Pocket Lint #2

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The problem with “do what you love”
“According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

The Names They Gave Me
“Thank you for my name, mama.”

Drowning in money
“Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets. And all of it at public expense.”

Before and after
The slow and gradual process of gender transition, and how different that reality is from the crisp, sharply delineated “before and after” photos that are the common image.

The Naked Twine Game Jam
46 Twine games made over a weekend without using CSS modifications or Javascript.

Gun Home: the ultimate Gone Home DLC

Turning normal experiences of motherhood into depression
“Dr Spock told a generation of women that they didn’t need to learn how to look after their babies, that it was instinctive and that they knew more than they thought they did. He was completely wrong. ”

What Google knows about you
“We know Google collects the data. But what they do with the data we don’t exactly know. They might be using it for the best or the worst. Pessimists will think the latter, optimists will think Google will use it to build new great stuff for us which will make our lives better. Probably both are right.”

25 things a great character needs
Helpful advice for writers, especially number 17

Tumblr of the week: Cute animals, bad dates

Free game of the week: Catlateral Damage, a first person cat simulator

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Pocket Lint: interesting links, by email if you’d like

Pocket Lint is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, inspired by Roo’s Letter and the weekly ritual of going through all my saved links in Pocket and clearing them out on a Friday. And by the fact that lots of the links I’d normally tweet during UK hours are now happening during Australian ones, and some folks I used to provide that service for might like it if it came back in some form. So this will be a hopefully-weekly pick of the best of my saved links, featuring interesting things on the loose themes of journalism, games, social justice, news and internet culture. As an experiment, I’m also turning it into a regular email: you can sign up here or using the form below if you’re interested. I promise not to spam you.

Why we should give free money to everyone
“Studies from all over the world drive home the exact same point: free money helps. Proven correlations exist between free money and a decrease in crime, lower inequality, less malnutrition, lower infant mortality and teenage pregnancy rates, less truancy, better school completion rates, higher economic growth and emancipation rates.”

A tale of two trolls
Two people were convicted of sending threatening tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez this week; Helen Lewis looks at what their different stories and circumstances say about online abuse more broadly.

How Buzzfeed mastered social sharing
Long Wired feature on the rise of Buzzfeed and its analytical approach to making things go viral

Headlines Against Humanity
Spot the fake clickbait headlines. Harder than you’d think.

The myth of the free market in American healthcare
“If everyone in the U.S. was on Medicare, the savings would move the federal budget from deficit to surplus.”

Reading and hypothesis
On story, backstory, narrators (reliable or otherwise) and interactive fiction, and how they relate to Gone Home. Spoilers ahoy.

Kids Won’t Listen
Why teenage girls are sick of articles about teenage girls written by grown-up men.

Not-games of the year
“There have been plenty of great Game of the Year lists over the last month or so, and I don’t feel like I need to add to them, a week into the new year. Instead I’m going to write about things that weren’t games, but which felt like they could inspire them; the experiences I had and things I saw that I want to think hard about this year.”

“I want all games to have more needless buttons.”

Despite the castration, it’s been a good year A 2004 look at Christmas circulars from sketch writer and journalist Simon Hoggart, who died this week.

Room of 1000 Snakes (Requires Unity web player.)

Tumblr of the week: Movie Code Free game of the week: Looming (because I’ve been playing it this week, not because it’s new)

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Every player is an author

This was written in part as a response to the current Blogs of the Round Table topic, “What’s the story?” If you want to read the other responses, please go there and use the dropdown list, because I still can’t get it to work here without breaking my blog. 🙁

Stories in games are a battleground, especially in digital & video games. I’ve had a couple of tangles in the past with folks who think games can’t tell stories, that good stories and good games just don’t mix, and that games built around stories don’t sell; others say that all games have a story of some sort, even if only an experiential one, and that narrative’s essentially built in to all games.

Reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle, and a bit more nuanced than that. Zombies, Run, Gunpoint and Gone Home, to name three at random, are excellent examples of narrative built in to digital games from the ground up; Tetris, Super Hexagon and Peggle are excellent examples of games that don’t need narrative at all. Most games do try to tell a story, but the most successful ones let the player do the telling themselves, and give them agency over the narrative – or at least acknowledge the primacy of their play over authored and scripted elements.

Gone Home, Day Z and Minecraft, despite their many differences, are all about creating a world and letting players explore it. Each lays out the bare bones of their worlds and invites exploration, asking players to make their marks on the experience, by creating their own niche within the world or by uncovering the mysteries and reaching conclusions the game’s creators left behind. The difference is in scripted vs unscripted narrative, the difference between imposing an authorial vision on the player vs instructing and equipping them to make their own.

Cut scenes in gaming are, to be blunt, godawful ways of telling a story. So are journal pages left scattered around a landscape – pointless objects supposedly created and discarded with not even the most cursory nod to believability or the internal credibility of the game world. Players are asked too often to suspend their disbelief, not in a “this giant underwater city is (a) real and (b) full of drug-crazed libertarians” way to buy into a grand narrative, but in a “my character’s arch-enemy would definitely communicate privately with themselves through tapes strewn randomly around corridors and cafes” way that denies the internal consistency of the characters within a world. Players are asked to tolerate having control taken completely away from them by an invisible hand, for the sake of a plot point or two. They’re asked to carry out all the action most of the time, but remove themselves and watch passively when it matters most.

Sacrificing believability for delivery undermines a story, and taking player agency away mucks about with consent and identification in ways that most games don’t bother to consider (the first Bioshock game is the obvious exception here). Game stories that use the medium well are incomplete without a player – they require play as an intrinsic element of their enaction, not as a way of filling in the gaps between cut scenes, and they don’t subvert played choices with authored ones (see also: LA Noire, Nico and the prostitute in GTA4).

For instance, The Last Of Us succeeds as a story not because it is a revolutionary approach to narrative, but because it is decently written and because its play elements accord with its authored ones. It makes the player complicit in a combined act of authorship as the game is played: it doesn’t force conflict between the experienced and the authored story.

So much of the perceived conflict between game stories and game mechanics comes from an arbitrary approach of pushing story out on its own – whether it’s seen as more or less important than mechanics in a game, it’s the fact it’s seen as separate that causes problems. Sometimes it’s a decision by studios to keep story creation separate from gameplay. Sometimes it’s a broader production approach that considers them as two separate elements, when – at their most successful – they’re inextricably intertwined. Too many games fail to integrate story into the game at the mechanical level, breaking both the story and the game in the process.Story doesn’t work if it’s limited to spaces where the player no longer has agency, or where their agency is strictly limited by things like dialogue trees or morality systems with the subtlety of a bludgeon.

One of Douglas Adams’s lesser-known games, Starship Titanic, relies on both adventure-game point-and-click mechanics and on freestyle text inputs that let you converse with the robots that inhabit the ship. It was released in 1998, and has more than 10,000 potential responses coded into its conversation engine. Making the characters robots is a smart choice that lets the game get away with repeated scripted responses, and making it possible to talk to them – to say anything at all – is still revolutionary. At one point you have to persuade a bomb (played by John Cleese) to stop counting down. There’s no list of standard responses, no ‘persuade’ options, no raw skill numbers to test against. There’s you, typing, and frankly it’s some of the best games dialogue ever written.

What’s the story? The story’s a collaboration. The author’s not dead, but she’s a shifting entity made up of many others: the designers, the writers, the game’s creators, and its players too. Game makers have to give players the tools they need to do their part of the job without going against anything that’s come before. Video gaming is at heart a performative medium with at least one actor, often more akin to theatre than to cinema. Storytelling in a game is not a broadcast act with a teller and a receiver. It’s an act of authorship that’s incomplete until it’s played.

Video game poetics

Via @brkeogh – Craft and Form by Andrew Vanden Bossche is well worth reading.

Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy, because I’m hearing about people that aren’t real and things that didn’t happen without any grounding in the countless craft and form choices that made all of that junk matter. If plot and character was all that mattered, Wikipedia would be a sufficient replacement for literature. Any description of the effect a game has on the author should come with your explanation of how that happened. What exactly was it about the heartbreaking indie puzzle platformer that made you feel nostalgic? What did Jane Austin do to make you like that dour Mr. Darcy so much? These are not strange or unusual or “academic” questions, they are questions of very basic specificity and clarity in any sort of writing. It’s incomplete to talk about the emotional reaction the game effected in you without describing the cause. This matters for “game mechanics” but it applies equally to writing, art, and music, and the mechanics and form and craft that drive those as well

Where I part ways with him is that I don’t think it’s critics’ backgrounds in literature or English that are an issue here, so much as it’s the particular critical skills that are being brought to bear on games. At present a great deal of games writing is concerned with hermeneutic questions – issues of interpretation. What does it mean? What is it trying to say, or saying without trying? Is it aesthetically pleasing? What’s the cultural or generic context? But much less common, as Andrew notes, are questions of poetics: questions that tackle the mechanics of how a game functions, how its elements fit together and act upon the player – or how the player acts upon them – to cause an effect.

Robert Louis Stevenson speaks to game designers about realism as a tool, as well as to writers. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters has kinship with the Personism Manifesto in its approach to accessibility, personality, realities of experience. It’s only a matter of time before we get a video game version of Projective Verse, most likely delivered at a conference or in free ebook form disguised as a design approach to the Oculus Rift. I can see Aristotle getting along nicely with video game formalism.

This leads me to suspect that – concerned as they are with the mechanics of language, the careful structuring of words to build worlds with minimal tools, with rhythm, pace, meter, tone, pattern, breath, the physiology of the reader, the interweaving of meaning with mechanic – theories of video games are going to end up having a surprising amount in common with theories of poetry. I know that my own thinking about game mechanics – in terms of their effects and their overall aims – draws on poetics as a framework along with other disciplines. But they’re often excruciatingly inaccessible, and perhaps lifting the curtain is less engaging for audiences who want to be entertained, rather than to examine the nuts and bolts. As Stevenson says:

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  …  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained…

Detritus: lessons learned from making my first Twine game

Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.
Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.

One of the side projects I’ve been hacking away at in my spare time recently is Detritus, an interactive fiction game thing about, well, packing. It’s a packing sim. In all it’s taken me about two months of intermittent work, including a couple of days where I put in six hours or so on it.

It’s made using Twine, a pleasingly versatile game creation tool that lends itself really well to branching narratives. It’s widely used by all sorts of awesome game makers, and it’s capable of a great deal more than it at first appears. There’s a Google group associated with making it better; there are some talented people devoting themselves to making macros for it, chunks of code that extend its native capacities to let people who can’t code do complicated things simply. I’m indebted to Porpentine’s resources list and a bunch of Webbed Space’s macros – without those things Detritus would have been impossible.

It’s much cleverer than it would be if I’d tried to do it all from scratch myself. I learned while building it that by far the best way to implement my ideas was to build on the work other people have done before me. It is not the first time I’ve bodged something together standing on the shoulders of giants, but it’s the first time I’ve literally copied slugs of code without knowing anything about what they do, as though they were magic spells where my only input is to know the activation words. It is humbling to create with tools other people have given freely to the world.

I learned that sometimes, not knowing what you’re getting yourself into leads to bigger, more exciting work than you’d originally intended. I decided, when I started it, that Detritus would have five short acts, each one using a different technique, because that would be a good way to teach myself some of Twine’s idiosyncracies and I’d come out of it knowing which ones worked for me and with some ideas about how to employ them. I thought it’d be a quick project. If I’d realised, when I chose the first objects the player encounters, that my choices would lead to having to write fifty separate individual passages and a reasonably complex looping system to make act 5 work, I might have chosen to do it differently. But I don’t regret that choice at all – it’s a much deeper, more intricate piece than I’d otherwise have written.

