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.

The Evolution of MMOs from Minimalist to Enacted Narratives

I began playing World of Warcraft sometime before the Burning Crusade Expansion was released in 2007, at I estimate around age 8. At that point, it was shortly before I transferred schools midway through elementary school, and having played the game on and off for the past 11 years, World of Warcraft represents one of the longest relationships in my life. My early memories of playing characters are extremely sharp and lucid, not from my successes, which were few. Rather, I remember when my Gnome Warlock, “Satso,” was unable to complete the quest to bind his Voidwalker solo. Wandering Ironforge, the dwarf and gnome capital, I acquired the assistance of an upper level cloth character who dispatched the boss in a second. After helping me, the character gave me gold and a set of runecloth bags and set me off to continue the adventure with the aid of the voidwalker, who provided me with a companion that my warlock could not. This emergent narrative represents the community aspect of Pre-Wow MMOs that faded with the second generation.

Early MMO’s were rather minimalist in their design. Developing the hotly debated tab targeting system to replace hitboxes that would put too much strain on early 2000s servers. When you create a character on classic servers of the original Everquest, you are given nothing. You have no narrator to give knowledge of how to progress or where to go and are simply set on your own to journey through the land of Norrath. Instead of a tutorial or yellow check mark overhead, you simply get to experience your character entering a sort of lived in highly conventional fantasy World. To the sort of fantasy-fan that would initially have played Everquest, Sony Online Entertainment created an Evocative Space of both the more literary Tolkien-esque fantasy and the counterculture Gygax-isms familiar to players of Dungeons and Dragons. The High Elves live in their white city in the mountains above the wooded treetop homes of the Wood Elves. Gnomes in their mechanical cities compared to Barbarians in the frozen north. This combined with the embedded narratives. The subtle quests and tasks that emerge from talking to the townsfolk. When players enter the Hole and fight its various magical mysteries, the developers reveal to the players the story of the war that shattered Erudite civilization in the same way as a modern narrative game like Gone Home.

This simple storytelling worked, because it created an inhabitable world for the players to live in and explore their own stories. Beneath the world of Norrath that created so many possibilities, the real story of Everquest was you sitting in the city assembling a party and developing a routine of clearing through enemy camps to level up. The sort of pedestrian street level stories of cooperating with strangers to destroy a group of elementals, rather than a world-ending threat provided joy to the millions of players who made their way through Everquest. World of Warcraft began the process by which this minimalism was done away with. Each World of Warcraft zone in the early days had quests that provided the primary means of advancement, but they didn’t distract from the core interaction with other players to level up and play dungeons, the conventional source of emergent storytelling. The few truly game-changing enacted narratives like the Jailbreak Quest Chain, where players exposed the Dragon Onyxia’s infiltration into the Alliance government in order to become attuned for the raid on her lair, provided a story-telling heavy exception that didn’t get in the way of player interactions.

This tendency changed with the post 2010 Wow-killers released during the games Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm peaked. Their influence would later fall back onto World of Warcraft, which now relies heavily on isolated single-player storytelling in an isolated disconnected world, away from the server community of ostensible strangers from Classic WOW. In 2011’s Star Wars the Old Republic, players experienced a unique solo storyline depending on their class that led to them reaching a high-ranking position in either the Sith Empire or Old Republic. This simplified version of the traditional Bioware storytelling recognizable from Mass Effect or Dragon Age, created an entirely personal enacted narrative for you to play through in the Star Wars universe. While, creating a sense of emerging narrative by giving you choices in the storyline, at its core, by siphoning players off into ludo-narrative dissonant pocket universes in which they’re the head of the Jedi Order, it isolated players from creating their own narratives through simply playing together.

You can find countless forums across the internet wishing for the old style of MMO, for which there is currently no current game that scratches the itch of. To these orphaned MMO players, for whom there is nothing like there old experiences, emergent narratives and the nostalgia about them represents a massive influence on these people. In considering game design of MMORPG’s we should look to the MMO to recognize the strength and power these emerging narratives possess. That we can develop long, complicated, and intentional storylines, but the real memorable narratives can be developed from simply giving people a sandbox and letting them run wild, forming connections with one another that could be remembered for a lifetime.

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.

Obra Dinn’s Emphasis on Aesthetics

For the assignment to play one of two games, I chose to play “Return of the Obra Dinn.” Obviously, playing this game is different from playing an ARG since this is a virtual game and not a game played out in reality. The game did not give you any real instructions on how to play – it was more of a play and figure out as you go structured game. My initial reactions were that the game’s aesthetics were great and really attributed to its eery and haunted sci-fi theme. From the graphics moving into motion as your player walked through the ship to the narrative and backstory/flashback of each character in the game, all of these elements came together to assist with creating the “backwards” timeline of the game. It successfully uses its aesthetics to emphasize its narrative and enhance the player experience. During the whole time I was playing the game, I was observing the various elements incorporated to deliver an impactful and fun game to the player and how I could use these factors into our own ARG.

In terms of the sci-fi/fantasy aspect of the game with the use of its clock that transports the player to the scene of the event, we have incorporated this element through the use of our network of trees. But besides that, I realized that this game served a greater purpose in aiding the writing process of our Game Design Document. As someone mentioned today in class during our class reflections, the readings lacked in understanding how aesthetics are used in the creation of ARGs. After playing a virtual game where all you’re looking at is a digitized game screen, aesthetics is a big part of why people would want to play a specific game. In addition to having a good narrative, whether a game has outstanding graphics will set it apart from its competitors. One of the challenges that we’ve faced so far as a group is making our game aesthetic clear. We first started off with a sci-fi-esque theme with a portal to another world, but then changed it after a brainstorming session to have our aesthetic be magical realism to set us apart from the typical sci-fi themes that are prevalent in many games.

