One of the aspects of ZED that we’re pretty interested by is its cross-disciplinary nature. Elenna, coming from a strong theatre background, already explained how ZED is intrinsically motivated by the state of contemporary theatre. That’s something we all agree on; but beyond that, we each bring a vision and an understanding of ZED that maps to our own particular domain. Me, I do a lot of game design. I initially become part of the ZED conversation because making games creates a deep familiarity with designing interactivity. Elenna already explained why we’d like to bring a richer, more robust kind of interactivity to theatre; I’m going to try and explain a bit of how, at least from my own corner of the world.
There’s often some confusion when game designers talk about what they do. I think that’s because these days, we tend to conceptualize games as videogames in particular, and we imagine “game design” as something akin to art design or software design. It’s helpful to think about a board game, or even a card game, which involves neither of these activities. I don’t know if any one person actually designed poker, but we might as well say they did, because there’s nothing about it that couldn’t have emerged from a designer working today. Poker, at a really formal level, is a collection of rules. A game designer creates those rules — or, rather, they prototype, iterate and refine those rules over countless revisions and playtests. Now, this is a radical oversimplification of both games and game design in “the real world”, both of which have many moving parts that need to be carefully brought into alignment. But that’s a whole other ball of yarn.
Like any kind of design, game design has a set of principles. Unlike many kinds of design, game design is still pretty fresh and poorly understood, but let’s jump over that for now. Of course, ZED isn’t a game, but there’s lots of things about game design that we can apply. Plus, ZED has its large components and its small components, existing as both a half-year transmedia story, and as self-contained theatrical events. We want principles can be applied equally to either level.
For me, part of these principles actually come from the related but separate field of interaction design (shorthand for many competing terms/professions.) A lot of thinking has gone into how to make interactive systems useable, where the system is anything from a doorknob to a space shuttle control panel.
Clear Opportunities. Opportunities for interaction should be self-evident, and should communicate how the audience can interact with them. The audience should be able to tell the difference between a door that wants to be opened, and one that leads to an off-limits backstage area. This is partially a matter of developing an intuitive language — something as clumsy as making interactive objects bright red would, at least, completely solve the problem of telling them what to play around with. In the context of a narrative, though, that language might live largely within character dialogue. It’s easy to just tell the audience what they can do and where they can go. Of course, the challenge there is doing so in a way that doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief.
Clear Feedback. This is the flipside to presenting clear opportunities. What was the result of taking one of those opportunities? Once you’ve pressed the bright red button, what’s changed? What did you affect? Effects could be immediate, which can make presentation straightforward, but they could also be deferred, or hidden within a larger system. In our case, that larger system would be the story. If someone makes a choice that affects the progression of the narrative, they ought to be aware of the nature of that change.
Consistency. Interactivity is generally thought of as a communication process between a user and a system. If there’s communication, that means there’s a language. In computer software, that language is made up of sounds, button colouring, alerts, etc. The language becomes a bit harder to assemble in the case of an interactive story or show, because the use of multiple media invokes many other simultaneous, competing languages. If we have audience members using a computer, and talking to a character, then they need to interact with those systems individually, but they’re also interacting with the larger system as a whole. There needs to be a larger, meta-language for presenting opportunities and feedback at the story level, and that language needs to be applied consistently regardless of the specific mode of interaction.
User-Centered Testing. I know better than to suggest that theatre doesn’t go through a testing process, but the philosophy and approach differs from the testing of interactive systems. User testing places a strong emphasis on focused examination of the experiences of individual users, with rigorous techniques used to break down those experiences down into very specific actionable items. For instance, we ascertain the exact moment where a user is confused — looking at a particular object, for example, or hearing the words of a particular character — and we identify the source of that confusion, and we fix it. Moreover, we view each complete user experience as a scenario to guide our design. We want all possible user experiences to be flawless (or, at least, to make sense!)
Interaction design gives us a lot of ways to make our interactivity sensible and coherent. But how do we make it enticing and satisfying? That’s where some principles that are more unique to game design can help us.
Meaningful Choices. Game design is largely rooted in the concept of meaningful play. For play to meaningful, it has to affect something in a relatively coherent way. It needs to be possible to string together multiple actions in a way that guides one towards some intended outcome. Totally random games aren’t fun, nor are games where player actions don’t actually change anything. The idea of providing meaningful choices to our audience is one of our key goals for ZED, as Elenna said. We don’t want to just let people fiddle with pointless buttons and switches — we want to let them develop and pursue an agenda within our world. This sounds amazingly ambitious, but we’re trying to stay realistic. We don’t envision some infinitely malleable story universe that allows for full role-playing. We do, however, want to give our audience the experience of making decisions that have some weight to them. And we’ll be coming back to this point a lot.
Clear Objectives. Opportunities are ways that you can interact; objectives are ways that you must interact. Games become frustrating and obtuse when clear objectives aren’t available, and players are reduced to random experimentation. In ZED, there’s no notion of “winning”, but there is a notion of progression. We want the audience experience to have direction — we want them to know what they’re striving for.
Multiple Styles of Play. It’s pretty well known that different people enjoy different kinds of game and play. However, even within a particular niche genre, behaviours and motivations can vary. There’s been numerous studies on the different categories of people who play a single game: the social gamer, the competitive gamer, the tactician, the storyteller — although it isn’t necessary, many good games attempt to acknowledge and cater for multiple types. With ZED, we’ve started to identify participant types of our own.
Safe Experimentation & Guided Learning. Anyone who plays videogames will recognize the power of a tutorial level. It introduces the player to their abilities, while allowing them to experiment with them and fail, without consequence. These days, tutorials tend to use a lot of words to explain themselves, but they could just easily drop the player in an environment that requires successful experimentation in order to proceed. The idea of “safety” is perhaps not helpful in ZED, which isn’t a game and doesn’t have failure, but the idea of gently introducing audience to their role and their powers is helpful.
Player’s Narrative. Games don’t have one story — they have an infinite number of possible stories. A game is an inert system, which only finds existence through interaction with a player. Even in a game without a story, there’s always a story — the story a player creates for themselves, through their actions. This is closely related to the idea that art exists within the interpretation of the audience. But with games, it’s more pronounced, because the co-creation between game and player doesn’t just exist within the mind, it’s actually enacted and can be observed. And what can be observed, can be used to inform design.
Building for Hacking. Academic debates notwithstanding, games are play, and play is an inherently disruptive activity. The mindset of the player is one of experimentation; players are consistently probing the boundaries of games, whether to find secrets, or take satisfaction in breaking the system. Good games cater to that; think of the delight you felt when you ran off the screen in Super Mario Bros’ second level, and discovered that warp pipe. We want ZED to have warp pipes, and we want the world to remain intact as you try to discover those warp pipes.