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

In the first, the teams must get to the end of Green Hill Zone in Sonic 1, modified so that every time Sonic gets a ring he gets faster. The team who gets to the end fastest wins.

The second challenge uses the Marble Zone level from the same game. The players can move Sonic left and right, but he’ll only jump if the audience shouts loud enough to trigger a microphone. The mic makes no distinction between which team is shouting, so if it picks up noise both Sonics will jump at the same time.

The third challenge takes place in Emerald Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. In this variant, every time the player collects a ring random data will be written into their opponent’s level layout. As such, walls will appear out of nowhere and holes will appear where there used to be platforms.

The final challenge uses the Mushroom Hill level from Sonic & Knuckles. Four volunteers from each team must cooperate by sharing a four-button controller between them. Nobody knows what each button does so they can only find out by pressing their button. And every 30 seconds the buttons all swap around.

A team of 4 shares a 4-button controller in Hamburg

In its entirety the whole show lasts about 1 hour. The final challenge always awards however many points the losing team would need to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat, so that there's always a sense of jeopardy.

Winners are given prizes in the form of vegetables I buy before the show: a trophy so that winners get to feel a sense of permanence to their achievement, but cheap enough that nobody actually minds losing. And yes, the prizes are vegetables rather than eggs - I like the fact that an audience member will usually point this out at some point in the show and I get to improvise a horrified response.

Creating the concept

The show began life as part of the PLAY Festival in Hamburg in 2018. I’d performed The Incredible Playable Show there the previous year and they asked if I could put something together for their awards night. I may have been a little overambitious - I’m not sure they were looking for a 1-hour show and honestly I wasn’t expecting to last that long either!

Eggman chatting with the crowd at the PLAY18 awards show. I had a giant cardboard moustache but it fell off within seconds of me appearing on-stage
I’d been wrestling with the question of what a second show would look like since I started doing The Incredible Playable Show but at that point nothing had solidified. I always believed that a "playable show" was a format in itself and not just the one show. However, it was hard to come up with new games that moved significantly away from what was already in the show I had. To make a new show I needed to look in another direction.

I’d been playing around with modifying emulators and making unusual and collaborative experiences but hadn’t quite figured out what to turn them into. Were they videos? Were they installations? The video below shows the results of one of these - a really fun way to play that I just hadn't figured out how to bring to an audience beyond my close friends.

This particular modification, where four players shared a controller, appeared in early versions of The Incredible Playable Show, as did a version where a microphone makes Sonic jump, but at that point there was no competitive aspect to them. As The Incredible Playable Show developed I replaced these with new games that had a lot more physical movement. But I still remembered how popular these segments had been and thought about revisiting them to find them a new home.

Back in 2016 I'd modified an emulator to allow me to write glitches into games while they were being played, writing random numbers into RAM based on specific player actions. I’d played around with a lot of games, particularly on Game Boy and Sega Genesis, and I'd found the Sonic games were particularly good for these weird experiments.

Classic Sonic games are incredibly forgiving. Because of this the games stay surprisingly playable even with the wildest glitches and the most awkward of controllers. There was something about the unique spectacles created by glitches that I was hungry to explore, and maybe PLAY Hamburg - a festival which would open by smashing a PS4 with a hammer - would be receptive to something glitchy and experimental.

When I started planning the show for PLAY18 (the name given to that year's festival) I thought about adding glitches to a variety of classic games. I realised that using a set of games with identical controls and mechanics would stop the audience having to learn and re-learn too many games, so they could focus on the wild glitchy changes.

However, the glitchy Sonic variants I’d come up with so far betrayed the core ethos of The Incredible Playable Show. That is, most of them didn’t involve the whole room being a part of the action.

That core ethos of The Incredible Playable Show is something I really believe in. If you're going to put games on the stage, what is that stage adding that couldn't be done at home or in a Let's Play video? The Incredible Playable Show asked players to run around in the aisles and climb over seats. All these Sonic games had players holding a controller, facing a screen, while the audience just watched. Isn't that, like, literally the opposite of what I'm about?

For contrast, The Incredible Playable Show got players running around with buttons attached to their bellies 

But these hacked Sonic games have an ethos of their own. They’re about taking games that are supposed to be finished objects, breaking them and finding something totally new in them. They’re about making slapstick comedy out of playing games wrong. The whole design of The Incredible Playable Show is designed to answer the question “why theatre?” but I realised my need to answer this question was blocking me from making new shows. I had notes scribbled on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on my phone, all half-finished ideas where I'd never been able to answer "why theatre?"

I had enough Sonic mods to fill a show, and I was convinced they were entertaining to simply watch. Why don’t I just make the show now, and figure out “why theatre” later?

Incidentally, the answer to the question of “why theatre” is that having someone hands-on to help new players through the games is really inviting to non-gamers and people who’ve never played Sonic before. I only realise that as I write this now. Maybe there's a lesson in that. Sometimes we need to reject our assumptions about what makes a piece of work good, and make that work anyway despite the flaws in the concept. Sometimes you'll only realise what works about something after you've made it.

