Archive for June, 2015

Pikseliparatiisi: Sauna, kylpylä ja Witcher 3

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Witcher 3:ssa on kaksi kohtausta, joissa puhutaan ja peseydytään. Ensimmäisessä miehet istuvat roomalaistyylisessä kylpylässä, ja toisessa naiset saunassa. Kummassakin tapauksessa ympäristö vaikuttaa siihen miten asioista puhutaan. Kohtaukset ovat myös esimerkkejä siitä, kuinka Witcher 3 onnistuu varaamaan itselleen kulttuurillista tilaa jenkkistandardin ulkopuolelta.

Pelin päähenkilö Geralt on Novigradin vapaakaupungissa etsimässä tietoja suojatistaan Ciristä. Käy ilmi, että hänen vanha tuttunsa Sigi Reuven on ruvennut kylpyläyrittäjäksi rikollisten bisneksien ohella. Niinpä on luontevaa, että Geralt tapaa kaupungin rikollispomot Reuvenin kylpylässä, jossa asioista voidaan puhua pyyhkeet lanteilla.

Kohtaus on pitkä ja hienovaraisesti rakennettu. Kylpeminen on hyvin miehistä puuhaa, ja kohtauksen hahmoilla on historiaa. Rikollispomot ovat tavallaan toistensa vihollisia, mutta kylpylässä vallitsee silti tietty perusymmärrys. Hahmot tölvivät toisiaan sanallisesti samalla kun relaavat altaalla.

Päähenkilö Geralt kylpylässä.

Päähenkilö Geralt kylpylässä.

Kohtauksen tunnelma antaa ymmärtää, että nämä henkilöt käyvät kylpylöissä hyvin säännöllisesti. Itse en ole koskaan käynyt roomalaistyylisessä kylpylässä; lähimmäksi pääsee lapsena kokemani kylpylä Leningradissa tai hamam Palestiinassa. Silti tilanteen oletukset välittyvät pienistä kulttuurillisista signaaleista.

Suurin osa Witcher 3:sta tapahtuu Velenin maaseudulla tai Novigradin kaupungissa, mutta loppupuolella pääsee käymään myös viikinkihenkisellä Skelligen saarella. Siellä on kohtaus, jossa pelaaja pelaa Ciriä, joka on haavoittunut. Paikalliset kyläläiset patistavat hänet saunaan, koska se tekee hyvää.

Ciri vasemmalla, yksi kylän naisista oikealla.

Ciri vasemmalla, yksi kylän naisista oikealla.

Sauna ei ole aivan suomalaistyylinen: Siellä ei istuta koroteuilla lauteilla, ja lämpötila näyttää enemmän ruotsalaishenkiseltä hengailuun sopivalta kuin suomalaiselta paahtamiselta. Kohtaus on silti erittäin tunnistettava. Ciri ja kylän naiset puhuvat asioistaan saunan luoman läheisyyden turvin. Vaikka sauna eroaakin meikäläisestä, saunakulttuuri on tavoitettu hyvin.

Tällaisissa yksityiskohdissa piilee Witcher 3:n hienous. Peli on puolalainen, mutta se onnistuu jotenkin silti olemaan myös suomalaiselle pelaajalle kulttuurillisesti tunnistettavampi kuin jenkkianonyymiksi puleerattu kama, mitä videopelimaailmassa on paljon.

Non-Digital: Beach Larp Manifesto

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Today, we played the third of this summer’s seven Baltic Warriors eco zombie larps in Sopot, Poland. Finding a good venue for the serious political discussion and the even more serious zombie action proved to be difficult, but we found a wonderful host in a place called Klub Atelier, a venue in a beach theatre.

Since the weather was good, we held the game itself on the beach. This proved to be a very good choice: The presence of the Baltic Sea was palpable every moment of the game, a very important feature considering the themes and aims of Baltic Warriors in general. It’s easy to ignore the problems of the Baltic Sea when it’s out of sight and out of mind, but it’s something different when it’s right there.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Doing a larp on a beach made me ask a very obvious question:

Why are beach larps so rare? Why don’t we larp on beaches all the time? Why can’t we have fun in the sun?

This prompted me to write this manifesto in favor of beach larp, a phenomenon I foresee will take the larp world by storm in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 before it becomes mainstream and attains global success and recognition as the primary beach activity of our species by the end of the decade.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

Beach larp is:

1 – On a beach.

2 – Features an intimate thematic link to the water.

3 – Goes beyond the mere superficialities of fun, and becomes a profound participatory experience combining serious questions about our role in the world with being on a  beach.

4 – For players ready to take the experience seriously and dedicate themselves to fulfilling it. Or have been forced to participate by their employers. One of the two.

5 – Conflates surface and content by accepting the fact that larp is public. You don’t go to the beach to not be seen, and the same goes for beach larp. The larp experience becomes complete in the confused Tweet of a stranger. Or a spot done by local television.

6 – For romance. Our beach larp ended with a woman proposing to her pregnant lover.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

7 – For tragedy. The lover said no.

8 – Engaging with the public. Beach larp is not insulated. Beach larp takes interventions by outsiders in stride. In our case, in the form of a zombie attack on schoolchildren.

