Thursday, 6 August 2020

Making the Second Show

Before I dive in, the reason I’m writing this is for documentation. Part of the nature of interactive installations and playable shows is that they exist for brief moments in time before disappearing. The long-lasting mark they leave behind does not take the form of a finished object, like a printed cartridge or downloadable app, but in the form of lessons learned and questions raised.

Taking to the stage in the very first Scrambled Eggman Show

The reason I point this out is just to flag up that I don’t expect this to be a gripping narrative! As I re-read this all for editing I see how I get stuck in the weeds over minute details. But I don't want to trim that all out because - as a bit of documentation - it's useful to keep the weeds in. Who knows what I may see in them when I look back in future?

Within these weeds is the story of a project I am very proud of, a show that I've had a lot of fun performing and which was an invigorating challenge to create. I hope you enjoy it!

The winners of the very first Scrambled Eggman Show, at PLAY18 in Hamburg

The show is The Scrambled Eggman Show. It's the second interactive stage show I’ve put together. For context, my first show is The Incredible Playable Show which I've been developing and performing since 2016.

Making The Scrambled Eggman Show was a creative challenge rather than a commercial enterprise. If I were to try and make it a tourable show out of it I'd need to make significant changes, particularly to stop it leaning so hard on an existing IP, which would be another creative challenge in itself!

As such it's only been performed at a handful of play-and-culture events, enough to take it from concept, to proof-of-concept, to a working show that audiences have really enjoyed and I've loved performing. So it feels like now is the time to look back on what I actually did to make it happen.

What is The Scrambled Eggman Show?


In The Scrambled Eggman Show I perform as Doctor Eggman, villain from the Sonic the Hedgehog games, and take players through a series of challenges made using these games and a specially-modified Genesis emulator.

The emulator (my own modification of an open-source emulator called GenesisPlus) can read and write to a fake console's RAM, writing new data into the games while they're running, and sending out network messages when specific values in RAM change.

As host, I invite players to the stage to compete in challenges. The audience is split into two teams and the team that wins is awarded points, with the team who has most points at the end winning a prize.

The view the audience sees on the projector, with two instances of Sonic the Hedgehog running side-by-side

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Interview on So Many Bits Podcast

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Bill Nielsen of the So Many Bits podcast.

It was a really fun interview to do and it was great to be able to talk about my work and my perspectives in-depth. I talk about The Book Ritual, and how destroying books works as a way to get players to engage with difficult emotions. I also talk about my shows, their origins in improv, and whether competitive play pushes audiences away or draws them in.

The interview can be downloaded from here: https://www.nerdologues.com/podcasts/so-many-bits/episodes/244-book-ritual-w-alistair-aitcheson

Or, of course, look for So Many Bits on your favourite podcast app. I'm in Episode 244 and the interview's at the 39:55 mark.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Counting to One Million

What is the value of counting to one million? As in, if one person were to count all the way to one million, and you put a dollar value on them doing that, what would that dollar value be?

Counting to one million a totally pointless act. Nothing is gained by having someone count to one million.

So the answer is zero dollars, right? But then, a lot of work goes into counting to one million. Surely that work has to be worth something.

Fortunately, we need not speculate. In 2007 a man named Jeremy Harper counted to one million. He counted for 16 hours every day for 89 days. He live-streamed the whole thing.

I’ve been thinking about the value of pointless acts. About things like counting to a million: what their value is and why we do them.

I was looking back over the work I’d produced over the last year, planning to document the pieces I’d not written up, and realised this was a pretty consistent thread through all of them: pointless acts done simply to see what would happen if I did them.

Games that are unfeasible to play. Videos that are too long to watch. I like to see if they take on a life and meaning of their own with enough size, or enough time. I like sticking with an idea even when it’s going nowhere, simply to see what that nowhere looks like when you’re eyeball-deep in it.

Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Hourglasses


A combination with my fascination with futile acts and a sense of being lost in time culminated in this alternative-controller prototype.


Three hourglasses control a clock: one for minutes, one for tens-of-minutes, and one for hours.