I learned that it’s sometimes better to work out what you’re doing before you do it, too. At one point about half way through act 3 I spent an upsetting amount of time stripping out and redoing the inventory system so it used array variables rather than single-item strings, because I had a list of twenty or so individual variables that might have several values and I was trying to write if statements and failing horribly because of the complexity. Not incidentally, I also learned quite a lot about Javascript array variables. And I learned that no matter how many bugs you think you’ve squashed, in a project this complex, there will always be at least one more. (Detritus has done more for my coding ability in two months than Codecademy managed in six.)

I learned about branching. Every time a narrative branches in a game like this, the path not taken by the player can, if you like, be seen as wasted work. If you want your players to see everything, you have to avoid branching too much, or branch only with descriptive elements. But the flip side is that then player choices don’t necessarily have much weight. I wanted Detritus to have weight in every decision, and it felt right to close off branches, to leave much more unread by the player than read, every time. It’s a game about loss, and that loss ought to be expressed mechanically, not just verbally; that’s why I wanted to use Twine to tell an interactive story, after all, rather than just writing something linear to express it. The game’s 27,000 words long, but the average playthrough will see less than a quarter of what’s written. There are easter eggs down some pathways, too, that mean much more because they aren’t signposted, and because they’re easy to leave behind.

Biggest and best thing about making Detritus, though, has been the wonderful feeling of making a solo creative project work, seeing it through from opening lines to existence in the wider world as an actual thing that people can genuinely play. It’s been too long since I did that, and without Twine and the community around it I probably still wouldn’t have managed. The democratisation of creative tools has meant an explosion in the numbers of people who can create and publish, in games and in fiction just as in other forms of publication. People with stories to tell or games to make can do so. Even if that story is a packing sim about loss and carrying your life in a suitcase. It is a wonderful thing.

Detritus: a Twine game

A couple of months ago, mid-move, I started a new project – a Twine game/interactive fiction thing called Detritus. I think it’s finished enough to share with the world.

It was meant to be quite a small experiment to see if I could teach myself the medium as well as using it to express something that’s almost impossible to express through non-interactive media. It got a bit more ambitious than that, I think mostly because I had no idea what I was doing or how tricky some of it was technically. At some point soon, when I’m a little bit less close to it and it’s had some air, I’ll blog about making it.

Any bug reports or feedback, please let me know. You can play it by clicking here: it should have sound running in some parts.

For Science! The story of The Trial

Grant Howitt welcomes visitors to The Trial
Grant Howitt welcomes visitors to The Trial

When we heard that the Science Museum had put out a call for people interested in running live games about zombies, it seemed like a bit of a dream come true. We’ve been staging zombie games for years, and there’s little more exciting than the prospect of running around the actual Science Museum evading zombies and generally having a good time of things.

What we ended up running, though, was quite different to most of what we’ve done in the past. The Trial became a game with a very simple voting mechanic but an awful lot of deep narrative to explore. It became a peculiar kind of sociological experiment, an exploration of the ethics and morality that go along with having a zombie virus that can be cured.

Me, as Fiona, explaining how I didn't remember any of it.
Me, as Fiona, explaining how I didn’t remember any of it.

The frame of the game was fairly simple. Through text display, film and actors, we set up a story: a world where the WK-23 virus had infected significant numbers of people, causing them to exhibit zombie-like behaviour. Set in the later stages of the outbreak, as the virus was being brought under control, the Trial was ostensibly staged by the Community Jury Initiative, which brought two people accused of unpleasant acts in front of the public, and asked them to pass judgement. Fiona, a cured ex-zombie, was accused of killing a man while suffering from WK-23; Clare was accused of killing a zombie, who might one day have been cured had he survived.

