Saturday 18 September 2010

Papa Bound Conventions

I spoke last week at the Media Arts Festival at the Roundhouse, on a panel on games chaired by Clare Reddington chair of the Pervasive Media Studio, alongside Margaret Robertson all-round game-egg of Hide & Seek, and Alice Taylor fab digital-game-commissioner for C4 Education, a splendid line-up to be asked into.

I spoke on Papa Sangre, a game I'm making for the iPhone alongside a brillliant array of collaborators. It's a game-(under)world that is rendered primarily in sound and music, so I got to ask the audience if they wanted to see a screenshot: just to close their eyes. The panel is online here, video 12 (you don't have to, even if you are my mum, this is just for my reference).

And now to digress, a lot.

Papa Sangre was commissioned by 4IP as a game that could be played by the visually-impaired as well as the sighted. Constraint being the mother of invention. Or in this case, the mother of incorporation.

The seed for Papa Sangre is a live game called Sangre y Patatas based itself on Blood and Potatoes, a game I'd run in theatre rooms for years. It's a game of stealth and cunning to avoid a bloody loud death, played with eyes closed. And I ran it for the usual reasons, general warm-up of brains and bodies, punctuate work with a shot of fun, etc. But also occasionally adapting it rapidly and iteratively to more interesting purpose, the game becoming an engine of exploration.

Here's another digression as an example of how. The very first show I directed professionally was The Bound Man at BAC in 1998, although it had started as a student production. To give due credit, it was a dark fairy-tale adapted previously into a performance text by Andrew Prichard from a short story by Ilse Aichinger; we'd then devised from that text. The text was itself a story conjured and told by two severed heads. A man wakes up in a forest to find himself bound head to toe in rope and before he can escape, is taken into a circus where he becomes the star act. The circus becomes jealous and the bound man is forced to face a wolf, and it ends - well, it just ends back with the severed heads frustrated in the darkness.

So there's a wolf. Played by a person, not (necessarily) on all fours, not in a furry costume, but just a person... who is transformed through a system of sense-movement adaptation to play like a wolf. This system had been devised by choreographer Alex New but it was not choreography to block a sequence of actions, rather a process to transform the weighting of your senses in play so you can't help but act as wolf. You don't even have to be a dancer. Alex was frighteningly and ineffably so, but an injury he'd picked up meant I had to take over for the first performances in college, and anyone who knows me knows how I dance... and even I could get by. It's incredible to play, without thinking you are acting like an animal. If you want to know any more, you'll have to find me and buy me a drink.

when it came to BAC, we cast the fittingly-named Dan Synge (say it aloud) as wolf, and he, Alex, myself and others from the company spent long sessions in a basement playing Blood and Potatoes, and rapidly evolving the game and plugging into it what we knew of playing wolf, to help discover more. One session ended up in pitch darkness, piles of chairs around the room to become a landscape of noisy hazard and refuge, one of us as wolf pursuing the others relentlessly. And then discovering that if counter-intuitively we added a tiny amount of light - one bar of an electric fire to be precise - then the glow it cast became a dangerous corridor we'd literally scamper across to avoid being caught. Dan's learning as wolf was shaped by the properties and constraints at play (and it was the most brilliant fun).

It's interesting watching people playtest Papa Sangre because even though movement in this case means walking with your thumbs, step by step, the immersion of the binaural sound all around you means that you feel like you're in that world, and your body starts to respond, scrunching in fear when you 'step' on something crunchy like bones exactly like real people playing Sangre y Patatas and stepping into a pile of tortilla chips. The experience is intensely present-tense, not least because you can't as easily conjure a map of a pitch-dark space to remember where you are.

This post is fast becoming a series of tangential digressions.

A lot of play is best kept plastic in form as it develops, until you find the shape, constraints, conventions of play that fit precisely what you need. Experimental isn't a euphemism for non-conventional, or even indulgent or weird, but a reflection of this process of iterative innovation. Conventional similarly doesn't mean boring or stuffy, but literally using conventions that are already generally understood by audiences which are sometimes therefore the most fit for purpose.

Nor is there only one set of conventions that are conventional. For instance - and this is not a dig at them - Punchdrunk are forever called experimental in mainstream press, but more often they use conventions established for what could be called their own conventional work; experimental here really just means a different set of conventions.

Back to the panel. Clare had asked us to ask a question directly for the audience and I ended up with a (relatively tame) provocation based on all the above: there is no inherent superiority in medium, genre or convention.

The challenge is to resist a properly conservative attitude which can become dangerously habitual for the risk-averse, that only the kind of work that you already know how to make is any good. The danger in these conservative times, with an uncertain funding landscape, is the temptation to play safe without an edge of experimentation. You'll end up stiff. Looking at you, broadcasters, in every medium.