YSA Plot & Participation Balance and Feedback

Posted by admin on June 11, 2010 in Design, Development, Participation, Writing |

A few years ago (four years ago), I created a mini-alternate reality game for an industry residential I was mentoring at. The residential was to help teach film and TV creators (what was called at the time) cross-media. But we didn’t just want to tell them about cross-media, we wanted them to experience what it is like receive an SMS from a character, go to a fictional website to find clues, and participate in a live event. This direct immersion approach is something that Michael Andersen would be happy to hear.

The experience was designed and created by two of us (myself and Jackie Turnure), in two weeks, and launched two weeks before the residential. So prior to the event all the practitioners experienced a small issuing of SMSes, email and websites to help prime the narrative and build the desire to participate. But at the actual residential (a lovely resort), they were split into teams. I split them into teams because it would be easier to manage them, and it would facilitate them having to act (rather than leaving it to the loud ones). The most significant reason for the split, however, was the desire to give each team a different experience of the story event. But before I go into why, check out this quaint little chart (see pic) showing the different teams and the ideal path I wanted them to travel through. [The use of wines for names is because the residential was smack bang in a wine valley…and so we created a story around a murder and conspiracy around the nefarious underworld of winemakers. Heard that before?]

So each group was given a different mission and puzzle to reveal, importantly, a different point of view on a murder. I did this because it was around this time I was reflecting on (ex-game designer) Chris Crawford‘s design lessons from his book on Interactive Storytelling. The first is design lesson #12: “The storyworld is composed of closely balanced decisions that can reasonably go either way“.

Lesson #12 presents one of the most important conceptual shifts the storybuilder must make in moving from conventional stories to interactive storyworlds. A storyteller creates a conventional story by striving hard to create a sequence of entirely reasonable decisions that lead to an interesting and perhaps unexpected conclusion. The storybuilder, however, must banish such thinking and instead concentrate on decisions that could plausibly go either way. This concept is totally new in storytelling, so alien that it could excite suspicion or rejection. (54)

Crawford develops this further with lesson #13: “The storybuilder’s most important task is creating and harmonizing a large set of dramatically significant, closely balanced choices for the player“. He continues, saying that you “do not saddle the player with endless trivial decisions about where his feet should be or whether he’ll have one lump or sugar with his tea or two” (55). So, I was thinking about giving players choices which are evenly weighted with significance. Not giving them one option that is ideal and others that are obviously not. Instead, I wanted to give the players a dramatically significant decision to make.

But at the same time I was also researching ‘tiering‘ in ARGs – where different content is issued to different players with different media. So, what I wanted to experiment with in this mini-ARG was giving each of the teams a different and valid point of view of a (fictional) murder. Each of them went through a process that lead the players to think a different character was the murderer. The next step was to have the players come together and have to solve the case together because the journalist that was coming was just in a car crash. The TV crew was there (we had cameras and lights) and so they had to come up with the solution and report it ‘live’ on TV within a certain time. Sharing of information, conversation and debate was ensured because each of them had a unique point of view, and there was an urgency. The choice wouldn’t be easy because all evidence seemed to point to different people, therefore increasing the stakes and dramatic intensity. Sounds like a good plan, eh? So what happened?

1) I suck at plot and participation balance. Why? I had narratively weighted the experience of each team to a fine degree. There isn’t a problem with this, except that it could only work if the players did in fact experience what I had planned. You can image then, something didn’t go as planned. One of the performers (actually one of the organisational peers at the residential, not a trained actor) decided to improvise by bringing in some props for his character. Sounds fantastic eh? This is exactly what you want. But those props ended up tipping the narrative reveal into the direction of another team’s reveal. In other words, the team that was meant to gather information from their interaction with a character came to a similar conclusion to another. This means the whole tiered narrative was not evenly weighted. There was still discussion and debate, but the evidence pointed in a particular direction. So, what lesson did I take from this? Having a dramatically significant choice is easier to implement in interactive systems where you have control over what is given the players (and what they can return). But these sorts of live participatory experiences always have a big degree of the unknown: people! So it is important, I found, to leave room to breathe, to plan for the fact that people are not convenient scripts! But I also learned that making sure everyone is fully briefed on the overall goals and vision is important.

