Narrative ARGitecture: Return of the Obra Dinn

In this blog post I will first discuss my experience playing Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn. I will also analyze how the game can be applied to this week’s readings, Henry Jenkin’s article, Game Design as Narrative Architecture as well as Guy Debord’s, Theory of the Dérive. I will also see how these models of spatial storytelling and narrative architecture can be applied to Alternate Reality Games.

I really enjoyed playing Return of the Obra Dinn. Without speaking at lengths about the gameplay narrative itself and limit potential spoilers, you begin the game as an insurance agent tasked with discovering how 60 crew members died on a ship named the Obra Dinn. You have this futuristic apparatus that allows you to flashback to the moment each character dies. You hear a bit of dialogue before you are transported to the very frame of reality which they are killed. I found this model to be incredibly fascinating because it allows the player to explore as much as they deem necessary to progress through the larger narrative. The games flood of information, scenes, new faces, and dialogue, and murders constantly make you rely on your short-term memory, constantly forcing you to create a mental timeline of what you’ve already discovered. Though I am not even close to finishing the game, I look forward to exploring it much more in the future.

Henry Jenkins brings forth an intriguing narrative architecture heuristic which intersects between four models: evocative space, enacted stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives. Jenkins explains evocative spaces as elements that help one draw from previously existing narratives in an effort to paint a picture and immerse the player within it (Jenkins, 6). While playing Return of the Obra Dinn, I immediately recalled the third episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror. In this episode a detective has this apparatus that allows her to see the recent memories of the people she is interviewing and accidently discovers a murder in the process. Though Return of the Obra Dinn is a monochromatic pixelated game, the similar aesthetic to this Black Mirror episode created an evocative space where I almost imagined the two worlds overlapping in the same reality. ARGs can utilize evocative spaces as they can draw from previously existing narratives and allow players to travel to specific locations and feel as though they’ve entered into the alternate reality.

Jenkin explains the next model of narrative architecture, enacting spaces, as having less to do with overall plot development and rather rooted in a player’s own exploration. He breaks such narratives down into broadly defined goals and localized incidents (Jenkins, 7). Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes the latter form as it allows players to explore over 60 different incidents of deaths aboard a ship. The route which you take to discover each character’s individual narrative is not linear, and rather gives you a unique level of intimacy of a noncontrolled and more immersive game experience. Elements of this model are also highlighted in Guy Debord’s article Theory of The Dérive. Dérive refers to constructive play that incorporates psychogeographical drifting. He states, “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, Online Article). This quote conveys the message of focusing on the journey rather than the end destination just as Return of the Obra Dinn is about collection of knowledge that one can only learn through experiencing the narrative’s journey. The notion of focusing on exploration over overall plot development resonates well with the ARG concept of problem finding rather than problem solving.

Jenkin’s third model revolves around embedded narratives. These are narratives discovered within a larger world that help to bring forth new evidence, clues, or background knowledge (Jenkins, 9). Using embedded narratives within games provides a level of substance that separates it from a linear story with a beginning, middle, and end. Embedded narratives give the player a sense of a greater world even beyond the game itself. Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes this tremendously through the use of leapfrogging from one crew members moment of demise to the next, and in some cases using ones memory to discover another crew member’s fate. This Inception-like dream within a dream within a dream made be question which reality my character was in the game at times. ARGs utilize embedded narratives as a tool to interwinte players into the alternate reality. An example of this is when embedded narratives are found when players solve puzzles or ciphered messages, in the form of lost or secret journals of NPCs within the ARGs narrative.

The final model within Jenkin’s narrative architecture heuristic is emergent narratives. Emergent narratives are not predetermined and rather take shape while the player progresses through the game (Jenkins, 11). One could say that by allowing the player to explore multiple dimensions and levels of reality, Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes this model of narratives design. Though, unlike The Sims, the stories of the characters you are bringing forth have already been written. Instead the emergent narrative ‘possibilities’ come from the way you choose to explore the ship’s crew and create a mental representation of a timeline amongst the 60 sub-narratives along with keeping track of the dynamic relationships amongst crew members. ARGs also utilize emergent narratives as the game designers oftentimes are rethinking and rewriting the game’s plot as players progress. We have learned that it is quite commonplace for things to not go as planned. This allows for emergent narratives to be created quite unpredictably.

