Wednesday 28 June 2017

Homunculus - Lyst Summit 2017

Earlier in the month I was at Lyst Summit in Copenhagen. While I was there I worked on a playful performance called Being There, which I’ve talked about in an earlier blog post.

At the same time, this happened…

I say “happened,” because unlike the other games made during the weekend, Homunculus emerged practically fully-formed.

The rules of Homunculus are simple. A participant dons a morphsuit and becomes the homunculus. The player closes their eyes, while a volunteer chooses a “pleasure point” on the homunculus - a hand or an elbow, for example, or an ear. All other parts of the homunculus’ body are “pain points.” I call this “programming” the homunculus.

The player opens their eyes, and must find the pleasure point by touching bits of the homunculus’ body. The homunculus must, through physical movement alone, convey whether the point they have touched is a pleasure point or a pain point.

As you can hopefully see from the video the experience is both awkward and hilarious! Witness, for example, Sabine Harrer (PhD student and member of Copenhagen Game Collective) in stitches watching a player grope around for a pleasure point on a homunculus’ belly.

There’s a whole bunch of interesting interactions going on in Homunculus, and that’s what I want to talk about here. It may be a rough-and-ready game, but there’s a certain depth to it because of the sheer amount of control the homunculus has as a performer. It’s testament to how much complexity can come from the human element of games.

Several jammers, over the course of the weekend, had a go at being a homunculus, and everyone had slightly different responses. One of idea that was up for debate was who has the power between the homunculus and the player.

Power Dynamics

Conventional wisdom would say that it is the player who has the power. They can cause pain to the homunculus. They are active, choosing where and how to touch the homunculus. The homunculus, by comparison, is passive, waiting to be touched.

However, I and some of the other homunculi felt a great sense of power. We had the power to really freak out the player, to surprise them. We could make them worry about hurting us. We could approach them, coax them into touching us. We could respond suddenly and without warning. The squeals of “I’m scared to touch it!” from players were obvious. We had the power to control the emotional journey of the player.

We were aware that we were anonymous, and that we looked really disconcerting. It’s certainly true, that these nude, faceless, silhouette figures are disconcerting - especially when you touch them and they look right at you. We knew we were freaky and that inspired us to perform. We made the player squirm and we made on-lookers laugh.

Perhaps, however, the element of trust allowed us to feel powerful. When I was in the morphsuit I was with good friends. If I was with strangers I would be making myself much more vulnerable. Strangers are unpredictable. Strangers may not respect your boundaries. Perhaps that’s what the performers who felt differently had cottoned on to.

Homunculus, meet Homunculus

We also tried a variant with two homunculi. The homunculi closed their eyes, and separate people chose their pleasure points. Then the two homunculi had to find each other’s pleasure points, while an audience crowded and watched. There was something disconcerting about it, between gladiatorial and voyeuristic, but combined with the costumes the result was rather comedic.

In spite of this, the experience wasn’t quite as strong as the original version, because it was missing the contrast of roles. Both homunculi had the same status, the same knowledge, and the same set of responses. So there was no power dynamic. That made it harder for personalities to shine through.

Gamifying and Humanising

We’d come up with a great starting point, but there were still some questions. Most notably, if the homunculus always responds with pain to all but one touch point, how is the player supposed to find it, other than just guessing over and over?

An obvious solution, particularly at a games event, was to build some rules into it. We added a “warmer and colder” rule, with the homunculus moving away if the player approached them in a place that would obviously hurt. The problem with this was that the player never needed to touch the homunculus.

If the player never touched the homunculus, they would never get the magic moment, where the homunculus springs to life. That sudden snap when, for example, the homunculus grabs its foot in agony and turns its head to you as if to ask “why did you do that?!”

Rather than formalising this, it seemed that the stronger solution was to leave it to the homunculus to improvise. The performer in the costume could act out a personality for the homunculus. When I was the homunculus I enjoyed starting out static, barely moving, like a mannequin or a lab specimen. I’d become aware of the player after the first touch, tracking them with my head as if I was trying to figure out what they were doing. The more they hurt me the more I’d appear to fear them. But if they became reluctant to touch me, I’d start approaching them, as if driven by a dangerous curiosity. Eventually I’d begin moving the pleasure point vaguely towards them, to help them out.

Every performer can take on the role of the homunculus differently, and to me that’s the magic of the game. Because it’s so open-ended, the experience is unique to each player-homunculus pairing. It’s unpredictable and it’s personal.

So what would be the benefit of formalising Homunculus? The benefit is that it allows people who aren’t natural performers to feel comfortable in the role. Perhaps the right set of rules is not a list of “what the homunculus should do,” but "how the homunculus should feel" over time.

Play with the Materials

The final big take-away from the experience is just how important it is to play with the props. You need to play with them to truly feel how to use them. I’m sure this could be said equally for game systems. It certainly chimes with the “I can’t understand it until I’ve watched someone break it” mentality I’ve taken when designing games like Codex Bash.

I brought the morphsuits to Lyst having originally used them for Go! Power Team! in Berlin. I didn’t know what the suits were for but thought someone else might want to use them. People asked what they were, so I put one on to show them, and so did another developer. We started batting ideas around for how to use them. Someone floated the idea of giving a player a secret pleasure point, so I hopped on a table and said “let’s do it and see what happens!”

We’d never have reached that point if we hadn’t put the costumes on. We needed to wear them, see how bizarre they looked, notice their weird second-skin texture, in order to make the connections for a game about touch. We needed to get on the table and start playing before we saw that the morphsuit could become a character.

The Boy With Tape On His Face, a physical comedian, was interviewed for the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast. It’s excellent and I suggest you listen. He uses a lot of props in his work, and in the interview he talks about how much of his time is spent playing with props that he’s bought. You don’t think of a funny idea and hunt down the corresponding prop. You play with the prop and it will show you what makes it funny.

So what next? I have come back from Copenhagen inspired, and have already acquired my sixth morphsuit, this time in white. I have a lot of plans for things to try, games to make and games to break. Perhaps this is only the beginning…