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Obra Dinn’s Space

Return of the Obra Dinn is a game about occupying space and transcending time.  When the player first boards the ship, the image which they are greeted with is foreign and foreboding.  The distinct 1-bit color scheme creates an aesthetic which is quite unlike most other games, and the ship’s large size with multiple different decks  However, the space of the Obra Dinn itself is not the only area which is thoroughly explored and uncovered by the player throughout the course of the game’s run time.  The journal, another core mechanical function, is another.  The way in which these two spaces overlap creates a cross-section where the player’s spatial knowledge of the world is weaved with larger narrative points into a cohesive presentation.

One of the quotes on game design mentioned at the start of the Jenkins piece is that “interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power”.  Return of the Obra Dinn subverts this definition of game narrative by creating different spaces which are simultaneously static and also significantly informed by player choice.

The world of the ship is certainly the most static of the two, though it nonetheless embodies interactiveness through its nonlinearity.  The majority of the gameplay consists of engaging finding the corpses of fallen crew members and going back in time to the moment of their death.  Here, the narrative of the game is conveyed almost entirely though environmental storytelling, primarily functioning by “embed[ing] narrative information within [its] mise-en-scene” (Jenkins, 5).  The freeze-frame gives the player time to walk around the static death scene and investigate every single detail, from the decorum on the walls to the expressions on the faces of each and every nearby character.  Though these are told individually from one another, they occur in the same, and often overlapping, spaces of the ship.  When the player exits a chapter (a sequence of these individual scenes which tell a short narrative), they return to walk around the ship with greater knowledge of how it entered its dilapidated state.  

In the assigned interview, Felix Barrett provides an account of the experience of his play Sleep No More.  This play takes approximately 9 hours worth of content, but each experience lasts only a few hours.  This forces participants to pick a route through the narrative and leads to a naturally divergent experience, even if the content which is being presented is ultimately the same.  Though Obra Dinn presents all of its information on a single play through, it nonetheless parallels Sleep No More through its nonlinear yet sequential storytelling. Most of the chapters in Obra Dinn can be encountered in any order as all of the corpses are in existence on the ship. The only guidance the player is provided is a start location conveniently near the dead first mate and a map detailing how the sequences map onto the physicality of the ship. This allows for some degree of player agency, as they may choose their starting point, which will lead to different identities being revealed earlier in their experience.

However, the vast majority of player interaction in this narrative-driven game occurs in the space of the journal. Like the ship, opening the journal is also an intimidating experience at first. The game forces the player to flip through all of its pages, including more than a hundred pages of unanswered questions and puzzles which are to be encountered. As the player moves through the space of the ship and its physical space is narratively contextualized, the changing physical space of the journal provides further narrative context. As puzzles are revealed and sufficient information is provided, the blurred faces of the passengers become revealed, allowing for the player to guess their identity. Trial and error is encouraged because of its system of confirming identities in threes, encouraging the player to flip through its pages and look for any hints they might have missed. The order in which the narrative is truly revealed is formed by the player’s decisions with regards to whose identity they try to reveal, especially because finding out the true name of one crew member can snowball and allow for educated guesses on multiple others.

The book serves as a tracker of progress, progress which is nonlinear (despite the linear narrative) and dependent on the game’s interactive elements. Additionally, it’s inclusion of the map and crew member photos encourages familiarity with the information it provides, and players will find themselves hopping from page to page. One particular clue, regarding the location of where the escaped passengers went, requires either an extraordinary memory or many many minutes of flipping through the book’s entire contents. Though the narrative is presented on the space of the ship, the pages are where a great amount of the narrative context is provided, and the narrative arises from the interaction between these two areas.

At the end of the game, the Obra Dinn herself has a completely different feeling than at the start.  What previously felt empty and foreboding now feels storied and full of historic, fantastical drama. The interactive nature of the story contrasts greatly with the necessity of linear storytelling, but creates an experience which feels captivating and engaging (especially as compared to similar games like Gone Home wherein the player is forced to more linearly through the narrative). Because of this storytelling style, by the time the player disembarks the Obra Dinn it feels as though they were one of the passengers themselves. The game is an excellent example of how to construct an interactive narrative and exemplifies many of the unique features of the format of video games.