Figuring out the flow and staging

I needed a reason for players to remain invested even if they weren’t on-stage playing the game, and that’s where splitting the audience into teams and framing it as a gameshow with prizes made sense.

I’ve always felt a certain reluctance among designers of physical play towards having points, teams, winners and losers, and I can understand where that reluctance comes from.

Nevertheless I’ve found that competition can be really useful tools to get an audience on-board. I don’t really need to explain "why you should care" if you’re on a team and your team stands to win a point. Even if the points don’t matter the audience knows how to pretend as if the points do matter.

If some audience members find competition off-putting it’s the host’s job to create a vibe of inclusiveness, earn their trust and make them feel welcome to go along with it.

Doctor Eggman shows off the"vegan egg" that will be awarded to this game's winner

Another key idea that needed to be developed was “who is the host?” Instinctively I wanted to dress up as Doctor Eggman - it’s fun to play a villain after all - and the personality that seemed the best fit was honestly the same as the one I take on in The Incredible Playable Show. After all, the whole point of The Incredible Playable Man is to be inviting, to reassure players that they will not be embarrassed by coming onto the stage.

Scroll down to the section titled "The Incredible Playable Man" in this article for a breakdown of what I mean by that.

In this new show my audience would need to be reassured that they can play these complex-looking games. Those of us who grew up with Sonic may see it as quite a straightforward game. However, using Sonic in early versions of The Incredible Playable Show revealed that Sonic can be quite intimidating both to adults who didn't grow up with it, and to kids who've never used a gamepad.

So my Doctor Eggman took on the same energetic egotistical fall-guy persona I'm used to performing. I think being a villain gave me permission to play up his delusions of grandeur, and the bald wig suited a clumsier, more scatterbrained vibe. The promo video above is for an event I performed at in Germany, and shows me in-costume, but bear in mind I was playing up the villainousness for the recording. In real life he's much less intimidating!

Originally I had plans to play him more fiendish, and I had a loose explanation for why Eggman had modded all these Sonic games, but these got jettisoned as soon as I took to the stage. They simply weren’t necessary.

What was necessary was some kind of explanation of what Sonic games are, and what exactly I'd done to change them. This explanation needed to be digestible to people who don’t know what an emulator is, don’t know who Sonic is, and maybe only have a limited grasp of English (by virtue of the PLAY Hamburg show most of my subsequent performances have been in Germany).

A still from one of the intro videos, showing moving video, annotated text and pictures. All this information would also be delivered by me talking and holding up props.

My best solution so far has been to put together videos and slideshows that I can talk over the top of. There's a slideshow to start the show, and a video for each game.

First they explain what the original game is, what the original controls are, what the core mechanics are, with plenty of pictures and me present to hold up the real-world props the players will use. Then the videos explain what I have changed - the new controls or the extra glitches - again with plenty of pictures and me holding up the real-world props.

These intros have been through revisions every single time I have done the show, and honestly it’s only in the most recent performance (November 2019, Enschede NL) that I felt like they were actually good enough.

The hard part with these kinds of explanations is the only way to figure them out is to take them into the real world and get them wrong in as many different ways as possible! The biggest lesson behind the videos is that audiences need text, pictures, gameplay footage, and a talking human to understand the basics.

Different audience members will get their information best from a different one of these elements, so in a good explanation every point that needs to be explained needs to be made by pictures, and by annotations, and by gameplay footage, and by the host.

There's nothing wrong with over-labouring an explanation: those audiences who understood the mechanics, upon hearing information they've already figured out, see it as proof that they've understood everything and can feel confident. I'd suggest that this approach isn't necessarily translatable to games played in the home, as the problem I'm solving here is to do with instilling the confidence to play a game in front of a crowd.

Rehearsals, the first show, and the tech overhaul

Before the PLAY18 debut of the show I did a number of rehearsal shows. Some were with friends in my flat, and some were with colleagues after-hours at the company I do contract work for - with permission, of course!

I wanted to make sure I had each game figured out before the big awards night. How do I stage it? What needs to be explained? Where do players get stuck? Where does it crash? How easy is it for me to operate my own UI? I'd made myself a dashboard that ran off of an Android tablet to allow me to switch between games, award points, and help stuck players, without touching the computer. However, I didn’t know what functions I’d actually need, so these sessions were quite informative in terms of what I needed to add new and what could be relegated to a second “in case of emergency” screen.

The mobile dashboard is very simple and built out of Unity's standard GUI components

One thing the rehearsals didn’t show was how much the show would overrun! The Hamburg show went way beyond the half-hour I'd originally pitched. I can be very energetic on-stage, and I spent considerably longer warming up the crowd and doing between-game chit-chat than I did at home.

When I reflected afterwards I noticed something else was causing the show to drag longer than I wanted it to. In this first version the teams took turns to play the games, and the pacing was not-quite-right in a way that hadn't made itself obvious in rehearsals, perhaps because my friends were all equally-matched. With the teams taking turns, audiences would have to watch the same bit of level twice. If the second team to play was worse than the first the audience is just watching someone slowly lose - not fun.

Volunteers stepping up to the plate! The audience had a lot of fun and I got a lot of excited feedback, but the fact that they were all standing made me feel particularly awkward about the show overrunning!