To add a minute to the timer, you must wait a minute before turning the minutes glass. To add a tens-of-minutes, you must wait ten minutes, and have turned the minutes glass ten times.

The installation measures the amount of time that has been spent paying attention to time.


Tuesday, 17 September 2019

A Journey to Lavender Town

Journey To Lavender Town (2019) is a 27-hour piece of video art I made earlier this year. It is footage of a game of Pokémon Red, where the game is gradually corrupted as the player plays the game.

As the player’s journey through the game continues, entropy plays a bigger and bigger role. The screen becomes less readable and simple actions take longer and longer to perform.

The video is below, split into four separate parts.

My vision is for it to be installed at an exhibition, playing on a loop. The viewer will be able to witness a part of the journey, but no individual can feasibly witness the entire thing. Everyone who spends time watching it will see a different fragment of time.










This article is about how this video piece came to be.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Pebbles in a Jar

It’s been just over a year now since I first exhibited The Book Ritual. After multiple tweaks and changes I’m happy to say that it’s reached a point where I think it’s complete. The Book Ritual, at version 1.3.1, with the custom-modified shredder living in a real-world environment and piles of paper shreds mounting over several days, is the game it always needed to be.

The Book Ritual on exhibition at A MAZE 2019 

It’s been an exciting year. It was part of the Leftfield Collection at EGX, and then was nominated for the Most Creative Game Award at PLAY18. In 2019 I took it to GDC, where it was one of the six nominees for the Alt.Ctrl.GDC award, and then to A MAZE in Berlin where it was selected as an Honourable Mention. The Shredder adopted the name Shredward, despite not being given a name the text itself. I played around in mountains of paper and I made myself a T-shirt from pictures of the old shreds.

The Book Ritual is a game that I made for myself. From its conception I knew I was not making something that could be sold, and I was not making something that would make sense to hire for parties. It was a game I needed to make because it said things I needed to say.

Creating The Book Ritual


The Book Ritual is an installation played with a real book and a real shredder. The player chooses a book and it is personified on the screen. This book asks them questions about their lives, and also has a story of its own to tell. At various points in the story the book asks the player to tear out a page and put it through the shredder. Inside the shredder are infra-red sensors that detect when paper is being fed through it. The story won’t continue until the player destroys a page.


It is a story about grief and loss, and coming to terms with the fact that loss is inevitable. It is about accepting that our memories and our connections will fade and lose their meaning over time. I like to hope it is about finding strength and new meaning in the face of sadness.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Why is the Ocarina of Time Randomiser an Engaging Experience?

Over the last week I’ve been playing the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. It’s a game I’ve played several times before, but this time was a little different. This time I was playing a custom mod of the game: the Ocarina of Time Randomiser.

Developed by the Zelda speedrunning community, the Randomiser is an online tool which takes a ROM of Ocarina of Time, and patches it to create a new adventure. In particular it takes every key item - every item found in a shop, or a chest, sold by a scrub, taught as a song, or in some way permanently collectable - and swaps them around. So important items like the titular Ocarina of Time might be sold for 10 rupees in a shop, while the big golden chest that would usually contain an essential item might now contain a single Deku stick.

Additionally the background music in each area, as well as assorted colours, are randomised to make an even more surprising experience.

Link checks out his dapper new orange tunic

A checking algorithm is run to make sure that the game can definitely be beaten, and the player begins the game from Link’s house and figures out the rest from there. In case you get stuck, the randomiser also generates a “spoiler log”: a list of all items and where they’re hidden.

Speedrunning, ROM hacking and custom controllers have really captured my imagination in recent years. I love the idea that a game is not a finished object, but a starting point for totally new experiences. Watching speedrunners break Ocarina of Time, solving puzzles in the wrong order, abusing the mechanics to get where they shouldn’t be able to, has always fascinated me.

Having watched several runners playing the randomiser I decided to give it a go myself. Not to speedrun it, but to simply explore what I got out of the experience.

In particular I wanted to ask myself: if I connect to this as a play experience, what is it that drives that connection? Why do I value it? What makes it a meaningful experience

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Why Make a Game About Shredding Books?

