and deduction, rather than imagination, to find the underlying, pre-structured narrative.

On the other hand, this type of gameplay limits the emergent narratives that can come out of the game. In Jenkins’ paper, emergent narratives are “not pre-structured or preprogrammed, taking shape through the game play,  yet they are not as unstructured, chaotic, and frustrating as life itself” (11). As you play the Return of the Obra Dinn, you often only have fragments of a narrative, and you try to imagine and piece together what happened. Yet these speculations aren’t emergent narratives, the player knows that there is a “correct” narrative that will eventually become apparent, and the player’s speculations are verified at multiple points in the game.

The details provided in the space also limit the emergent narratives. While the smallest detail can lead to key inferences about a character’s death, these details feel like carefully placed breadcrumbs. The boat is pretty bare and the graphics are minimalist, so examining the rooms solely for their decor does not lead to an interesting experience. Instead, the evocative and visually interesting components are the people involved in the death scenes and the objects related to these deaths. This rewards the player with a richer experience if she focuses on the death scenes, instead of the entire space. This is in contrast to the space of Sleep No More, in which an audience member could spend the whole experience playing with the detailed props, which encourage emergent narratives.

In the Return of the Obra Dinn, the focus on the embedded narratives seems to restrict the emergent narratives. The game is an elaborate and intricate “memory palace” (9), so encouraging the player to come up with her own emergent narratives would be at best distracting and at worst confusing. However, I wonder if it’s possible to have a memory palace game that still creates emergent narratives—whether these models can work as hybrids, or if they are more effective when separated.

Using technique to perform

Technique and  structure may seem opposed to free flowing creativity. However in Crease and Lutterbie’s text, technique at its best provides structure that allows for more creativity and more encounters with something new. It allows us to “get something we couldn’t possibly get with what we have” (4), and to “deliver us over to a situation where a new kind of performance ability […] is possible” (9). While one cannot bring “the pure impulse” to the stage, actors can learn techniques to create “an illusion of feelings spontaneously overflowing as if for the first time” (9). We see this type of technique in action with Gaga: Five Foot Two, as Stefani’s meticulous rehearsals led to a Super Bowl halftime show that felt emotional and energetic. We also experienced technique’s value firsthand when creating the “future self” videos in class.

Lady Gaga’s halftime show was critically acclaimed. Time called it “among the very best in the history of the form,” praising its quality, energy, and emotion. As the documentary reveals, this emotional performance did not come spontaneously, but relied on technique and repetition. In the documentary, we watch as Stefani prepared for her Super Bowl halftime show. We see her exhaustion and the toll that performing took on her body. We watch her careful rehearsals, in which she obsessed over small details and disruptions. For instance, her jacket during dress rehearsal was the wrong material, and she explained how this disrupted the way she moved and set herself up to take a breath. Her focus on details demonstrates how structured and scripted her Super Bowl performance was, and how this structure may not be “natural” but it still led to a performance that was emotionally powerful. This emotion was felt not only by audience members, like the Time reviewer, but by Stefani herself: Stefani explained in the documentary how, when performing, she is able ignore her injuries and become energetic and emotional.

Structure and technique also helped my group decide how to perform during the “future self” exercise in class. We relied on the familiar role of interviewer and the familiar structure of an interview for the exercise. Once we had a structure in place, we had more time to focus on Jeen (the interviewee), her narrative, and her performance. Because we have an idea of what an interview looks like, the interview structure also helped set the tone for our performance, making us feel more serious even though our topic was outrageous. Rather than limiting our creativity, technique helped our creative process by narrowing down the focus of our imagination and creating a certain affect between interviewer and interviewee.

