Dungeons & Dragons & Stanislavski

So, for the longest time I wanted to be an actor. Like, a legit actor. I auditioned for shows, I took movement classes, I even spent a summer at CMU’s Drama School.

In recent years I’ve kind of moved away from acting, having realized it was never what I was actually interested in, and I’ve made the transition to directing and writing. But I still have all that training leftover from my acting days, including his lordship Konstantin Stanislavski. The Stanislavski method was one I actually did alright in, even if it wasn’t fun, because honestly it’s never been too difficult for me to embrace a different character, and it felt like a good way of getting to that point. But when you’re no longer interested in acting in that manner, you come to the conclusion that that training was kind of a waste of money.

At least until you play Dungeons & Dragons.

Coincidentally, one of the actors from a production I did last quarter, Emily, started a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in our house, which I saw as the perfect opportunity to not only fulfill the RPG requirement but also give this game a try, having seen it in TV shows like Stranger Things and on that Twitch show Critical Role. Emily, who served as our DM, helped me form my character.

“So, what kind of character do you want to be?”

“…I kind of want to be an assassin like character, someone really good with stealth, and he wears like all-black clothing.”

“Alright. What species?”

I looked through the book. “Uh…dark elf?”

“Cool. So what’s his name?”

“….Kenjeren Leon.”

“Alright.”

So this character had been established. As Emily was writing down the information on my character sheet, something occurred to me. “Oh, uh…he’s an assassin with a heart of gold, like if he thinks the assassination people want him to do is somehow immoral, he rejects it, which of course doesn’t translate well in earnings.”

As Emily was writing that down, I thought to myself, “Where the heck did that come from?”

Then it came time for the actual game session. We were introducing ourselves, a new band of misfits hired to go on an adventure. Then it was my turn.

“My name is Kenjeren Leon, I’m a dark elf,” I blurted out in a Scottish accent.

In my head I thought, “Where the heck did that come from?”

Looking at my experience with this game session, two things stand out to me: acting method and improvisation. Stanislavski deals a lot in the concept of finding inner motives for your character in order to really portray them well. I dealt with that especially in the forming of the character sheet, figuring out my character’s strengths and intelligence (my stats), knowing my motivations and what my emotions could be. Sure, it’s less physical than what Stanislavski’s method actually calls for, but I was still getting the particular quirks for my character I could apply in the session, be it in the lines I delivered or in the actions I had my character do.

What also came into play with my character creation and of course during the actual season. For that I thank my experience taking improv classes at Upright Citizens’ Brigade, which teaches a form of improv based in what Frost and Yarrow called the New York style, with some sources in the Chicago style. At UCB you’re taught to eventually reach the point where you’re funny, but there’s also an emphasis on building characters and the situation first before that: really establishing some basic info about your character before you get to the good stuff. Of course, there’s an immediacy to improv, so you need to make the big decisions quickly. It’s still amazing to me how that came into play when I was making the character sheet, and when I decided on a Scottish accent during the session, or in the middle of a feast in the session when I asked our hosts for tupperware.

I still don’t consider myself an actor. I gave up on studying improv around the time I started moving towards directing. But honestly? That D&D session may have been the closest I got to acting since then.

Exploration: Gamifying Sleep No More

For a period time I counted myself among Sleep No More‘s “superfans,” people who almost religiously returned to the show to experience it, despite the increasing cost of the ticket over the years (which led to my eventual “retirement” when it became clear spending up to 1,000 a year wasn’t worth it). I’ve come to question what it was about the experience that attracted me to it so much, that made me return almost monthly for two years, that sometimes draws me back to it every once in a while, especially when I’m in New York on holiday. Only now, reflecting sometime later, am I recognizing it as a “gaming” experience.

In conventional theater you presumably see the whole thing in one night. At Sleep No More, it is impossible to see and experience every possible element of the McKittrick Hotel in a single night, despite the 3-hour run-time and the “time loop” element of storytelling. It becomes something of a challenge to go back and try to experience everything, especially the 1:1s where actors perform a scene just for you. I remember an interview Felix Barrett did with Eurogamer a few years ago regarding another Punchdrunk production where he understood the experience of “playing the game” of getting the 1:1s, knowing where to stand so a performer would look at you, or knowing performers reward loyalty with 1:1s or something special––I recall a night where one of the characters I was following kept looking at my T-shirt and during my 1:1 he even whispered “I love your shirt.” Moments like this expand the breadth of the number of experiences you can have in Sleep No More, because things keep changing up. Hypothetically, you could go see it for years and never have the same experience twice.