The Book Ritual, which I blogged about a couple of months ago, is starting to take shape. Since the preview video I’ve made some fairly major changes, and have been getting feedback from the first sets of players. I took it to A MAZE Berlin to show as part of the Open Screens, where a lot of paper was shredded! At the time of writing I’m on my way to Feral Vector for its second public outing.

I’ve also been showing it to a handful of developers and friends to get their feedback. Over time I’ll be expanding this handful to get more feedback from more people, and eventually releasing it to the public. Watch this space!

Me after a 3-hour demo at A MAZE, with a papery souvenir of players' experiences!

What is the Book Ritual?


The Book Ritual is an interactive art-piece played using a real-world book of your own choice. As an installation it’s played with a real-world shredder connected to the computer, but this is optional and the piece can be played at home without one.

The book is talking to you from the screen and wants to learn about you, getting you to do creativity exercises inside its pages. To keep on talking to it, however, you need to tear pages out and put them through a shredder. As your connection to the book grows it reveals more about who it is and why it wants to understand you.

The story is about dealing with loss and accepting change. It is about coming to terms with decisions that can’t be undone, and the souvenirs which will lose their meaning to time. It’s about guilt and regret. My hope is that the book can a prompt to get people to think about why they value what they do, using a tangible book as a way for people to act out these feelings in a physical way.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Book Ritual



So this is one of the things I’ve been working on recently! The Book Ritual is a story told using a physical book, in the real world. The player is given writing and drawing tasks that get them to interact with the book in different ways. They write in it, draw maps, and tell it about their thoughts and feelings.

The player also needs to tear out pages, and shred them, to progress.

It’s very much more of an interactive art piece than a game in the traditional sense, and talks about ideas of accepting loss and change.

Having worked with physical games and props for so long I’ve felt that the emotional weight we apply to physical objects is ripe for exploration. People don’t want to shred books. Why is that?

Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Incredible Playable Show: Everything Learned from the First Year

My 2017 was all about The Incredible Playable Show, and what a year it’s been. I’ve performed it in Sweden, Belgium, and Germany, and it went on to win the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade in Los Angeles.

It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I'm very proud of the reception it's had. I've loved creating and performing the show, so seeing audiences respond so well with it fills me with joy. In a lot of ways it's a culmination of the ideas I've been exploring throughout my career so far, and one of my favourite things I've made.

I wanted to wrap up the year by writing down the lessons I’ve learned along the way. This is a very long article, cut down from a leviathan first draft, so bring a coffee or read it in parts, and thanks very much for taking an interest!

For context, here’s the trailer shot at the Bristol Improv Theatre, in December 2016.


If there’s one major lesson I’ve found in the show it’s to be unafraid of things breaking. Often the lessons came out of changing part of the show on a whim, or to figure out why part of it wasn’t working - and understanding why the changed worked only came from comparing all the attempts that led up to it. None of the lessons learned came because I got things right first time.

But before getting onto that, let’s start with the most important question:

Monday, 20 November 2017

Nintendo Hard

When developing games for the NES, Nintendo designers used to have a concept of Nintendo Hard. Most kids didn’t have a lot of pocket money and games were expensive in the Eighties, so Nintendo wanted to ensure their games stood out as good value for money that provided a lot of play-time. To do this, they didn’t just make games hard; they made them Nintendo Hard. They’d do the normal three difficulty levels - Easy, Medium, Hard - and then they’d make a fourth difficulty called Nintendo Hard which was too hard for the developers to beat. Then they’d just shift everything down a space in the menu. So Easy would actually be Medium, Medium would actually be Hard, and Hard would actually be Nintendo Hard. So was the genius of Nintendo.

The above story is absolute rubbish.

There’s a thousand reasons why it makes no sense. Indeed, one of the things that makes Nintendo’s first party games stand out from other games from the same era is how intuitive, accessible and forgiving they are.

But it was told to me in a pub by a drunk guy who was very insistent and I think he liked the idea that he was imparting valuable knowledge to a so-called professional game developer. Who am I to take that joy away from him?

Thus, this is an article about what it really means to be Nintendo Hard.