Works Cited
Return of the Obra Dinn, Lucas Pope
Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Henry Jenkins
Theory of the Dérive, Guy Debord

Netprovs VS ARGs VS LARPs

For my blog post, I will analyze netprovs and their place within both ARGs and LARPs. I will be referring to Rob Wittig’s transcribed article, titled Past and Futures of Netprov. In this article, Wittig explains the history and methodology of netprovs, laying the foundation for other creates to explore this unique experience. Networked improv narrative, or netprov for short, is the use of transmedia to create fake characters and enact them into the real world. They bridge reality and fiction through these interactive mechanisms. Since our course revolves around alternate reality games, it would seem rather useful to break the different aspects that make up netprovs and see where they fall within the spectrum of other role-playing games such as ARGs and LARPs. In order to analyze netprovs, I will refer to some of Wittig’s ten qualities that define them. I ultimately conclude that most of the elements that make up netprovs are found in both ARGs and LARPs.

The first is that they are networked narratives, that foster collaboration and improvisation in real time. I immediately envisioned my LARPing experience, Ask Again Later, when reading this quality. Just as within the LARP, the players follow no scripts, no predetermined paths. Instead, they are collaborating with their fellow LARPers to form novel and dynamic relationships/narratives in real time. In reference to ARGs, they too have a level of improvisation in real time, as events do not always go as planned. This forces game designers to be constantly on their toes, and ready to collaborate with the players to create a unique and personalized experience.

The second quality is that netprovs use several media platforms to bring forth their fake characters into the real world. This is directly correlated with ARGs which also heavily utilize transmedia as the source for game play. This fosters accessibility and collaboration amongst players.

The third quality is that netprovs use both featured and casual players. This quality is notable within ARGs as well. In ARGs not all players solve every puzzle or attend every event. There is a dynamic of very invested super players along with the players who are following and reading along. Both ARGs and netprovs share this trait.

The fourth quality of netprovs is quite an interesting idea. Wittig states that, “netprovs are experienced as performance as it is published … later read as a literary archive.” He allows such a literary archive in the world as a single work performance or for the potential for it to be repeated. In my opinion, ARGs differ here, because the experiences are so unique to the specific group that participated in them, that there could absolutely be no way to repeat the experience.

The fifth quality is that netprovs incorporate breaking news. This reminded me of my LARP experience, Ask Again Later. In this LARP, the game makers would occasionally gather us all around and explain some breaking news that essentially brought forth new information into the alternate world we were in. Netprovs utilize this ‘breaking news’ aesthetic as well.

The sixth quality is that netprovs use actors to take part in live performances. This is a quality found in both ARGs rather than LARP. In ARGs, players are constantly conversing with with bots and other characters created by the game makers and participate in live performances where they ultimately get to meet these actors.

The seventh quality of netprovs is that actors create their own charaters in real time. This was an aspect closely resembling LARPs instead of ARGs. One of the must fun and exciting aspects of my LARP experience was that my character had a clean slate as far as motivations and personality. Throughout the LARP, my character continued to evolve in real time as I played through the improv. Netprovs too utilize this quality of active creation of characters.

The eighth quality is that they are usually parodic and satirical. This is where I would say they differ from ARGs because ARGs tend to focus less on satire and more on other aspects of alternate reality that make their games unique and serious. This is why several of the ARGs we have discussed throughout our course have been about environmental activism and saving the world from corruption.

The ninth quality of netprovs is that they utilize the physical world as they make players and actors travel to specific locations to seek information and watch live performances. Here, Wittig directly makes a correlation between netprovs and ARGs because ARGs heavily utilize this quality as well.

The tenth quality is that netprovs are designed to be incomplete narratives, allowing new players to join without feeling left out or out of the loop. This quality is greatly incorporated into ARGs as well as players who are not physically solving puzzles and going on site to locations and solving puzzles, all come together on transmedia forums and chat rooms to be able to collaborate and still actively participate.

Works Cited

Rob Wittig, Past and Futures of Netprov

Ask Again Later: Improvisation Methodology and Limiting Bleed

I will be writing my Gameplay Participation Response about my experience in the live-action role-playing (LARP) game Ask Again Later which was held at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. I want to note that I had no expectations going into this LARP because I had only read about them through this course material and only experienced improvisation through two murder mystery parties that I took part in. What was strikingly different from my previous murder mystery parties and this LARP game was that with the murder mystery party, my character had already been constructed, having been given 8 pages single spaced of their background, intentions, and abilities. With Ask Again Later, I noticed very quickly that I constantly found myself questioning my characters abilities, and my intentions kept transforming and altering as I experienced more and more of the game. I felt like I was actively participating in growing and developing my character in real time, constantly evolving. Overall this was a unique experience that allowed me to practice improvisation methodology highlighted in our course material from Keith Sawyer’s article Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity. I also got a feel for how bleed plays a role in such alternate reality games as highlighted in Sarah Bowman’s Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.