Bad News and Bleed

Bad News is a fascinating game because, despite being procedurally generated, it still greatly relies on those running it to create a cohesive narrative.  When the world is simulated, all of the information regarding the interactions of inhabitants in the town is stored in around 400 variables (according the the developer).  This info is then displayed to the singular actor as they portray all characters is limited.  It contains the demographic information of the character, as well as various personality measures which give the actor vague boundaries to act within.  However, what it does not contain is the details of that person’s life prior to the present, and the interactions they have had with all the inhabitants of the town.  This information is all relatively baseline, with the true narrative being pulled manually from other aspects of the code.

For this, the developers live code and find snippets of information which lead to the creation of a story.  The game is focused around the interactions of these simulated townsfolk, including their interpersonal relationships and business ventures.  In the case of the play through we were watching, the coder noticed and proceeded to focus on the fact that the deceased woman was in love with the principal of the school in which she worked.  The code does not say anything about whether this love was acted upon, but the developer’s created the rule that they will treat it as such if both characters are found to have an affinity for one another, which was the case here.  As such the story turned into one about love triangle, with the deceased’s husband being the one left out in the cold.   The amount of time he spent at a local bar was taken to mean that he was depressed and drinking his life away, when it came to the way the actor portrayed him in the entire scene.  Though we never met the woman or the person she was supposedly having an affair with, this information colored every interaction the player had with the actor.  The actor, as other members of the town, consistently hinted that the relationship between the deceased and her husband was not well, playing into the narrative of unrequited love in the face of an untimely death.

The use of a singular actor throughout the experience meant that there is a good degree of bleed which occurs within the game.  As discussed in the Bowman reading, this is when “experience moments where their real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill over into their characters’ and vice versa.” However, I contend that in this case, there are two types of bleed at play in the case of Bad News.  The first is as she defined, and occurs due to the knowledge which the actor possesses about the overarching narrative.  They are consciously aware of the game narrative from the perspective of the game runner as well as that of the actor.  For instance, the actor indicated knowledge of an affair as a character who was not in close proximity with the situation because this is the information which was conveyed to him. 

The other sort of bleed is that the way in which the actor portrayed previous characters affected the way in which he performed as others within the context of the same game.  The actor is improvising based on such limited material, with plot details being hastily conveyed over skype as questions are asked by the player.  This leaves the actor with little information to occupy their primary mental faculties other than the previous interaction and increases the likelihood that certain traits or topics might be carried across.  For instance, if the actor already had an in-character discussion regarding the affair of the deceased then they might be more likely to discuss it when playing another character

This sort of bleed also arises from the fact that the game is a prime example of a problem-seeking activity, as laid out within Sawyer’s Improvisation and the Creative Process.  Such behaviors focus on the active engagement of the artist with the work during the process of creation itself, seeking innovative and new ways of taking its direction rather than acting in accordance with a pre-set plan.  The way in which the narrative emerges from the code is a prime example of this, as the game begins with a simulation.  Only through active engagement and dialogue with the code interface do the developers, spectators and, hence, the player become aware of anything within the story.  It is not told to anyone, it is discovered through what is effectively an ongoing question-and-answer session with a computer.  While the actor is improvising the way in which the information is communicated to the player, the coder is also improvising in the way in which they retrieve said information in the first place.

The game of Bad News is effectively an extended conversation between a coder and a simulation, with the gleamed details being communicated to the player via the improvisational actions of a single person.  Hence the game is an example of emergent narrative, with no pre-set course of which any of the participants are aware prior to the experience’s start.  What results is fascinating, because it is both a result of computer systems and procedural generation and the product of active guiding via human inputs.  Though the world is randomly created the story is not, and it is told just as much through what the coder chooses to search as it is the way in which the actor chooses to convey the characters.

Informed Play

The focus this week on social science experimentation and how it links with alternate reality games has been very illuminating.  I am particularly interested in the intersection between two of the main pieces we consumed for this week – the Milgram experiment and the Derren Brown special – and assessing various conditions underpinning their ethicality in order to understand the way in which designers must balance safety and play.