At the exhibit, we had stacks of cards with statements printed on them – a total of 13 statements, deliberately stark and without nuance. Fiona is guilty of murder. Clare should be released without charge. Zombies should be killed. Every entrant into the exhibit received two of these cards, and was then asked to watch a short film showing the attack in which Clare kills a zombie, and Fiona is one of a group of zombies who kill her boyfriend. Inside the exhibit were witness statements, posters, factual information about consciousness, the mind and the law, and two actors playing Fiona and Clare (I was Fiona). At the end, we placed two ballot boxes, one marked “agree” and the other “disagree”, into which people placed their statement cards once they’d made up their minds. We counted the verdicts a couple of times each session, to keep the scoreboard online up to date.

Grant dealing with a small protest movement
Grant dealing with a small protest movement

From my vantage point as Fiona, the experience was fascinating. About a third of the visitors seemed to make their minds up fairly quickly, only perusing the information briefly, and not speaking to the actors at all. Many people read almost all the information we set out, and a few spent a very long time questioning us, poring over posters, and arguing over exactly what we thought about what we had done. One man spent more than half an hour questioning the two of us individually.

The group dynamics of the game worked best when we were fairly busy – which was a good thing, given that we had about 1,500 visitors in total between Wednesday late and the two weekend days. People are braver in groups; we often found people walking around in silence until someone got up the courage to ask an actor a question; as soon as one person engaged with us, a crowd formed and we would be fielding questions from all directions. I’m indebted to our excellent crew, who both encouraged people to get involved with us, and encouraged them to discuss their thoughts with each other.

Me as Fiona, explaining my misdeeds as a zombie
Me as Fiona, explaining my misdeeds as a zombie

The fact we were seated on chairs while the visitors were standing genuinely affected the way people spoke to us, and the power they felt they had to question and to interrogate. Only once in the whole weekend did someone crouch down to get on the same level as me – but that ended up with me as Fiona explaining events to a group of ten or fifteen adults, sitting cross-legged on the floor around me.

The strength of emotion involved genuinely surprised me, as did the level of disagreement.  Groups had heated arguments about which of us was guilty, if either. Some people flung insults at me as they walked past; others patted my shoulder and told me it was all going to be fine. Couples argued. Friends disagreed. One girl spent ten minutes trying to get me to agree that zombies were basically just like bears. A father encouraged his two sons to ask very serious questions, very carefully, before they decided together how to vote. And even though we deliberately put out no pens, a few people felt strongly enough about the ambiguity of the scenario that they found their own and wrote on the cards we gave them, so they could make their own responses.

Statement cards, defaced
“The only cure is death” – statement cards, defaced

I was very proud of the event. I owe a big thank you to Chris Farnell, who wrote an enormous amount of material for the game, Alina Sandu, who made it look gorgeous, Ellen Clegg, who played Clare and became increasingly Daily Mail as the weekend progressed, Grant Howitt, who was front of house and wrote background and script, and George Seed and Matt Barnes, who crewed the event and gave me the most appropriate and necessary coffee of my life thus far.

We got people talking – we made something serious, something big and difficult, and in the middle of a massively fun and light-hearted event we asked people to think about a complex, tricky issue. They responded wonderfully well, with nuanced thinking, complicated questioning, role-play, interest, and intelligence. And in the end, it transpired – terrifyingly – 67% of people who were asked said they’d kill another human being, if that human was a zombie at the time. I think that’s valuable to know.

Playful 2012: physical, concrete, super-real

It feels like a long time since Playful. It’s not, it’s less than a couple of weeks, but since then we’ve run a fairly difficult live game and then done a lot of real-world catching up. The day’s been percolating quietly in the back of my head, though, and I think it’s time to muse it out.

This year, live games – play in physical space, actual make-believe, play with physical objects – have started to Happen as a Thing. Not sure where we are on the Gartner hype cycle with this, but a long way from where we were this time last year, that’s for sure. Playful’s talks illustrated that beautifully, but tended to skim the surface of what’s gone before, focusing more on what’s going to be. There were exceptions, of course – Holly Gramazio on forms of clapping game brought a huge amount of detail and history to a highly specific area – but much of the day was focused on the fantastic future.