2) I suck at feedback. At the end of the event we ran a debrief session in which we spoke about some of the design process we went through (to help the practitioners apply the experience to their work), and to get feedback. Now the feedback problem isn’t the way we ran the debrief. No. Instead it is what we discovered during that session: the players wanted to know which person was the murderer. They wanted to know if they had made the right decision. My colleague said she had a particular murderer in mind, but I said I seriously didn’t. To me, they all could of been the murderer. The lesson? This doesn’t mean we should of designed the experience to have one definite murderer. But what I realized should of been at the end of the experience was some kind of confirmation for the players that they had made the right decision. We could of done that any number of ways, whatever outcome they chose. For instance, having some character or prop emerge to confirm their decision. I now always make sure there is a feedback loop if players are asked to make a significant decision.

So, did you learn anything from my transmediocrity? Are there other lessons I don’t see? Or do you have a similar tale to tell?


  • nicalderton says:

    Thanks, Christie, for sharing this great lesson in the difference between scripting in the IT world and scripting in the messy, chaotic world of human beings. In the former one is offering one's participants definite, predefined choices with preselected outcomes, in the latter one is offering a space in which to improvise.

    One can learn a lot from RPG's on the one hand and on the other from the work of theatre companies like The Factory, who incorporate audience participation and improvisation into productions as tautly scripted as Hamlet.

    If anyone wants a crash course in participation storytelling, try telling a story to a five year old and make it from beginning to end following every loop they initiate when they ask 'Why?' or 'How?' or 'Who?'. For a masterclass, throw in a few points along the way where your five year old can direct the choices of the characters.

    In the Actor's Nightmare workshops, we work with professional actors to explore exactly these points of infinite possibility: how to recognise them, how to engage with them and, most importantly, how to navigate back from them to reconnect with the narrative without breaking everything along the way.

    The griots of the past have moved on from standing in a circle of spellbound audience members in a dusty market square. They now have at their fingertips incredible tools with which to tell stories across the entire globe; but these tools are still in their infancy. We need to build more capacity to cope with the messy human world into the digital one.

  • Siofly says:

    Hey Christy! great blog – here's a parallel lesson in a different medium –

    In 2006, I was at the San Jose ISEA with friends/faculty from the CFC Media Lab & we came upon an outdoor installation – series of raised platforms structured as broad steps with embedded water jets & small lights. During the day, the water ran smoothly from the top down the successive platforms creating a beautiful water glazed structure & at night it was illuminated to greater effect. We saw it maybe 4th? 5th? day into the festival at which time someone had posted signs (ugly) which stated 'DO NOT WALK ON THE INSTALLATION' (or something to that effect) because of course, the installation looked like a set of steps inviting one to walk up & down. On a water-glazed slippery surface. The designer hadn't foreseen this, the insurance would have been a nightmare – & eventually I think the water had to be turned off in the day and it only ran at night, when the lighting made it look much more like an 'art' piece.

    Lessons learned: people always do the unexpected & often will do exactly what the unrecognized affordances of your work invites & in a different context, user test, user test, user test – which of course is not possible running ARGs, which is why the idea of sharing lessons learned is such a great idea

    • christydena says:

      Yep, good example. But I don't think it is a question of not being to user test with ARGs. Instead, it is whether the team is able to identify problems quickly and respond to them in the timely manner. That is what I do when I consult with clients who are from 'traditional' (non-interactive) media. They're not used to treating the creative work as iterative. So, I work with them to get them in the mindset to be receptive to change, help them with systems to be able to track (identify problems) and make changes a daily (or fairly frequent at least) activity. đŸ™‚

      • Siofly says:

        good point – that kind of in-game response is a bit different to me from user testing which allows you to assess response prior to launching a finished work. I remember years ago a team working on an interactive film and early user tests kept turning up the anticipation of a pedophilia turn in the story (which wasn't there in any way at all!) but had to do with pacing, lighting & juxtaposition of elements – they definitely got rid of that narrative trigger!

        I completely get the point though of establishing the anticipation that this kind of in-game retuning is really important & your ARG example above is a good one re. audiences moving to unanticipated conclusions – definitely parallel with my example above – maybe semantics here…

  • Tim Clague says:

    My favourite part of this was – the fact that the 'audience' wanted to know if they “got it right”. I guess we all need affirmation of one kind or another, very interesting.

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