If both teams were playing at the same time the same amount of action would be squeezed into half the time. The audience’s attention would be on the spectacle of the winner playing well rather than the disappointment of the loser playing badly.

So if I was going to do this show again I’d need both teams to play at the same time. This was actually quite a complicated technical challenge. I needed to run two instances of the emulator simultaneously (itself a complicated task in MacOS). These emulators run in the background but appear on top of all other windows. A separate UI app made in Unity receives inputs from the controllers and sends corresponding signals over an HTTP server. These signals are picked up and interpreted by the emulators as button presses. To stop the music from the two game sessions competing with each other I made new ROMs for each game with the music removed, and I play music from the UI app instead.

The updated UI shows two teams competing simultaneously. Button inputs are shown on the top of the screen (so I can check it's working), and the metrics at the bottom are pulled from the emulator's RAM.

The tech challenge was worth pursuing. Not only did it totally transform the feel and pacing of the show, but it allowed me to make some really fun bits of UX. In particular, when the emulator detects that a player has died I make it send a signal over the HTTP server. When the UI app receives this signal it responds by changing the music track that's playing in the background. This way players can tell how their opponent is doing without looking: if the music is changing often their opponent is doing badly.

Of course, having made such such a big change, I needed more rehearsals before any future shows, so there were more after-hours tests in the office and another dress rehearsal in my flat, followed by running two of the games at a stand-up night in Bristol. Honestly, I was surprised at how well the stand-up show worked, and it made me excited to try out some more prop-light games at stand-up nights in future.

A player in Remscheid takes over the role of the jump button because the microphone was acting up

In February 2019 I went to Remscheid in Germany as part of a play festival aimed at trainee teachers. I wasn’t expecting them to be as receptive as a games-industry audience but they really sunk their teeth into it, and it was a resounding success! I honestly wasn’t expecting the show to click as well as it did so early in its journey. That was followed by Game Days in Osnabrück in August, and then Overkill Festival in Enschede, Netherlands, in November. There were surprisingly few changes between these shows.

Overkill Festival took place in a natural history museum, which was a pretty cool setting to run the show in!

While the Incredible Playable Show games were designed from-the-ground-up to be learnt by watching them, the Sonic games don’t have that luxury built-in. I was so used to forgetting important bits of explanation-and-context that for the Enschede shows I took a to-do list with me on a big board and kept referring back to it during the show. Because part of the persona is “overambitious bumbler” it’s actually quite an effective prop and was fodder for some self-deprecating humour from Eggman.

In the second Enschede show I performed for a largely family audience, where many of the Dutch children had limited English and it was hard to build a rapport with them. This prompted a late-night overhaul of all the explanation videos so that they worked with limited language. The goal was not to make the explanation language-free, but to give English-speaking parents enough images, understanding and time to pass my message on to their kids.

With parents able to take on the role of information-explainers, I could focus my entire attention on building a fun spirit of interaction with the children. Drawing on some of what I'd learnt at Holly Stoppit's clown school, improvising play with the kids helped them warm to me and made them feel comfortable taking part in the games, even if they couldn't understand what I was saying.

What’s next

All this leads me to where we are now. I made the Difficult Second Show, and I’m very happy with it. Like I say, I didn’t make The Scrambled Eggman Show as a commercial exercise. If I wanted to turn it into something I could tour I’d need to make some significant changes to ensure all the IP is my own. At best, right now what I have is a prototype of a possible future show. A proof-of-concept I made because I wanted to see if I could do it: to take the "playable show" concept beyond a single show, and find what these weird glitchy emulator mods wanted to become. So what next?

There’s a lot of small lessons I’ve taken from making the show, small enough to be hard to pick out and put on paper. By that I mean experience as a developer and a performer and as a clown. Little things like how to make tech that's easy to put back together when it falls apart. Little things like how to convey game mechanics to an audience who don't share your language. Little things like making a cardboard moustache that actually stays attached to my face.

Version three of the moustache stays attached for an entire hour

Perhaps the biggest lesson is about moving away from old ideas of "how it should be done". What had stopped me making a second show for so long was a feeling that it needed to serve the same purpose as the first. That idea that a playable show must meaningfully involve everyone in the room. It was a worthwhile goal to prove that out when making my first show. When making the second, to ask that it meaningfully involve everyone in the room and do something conceptually new was too big a hurdle.

The Scrambled Eggman Show does not meaningfully involve everyone in the room, but the spectacle is good enough that it doesn't matter. It's enough to be on a team, even if it's with a bunch of strangers, because you're connected to that team by sharing a unique spectacle. And glitches give you unique spectacles just by being there.

The audience at PLAY18 in Hamburg

To make The Scrambled Eggman Show I needed to accept that maybe it would not fit my artistic message - of physicality and mass involvement - so that it could find a voice of its own. I needed to accept betraying the same message I’ve been preaching for the past four years.

And maybe that’s all in the true spirit of The Scrambled Eggman Show.

I made a show that rejected the idea of video games as perfect finished objects.

In doing so I learnt to stop looking at my own creative ethos as a perfect finished object.