And that observation is definitely not a complaint. At the moment especially the world needs some lightness, some excitement about what the future offers, and Playful is a great space for that. At times the event felt like an explicit reaction against last year’s conference, where a nostalgic plea for a future that never happened failed to ring true with me, at least. This year the future was impossibly exciting, full of the invisible made concrete, creativity gone viral and vital, incomprehensible technology powering us into a far more exciting world. Anab Jain’s talk felt integral – she talked about imagining different futures, astonishing possibilities contained in the flesh of the present, prised free by imagination and given tantalising, half-realised forms. Glimpses of a world made wonderful by playfulness. This was the event at its best.

I wished, at times, that there was more context. Don’t get me wrong: these were all excellent talks, good introductions to the places where digital play and creativity overlap with tonnes of other stuff. Mark Sorrell’s talk on games in physical space was a plea for game designers to get people looking at each other, not screens; a manifesto for personal connections. It was a fantastic primer for people not already immersed in live play, but there wasn’t much time to acknowledge that those games are happening already. Outside the digital, in playgrounds and parks and city streets: it is digital that’s the newcomer in this playful space, not physical play. I suspect conceptual art people would have similar thoughts about Einar Sneve Martinussen‘s concrete depictions of invisible things – while for people like me with no awareness of that world it was fascinating and eye-opening. I am wary of this peculiar type of skeuomorphism, using tech to emulate physical forms of play, because I think tech can do so much more. I hope, as I’ve said before, digital play learns from other forms of play and builds on these elements to make better awesome amazing things.

This is a necessary stage along that road – and it’s superb to see it celebrated and debated. Playful this year was a big move in a good direction, because it opened up play to all sorts of interesting places I loved Simon Cutts’s talk precisely because it didn’t deal in the space between two disciplines, but sat firmly where it was; Holly’s talk, the Mint Digital graduates with their sourdough toy, and Bennett Foddy’s take on pain and suffering in games, too. Hannah Donovan on crafting talked us through a personal evolution of her pastimes that mirrors a wider shift in the world, from physical to digital – but without discounting the importance of either. Somehow, the whole day held both in the balance, and pointed up the possibilities of technology taken for granted, in meatspace, augmenting and supporting who we are and our very human, creative, curious lives.

Excellent day.

The Gobstopper Job: stereotypes, shortcuts and stealing sweets

The Gobstopper Job. Because everyone’s wanted to run a heist at some point in their lives.

We ran the Job in Bristol at the Interesting Games Festival, in Castle Park. We were part of the fringe – a raft of oddball, interesting, quirky games that worked in public and that could be played fairly casually, in a pick-up-and-play sort of way. I didn’t get the chance to play any of the others, due to being on duty in a large plastic police hat with a flashing blue light on top for most of the afternoon, but I saw a balancing game with hand turtles, a slow-motion combat game, a coloured-water-shooting game called Rainbow Rain, and a game about phone hacking that had people in trilbies running around the park looking for mobile phones. It was all rather bonkers and lovely.

Gobstopper Job
A very few of the sweets

Gobstopper worked in part because of the space we played in – bonkers and lovely – and because of the costumes and props Grant put together. I mean, it worked because of a load of other things too, but Grant (who was the main designer on this one) has already written an interesting post about froth and emergent stuff and verbs and what have you, which is well worth reading and has more pictures. This, by contrast, is a bit of an epic.

A note on live gaming vs LARP

Despite appearances to the contrary – such as the name Zombie LARP – I don’t really think of what we do as LARP any more. It differs in some pretty major respects from what I’d instinctively label “traditional” LARP – though I’m certain that’s the wrong label – it’s fundamentally neither plot nor character driven, but situation-led and responsive to player/character action. Its worlds are small, not entirely internally consistent, and exist only for short periods before they are dissolved; their parameters are fluid and they are never fully realised. The lines between player and character are deliberately blurred.

