Features Essays Published 7 March 2016

Game Designers are Theatremakers

A video game critic and a theatre critic discuss a recent game jam between devising theatre makers, pervasive game designers, and computer game developers.

David Ralf

Games and Play for Big Outdoor Days – a curated game jam between devising theatre makers, pervasive game designers, and computer game developers – took place in Winchester on the 28th-30th January 2016. You can read about the games that were dreamed up and designed here. Video game critic Cara Ellison and theatre critic David Ralf were invited to observe by producer Hannah Nicklin.  

David Ralf: The thing that really struck me about the game jam was how storytelling-focused the designers were when developing games. Even given the spectrum of their experiences, from poet/playwrights through pervasive gamemakers to videogame developers, I expected the bulk of ‘designing’ to be a series of discussions of game mechanics – but in fact theme and storytelling were at the forefront of all of the discussions. And actually that bore real fruit, because when the designers came to playtest things on Saturday, mechanics could be dropped in and fiddled with on the fly – but the story of the games we were playing were actually fairly fleshed out. Hannah Nicklin said on Friday that ‘games are unnecessary constraints’ – an idea I hadn’t come across before. What really got driven home for me was the fact that developing game mechanics is really about configuring of those constraints in order to bring about a range of responses and interactions. It was only when we had an idea of the scope of the ‘story’ for a particular game, that we could judge whether or not a particular mechanic was successful.

Paper and pens from the game jam

There are counterexamples too, where a mechanic was played with which invited a discussion of a wider story, but they were much more rare over the two days, and much more tentative. I think that this was driven by Hannah’s approach which generated ‘working titles’ – mash-ups of existing game/project titles which could then be used to make entirely new ideas within the context of the jam. Giving something a title – even a laughable, temporary title – gives it a sense of identity and specificity that invites thematic detail. It invited ‘whys’ which would lead to ‘whats’, rather than the other was around.

Cara Ellison: I think it’s interesting that you say that what the designers really wanted was a narrative first, and then they added the game mechanics, because in the world where I work all the ‘features’ – i.e. the game mechanics that are going to make the game ‘sell’ come first, and then the narrative is often a convenient way to link those mechanics together. This is a great shame in my opinion, because as you say I think human beings are attracted to a story, and then become enchanted with the way the story is told as they are experiencing it. As you go along, some mechanics that may complicate and make interesting this experience may come to light afterwards, as you describe in what happened with the jam.

It may however be that Hannah’s title mash-up was actually the reason that the games were so narrative led – I wonder if it had been more video game oriented whether the games would have actually been centred on a new mechanic that the designers were interested in, and then spiralled out from there.

Two of the jammers getting one of the games on their feet

It also could be that role playing is the most efficient way of making a game, particularly a game that has little to no resources. This is where theatre practitioners obviously have the upper hand. Steve Gaynor, a video game designer, has talked before about using theatrical techniques to direct the player and have them understand what it is the designer wants them to see, and to do next.

DR: Your comment that role-playing is an ‘efficient’ way to make a game reminds me of something I thought during the jam – which is that rule-finding is a really natural process. Perhaps because we have to learn to socialise as children by picking up on quite subtle cues with intricate unwritten guidelines, carving out the rules of a satisfying game with an interpersonal dimension is not only instinctive, but fun. That’s a big maybe, but equally I’m sure this isn’t a new idea. Give a few kids a tennis ball and a couple of beanbags and they’ll iteratively develop games with highly structured rulesets. We all love experimenting with rules. A group of us play a kind of improvised Sardines-versus-Zombies every summer. I don’t think we’ve played with the same rules twice, because we love to tweak as we play. And we aren’t hardcore gamers, we’re just breaking up holiday drinking with holiday games. Sometime we don’t even know we’re doing it. Have you ever played Monopoly at another family’s house and realised that neither they, you or the How to Play booklet share the same rules?

I’d like to look at the constraints that were placed on the jam. Because of the funding from Without Walls and support from Hat Fair, the focus was very much on big games – for outdoor, festival environments, and capacity for over 100 players. Secondary requirements included urban settings, because the Without Walls group of festivals are mostly city events, and also day-time, because lots of these festivals make use of the long summer days, and wind down before dusk. It’s a really specific kind of task, but the designers responded in quite a number of ways. We had large-scale games played out over the course of 20-30mins, and we also had games that could provide the backdrop to a festival day, or days. We had short individual or small-group experiences which could deal with high throughput, and we had ideas for social-media-led experiences. The designers rarely hit every objective at the same time, but there was quite a precise focus.