I will discuss some of the characteristics of improvisation that Sawyer highlights in his article. One is to focus more on the creative process over the product. Creative process is the process of actively participating in and experiencing an art medium rather than the focusing on the final product. (Sawyer, 152). Another of the characteristics is the power of collaboration with other characters. These were both key aspects in Ask Again Later, because we as the LARPers, had no clear direction of how the game would play out at all and branched off into different narratives through performing with each other. Our lack of direction to the final product made the game more intriguing and promoted a great deal of active engagement. Creative process applied greatly to my feeling of constantly evolving my character’s motives and identity. I was focused more on the creative process of fitting myself into this alternate reality world and understanding my place in it. There were a few game makers who would be assisting all the LARPers with questions and carrying out narratives when events would be carried out. The game makers were also responsible for moving the narrative further in some instances. The first was when they revealed a flooded room with what seemed to be a dead nuclear family, consisting of a mother, father, sister, and brother. Here is when I first got exposed to the powers of creative process in improvisation. Since my character was secretly a 200-year-old warlock, I had previously chosen some abilities prior to the game that would pair well with this character. This led me to the first major event in the game which ended up creating a cascade of events and collaborative group dynamics that played out for the rest of the LARP game. No one seemed to be moving the narrative further beyond understanding there was a bunch of dead townspeople in this room of the factory. I realized I had the ability to reanimate the dead, so that’s just what I did! This led to a few of my fellow witch and warlock secret circle getting discovered. Without getting too much into the details of my constant trickery and scheming, I ended up as arguably the main villain of the entire game. My character was leading a satanic religious group and recruited several of the LARPers. After the failed murder attempt on the town’s mayor, my satanic group was defeated by the Christian religious group and my character was killed in the last scene. The amount of collaboration that was necessary for our group dynamics to form such strong ties and to end up fighting other groups, shows the true power of improvisation.

Bleed as it applies to role-playing games is when a person’s real-life feelings and thoughts spill into their character they are playing as and vice versa. (Bowman, Online Article). Bowman emphasizes that this is neither a good nor bad thing, it is just a phenomenon that players are exposed to if they do not create mental boundaries from themselves and their characters. I was very curious to see how the game makers would inform us of this phenomenon, knowing that most of us had never LARPed before. We began the day with exercises of interpersonal conflict scenarios where we could gain some exposure to acting and improvising with other players. I was in a group with one of my friends and we chose to improvise a break up scenario. At one point, my friend cursed at me and I remember thinking and saying aloud, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe you said that!” I knew we were only playing, and that I had no problem with curse words in general, but that was my first taste of bleed. I let my character’s behavior and the scene be attributed to myself when I knew that we were just playing out a breakup scene. The game makers had a few tricks that we could implement throughout the LARP to designate that we were either, ‘okay’, ‘somewhat okay’, or ‘not okay’ with the scene we were playing out. This great communication methodology limited any sort of bleed that the players could potentially experience. Overall, participating in this LARP was a unique role-playing game that supplemented our course readings very well.

Works Cited
Bowman, L, Sarah. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.”
Sawyer, R. Keith. “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity.”

Psychological Perspectives of Social Compliance

For my blog post I wanted to focus on the psychological underpinnings brought forth in Derren Brown’s Netflix Special, The Push and to highlight psychological studies that could offer a supplementary understanding of the social phenomena of social compliance. Derren Brown’s The Push was a social experiment in social compliance aiming to manipulate four unsuspecting people to succumb to social pressure with the ultimate goal of leading them to commit murder. While this notion of making someone push an innocent stranger off a building ledge seemed quite farfetched, the show explains the several small acts of obedience that made such behavior possible. The most vital element to social compliance is the feeling of subordination to the authority figure. Once an establishment of lower authority is made among the person and the person with higher authority, they are increasingly more likely to comply.

An understanding of hierarchy is social hierarchy is understood across species, and has been heavily analyzed in animal behavioral research. One such species are Rhesus monkeys. An example of how embedded social hierarchy is within this species comes from lineage. In a community of monkeys, an infant born into an alpha matriline has a higher rank than a third-generation lower ranking elder monkey. As such, throughout the community, it is internalized by the lower ranking monkey and communicated across the entire colony. Hierarchy also plays a key role in Derren Brown’s The Push. The subject being observed was not told that the event is a black-tie dress code and showed up in business casual attire. Such a minor detail was the first building block to establish his sense of lower authority. With lower authority comes higher compliance. Just as a lower ranking older monkey will displace themselves, the act of moving from their location to allow an alpha line newborn to take its place, the subjects in The Push began to follow orders without questioning the acts of the experimenter who had established higher authority over them.