But neither does the term “live game” or “pervasive game” (whatever that is) suit us. Most live games I see on the scene at present offer limited or no opportunity for player characterisation beyond the opportunity to nebulously pretend. They are mostly unaffected by character action beyond the mechanical, and function within the real world – without a need for suspension of disbelief.

Cops and robbers
Cops and robbers

In Gobstopper, as in Zombie, I saw the emergence of distinct play styles. Some people come to Zombie to LARP – they bring characters, immerse themselves in a story of their own making, and use our world and mechanics as a way to play that story out. This is improv theatre with rules. Others come to live game – they are uninterested in roleplay, preferring to focus on the mechanics of the game rather than the story, and lose themselves in the adrenaline of the moment. Some come to do both.

The Gobstopper Job, like Zombie and like a few other games – 2.8 Hours Later and Incitement spring to mind, in different ways – operates on the lines between those two categories. There are no good terms for what we do, and it’s difficult to suggest any that don’t imply that other games that fit the genre boxes more neatly are somehow deficient. Story-driven live game might be one option; emergent short-term LARP might be another. Both are clumsy. At present, we lack the right terms.

Everyone gets a gun on the mantelpiece

Gobstopper was the first time we’ve really run a game outside a dedicated game space. We had a kiosk – the sort you get in parks, that might sell water or ice cream or sweets – at one end, and a base station at the other. Players dressed as robbers (well, with masks and maybe hats) had to get the swag bag into the kiosk, steal as many sweets as possible in 30 seconds, then get them back to base, all the while avoiding the police – four or five people patrolling outside, who could arrest them if they could catch them.

Policemen helping up a player disguised as one of their number
Policemen helping up a player disguised as one of their number and feigning injury

The players for each run had to pick a character class – a single thing they could do – and with it came a prop with which they could do it. Gunmen had a little bang-flag gun that let them incapacitate one policeman. Demo men had a bouncing cherry bomb with the word BOMB on it that could stun people in a radius. Conmen had big ridiculous white masks that disguised them as “Young Gavin”, the rookie, or “Old Bob”, who was only a few days from retirement. And Bag men had the swag bag, and had to get them into the kiosk – essentially a very low-tech hacker analogue.

Chekhov’s gun – the concept that if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, it must be fired by the end – is a metaphor for foreshadowing, simplicity and dramatic necessity. It’s also a useful way to think about Gobstopper, and why it works. Each player gets a verb – a single mode of interaction with the game and with the world it creates – and extremely limited opportunities to use it. Every player gets to be their own dramatist, timing their climactic moment in their own personal trajectory through the game. This only works if players believe in the power of their gun to affect the world, and understand its importance. Oh, and remember to use it. Occasionally people forgot, in the excitement of the whole thing.

The Familiarisation Effect

A fundamental design problem for us is the necessity of blurring the boundaries for players between the states of being, doing, performing and playing. What we’re after is almost the opposite of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Rather than using realistic props and costume to draw attention to the unreality of the performance, we’re using unrealistic, very stylised costume and props to create a sort of shorthand of familiarity. We are reliant on caricature and stereotype as tools to build identification between the players and the world we need them to inhabit – not a perfectly realistic, immersive environment in which they can lose themselves, but a working reality with fuzzy boundaries but basic concepts and rules to hold on to.

One of the Gobstopper Job teams post-game, with their bag of swag
One of the Gobstopper Job teams post-game, with their bag of swag

So, giving players a tool they can use matters, but giving them a tool they can instantly understand and relate to is even better. Using sweets to tap into the part of an adult that’s still six years old; using BANG-flag guns and BOMB-painted bombs; letting the only people who need to improvise a conversation hide their faces beneath enormous saucer-masks that both make it easier to act and also render it unnecessary – these are all tactics that tap into familiar childhood games, helping to minimse embarrassment and flow-jarring moments. That’s before we get into the psychology of costume itself, and the impact it has on roles – here, we wanted playfulness and fun, a cops’n’robbers feel, whereas when we want to make something more serious we’ll make it look and feel more lifelike and realistic.