CE: The emphasis was on big games – as in a game for many people at once to play. This is interesting because in digital this means MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), and I am not sure that MMOs are handling their worlds as well or as interestingly as they could be handled if analogue games practitioners were more involved. For example, many systems in MMOs institute fetch quests, which we did have in our Gully Men game, but the system of actually fetching was much more complex and complicated and interesting, like being tied in a kind of cobweb of rules designed to trap the player or free the player depending. The penny for paradise game also required that people spend quite a long time talking to each other, being intimate with each other, and getting to know each other, which is something that MMOs do extremely badly in my opinion. Guilds often exist for this purpose, but there is no gamifying of social information beyond that.

Largely I do think that designers are sadly limited by a particular game mechanic, as there are only so many stories you can tell about a person with a gun, for example. When you don’t have to build on previous systems that have become popular, it’s quite refreshing – there are other constraints to consider then.

DR: It’s interesting you mention MMOs because when we were workshopping the Gully Men game, I was thinking it was surprisingly like a game of Counter-Strike – a hair’s breadth from Capture the Flag, in some ways. But where multiplayer modes on FPS (first-person shooter) games are often unashamedly interchangable, sometimes completely independent of the single player story or theme, the storytelling power of the ‘rescuing’ (both other players and the ‘fireflies’) was strong and ran through the heart of the game we were discovering with the Gully Men.

Two of the jammers discuss game mechanics

There was relatively little technical prototyping – as you noted Cara, the game prototyping was about (in that very theatrical parlance) ‘getting it on-its-feet’, and trying out the proxemics of a game in a limited way. And putting people in the same room who are interested in making human-sized games is very invigorating – I genuinely think we invented a better version of Piggy-in-the-Middle in a five-minute break by adding a hula hoop. And Piggy-in-the-Middle is a pretty robust game. Enduring human-sized games are really economical and robust: one of the jammers Harry Giles said that he thought Wink Murder was about one of the most perfect games there is. And one of the things about the jam that I really enjoyed was that it was kind of about taking parlour games and playground games seriously, and the economical nature of them carried through to what we were doing.

I do think that within the purview of the jam the designers ended up focusing on games that would not intrude, disrupt or impose themselves on a festival, even if such ideas had come up in early discussions. I wonder if there were unconscious pressures encouraging us to work on games that were easily packaged-up, that could be slotted in to a festival environment, rather than ones that might take-over or define a festival. Generally though I felt that Hannah had consciously been quite hands-off in terms of encouraging one idea over another or steering designers in a certain direction. Even when we discussed games with much smaller numbers of players or night-time experiences.

CE: What’s also interesting to note is that we had largely independent video game designers participate, which is a section of the development sphere that does tend to be more concerned with storytelling actually leading design, rather than a clever technology or novelty mechanic coming first. But this is also because, as far as I am aware, there are no huge corporate publishers really involved in the sort of analogue game design that Holly Gramazio does, for example. Everyone was of a kind of ‘alternative’ mindset already.

Harry’s influence was interesting to me because at one time or another I have dabbled in poetry and theatre, and he took as a duck to water with every concept of the jam, using words and concepts as way in to something more substantial in terms of meaning and story.

DR: One of the lovely things was that Hannah pulled together a group of people that were almost all multidisciplinary – so Harry writes poetry and builds twitter bots and writes games to be played on rambles. Khadijah Ibrahiim writes poetry and directs theatre. Holly writes pervasive games runs a festival but also makes video games. You’ve dabbled in poetry and theatre, I’ve dabbled in making digital games. Maybe that ties into Hannah thesis – that indie makers of video games and theatre and everything in between have more in common than the professionalised commercial worlds at the top of those fields. Maybe it’s less about seeing what we can learn from each other to go back into separate corners, and more about cross fertilisation.

As you say there aren’t big commercial operators involved in analogue game design, but more and more people are doing site-specific and game-like events like Holly and Simon Johnson have been involved in. Another pervasive game, Virtually Dead has had a big media launch in London over the last couple of days. And from my perspective some aspects of a big Secret Cinema or a site specific immersive show aren’t too dissimilar. These experiences are often an opportunity for producers to slap big ticket prices on events which can also be attended by several hundred people a night, so there’s going to be more and more commercial interest, and it’s a genre which could become painting-by-numbers really easily if there isn’t constant development.

But one of the things which should drive innovation in pervasive games in terms of mechanics is that when there’s a human component, there’s only so far tech can be pushed – you can’t up the quality of rendering and the smoothness of animation again and again and again (Not that I’m pretending this is the only advancement in the mainstream video game world!) Simon spoke interestingly about this: he has found in his career that he can fight hard to make tech like GPS or biometrics work for him before anyone else is using them. But then two years later, not only can everyone use them cheaply in pervasive games but all of your customers are already carrying around the hardware. We all carry phones. Lots of us wear smartwatches. There’s your GPS. There’s your heartbeat or your pedometer. So actually, using what’s cheap and common, and channeling most of your energy into building exciting mechanics for the tech can be the most exciting and useful thing.