Audience Members as Second-Degree Subjects

In an experiment, you’re usually interested in the results—how does the experiment apply to the real world? In the last part of Slater’s chapter about Milgram’s experiment, Slater notes how it is difficult to come up with any conclusions from the experiment. The laboratory situation is artificial, the experience was choreographed, so “the experiment does little to predict how a man’s choices in the lab will translate into choices outside the lab” (56). Instead, the author focuses on the “pedagogical power” (57) the experiment has over its subjects. For instance, “Jacob Plumfield” was obedient in the experiment, but he became more rebellious for the rest of his life because he was so shocked by his actions in the experiment. The results of the experiment became a trigger, a wake-up moment that caused him to be more conscious of his obedience to authority figures.

While the chapter focused on the experiment’s pedagogical power over its subjects, I think that both Milgram’s experiment and The Push have a similar pedagogical power over their audiences—the people who hear and read about Milgram’s experiment, and the people who watch The Push. Even though these people did not take part in the staged murder, they are still affected by the experiments and can still experience moments of revelation, on a smaller scale, that cause them to reevaluate obedience. Milgram’s experiment and The Push both deal with murder, which makes the experiment personal to people who were not subjects. When you learn about the experiments, you can’t help but apply the results to your own life, wondering what your own behavior would be and asking yourself, “What would I do?” Like “Jacob Plumfield,” you start to become conscious of your own obedience. In fact, the experiment is made even more personal by the style of the writing in Slater’s chapter. Slater describes the experiment with vivid language, using second-person pronouns and present tense, as if the reader is the participant: “You’re starting to shake. You feel wet crescents under your armpits. You turn to the the experimenter. ‘Okay,’ you say. ‘I guess we gotta stop. He wants out.’”(31). Thus, if we consider pedagogical power to be the significant result of the experiments, then we could also view the audiences as second-degree subjects, because viewers and readers are shocked by the results and immediately relate the results to their own lives.

In fact, The Push seems to rely on the audience as second-degree subjects, since it was made for television. The Push seemed unethical to me because it manipulated people into doing horrific deeds that they will never forget. But I also thought it was unethical because the horror seemed like a ploy to get good TV ratings, and to show the audience an experiment that feels personal. I felt manipulated by Derren Brown, as if he were trying to make me uncomfortable on purpose. Indeed my discomfort prompted me to reflect on my own relationship to authority, but I felt like an experiment subject who had not agreed to be part of an experiment.

Social experiments do not necessarily need consent. During class presentations, some of our social experiments also experimented with the audience as second-degree subjects—for instance, the editing of the Terrence the Toucan video played with our expectations of genre. However, The Push relies on horror to manipulate not only its subjects but also its audience members, with a goal of good TV ratings instead of pedagogical power. Of course, there are also ethical issues for Milgram’s experiment, but The Push makes an experiment that feels even more sensationalized.

Note: Cited Slater page numbers are the numbers in the PDF, since there are no book page numbers.

How do you “Yes, and” to something you don’t know about? (Ask Again Later)

“Yes, and” is an essential practice in improv: “instead of undermining the scene one’s partner has just created, the performer accepts that reality and builds on it” (Vickers, 2). In Ask Again Later, the Story Tellers (STs) had a “yes, and” attitude toward player improvisation, and they constantly tried to integrate our actions into a single cohesive story. However, the medium of theatrical LARP presented some restrictions to “yes, and” because play happened in real time. Though the STs had an attitude of “acceptance” instead of  a “resistance” (in Vickers’ language), our improvised realities could only be woven into the “official story” if they were witnessed by an ST.

The STs were enthusiastic about “yes and”, but they could not “yes and” the scenes they had not witnessed. For instance, at one point, an ST and a few of us players were imagining an old man having a heart attack. The ST had to leave us for a moment, and we continued to improvise the scene, making decisions to move the old man and call an ambulance. For me and the few other players, the story progressed as we moved it forward together. Yet when our ST returned, it was as if our actions hadn’t happened, since our Story Teller picked up the narrative from the last moment they had witnessed. This was a strange moment, and a break in our improvised reality, as I suddenly felt like my previous actions had not happened in the “official” narrative of the game.

