Monday 25 July 2016

Installation Games at the Bristol Improv Theatre

On 1st July I was invited to demo my games at the Bristol Improv Theatre, known locally as the BIT. The demo was part of the theatre's monthly jam night, where the audience get up to perform improvised scenes for each other. Given the comedic and performative aspects of my recent work, it was a very good fit!

Go! Power Team!

The first game to be demoed was Go! Power Team! which I first ran at the JOIN Local Multiplayer festival in Berlin last year. For the uninitiated, four players take the role of "Rangers," each of them wearing a dedicated power-belt (a modified Android tablet connected to the main computer over WiFi). One player is selected from the crowd to the the "defender of the galaxy," tasked with fighting off monsters by pressing the coloured power-belts in the right order.

Every time a new monster appears the rangers are given a new command by the computer, which will tell them to lie on the floor, form a conga line, or hi-five the audience, among other things.

The idea is that the rangers are not on the side of the player, nor working against them, but acting of their own accord. Typically the rangers themselves will focus on performing, to make the audience laugh or to one-up each other with their outrageous interpretations of the commands. This is one of the benefits of keeping the rules of a game loosely-defined!

Meanwhile the player, having to deal with a set of buttons moving around on their own accord, is constantly darting back and forth. In many ways the role of the player is to be focal point of the spectacle, giving the audience someone to root for and a set of shoes they can see themselves in. The player also provides context for the comedy - the antics of the rangers are funny because they create an "unintentional" nuisance for the player.

Codex Bash

The next game on show was Codex Bash, which I've been taking to quite a few events over the past year! This was, however, the first time I've run it as a performance instead of an exhibit. Codex Bash uses four custom-made buttons, and players must solve on-screen clues to find the sequence of buttons they need to input with the buttons. Some of the puzzles involve props such as photographs, circuit diagrams and floppy disks.

Four volunteers from the audience were the team, and all the props were shared among the group. This meant that members of the audience had an opportunity to pitch in to solve the puzzles, and the team had to interact with the audience to get the bits they needed.

I feel like there's a big opportunity here to turn Codex Bash into something really special on the stage, by using the props, and the fact that the audience becomes part of the challenge. I'm working on new prop-based challenges that encourage the audience to work together to provide the clues the team needs. I want everyone in the room to have a part to play in cracking the codes.

Custom Sonic Buttons

The final game of the evening was Sega Megadrive classic Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but with a twist! Using the same buttons as Codex Bash, but with a different program loaded into the hardware, it becomes a game controller.

Each of the four buttons is mapped to either left, right, down or jump, but the players do not know which button does which action. However, every 30 seconds the role of each button changes - the only way to find out what your button does is by playing!

I love the way that the custom hardware turns the game into a challenge of communication, as players must coordinate not just to overcome obstacles but to find out what their role is in the first place. Level arrangements that should trivial become challenging when team members must time their actions in sequence. There's a certain comedy to watching Sonic lazily strolling into a spike pit as his team desperately tries to find the button to stop!

There's a whole blog post waiting to be written about the myriad ways Sonic 2 is particularly good for creating both spectacle and interesting gameplay when used in this situation. A particular highlight was the moment when Dr Robotnik first appeared, met with a genuine shriek from the entire audience. Back in 1992 that is surely the emotion the game's first boss was meant to elicit!

Taking games to the stage

Between designing games to be played publicly, to adapting existing works for the stage, I feel there's a great benefit to creating opportunities for the unexpected to happen. When I was working on Tap Happy Sabotage that was certainly core to my design methods, and it's something I try to work into all my projects:

  • create situations where players will surprise you
  • find the most exciting parts of those surprise moments
  • tweak the game to make these come up more often or be more meaningful

Taking existing games into the theatre asks the designer to redesign the work on the spot - for example, by handing the props from Codex Bash out into the audience. Doing this inspires new directions to take our projects. We can make games where the players are asked to respond creatively to a stimulus (like the ranger commands in Go! Power Team!), or must respond on the spot to an unexpected situation (like coordinating a team while using the Sonic 2 buttons). In front of an audience these become opportunities for comedy and a chance for collective action, as the audience puts themselves in the player's shoes.

Many thanks to the Bristol Improv Theatre for hosting the event. I'm pleased to be among the pantheon of performers to be photographed with Bish, the BIT mascot! The theatre is currently running a fundraiser to build the UK's first full-time improv theatre, so please do take a look at the excellent work they're doing and maybe throw some money their way!