Public play as performance

One convenient side-effect of this approach is that it gives the audience a simple way to relate to the game. With crew in giant police hats and players in robber masks, there is an obvious metaphor for viewers to grasp and to buy into. We found both sides got cheers from passers-by, depending on who seemed like the underdog at any given moment. As policemen, we spent a fair amount of time talking to random people who saw us wearing daft hats and wanted to know what on earth was going on. We fielded a couple of people who were oddly thrilled that someone was using the kiosk for something, and directed a few folks to the sign-up desk. Policeman hats and a slow walk seem to create an aura of helpfulness around you – and serve as useful ads for the game, too.

The carnage after players swept through the kiosk
The carnage after players swept through the kiosk

The other big thing they did was help the players feel less weird about getting dressed up. They were absolutely guaranteed that the people running the game would look even dafter than they did. Obvious signalling and the familiarisation effect combined together, along with a healthy dose of physical and mental activity, got players focussed on the game and served to make it easier for them to enter that peculiar place where being, doing, performing and playing all merge together and stories seem to naturally emerge, without anyone deliberately designing them, from the seemingly natural actions of all the participants.

The moment where I knew it had worked was when one run ended and it took five minutes of listening to the players talk through exactly what had happened when and how before I could get a word in edgeways.

Next time

We’re going to be running The Gobstopper Job again, given how well it seems to have worked – and given the fact that we still have about 15kg of sweets in our front room. London somewhere, probably. We’ll be putting out info on the Facebook page as soon as we’ve made up our minds when and where. Do come.

Britain: this is for everyone

Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony was stunning. A glorious jumble of references and spectacles, mixing globally-popular elements with winking in-jokes for the British viewers. It spoke in enormous mile-high symbols of our history and life – not just in the bombast and belligerence of Bond and the Queen arriving by parachute, but also in the careful choice of the Brookside lesbian kiss and the Tardis noise materialising during Bohemian Rhapsody. These are huge chunks of culture, full of their own meaning and carrying their own symbolism; forging them into an event that had its own identity and was not overwhelmed by its parts is an incredible achievement. Danny Boyle should be proud.

Some critics have complained that last night’s ceremony was too political, too much like propaganda – missing the fact that by its nature every Olympic opening ceremony is political, is propaganda. The real complaint is that it was not propaganda they agreed with – and that is fine. An event as enormous as this, as powerfully charged with anticipation and with significance, couldn’t ever hope to please everyone.

But the symbols chosen for celebration were for everyone. The NHS is for everyone. The Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, the internet, technology, suffrage, kissing, Mary Poppins, Kes, Dizzee Rascal. The opening, pastoral and construction scenes showed clear class delineations; the joyous riot of music and popular culture that grew from it showed disparate, distinct but equal individuals. There’s a vision of utopia there, and it is neither homogenous nor segregated.

It’s easy to throw around words like “vibrant” and “young” and waffle about the British sense of humour and post-Empire faded greatness. That doesn’t come close to the heart of what happened last night. It ought to be impossible to articulate a national identity so full of contradictions. But in four words, there’s a valiant attempt: this is for everyone. Inclusive, open, supportive but not prescriptive, with humility and quiet confidence, and without the belief that everyone’s necessarily going to want it. Everyone gets a turn. Oh, and with permission to be as eccentric, cynical and sarcastic as you like so long as you’re not being mean.

In the end, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did what politicians and sponsors couldn’t do (not even with Mitt Romney’s help). It united much of the country, even those bits of it that couldn’t care less about the sport and remain deeply cynical about the money, the sponsorship and the eventual outcome. It made people proud. It gave the Olympics a different meaning. This is why culture matters, and why storytelling is important: it makes meaning. Without it, we’re just a collection of people. With it, we get to be British.