Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Being There: An Interactive Performance for Lyst Summit

A couple of weekends ago I flew to Copenhagen to take part in Lyst Summit, a symposium and game jam about love, sex and romance in video games. During the event roughly forty creatives from disciplines inside and outside games collaborated to make experimental games and playful experiences.

I teamed up with Maya Magnat, a performance artist from Tel Aviv, and Anders Børup, a sound designer from Copenhagen, to create Being There - an audio-led role-play for two people.

About Being There


Being There is played by two participants, who each take a headset loaded with an audio track. The two participants start the audio at the same time, and have to follow the actions described to them by the audio. The two tracks start similar, but over time the perspective offered by the two narrators changes. One participant’s view of the events will become increasingly different to the other’s.

The story that participants act out is the story of a relationship from first date to break-up.

If you want to try the prototype version we made during Lyst, the mp3 files are below for you to download and try out. And below them, a bit of an explanation and discussion of the process, if you don’t mind the magic being spoiled!

You will need to hug, hold hands, and have your phone on you to take a photo with.

Download: Participant A
Download: Participant B

The voices are provided by myself, and by writer Jordan Erica Webber.




The Concept



The founding idea behind the story is that for one partner the relationship is idyllic, while for the other the relationship is imperfect and leaves them frustrated.

One player hears that everything is wonderful, full of all these little daily moments that seem magical. The other hears that how frustrating it is that they never really do anything and they.

One dreams of taking the other to Paris, while the other laments that they always talk about holidays but never actually go anywhere.

The hope is, that through role-playing the situations, the participants will independently spot that there’s something not-quite-right with the relationship. We wanted them to pick up on their partner’s body language and feel that the other is more doting or more distant than themselves; even when this runs counter to the vision of perfection being described.

Role-Playing Relationships


Obviously, there’s a lot of interesting design threads to come out of the basic concept. I love getting the players themselves to actively play out a story as it happens, without knowing where it is going. It chimes with a lot of what excites me about getting players to improvise and perform during The Incredible Playable Show, and with a lot of Maya’s work where she uses technology as a springboard to get players exploring personal boundaries.

There's also an exciting set of possibilities in using the player being an active participant to get them to engage with the emotions and issues of relationships. The mis-match between what your partner does and what you hear can be a prompt to ask questions while the story is going on.

Many of us have been enamoured with a partner who becomes distant for reasons we cannot understand. Many of us have had to break the heart of a doting partner. That we just don't see the same way can be achingly out of our control. Indeed, many of us have experienced relationships that ended even when they seemed so perfect. Many of us have watched, with aching hearts, partners who cannot see the inevitability of a relationship that really isn't working.

Using directed role-play we can ask our participants to step into the shoes of another, or a younger version of themselves, and question their approaches.

Much of the inspiration came from Inside Out Karaoke, a set of training videos for dealing with difficult relationship situations. The viewer watches, for example, a break-up from a first-person perspective. They hear their partner’s responses and must read aloud, karaoke-style, their side of the conversation. When I tried it out, there were a lot of moments where I thought “I wouldn’t have said it like that,” but went along with it anyway, committing to the role. These moments made for really interesting conversation points for after the video. Is there a right way to break up with someone?

Reflections


The current version, downloadable here (Participant A, Participant B), is a prototype. We’re keen to revisit it, to see how we could develop the concept and flesh it out. Testing Being There at the event certainly taught me a lot of things, which I’ll detail below.

Silence


In our first test we just tried out the the first chapter. The participants felt uncomfortable with the long empty silences where they didn’t know what to do. We started fleshing the scripts out with more descriptions of the surroundings, but we soon realised that doing so was drawing attention to our voices. We wanted to draw their focus to the person in front of them.

Adding some diagetic audio to flesh out a sense of place made a difference to this, but our biggest change was to add an intro segment priming players for the long silences.

I suspect there's a more elegant solution to the issue, but it did make a positive difference. Telling the players about the silences in advance meant they did not think the silences were a design fault. They instead did what we wanted them to do: spend a long period of time nervously looking into each other’s eyes. It was still awkward at the start, but it was a good kind of awkward: two first-daters sharing a first awkward moment together.

Debriefing


Another big lesson was how important it is to have a debrief session with the participants. The reality is that they don’t have the conversation of “what was it like for you?” unless they are primed to do so. After showing it to other Lyst jammers on the last day, we found ourselves having extended chats with some of them, which would reveal some of the differences in perspective that they had.

Historically I’ve always tried to get people to talk about the games I’ve made. It's a great way to learn what needs to be improved! I find myself less asking for direct thoughts and feelings, and more just getting them talking and seeing what common ground players gravitate towards.

So part of debriefing in-person after Being There was an active effort to learn how players experienced the performance. But it was also a chance to get ideas for how to create debrief sessions without us there to run them.

It turns out that debrief sessions are common, sometimes even expected, in performance pieces and live-action role-play. So maybe having an in-person debrief with the creators - even explicitly revealing all the details - is perfectly fine. Perhaps expecting the performance to do that on its own is a hang-over from thinking as a digital games creator!

There's a lot of ideas we could try out, and it's also a lesson for me in my other performative work. In The Incredible Playable Show I've recently found myself hanging around slightly off-stage to chat to visitors after each performance. Talking to the creator, be it about what happened during the act, or to ask me how I made it, is a big part of the magic for some people.

Expanding


The final thing that stood out as ripe for improvement was simply fleshing out the piece, particularly to get the pacing right.

There’s a moment early on where one participant is told to smile and laugh, while the other participant is told to spill coffee on themselves and look embarrassed. On their own these actions seem weird, but when they fit together the penny drops and it’s a magic moment. There’s room for more moments like this.

There’s also a bit of an abrupt shift from the third chapter to the fourth, and the partner leaving comes suddenly and there’s no sense of a shift in time. We could definitely take more time in the later stages of the relationship to ramp it up.

Lyst


In all it was a fantastic project to work on, and I’m really proud with what we achieved. I learnt so much, thoroughly enjoyed working with this team. I'm looking forward to revisiting this and seeing how we can grow it.

A massive thank-you to Andrea Brasch and Patrick Jarnfelt for putting Lyst together - it was an absolutely fantastic weekend. This is my second time at Lyst, and both trips have been eye-opening experiences where I have made many great friends and expanded my horizons as a developer.

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