Hannah ensured everyone worked for at least some time with someone from each discipline, and there were fruitful conversations in each pairing. I found it really exciting to see poets and videogame devs working so closely together. But even when the two ends of the attendee spectrum were collaborating, it seemed to me that we were firmly working in the pervasive gaming sandpit. I’d have been interested in seeing both of the theatre and videogame worlds influence that centre ground a little more. We had one theatre director in the mix, but I’d have been interested to see more of that influence on designing/playtesting. I’d certainly have been interested in having a stage designer in the mix.

Preparing props for rapid prototyping.

CE: Ideas and implementation became teamwork very quickly. In fact Hannah began requesting that it happen. Much of the heavy lifting of the devising was done together, which is very much how I’ve always produced anything theatrical (at least as a director, playwright or stage manager). This is often not an option that seems available for independent game makers, as there’s a feeling like you have to ‘prove’ your idea works in code to others before you even sit down to flesh the idea out. It turns out proof really is a burden.

Yet I have thought for a long time that people who make games, particularly on their own or in a team, are theatre practitioners, in that they have to not only take into account the effects of lighting, set-dressing, narrative, where the audience may look, what is seen and unseen, who talks and when, what can move and what can’t, the making of props and the sound design of the piece, but they also have to actually be able to implement it themselves. The skills required for this are obviously varied, and though you might ask many people for advice or perhaps to work on your piece for a while, if you are devising the thing, you also have to be able to understand how these intersect, and how they might intersect to the best effect.

The result is that people who make games, particularly on their own, are massively undervaluing their skills as artists, because although you have theatre directors, say, doing almost the exact same job as a game creator but in analogue, the game creator finishes work every day knowing that much of their audience will see their final work as a product, whereas directors think of their final work as a piece of art or entertainment that might make back the money if they are shrewd. I think this is largely because of the youth of digital games themselves, their intersection with technology and novelty, and because of the large money involved in making and selling large video games – it puts a pressure on one medium that shouldn’t be there.

But this also means that many game makers think of themselves as existing in a beautiful and unique terrarium in some far-off cupboard; on the other hand theatre practitioners have seen themselves as part of political praxis, for example, for a long time. Games seem only to be fully realising this opportunity now thanks to voices like Paolo Pedercini, Katherine Neil, Mattie Brice and Merritt Kopas. It also means, I think at least, that there’s less feeling like game makers can or should reach out to theatre practitioners for advice or to employ them, less feeling like poets belong in this space or could possibly understand it, and, ironically, less feeling like pervasive games are substantial ideas in the digital space. However, what I have seen in recent years is a very promising cross-pollination, as you say, of other arts sticking a toe into games design – Brendon Chung and Gita Jackson use film theory in their practice, William Pugh is a fully fledged thespian and has started his own game studio, Steve Gaynor teaches theatre techniques in his Game Developers Conference talks on level design, Shawn Alexander Allen takes a lot of tips from hip hop culture to use in his games. I expect even at some point, Kerry has used her short stint in an electronic punk band to some effect in her games work, and I expect Holly uses the lossless iteration of analogue games to her advantage when she sits down to make digital games. Poetry has been making in-roads with the explosion of Twine and the text engine revival, interactive fiction has been flooding onto iPhones, tablets, e-readers after being stuck on a computer screen for all these years. And with those cross-pollinations, you see people who were never ever interested in digital games come into the space and get excited about it and vice versa – Dan Waber’s The Kiss, a Twine poem, got hundreds more pageviews than his poetry got before it was interactive, as he told me when I talked to him for Rock Paper Shotgun.

There’s also an interesting question of longevity: most theatre practitioners I expect understand that their work will be recorded on film, in audio, and in script or libretto, but the thing they probably wish for is a long-running production. Something that will run for years and all over the world in many languages. Hamlet, they say, is always being performed in some place across the world at any given moment. However, digital games have a tiny lifespan due to the technology they are made for becoming so quickly obsolete. Most plays in the world can be performed with very little equipment with reduced casts, no props, makeshift sets. The equivalent for me in interactive fiction terms would be something like Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, and thankfully most people have computers that can access the web page and play this little text parser game for free. However – what if one day the website that hosted it went down? What if no one had a record of it? What if the old technology that runs it somehow got corrupted or became incompatible with our current tech? Would we lose it forever? In recent times, DOS archives – online collections of old software and the tools to emulate the systems they used to run on – have become the saviours of our childhoods, but I really do worry that one day we won’t be able to access a great deal of our cultural history, because we let too much of it become proprietary.
Games and Play for Big Outdoor Days was supported by Hat Fair, Theatre Royal Winchester, Winchester City Council, and the Without Walls street arts consortium. It was curated and produced by Hannah Nicklin. 


Giant books, lego bricks, keyboard keys with miniature people Illustration by Michael Parkin.

Illustration by Michael Parkin.


David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.