Looking at experiences like Fullbright’s Tacoma or Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, the philosophy of exploration as part of the game is there much like it is in Sleep No More: in fact, Tacoma‘s storytelling method was partially inspired by Sleep No More and even has a direct reference to the show (though I won’t say what). But Sleep No More has an element to it that Tacoma doesn’t really have and Obra Dinn sort of has but not quite: an element of replayability. Part of the joy of Sleep No More is going back to it and experiencing it over and over again. With Tacoma you can more or less get the whole story in one go without the need to play again to see if you missed anything; Obra Dinn you may have to go through the game a few times to get the complete story, but once you’ve done that there’s not really much of a point in doing it again.

I think exploratory games like Tacoma and Obra Dinn need to explore ways of making experiences that, even if you get the whole story, are still fun to go to again and again, either by having more material for the players to find or just making it an experience worth checking out again and again.

Tiered Engagement Case Study: Hi I’m Mary Mary

The “tiered” format of alternate-reality gaming reminded me of an ARG I’m actually following right now. It’s called “Hi I’m Mary Mary” and it’s essentially a webseries/Twitter play with ARG elements.

The plot is this: there’s a girl who only knows that her name is Mary. One day she wakes up in a house with no memory of her life. She is unable to leave the house, she can’t communicate with the outside world (she can post videos and tweet things but has no idea if people are responding) and nothing really happens during the day. But at night, she is quick to discover she’s not alone: the house is inhabited by monsters that constantly torment her.

That’s all I’m going to really say about the plot: this is a surprisingly engaging storyline that I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone interested in checking it out. But what’s fascinating about this entire thing is that there are multiple ways to engage with the storyline.

  1. Simply watch the videos. These portray the major events in Mary’s life inside the house, and her encounters with the monsters. These videos are entertaining, intriguing, and terrifying, and more or less encompass a complete ecxperience.
  2. Read Mary’s Twitter. Much like TheSunVanished, Mary’s Twitter offers a more complete and consistent narrative compared to the videos, documenting her daily life in the house, and some encounters with the monsters we don’t see in the videos, while also helping audiences by giving it a solid sense of timeline.
  3. Read Mary’s blog. This is where ARG elements really come into play (which I’ve learned from the creator was intentional after the series got noticed by several ARG reviewers): Mary makes blog posts about things she found in the house. Unknown to her, there’s another force hiding within her blog, leaving hidden puzzles and messages in the source code giving the audience tips and warnings.

The only way to really know everything about Mary’s life is to engage in all three of these things. But the fact of the matter is most people are only going to really engage with this story via the videos and maybe the Twitter account. And yet there’s still enough going on there that it won’t detract from the experience. I’ve met a number of fans of the series who had no idea about the blog, and just thought the whole thing was just a webseries. They were accepting the occasional installment of a new video every few months as a complete story, and it was still rewarding despite them not being aware of hours of new Hi I’m Mary Mary content via other avenues.

I actually asked the creator of the series about her target audience shortly after I finished this reading: she explained that she hadn’t really had a specific demographic in mind for her audience, but had been hoping to appeal to fans of Slenderverse webseries like Marble Hornets and Tribe Twelve. Those shows hit sort of the sweet spot for ARG-webseries: there’s a game hidden within that viewers have to really engage with in order to discover the much larger story, but the videos themselves still tell something that’s satisfying for viewers. You can engage as a casual viewer, or you can come along for the ride.

Kaufman, Carrey, and Bleed

There’s a remark at the end of Jim and Andy that immediately drew me back to the Bleed article. Jim Carrey spends much of the film talking about his effort to stay in-character throughout the entire filming of Man on the Moon, but when it gets to the section about REM’s music video for “The Great Beyond” he admits he feels bad that he wasn’t in it: “I just didn’t want to be Andy anymore… I just didn’t want to go back once I left Andy. And I tried to figure out what the hell I am again.” Carrey acknowledges the psychological impact of staying in character for so long was, claiming he had almost completely forgotten his own self in the aftermath. “Suddenly I was so unhappy, and I realized I was back in my problems.”

