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.

Screenshot from the current version of The Book Ritual

The Book Ritual was motivated by my own personal experiences. After a difficult event where a close friend nearly lost their life, I was filled guilt and anxiety that I struggled to put into words. What would have happened if I’d done things differently? Had I helped too little or interfered too much? How do we find acceptance of the fact that our connections to those we love are fleeting? When is it okay to let go? When is it dangerous to hold on? How do we find hope when loss is unavoidable?

I could not find the words to express the heart of what was getting to me. Games were a potential way to say what words could not. Performing my shows had taught me a lot about connecting to people. Making games like Codex Bash had shown me how objects take on new meanings when we use them for play. Perhaps this was the vocabulary I could use to express the un-expressible.

The player, as a white cube, navigates the Underworld in The Black Book prototype

The first idea was called The Black Book. Based on the story of Orpheus in the Underworld, the player navigated a world depicted entirely through black and white cubes. Dialogue and descriptions were delivered as reference numbers, which the player would need to look up in a physical book: the Black Book of the title, bound in a jet-black cover akin to the Death Note.

Whenever characters asked for payment they would ask for it in the form of pages from your Black Book. The player would be asked to choose a page to tear out of the book in the real world.

I liked the idea of an object that would be permanently destroyed, but as I developed the game its issues became obvious. The first was that because the pages of the book had a functional value the player’s focus would be on which pages were safest to remove. I wanted their attention to be on the emotional meaning of destroying this object, not on the strategic implications of the lost page.

The second issue was that populating this world - building the text, creating the scenes and event triggers - was a massive amount of work that had very little to do with what I was trying to convey. I was making a piece of work to explore the meaning of loss, and the vocabulary I knew was one of physical objects and playfulness. My creative focus in this design would instead be on allegorical world-building. I would be concentrating entirely on the page and behind the screen. I could tell it was not the vocabulary I was looking for.

Detail from the Evidence Room prototype, with identifiable details pixellated

The second prototype never had a name, but I refer to it as the Evidence Room prototype. Six players would sit in a circle, each with a tablet in hand. At the beginning they would all be listening to a story being recounted as audio. One by one the players would need to nominate themselves to go to the evidence room - that is, their audio would be stopped and they would see a screen of artefacts from the story. Attached to these artefacts were diary entries, written by another character in the story. The contents of the diaries would shine a light on how culpable the narrator was in its tragic outcome.

It was a prototype that dealt very closely and very vividly with the theme of guilt. No player could hear the whole story or read all of the diaries, so they would only ever have a limited view on what happened. It attempted to capture the feeling of not knowing whether or not you had made the right choices, and needing to accept this as a question that could never be answered.

The problem with this prototype was that it felt dictatorial. I wanted the players to listen to what I had to say, and read what I had to write, but there was no moment within the experience where the players could express themselves. There was no freedom for the player to respond to what I was proposing. It felt one-sided, harsh and unkind. It did not feel like a game that was grateful for the players giving it their time.

From Prototypes to Final Concept

After reflecting I started to ask how I could take the things I’d liked from both of these prototypes and pull them together. I liked the process of tearing apart a book. The feeling of this book getting slimmer in your hands mirrored the feeling of seeing someone gradually slip away. Knowing that you were an active participant in this act of vandalism captured a feeling of guilt. Meanwhile I liked how the Evidence Room's narrator, speaking directly to the player, could get straight to the point. If there was a context I needed to set up I could simply have the narrator say it.

What would The Black Book look like if there was no more world to explore, and if it worked with any book the player plucked from their bookshelf?

Then came a challenge: I wanted players to feel the emotional sting of destroying a book, but this book - now just any book from your shelf - no longer has a function. Why would tearing this book apart matter? After all, if I ask players to choose their own book, won’t they naturally choose one they don’t mind tearing apart?

The answer lay with ELIZA, an AI psychotherapist from 1966.

The story, ever since I heard it in the documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, has always fascinated me. It was developed as a parody, to show the conceptual limitations of artificial intelligence. Users would sit down at a terminal and have a typed-out conversation with the AI chat-bot, who would begin by asking them how they were. From then on it would parrot everything the user typed back in the form of a question, as in the video below.

Users reported having deep and meaningful conversations with ELIZA that lasted for hours. But when asked if they knew they were talking to a computer none of them were fooled. Users could tell exactly how it worked, and how limited it was, but in spite of this they would come away feeling like they had got what they needed to off of their chest. They felt that they had grown from the experience.

It didn’t matter that the machine had no idea what they were saying. It mattered that the users could make believe that it could.

Make-believe allows us to road-test opinions and perspectives in a safe environment. This is what makes games and play powerful. We can have genuine growth experiences through make-believe. These experiences are important and meaningful because we want them to be important and meaningful.

The story of ELIZA has always stuck with me. In this instance it gave me the answers I needed. I wanted to use the experience of tearing up a book as a way to make-believe losing something, but to do this I needed to give the player a way to make-believe that that book matters.

I could turn the book into a character who the player can pretend, just like ELIZA, has the power to listen. The book itself became the narrator, personified on-screen and in conversation with you, the player.

An early build of The Book Ritual where the book addresses the player directly via text on the screen

If the book in your hand spoke like a person, and if that person wanted to be your friend, then you can make-believe that this little paper object is your friend. So I could build up the relationship between book and player by asking the player personal questions and getting them to write inside the book like a diary. I could get them to do creativity exercises in this book, so this book became a safe and private repository of little personal acts of play.

