Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Meet the R&D Group: César Alvarez

This post is by R&D Group artist, César Alvarez, about The Universe is a Small Hat, an immersive electronic musical theater experience he is developing with director Sarah Benson and game designer Ivan Safrin (check out Ivan's website HERE) as part of Berkeley Rep's 2013 Groundfloor Program.  To learn more about César and his work, check out his WEBSITE, or follow him on TWITTER.

"Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role – and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role.” -  Anna Anthropy (Riseof The Videogame Zinesters

During my time in The Civilians R&D Group I have been studying how to turn the experience of my musical into an immersive and interactive game. My piece is entitled The Universe is a Small Hat and tells the story of a techno-Utopian space colony which encounters a mysterious non-human atmospheric intelligence. Each audience member plays the role of a colonist and has to choose how to behave and interface within the micro-society on the ship. The decisions that each person makes influences their experience of the piece, opportunities they have, their access to the ship itself, and ultimately the ending that they experience.

“A game is an experience created by rules.” - Anna Anthropy

Games are systems and so they are well-suited to tell stories about systems. Small Hat is at its core about a society, which is a network of shared laws, customs, and/or organizations. My piece also deals with physics which is a system of laws capable of describing and predicting aspects of our Universe. The idea for turning my piece into an immersive experience first came from this video of futurist Jason Silva talking about his experience of Sleep No More. 

When I found this video I was trying to figure out how to tell a futuristic story in a theatrical context, but I feared that being conventionally presentational would come off as hokey. My sense is that science fiction has a bad reputation in theater. Perhaps science fiction works better in novels and films because both forms are so good at immersing us in a fictional future. Silva connects Sleep No More to virtual reality and frames its (albeit analog) interactive environment as an evolution of the video game and “the future of storytelling.” I think he has a point. For centuries theater has served to create a moment of physical rest and reflection after a day of labor. But now, as more jobs than ever require hours of isolation sitting in front of a screen, plugged into a network, theater might be well positioned as a place to engage our bodies, and allow us to interact with one another in physical space.

Image from Ivan Safrin's Space Cruiser, an interactive multi-playervideo game designed for Hayden Planetarium. Ivan is collaborating with César on Small Hat.
Below I've presented some game concepts alongside a description of how we are integrating the concept into The Universe is a Small Hat. The concepts that game designers use to describe their work have been helpful as I try to merge these two worlds. My hope is that more theatre artists start creating work that generates a story-driven interactivity.

Player Character -  is a character in a video game or role playing game who is controlled or controllable by a player, and is typically a protagonist of the story told in the course of the game.

In Small Hat the “player” is the audience member. And as I develop the “script” I am viewing the audience member as an actor in the play. The script should be a delineation of circumstances that allow for a mediated experience full of sensation, story and choice. The audience members will not be asked to “act” or play a character other than themselves. Since they are cast as members of the space colony we are asking them to be themselves exactly as they are, or as they'd like to be. Each colonist is given one of six “identities” based on a brief evaluation, but each individual can embrace, switch, or reject the identity as they see fit.

Non-Player Character - any character not controlled by a player.

In Small Hat the Non-player characters will be the trained actors. More than a script they will have a timeline of events, set of tasks along that timeline, an extensive set of guidelines and possible outcomes. Their interaction with the Colonists (audience) will often be improvised based on rules rather than scripted.

Reward - The reward is the positive consequence of conquering the challenge; it can be anything from an increase in score, new items, or a cutscene.

In our piece the primary driving reward is to know the space and the story. When you enter the multi-room space you'll want to explore it all, but it is quickly apparent that you don't have access to it all. Only through operating within or subverting the rules of the world can you discover the whole space and learn the whole story. At the end each colonist is faced with a personal choice. The information you gained and experience of the piece will impact that choice.

Risk - a situation involving exposure to danger, or in the case of a game, the loss of points, rewards, or status.

Risks in Small Hat have to do with losing resources (points), or failing to experience the whole space. Failure to participate in the piece could also result in feeling left behind, or cheated out of the story.

Cutscenes - A cutscene is a sequence in a video game over which the player has no or only limited control, breaking up the gameplay. Cutscenes are used to advance the plot, strengthen the main character's development, introduce enemy characters, and provide background information, atmosphere, dialogue, and clues.

The video game form of scene/gameplay/scene/gameplay reminds me of the musical theater form of scene/song/scene/song. In Small Hat we will move the narrative primarily through songs and gameplay, with very few static scenes between characters. When the actors speak they will usually be addressing the colonists directly.

Items – Objects which play role in the story. The might contain clues, unlock elements of the story, offer powers or privileges.

Items in games remind me of props in the theater world. How can we use objects interactively to transmit the narrative?

Score - In games, score refers to an abstract quantity associated with a player or team. Score is usually measured in the abstract unit of points, and events in the game can raise or lower the score of different parties. Most games with score use it as a quantitative indicator of success in the game, and in competitive games, a goal is often made of attaining a better score than one's opponents in order to win.

Every Colonist has a score in the context of the piece. How you value that score is really up to each individual. Players may choose to work hard to achieve high score and the associated rewards, and players may opt out of the system and choose other ways to spend their time.

Playtesting – This is an idea in games that you have to play the game in order to gauge its effectiveness. Is it challenging? Too repetitive? Too easy? Interesting to both expert players and novices? Factors of the game can be tweaked and adjusted according the to subjective experience of the playtesting.

Playtesting is the game design version of workshopping in theater. Playing a game and identifying its weaknesses is an incredibly important part of designing a functional and enjoyable system. As we develop Small Hat we will need to constantly be trying out ideas on audience even from the very earliest stages. We will have to figure out the specifics of playtesting a musical.

Skill  and Chance – This is a polarity that is present in many games. There is a randomizing element (dice or cards) but also a system of rules which can be employed though a player's skill.

Both skill and chance will show up in our piece. Specific strategies will allow Colonists to achieve higher and reach greater depths of the world. But the randomizing elements will add unexpected outcomes.

Level -  In a video game a level is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective.

In Small Hat there are 4 levels of play. The first level is available to everyone. The second and third levels are available later in the piece, through high achievement or cunning. Each level allows for a greater understanding of the narrative.

Check out a track from the show below:
Thanks César for sharing. For other posts from our other R&D Group artists, please click HERE.

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