Unlike a virtual game, we aren’t designing an entire world from scratch like how Obra Dinn created its detailed ship. With less interactive artwork to be created, how could we make our game more mystical? An element I borrowed from the game was the sketches that the artist made of each character that depicted life on the ship. I had my character carry around a sketchpad and sketch various locations to emphasize that these locations are the same yet different due to the world’s condition (i.e., suffering in famine). With the creation of an omnipotent and cryptic tree that could transport items between worlds, we were able to emphasize the magical aspect of the game. Designing the aesthetics of an ARG has been proven to be difficult because there are so many challenges that come along the way. How much magical realism is too much for an alternate reality game? One thing that was important was to make it mystical but not too fantasy like so that it is still clear that this is a game being played in reality, as some things will make the game seem too much like a fantasy game and not an ARG. What are some of the challenges you all have faced along the way when it comes to designing the aesthetics of your game?

Rabbits Holes in Social Media

During Thursday’s class on social media, each group presented on different forms of social media that could be used for potential rabbit holes. Each platform had its own pros and cons to them, some easier to navigate than others. As our group decided on what platform to present on, we had to weigh the options of what elements would make up a “successful” rabbit hole. By going forth with Pinterest, we were able to create a very subtle rabbit hole, spelling out the url for argcourse.com. Some of the challenges we faced along the way was formatting the pinned posts to look like how we wanted it to, as we noticed that the display of the pinterest board varied based on one’s screen size. When choosing a social media platform to create a rabbit hole, I would not suggest Pinterest, as there wasn’t much room for growth or multiple directions it could lead to. It limited what we could do for a rabbit hole.

After watching the other groups present on their rabbit hole via different platforms, such as Tinder, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., it made me wonder what else could these platforms be used for. It’s easy to mimic someone’s identity or create a fake person’s profile on these platforms, easily creating a fake yet plausible character for an ARG and a successful rabbit hole. A rabbit hole is a good starting point to serve as a hint for a game player, but what else can it be used for? During the time that our group constructed our own rabbit hole to be playtested by the class for our ARG, I wondered what else we could use it for.

Our rabbit hole consisted of manipulating Facebook to create an account named “Aspen Groves” along with a “Lost and Found Under UChicago Trees.” Based on the success of one of the group’s fake Facebook account and the various interactions you can create with potential players, it seemed like a good way to introduce the game. In one post in the lost and found page, we had someone post a found piece of paper that revealed our website url. The website url showed a cryptic tree along with a seed on the side, which when clicked, prompted the player to a 2048 game which must be solved to reveal the designated location, the Regentree. Additionally, there were coordinates on the website that led to the tree. I left a map of UC Hicago and the X’s represented areas depleted of resources by the tree base and one of our classmates discovered it. At this point, the rabbit hole was concluded and people have been introduced to the game.

However, that is not the end of the rabbit hole. The format of our game uses the trees and by having this Facebook group, our starting point for the rabbit hole, we can reveal to the players various clues along the way through either losing or finding items under trees and reporting it on the Facebook page. Just like how other games use communication platforms like Discord, the Facebook page will serve as a way for players to share what they have found throughout the game. Although the rabbit hole was the starting point, its use is still alive and does not have to end once played out.

Obra Dinn & Game Design As Narrative Architecture

For this blog post, I am going to talk about the game Return of the Obra Dinn as well as Henry Jenkins’s Game Design As Narrative Architecture. Honestly, I am not super into video games. I appreciate them, but was never quite good. However, I had a great time playing this game due to its narrative. As discussed in class, the game relies on the premise that you are an insurance agent and that you need to discover how sixty people died on the ship. This game is unique to other games that I have played because it requires a little more thinking. In the game you have a device that can let you go back to when a person on the ship dies and then you are given clues from there. The game is like a murder mystery with many misdirections. It is set in the early 1800’s on a merchant ship called the Obra Dinn which returns to the port years after it was reported to be missing. You as the character are the insurance agent who is in charge of figuring out what happened. When I first started playing the game the clues were pretty helpful in figuring out what was going on, but as I progressed things got more complex and confusing. I am not going to go into everything in the game because I do not want to spoil it, but It was truly engaging and challenging.

In Jenkins’s Game Design as Narrative Architecture, he discusses 5 main topics: spatial stories and environmental storytelling, evocative space, enacted stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives. In the section on spatial stories and environmental storytelling, he says “Game designers don’t simply tell stories, they design worlds and sculpt spaces” (Jenkins 4). In Obra Dinn, the game designer does just this. They are sending you to a new world and time period and sculpting a space that makes the gamer feel like a part of that time period. He is able to craft stories with the surrounding environment via clues. He then goes into evocative spaces. He talks about using stories that we are already familiar with to let us explore that space even more. For example a star wars game is only useful because it doesn’t just recap the entire movie, but adds another dimension to the narrative. In Obra Dinn, we can imagine a world on a ship that we have seen in movies and shows and use the narrative to further our understanding of life on a ship. The third concept Jenkins writes about are enacted stories. Jenkins argues that games do not need to me super constructed in its stories, but be multifaceted and allow the player to feel as though they have some sort of choice. In Obra Dinn, I felt as though I was paving my own path at my own pace. It was not a direct narrative. Obra Dinn also has the embedded narratives where there are clues placed throughout the game. Finally, I think the coolest part of a game are emerging narratives. Emerging narratives are interesting because they were not meant to be part of the game. In class we talked about an ARG where people formed different roles than what was expected, but a game that is able to adapt to me is a very sophisticated one in my opinion. In Obra Dinn, I’m not sure if this really occurs but in ARG’s this is very common as we learned.

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