During debrief, the Story Tellers told us that they were constantly communicating with each other, explaining what was happening with different players to try to make a cohesive story. This shared story became the “official” narrative of what had occurred, and this was the story that that the STs reacted to. While the STs tried to incorporate all of our improvisations, the improvisations were happening in real time, and STs couldn’t be everywhere at once. This experience showed me how the medium of theater affects collective storytelling, and made me think of the importance of medium for ARG puppet masters as they try to respond to their players with a “yes, and” attitude.

The type of medium shapes the communication between players and game designers. If storytelling happens through performance, time in the game goes by very quickly—in Ask Again Later, so many things were happening, making the experience exciting and intense.  At the same time, these scenes were ethereal and vanished immediately after performed. If an ST was not in the same space at the same time, it was hard for them to know what had happened in our improvisation. On the other hand, if part of the story-telling medium is online, I’d imagine the pace would be much slower. Responses could be spread out over time because there would be written documentation of it, through messages, posts, etc. In fact, some ARGS, like World Without Oil, specifically make documentation a part of completing a challenge, which seems like a good way for puppet masters to keep up with their players. Thus, the puppet masters need not witness every improvisation in real time in order to be aware of their players’ actions, allowing them to include their improvisations as part of the collectively-built narrative.

This way that medium shapes communication has interesting implications for puppet masters designing a transmedia ARG. as the designers must decide which mediums to use at which points of the game. As Fullerton argues, game design should be player-centric, and a game designer is chiefly an “advocate for the player” (Fullerton, 2). ARG game designers should be attuned to the effects of medium, which helps determine their ability to say “yes, and” to player improvisation, and thus affects how players experience the alternate reality.

Authority in games: Too little or too much?

In week 3’s readings, Spolin argued that we’ve grown up seeking approval from authority. This quest for approval becomes “a way of life” and consequently “the investigation and solving of problems becomes of a secondary importance” (Spolin, 8), which inhibits play and personal expression. A director of students must try to avoid falling into a student-teacher relationship. Games have similar goals of creativity and play as improv, so what role does authority play in serious games that try to impart lessons from authority figures? Authority in games may inhibit play and engagement, but “serious” game design in a classroom setting may require an authority figure to motivate participation.

The negative effect of authority in games is recognized in Kaufman and Flanagan’s paper, as the game designers recognize that authority may try to promote certain conduct but have the opposite effect. Kaufman and Flanagan cite a study that demonstrates how anti-littering PSAs resulted in more littering. A game that tries to assert its authority might also be less persuasive, inviting transgression instead of encouraging good conduct. This is one of the reasons that Kaufman and Flanagan chose to take an “embedded” approach when designing games, in order to make the games’ lessons more subtle and persuasive.

While authoritative games might not be effect, some classroom games need the authority of a teacher to encourage participation. The students engage in the game as they seek the approval of their teacher, which contrasts with Spolin’s ideal conditions of play and self-expression. For example, in Booth’s ARG class that focused on play as a concept, students played an ARG and designed ARGs themselves. They later had to play the ARGs designed by other student teams, to mixed results: “the actual gameplay was unmonitored and students seemed unmotivated to follow-through each other’s teams” (Chess and Booth, 11). When giving tips for other instructors, Chess and Booth suggest: “Play the games with the students. Students become more engaged with the material when the instructor demonstrates an interest in the subject. Not only can your expertise be drawn upon to solve more difficult puzzles, but also students will want to participate (even if only for visibility and class credit)” (Chess and Booth, 14).

The ARGs were student-designed in Booth’s class, so they might not have been designed to be the most engaging or effective games. However, the need for authority to encourage participation still points to an interesting tension between play and learning. A game with an overly authoritative voice may decrease engagement. Yet educational ARGS need an external authority figure to motivate play. Educational ARGs are supposed to make schoolwork more engaging, so if a student only participates in a game “for visibility and class credit”, does that defeat the goals of an educational ARG? Perhaps it places educational ARGs in a middle ground between playful improv spaces without authority and solemn traditional classrooms with an authority figure.