– A guest blog by Caleb Lewis
It starts with a text message. You don’t recognise the number. But they seem to know you. It’s Luke, a guy you used to go to school with. You didn’t know him very well. In fact you’d forgotten all about him. But he remembers you. And he needs your help. Because tonight he’s got no place to stay.
That’s the initial premise for ‘The City,’ a real-time, phone-based game I’ve been developing. Inspired by the old choose-your-own-adventure books and the prevalence of ‘survival’ games now flooding the markets, I wanted to create something different: a more intimate conversation exploring the inner lives of those living rough on the street, and dealing with the harsh realities of modern homelessness.
This type of game is nothing new. In fact there is a whole genre dedicated to raising awareness about various issues through the medium of games. Welcome to the world of Serious Games.
These last few weeks I’ve also grappled with anorexia (Calories) and chronic depression, (Depression Quest) experienced PTSD as a drone pilot (Unmanned) and managed overseas sweatshops for a High Street fashion label (World Factory) – all while attempting to survive on the poverty line (Playspent.org). It’s been an interesting month.
I’m in Brighton, undertaking a residency with digital performance pioneers Blast Theory. Thanks to the Australia Council for the Arts I am over here studying ludology (gameplay) and narrative while developing, ‘The City,’ a project of my own.
I’m a playwright by trade and over the past few years, I’ve been experimenting with different forms of storytelling. Specifically, I’m interested in work that engages with its audience directly and is able to immerse them in a fully realised, interactive experience, which challenges preconceptions and rewards play, prompting us to question the patterns of our own lives and reflect on the lives of others.
Whether it be dancing with a stranger (Across a Crowded Room) conversing with a prisoner (Half an Hour Visit) seeking answers after a disappearance in a small country town (If There Was a Colour Darker Than Black I’d Wear It) or surviving until dawn (Tin Shed Camping Tours) I’ve sought ways to realise events in which the audience co-author the narrative to create something wholly new.
For the past twenty-five years, Blast Theory have championed this approach, winning dozens of accolades and so I was thrilled to be selected by them as an artist in residence. With works like “Kidnap,” “Ivy4evr,” “Karen” and now “Operation Black Antler” they’ve ably demonstrated the power of an immersive narrative to engage with their audience thoughtfully and provocatively in order to facilitate a wholly new experience. I couldn’t wait to meet the whole team and to pick their brains while continuing work on my own project.
With ‘The City,’ which I’m developing here in Brighton, I wanted to take a closer look at the lives of a population often invisible in our games and our day-to day-lives: the urban homeless.
‘The City’ is a real-time, ‘Choose-Your-Own-Adventure’ style, app for phones. Adopting a text-message style interface, the game allows a real-time interaction between the player and one of four characters, each with their own story. Players are further endowed with a prior relationship to that character. They might be an ex-partner; a family member; an old friend or a perfect stranger.
Your task is to interact with Luke, Tracy, Rose or Ayo, offering advice, support and helping to make decisions. If trust is established, they might volunteer opinions, accounts and stories from their own lives. But if characters become too stressed, depressed or agitated, they may break off communication forever. An exploration of power and powerlessness, The City, examines the support networks we take for granted and asks how difficult is it to survive without them?
As I said I’m a playwright with little background in coding so the devising and implementation of this has involved a STEEP learning curve. And while initial development of the idea began at the University of British Columbia’s Game Academy, my background is in theatre not gaming and it feels like there is so much to learn. Now why, you may ask, is a playwright mucking around with coding? That’s a fair question and one I’ll attempt to answer below. I guess you could say it’s an experiment.
I love the theatre and I’ve been asking myself a lot lately why so few people I know regularly go. And if I am honest, I think for a lot of people, the theatre no longer speaks to them. Instead they sit in the dark watching another tired classic resurrected for the umpteenth time. To grow our audience we must listen to them first.
We are living in a golden age of television. And now, thanks to the Internet, a limitless well of entertainment is at our fingertips. What then, can Theatre offer us?
Well actually, a lot.
‘Intimacy’ for a start.
‘Communitas,’ the feeling of a shared experience.
And lastly, ‘Interactivity,’ the ever-present possibility of interrupting the action and altering Fate.
One of the reasons I think that sport is so popular is that the end is unknown. Both teams have a clear goal. Both teams have strategies and agency. But the end is not yet written. Heroes and villains and grand narratives emerge in real-time, second by second, minute by minute, the story shifting dynamically and unpredictably with every play, every fumble, every goal. These stories are vital and alive. There is still room for the unpredictable, for improvisation, for chance.
And this can be true of Theatre too. Every performance is subtly different. Unlike novels, film and other linear entertainments that play out identically each time, the theatre is not bound by this convention but has adopted it out of habit. So what happens if we are brave enough to let go of the linear narrative and to embrace uncertainty? What happens if we start playing to our strengths?
And now, a confession: The residency here at Blast Theory hasn’t all been hard work. I’ve also been playing LOTS of games. Folk games, card games, board games and a tonne of video games. Because video games are an art-form fast growing out of their infancy and I believe will come into their own as this century’s pre-eminent art form, just as cinema was in the 20th century and the novel was in the century before that.
And I believe that Theatre and Games share a huge amount in common and can learn so much from each other if there is greater dialogue between both fields. Just as every performance of a play is different, so too is each individual playthrough of a game. And while the “sets” and even “scripts” of both may be fixed, there is room for improvisation within both.
We’ve all heard the adage, “Show don’t Tell,” the idea being that the best way to communicate a point is by demonstrating it. But I wonder if there is an even more effective means? Firsthand experience is a powerful pedagogy. What happens if we burn the seats and invite the audience up onto the stage or demolish the stage entire, creating work in which the lines between performer and audience are increasingly blurred, crafting moments of startling intimacy, confronting them with meaningful choices and punishing them or rewarding them with the consequences? I’m being provocative but consider for a moment the work that might be made, based on the maxim of “Know don’t Tell,” in which participants are invited to explore the story’s world and its themes directly and with full dramatic agency and learn its truths firsthand, rather than as mute witnesses at a distance. Imagine the conversations in the foyer afterwards, the dissections of choices made and paths not taken, the furious debates. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating we turn our backs on Theatre bur rather that as artists we add to our theatremaking arsenal.
Interactivity is a powerful tool. Dramatic Agency is a gift. And they are also a gamble, I know. We’re ceding control and inviting the audience to co-author the narrative. They may not grasp the subtleties of Aristotle’s poetics and Joseph Campbell and the three-act structure! What happens if they muck it up? And yet if the goal of storytelling, as I believe it is, is to create greater empathy with our fellow human beings, then by letting go of the dramaturgical reins, creating space for emergent narrative and finally, allowing the audience to steer their own dramatic course, we may succeed beyond our wildest dreams. I reckon it’s certainly worth attempting.