“And suddenly I thought to myself, You felt so good when you were being Andy ’cause you were free from yourself, you were on vacation from Jim Carrey.”

Carrey seems to have suffered from the Bleed form “Bleed out,” where the experience of playing Andy Kaufman for so long seems to have affected him as a person. Though he looks back on the experience positively, there is a strong implication that the whole process proved emotionally taxing. In the context of Bleed, it’s worth noting that Carrey doesn’t appear to have had any coping mechanisms as his choice to play Kaufman all the time was mostly a self-imposed decision. Crucially, despite the fact that he ostensibly was “Jim Carrey,” off-set, it’s clear in the documentary that he never really completely decoupled from the Andy Kaufman character until after the film wrapped, suggesting he didn’t have a formal de-roleing process in place while they were shoot.

Perhaps this speaks to what others have touched upon: how Carrey’s choice to stay in character all the time may have been for his benefit but also caused problems for others, such as Milos Forman and Jerry Lawler. By the looks of it, it also caused problems for Carrey, who threw himself so far into the role without having a support system to climb back out. This is where RPG strategies like those mentioned in Bleed would have been very helpful for Carrey’s method-acting: the ability to psychologically decouple from these characters. It’s methods that I reckon all method-actors could benefit from.

Manipulation Meets Entertainment

As a content creator, my chief interest in any medium is entertaining the audience in some way. To do that I try to make something that is fun or enjoyable to engage with: with my written works I try to craft a compelling narrative, add some humor, and create characters whose story you want to follow. When I think of my favorite video games, like Portal or BioShock, a lot of them have all those elements, with the added element of play. But something I never considered until this week was that manipulation is important in these mediums.

I guess in every piece of media designed for entertainment, there’s a level of commanding your viewer, or player, how to approach it: setting up rules, giving them choices on how to do things, that sort of thing.  When I write prose, I try to do something exciting or intriguing within the first couple of pages to ensure my reader sticks around, and over the course of the story I am to some extent compelling the reader to keep going. Video games do the same thing, compelling the player to keep going through the story, engaging them in a way so that they don’t just stop playing: while this applies to single-player narratives, multiplayer games and their endless replayability are also an example of this.

Manipulation is just a natural part of entertainment, and it’s going on quite a bit in The Push. In fact, I would compare what’s happening in that special to the elements at play in Spec Ops: The Line‘s single player narrative, essentially manipulating the player (Chris) into doing increasingly horrible actions when you always have the option of just quitting and leaving, which Chris does not do until the very last moment. But there’s two crucial differences between Spec Ops and The Push:

  1. In a video game, the player is engaging with what’s happening of their own free will: they bought and downloaded the game, now they’re playing it. While technically Chris volunteered to appear in this special, throughout the scenario going on he has absolutely no knowledge that what he’s doing isn’t real. Now, of course, he can’t, because that would ruin the whole idea behind the special. Which…brings me to the other difference.
  2. The audience in a video game is the player. The audience in The Push is everyone watching the player. Chris is the subject of our entertainment, he is not the one who is being entertained. Derren Brown is doing this for the viewers, not really for Chris.

Now, one could argue that the audience is still being manipulated in The Push: constantly questioning what Chris will do next, and being tricked into thinking Derren Brown found out people won’t be compelled to kill someone, only for him to reveal that others were. But that still doesn’t negate the fact that Chris and his fellow test subjects were essentially used for others’ entertainment.

When we bring this to the ideas of the “This Is Not A Game” aesthetic, ARGs occupy a weird space: the players are being manipulated into believing this narrative, but they’re still the subjects who are being entertained. It’s what separates a failed ARG from a successful one: whether the players had fun engaging with the game and whether the game did what it set out to do. What happens if a player is well and truly immersed and comes out feeling betrayed when it turns out they were just participating in a game?

Now, I digress: The Push isn’t that comparable to an ARG because, again, the manipulated are the source of entertainment, not the target audience. But I think what puppetmasters need to consider moving forward is how they employ their manipulation: are you manipulating the audience so that they can enjoy the experience, or are you manipulating them so that they feel they have no other choice?