The next in our series of posts exploring different interactive performance styles is the Adventure Game. The name and form is derived from the genre of video games (which peaked in popularity in the late 80s to mid-90s), in which the player takes on the role of a protagonist working their way through an interactive storyline through exploration and puzzle-solving.
Sam & Max Hit the Road. Does it involve wanton destruction? We can only hope.
The Adventure Game is a format that is pretty prevalent in our work, since it allows a non-linear exploration of what is fundamentally a linear text. The Adventure Games mindset is really useful when the main concern is for the storyline, rather than having the focus on the variety of options and customisability available to an audience. The focus is on solving puzzles and achieving objectives, so there are crossovers with The Treasure Hunt.
The style is suitable for mysteries, or any story where there is an unknown that needs to be discovered, and you can get a lot of text out so it’s equally suitable for comedy, drama, horror or whatever style of narrative is needed.
The actors on stage play characters (rather than facilitators, or just themselves). The audience is characterised either as a God-like character, or they assume the role of the character who they are piloting about.
The nice thing about the adventure game is that audiences can experience what interests them directly. They can ask for information on something and the performance fleshes it out for them. And everything they do is right, because even if it’s not forwarding the story the fact that you’ve written dialogue or action in anticipation of their decision means that they are rewarded for their instincts. An important part of getting people to relax and risk failure is to amplify their input. A flick of the wrist on their part, and a whole sequence unfolds onstage. The people on stage are doing all the work.
It’s really important to make sure communication to the stage is mediated through a very tightly controlled channel – you probably don’t want people yelling out instructions because it breaks suspension of disbelief and there’s a good chance it’ll be an idea which is incompatible with the scene (punch that guy!). So channelling the input through a controller or system of some sort is the way to go. There’s a million ways to do this so it’s a matter of programming, budget, style, and so on. Video game controllers are an obvious choice, and we’ve used playstation controllers without disguising them, as well as hiding wiimotes within small props. A torch was a great facsimile for a cursor. These days you could hack a kinect to pretty awesome effect, I’m sure. We have had controllers break and had to hand out painted arrows to hold up – not great. But really it’s anything you can cue an actor with, so it only needs a little bit of data – an x/y is plenty, buttons are a luxury. You could do it with sound, actors could chase a remote controlled car around the set, or you could contrive a mechanism that tilts the whole stage like Marble Madness.
The experience is better if the audience can see both what is going on onstage, and the mechanism of control. Depending on the feel of the room, audience members can communicate with one another and work together, or they might be more inclined to do it on their own.
A risk is that the person with the controller will be overwhelmed if they can’t work out what to do – it’s not like in a computer game where it’s fine if the player puts down the controller and plays again later – so a healthy system of increasingly obvious hints is good, and an atmosphere where it’s okay either to ask for help from other audience members or to pass the controller on to someone else is good to have.
My feeling is that Adventure Games are inherently a different form to the Choose Your Own Adventure, which is similar in that characters are led through a story but the focus is on the input of the audience leading the story down one of a number of paths. I think this has such an enormous impact on the way a story is written – the traditional moral arc of crisis, climax, consequences is almost impossible to faithfully apply when you don’t know what the ending will be, and the idea of a conclusion that is unpredictable but inevitable goes out the window – a nice discussion on this topic in a gaming context can be found at GamePlayWright. So I differentiate the two, and I’ll write about Choose Your Own Adventures separately another time, but I’m also happy to argue the point.
Adventure Games can work over a particular scene, or they can form the main structure for an entire production. The first interactive scene we ever wrote, Playable Demo, was a daggy 10 minute adventure game we first staged in 2005. We’re fond of this one.
This was a straight adventure game clone, born out of our nostalgic love for early 90s games mainly by LucasArts (and Sierra, I guess), with one audience member using a torchbeam as cursor to click about the stage. Interacting with non-player characters in different ways was achieved through coloured filters (pass the torch through through red filter to interact aggressively and through the blue filter to be more conciliatory, or green to question for additional information). This gave us room for lots of easter eggs to be hidden about the place, and the scene was very simplistic – get two items (a sock through conversation and some pennies by finding the in the space) and combine them to make a third (a bludgeon), then use it to escape from a prison cell (by bludgeoning). The key here was to have a lot of room to explore and to have contingencies worked out in advance for what people would try to make us do – we don’t really like to improvise. But it’s on the cards – and a good response that acknowledges what the audience member is trying to do is always going to be better appreciated than “I can’t interact with that object”.
What was really fun about this scene was the way that the feel of the interactions changed over the course of the performance from experimental and random, to combinatorial and exhaustive of options, and finally to reasoned, logical behaviour. At first, the torchbeam goes everywhere and the majority of the contingency text comes out, so red herrings were avoided. A good way to imply that a particular choice was the not the one that moves the story forward is to end with a joke – that’s the payoff, rather than suggesting they’ve achieved a milestone in the script. Then once the mechanism was understood and it was clear what components of the scene were important and had interactions that had not happened yet – door, guard, bed, bucket – these items were focused on by using each option sequentially, but without a specific outcome predicted. By the end, the feel of the torch in the space was completely different. It had stopped ambling about, there was no hesitation, it snapped from place to place in a logical series of commands – take sock, get pennies, bash guard, exit. The great thing was, I think, that there was excitement not just in the person controlling the performer, but in the rest of the audience as well – even though they hadn’t been controlling the performer they had still been making the logical connections themselves, so those intuitions were still proven correct, and if worse came to worse and the person with the controller really didn’t get it, other audience members were always happy to pitch in.
You can download the script here, if you like.
Beneath a Steel Sky. Great interactive storytelling from the good and old, set in Australia for some reason, and free to download. It’s the mutts nuts.