Meanwhile, I could reframe the things I was struggling to say in real life as questions posed by the book: questions that the player could give an answer to.

If I voiced the anxieties I had through the character of this book - and had the players write inside the book about times they’ve felt the same way, or write their objections to how it sees the world - then I express what I need to express in a way that invites the player in.

The story is no longer just about me. It’s about you. This felt much warmer and kinder than what had come before.

Enter the Shredder

A real live shredder made sense as a recurring interaction. I was already asking the player to do a lot on trust. That is, to make believe that the book was a person, and to do creativity exercises, they had to play along with my requests and trust that they pay off.

There needed to be something inescapable. Something where you don’t have to ask yourself “why am I doing this?” Something you do purely because the game won’t advance unless you do it, so you never have to justify it: you do it because you have to. The game needed some forced action for the voluntary actions to sit in contrast to.

Shredding pages is loud and irreversible
Shredding a page was loud, slow, and irreversible. It became the percussion punctuating the piece, growing more frequent and unyielding when the book, as a character, got more emotional.

In the first builds of the game the book was depicted simply as text on a screen. I did this because I wanted the player to imagine the book in their hands was what was talking, but in honesty it felt more like the monitor was talking. This changed when I added eyes to the shredder. It was my brother’s suggestion - after all, eyes make everything better!

The original Shredward, who is one of two Shredwards I take to exhibitions
Once the shredder had eyes it felt wrong not to have the shredder be a character in the dialogue. Then the book and the shredder both got on-screen avatars, so you could tell who was talking. It was much easier to give them personalities now they had faces. The book took on the personality of my inner child: naive, silly, playful, worried, curious, stubborn and anxious. The shredder, meanwhile, took on the personality of the grown-up I wish I could be: grounded, measured and comforting.

When the book got an on-screen avatar it became easier to connect with as a character

From there the game became largely what it is today. There’s been minor tweaks, user experience improvements for the installation build, changes to the text, but ultimately that formed the core of what The Book Ritual became.

And I realise why I take a selfie with Shredward everywhere we go.

The artist and his book-eating buddy

Selfies with Shredward

Exhibitions always end with a big pile of shreds to play in, and to me that’s kinda magical. This is a game filled with joy. Even though its roots are in sadness, what it has to say is joyful. At the end of the experience the player holds in their hands an object that has grown into something more meaningful than it was before.

Some players take their book home with them. Some books, once destined to be thrown away, now sit atop mantlepieces.

Hiding in the shreds at the end of GDC

The shreds that are left behind are the footprints of hundreds of people who’ve had some emotional experience, and then moved on leaving the play-space different for the next person. Every player changes it for the next player. Nobody knows what it looked like before they were there or after they left. And written on those shreds, though you will never be able to read them, are people’s memories, stories, drawings and poems. Every player who leaves shreds behind leaves the space more meaningful, more special, for the players that follow.

And at my side, through all of these experiences, is Shredward. The grounded voice I wish I could have. The comforting voice I needed to hear.

This is a voice that I had inside me all along. Turned into a character, embodied, externalised, travelling with me to those nervous first exhibitions. At my side is my lens I can use to observe, with warmth and openness, that which terrifies me.

Pebbles in a Jar

I was asked in an interview if I’d found the acceptance I was looking for. Acceptance, of course, being generally the final step in models of grief. My answer was that I wasn’t sure. It’s too hard to say.

The anxieties that prompted The Book Ritual are still with me. On good days I can keep them in perspective and on bad days they can bring me down. My response was that acceptance is not a thing you either have or you don’t. It’s more like pebbles in a jar.

Imagine you have a jar, and that's you, and you can put pebbles in that jar, each one representing a little step towards acceptance. You might have lots of pebbles, you might have few, but there’s no individual pebble that makes the jar full.

Sometimes you get a pebble from seeing the right film, or reading the right book. Sometimes you get a pebble by going for a long walk. Sometimes you get a pebble and you know it in the moment. Sometimes you look back and you realise you got a pebble but you don’t know when you got it. Looking back, I think making The Book Ritual gave me a few of those pebbles.

One thing The Book Ritual did was allow me to give my anxieties a voice. And when I heard those anxieties in the voice of another person, this vulnerable little book, I was able to show it a level of compassion that I was not able to show myself. Seeing my anxieties in that way it was easier to see them as worthy of compassion.

Similarly - and I only see this as I look on it as a finished piece - the game itself presents compassion in the way it interacts with you. It asks you about your feelings. It doesn’t push you to share more than you are comfortable with. It reminds you that you can skip a chapter if you feel uneasy. It’s a game that listens. It wants to hear what you have to say, and as a creator as I was at pains to make you feel like your input has value even if the computer can’t actually hear you. In my darkest moments I lose faith in my ability to be compassionate. In brighter times I can look back and see that these choices came out of me just being the way I am.

Which leads me to… well, I don’t know. Presumably this story - the creation of The Book Ritual - needs to end with some kind of conclusion. A single all-encompassing idea about what games are, and what games can be. Is it a lesson about compassion, or about persisting through failure, or a call-to-arms about games that listen? None of these really feel like what the thing that I learnt from making The Book Ritual.

As I reflect I don’t think I need have found a conclusive lesson in this process.

Maybe it’s okay for what I learnt from The Book Ritual to be lots of little ideas, accumulating gradually over time.

Maybe I’ll never notice what it is I learnt until I look back, further down the line.

Maybe it’s all just pebbles in a jar.