The Milgram experiment is a hallmark within psychology and is one which I have encountered in a number of courses up until this point, but the reading for this week dealt with the subject matter in a much more narrative manner. I think it is often not understood how intimidating the set-up of the actual experiment was, and the perspective of subjects in it illuminates the great amount of stress which they were experiencing in the situation. The circumstances surrounding the shock, with the realistic sounds, flashing imagery, and convincing mechanical set-up are certainly enough to put someone into a panic out of concern. Similarly, the goal of the Brown special was to create a sufficiently realistic atmosphere such that the participant would experience legitimate concern and consider dire consequences to their actions.

One interesting commonality between both the Milgram experiment and the special was that, in both cases, the majority of people who participated stated that they were happy to have taken part in the procedure. I was wondering – to what degree an indicated positive participant experience (i.e. not regretting taking part in it) affects how outside observers perceive the ethicality of an experiment. Obviously if every participant left an experiment with permanent physical or emotional damage then it would be seen to be unethical, but there is no clear delineation with regards to ethicality. In the case of the former, there were actual institutional ethic concerns given its undertaking at a prominent research university which caused concern, which superseded the preferences of the participants when it came to discussion of concerns over the experiment and led to more rigorous academic discourse. This is not the case for Darren Brown, though. As someone who is primarily an entertainer, he is not subject to such oversight and is able to engage in tactics – such as excessive deception of participants – which would not get past any university IRB. However, in his case, the testimonials from participants at the end of the hour long segment speaking about their experiences and how it was positive is meant to lessen the impact of what we’ve just viewed.

So there exists a clear difference in setting between the two experiments, with game designers being more on the Derren Brown end of the scale, with a lack of oversight. When designing a game, the puppet masters are more akin to the experimenters, controlling the players along a preset path. This is to say that they have responsibility for things that happen throughout the course of the game and an obligation to account for player safety. Though the chances of Milgram-esque mental scarring seem inherently lower with the medium of ARGs, there is a threat of physical danger on occasion. And this raises the question of how much information to communicate with players such that this objective can be obtained, even at the risk of compromising a game. The designers of I Love Bees broke character to tell a player to flee from an oncoming hurricane, for instance. This leaves me with a few questions. Even beyond this, what level of deception is necessary to create a fun and engaging experience, and how does the nature of ARGs as a deceptive medium impact the experience of playing them? Is playing an ARG like engaging in a Darren Brown social experiment, where the false construct of reality is meant to propel you towards a singular take-away at the end?

Deny, Deny, Deny

The Stone’s rule which seems to play most directly into the era of post-truth and misinformation in which we live is “Deny, Deny, Deny”.  This rule has direct tie-ins to concepts presented within Fighting Post-Truth by McIntyre, who refers to various aspects of Trumpspeak and their implications for honesty.  Most notably, she says that this system of values sees “belief is a signal of truth” and that “it places no independent value on truth”, instead focusing on the effects which the speech has.  Within the context of the film, the rule “Deny, Deny, Deny” is used as a means of maintaining a cohesive political narrative and not letting any outside events interrupt that plan.  If you continue to deny and stick by your original story, then it becomes a he-said-she-said, wherein at least some people are likely to believe you based on the strength of your signaled (but not genuine) honesty.

Though this a rule that is certainly a mainstay of the Trump era, it is also one of the few rules in the film which we see Stone actively break, with regards to his handling of the swinger scandal in the 90s.  While he first set out to deny the allegations and went on the attack, accusing a former employee of maliciously leaking the emails in order to smear him.  When briefly discussing this (before saying that he has no interest in rehashing it at great length) Stone seems at his most uncomfortable in the film – the spotlight is thrust onto him personally, rather than his actions.  It forces an interaction where Stone is forced to make a distinction between himself and his projection.  At one point, Roger tells the filmmakers to not confuse him for the “Stephen Colbert-like character” he plays also called Roger Stone.  When asked to create a formal distinction between the two, he says that that is for us to figure out.  But in this instance, he thought it necessary to (eventually) make it clear.