While watching this Netflix Special, I recalled the well-known social psychology study conducted by Stanley Milgram which involved obedience to authority figures. In this study, participants were asked to send an electrical shock to a stranger in another room with only the knowledge that this was the scientist’s instructions. Entering the scientist’s environment, the subjects already established lower authority to them. The takeaway from this study was that participants found themselves complicit in sending an electrical signal which they were fully aware would be lethal, ultimately bringing further evidence to the reality of social compliance.

An interesting statement that Derren Brown said in the closing of the Netflix Special was that, “It’s like we’re handed someone else’s script of how to live, but to carry out their beliefs and achieve their ambitions.” I felt that this statement, resonated well with our Alternate Reality Games class. In reference to performativity and improvisation. The utilization of hierarchy can be highly influential in an ARG and players can feel various levels of performativity that can be quite different from their own beliefs. In the reading, ‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play, Jane McGonigal delves into the lingering effects of immersion which, “leads players to neglect important aspects of their normal lives” (McGonigal, 5). This analogous reference to the term we previously learned, bleed, could be interpreted in the understanding of social compliance. The experience of bleed and social compliance both are associated with not being able to separate one’s own beliefs and rather remain in a different state of performance character. In the bleed sense, they have not let their character go, and in social compliance, they are performing a more compliant version of who they usually are.

The Power of Improvisation: Murder Mystery Party

This Saturday night I had the opportunity to partake in a live action role play (LARP) murder mystery party along with 30 other University of Chicago students. Having just covered the power of improvisation this week, I aimed to actively bring forth the material we learned and apply it in practice. Primarily I focused on the five characteristics of improvisation that Keith Sawyer draws attention to from John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theories in his article, Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity. The night began with each of us having already read our character’s backstories along with our motives and abilities. The setting was an Italian mob-ridden speakeasy in Chicago in the 70s. We all dressed in character, some people even going as far as to wear detailed makeup and glued on mustaches. My character was a secret intelligence agent posing as a news reporter, trying to lock up all the various criminals.

The first of Sawyer’s characteristics is the emphasis on creative process over product. Creative process as referenced by Sawyer is the process of actively participating in and experiencing an art medium rather than the focusing on the final product. (Sawyer, 152). Though I knew my character’s background and intentions, I made sure to utilize the first characteristic by not centralizing the completion of my motives one by one like a checklist, and rather focus on the process of actively experiencing the character I was embodying and learning about every other character in the room.

The second of Sawyer’s characteristics is an emphasis on problem-finding rather than problem problem-solving. Problem-finding utilizes a collaborative and emergent mindset to approach a problem or scenario at hand (154). As one can imagine, within a LARP thematically set around a murder mystery, there were no clear approaches to solving the several problems I had been tasked with. While bouncing around the room and meeting all the other characters, I found myself constantly forming new emergent questions and approaches to my character’s motives.

Comparing art to everyday language use was the third of Sawyer’s characteristics of improvisation. He believes improvisation is analogous to everyday conversation, almost like a branching conversation where two characters perpetuate a dialogue that is spontaneous (155). Embodying a secret intelligence agent undercover as a reporter allowed me to have some interesting impromptu conversations with the other characters because I was constantly creating novel excuses for my presence of a reporter at a crime heavy mob-ridden speakeasy.

The fourth characteristic and perhaps the most fun one that I was able to use during the LARP was collaboration with the other characters. With a murder mystery it was only a matter of time before alliances began to form and secret plans began to take place. One of my most brilliantly crafted rouses that night was to frame one of the criminals with having moonshine, as an experiment of manipulation for myself. As the night progressed, I received intel that one of the characters was an incredibly powerful mob boss. After solving who was secretly responsible for the illegal selling of moonshine, I made a bargain with them to confiscate all their paraphernalia and let them off the hook so long as they collaborated with me to take down the alleged mob boss. Along with this character, we devised a plan to have the moonshine dealer sell some of it to this character. Upon falling for the bait, I was able to finally arrest the other character. This was such a fun use of collaboration with the other characters and it all happened through improvisation.

The fifth and final characteristic is to use of ready-made in improvisation. Ready-mades, according to Sawyer are stock phrases that are drawn upon while improvising that help steer and structure the performance (157). I would argue that perhaps the fact that we had such detailed backgrounds and motives could be comparable to such ready-mades. We drew on them to give our character’s direction, supplementary to the constant improvisations we all had with each other.

Reference: Sawyer, R. K. (2018). Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity Author (s): R. Keith Sawyer Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Published by: Wiley on behalf, 58(2), 149–161.