The way in which Roger Stone describes his political performance artistry draws many parallels with discussions of ARGs, albeit with the subject displaced and motivation shifted.  The designer seeks to create a game world which can be sufficiently confused with the real world and (often) seeks to make the distinction unclear.  ARGs exist in a realm which is not entirely post-truth in the sense described above, but necessarily gravitates towards certain elements of it in the interest of maintaining plausible deniability and effectively weaving experiential emersion.  The realms of the game world and real world should clash in non-obvious manners, similarly to how it is hard to tell whether Roger is acting or being genuine.  Doing so elicits a similar effect within the player – they are confused, and, in the instance of game design, this can be a perfect way of motivating them to engage with the product.

While watching Get Me Roger Stone (and recalling a number of psychological tidbits from various classes here) it becomes abundantly clear why this approach to politics is effective.  People generally have an inherent opposition to changing their initial positions and prefer to hear information which aligns with their preconceived notions, allowing for people like Roger to create fictitious rhetoric which, on a visceral level, just feels correct.  I think this concept actually has parallels to the designing rabbit-holes in ARGs.  When the player encounters a rabbit hole it should at least be in relative alignment with their expectations and conceptions of reality.  However, like the Roger Stone of augmented reality game development, designers are to problematize the content and push the limits of what we expect in our reality such that there is a feeling of incorrectness elicited within the players which draws them towards the subject matter and encourages them to explore further.  The principles here draw some similarities with Stone’s Rules – since they’re written by a professional fictioneer, they do make sense in a game design context.

Improvisation and Design

This week, I wanted to return briefly to Sawyer’s distinction between problem-finding and problem-solving behavior, as detailed in Improvisation and the Creative Process.  The former refers to the artist who is actively engaged in the creative process while the work is being made, seeking innovative paths as they are producing.  Problem-solving behavior, on the other hand, refers to creation in accordance with a preset plan, with the artist simply carrying out the actions during the process itself.  A key feature of improvisation is a focus on problem-finding behavior, taking what is happening in a certain moment and moving it in an all new direction.  Even beyond the improvisational nature of ARGs themselves, this focus on problem-finding behavior is seen everywhere throughout the design process of such games.

Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to class on Tuesday where we created new rulesets for tic-tac-toe, but that methodology is certainly consistent with what Chess and Booth describe in Lessons down a rabbit hole: Alternate reality gaming in the classroom.  Within this article, they lay out what they have empirically found to be the most effective method of teaching an ARG – referred to as the “play-revise-design” method.  Here, students are introduced to the subject by first playing the game and then learning its various aspects such that they understand how it functions.  Though we were not meant to be designing an ARG in class, we nonetheless followed a similar process – playing tic-tac-toe (a game with a ruleset with which we are all familiar) and fundamentally changing the way we think about the confines of play.

However, it is important to note that improvisation does not end at the design portion of the game, and is in fact integral to the entire ARG experience. Even the act of playing an ARG has the potential for improvisational interactions due to the loose typically ruleset and setting of the game. When using real world mediums, there are bound to be factors which the designer didn’t account for which influence the player’s experience with the game – such as seeing references to it where it doesn’t exist, or engaging with other players and having meaningful experiences in that capacity. Fundamentally, the lack of clear delineation between the real world and the game (which is present in similar mediums such as video games and board games) alters the player’s perception and expands the confines of the game to potentially infinite proportions by obfuscating what constitutes “gameplay”.

Potentially anything can constitute gameplay, so long as the game is the focus of the player’s intentions or is otherwise influencing them in some way. This engages the player in another sort of improvisational activity, a sort of conversation with the designers as to what it even means to be playing the game. With the real world and game world so interlaced (at least in certain ARGs) the players have active power to engage in whatever capacity they desire and act counter to designer wishes, even if this isn’t seen often. Player’s get to decide the fundamental nature of the game by what they choose to interact with and, when given the chance, the ways in which they interact. They are, in effect, engaging in their own “play-revise-design” by virtue of the real-world setting. This is very distinct from games with defined rulesets, wherein the improvisation arises from the ways in which different mechanics can be mixed in order to create diverse, differentiated outcomes.

This potential for a changing ruleset and emergent gameplay is something which, I believe, would be very entertaining to see mixed with other mediums. Be it a video game with uses ARG-like elements to tell it’s story, or a manufactured forum used by characters in a TV show, there are various means which media designers can take in order to blur the distinction between their project and the real world, resulting in an effect that is difficult to accurately predict but greatly expands the diegetic scope of the presented world.