9 – For emergence and coincidence. Anything can happen in a beach larp. The larp incorporates coincidence. Whether military helicopters or a sailing ship, everything becomes part of beach larp.

10 – For meeting larpers and non-larpers, the young and the old, friends and strangers. Everyone is one on the beach.

Join the beach larp revolution now!

Non-Digital: The Joy of the Zeigarnik Effect

Monday, June 15th, 2015

I’m standing in front of a wall. It’s made of wood, painted white. There are two black, small holes, probably made by nails, at my eye level. I run my hand along the surface of the white paint. I’m in the present, aware of what’s right in front of me.

I’m playing in a larp called The Zeigarnik Effect, run in Moss in Norway 11th – 13th of June, 2015 as part of the Momentum biennial of contemporary art. Created by the artist Brody Condon, The Zeigarnik Effect consists of two complementary but separate pieces, the larp and a video installation based on material recorded in the larp. During the opening of Momentum, the camera feeds from the larp are displayed live at the installation.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

The voice tells me, tells all of us to move our focus to the other people in the room. I turn around and face the room. I see the other participants. I look at their faces. I look at their eyes. I’m aware of their presence. I’m in the moment.

One of the core inspirations of The Zeigarnik Effect is the Gestalt therapy of the German psychotherapist Fritz Perls. Being in the moment, being present, is one of the ideas that makes Gestalt therapy so interesting to experience. We play loose characters that consist of motivations for being in therapy, and little else. The specific rituals of Gestalt mean that although everyone in the group is in close, constant interaction with everyone else, we don’t really need anything very elaborate in terms of larp fiction. I have little else than the simple motivation granted to me by my imagined affliction, and it sufficed.

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The installation after the first day of larp, before the exhibition opens the next day.

The voice is telling me to focus on my body. I feel the cramping in my back, the itching in my scalp and the anxiety in my fingers created by the condition I came up with: The fear of losing sensation in my hands and feet.

When we’re not doing mental and social excercises designed to bring us into the present moment, we’re working on someone. The language of Gestalt foregrounds the experiential, meaning that when we describe dreams, it sounds like this: “I’m experiencing remembering standing on a brown granual surface. It’s dark. I feel the heat on my face.” And so forth.

The ideas of Gestalt therapy, combined with the game design features designed by Condon with Nina Runa Essendrop, create a series of extremely intense, socially high-resolution interactions that are sometimes joyful and always interesting. A particular favorite is an excercise in which half the group moves eyes closed and the other half guides them, forcefully or with only a light touch.

In another interesting excercise, one participant asks the question “What do you want?” over and over again, and the other tries to answer. When I do this, I end up tearing my partner’s t-shirt into two. When it’s his turn to answer, he hits me in the face.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

Playing The Zeigarnik Effect feels like someone has constructed an experimental language of larp, something honed and perfected in earlier prototypes until it runs smoothly and efficiently. Everything is simple, but I’m aware that to reach this level of simplicity, a great deal effort and trial and error is necessary.

The documentation required by the video installation is rigorous and thorough. Implemented by Paul Shin, the set-up includes wireless microphones on every participant and two cameramen who move in the game space, capturing emotions in close up.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

Visiting the installation space, it’s obvious that this strategy really pays off. Capturing the visual surface of larp has rarely been done to such powerful effect as here, and the key is making sure that the camera is always right there, zeroing in on the face of someone who is not performing.

Non-Digital: Baltic Warriors in St. Petersburg

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Last Saturday, 6th of June, the second Baltic Warriors game of summer 2015 was played in St. Petersburg. I’m working on the project as a larp producer, and it’s surprisingly strange to make a game that’s being run in a language I don’t understand, in this case Russian. Others have done this before me, but now was my first time.

Thankfully, the game seemed to be a success.

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(Members of the crew in front of the venue, the art space Taiga on the shore of the Neva river in St. Petersburg)

Each Baltic Warriors game has a similar design and structure, but we’ve learned that local variation will always play a part. The St. Petersburg game was our most aggressively localized one, with character and game design elements adapted so they’d make sense. We also had to provide all material in Russian to make sure all players can comfortably engage with it.

In each country, we have a local producer who’s job it is to do this localization, in addition to practical organizing. In Russia, we had Olga Vorobyeva, who did a wonderful job. We also had significant help from the local Goethe Institute. The Goethe Institute makes the project financially possible, but in St. Petersburg they went above and beyond in terms of practical work.

(Participants workshopping before the game starts)

Bringing people together is one of the key goals of the whole Baltic Warriors project, and if we can do a little larp evangelizing on the side, that’s good too. Because of this, I was happy to see that approximately one third of our players had never larped before. We’d been warned that the actual experts we invited to participate in the post-game panel discussion probably wouldn’t want to play, but in the end every single one did.

(The game is in full swing as some characters listen to speeches given by the politicians, activists and lobbyists, while othets write news articles and make backroom deals)

As in every Baltic Warriors game, eventually the zombies will attack. In the fiction of the game, eutrophication causes the undead to rise from the Dead Zones of the Baltic Sea. The style of the game changes, and debate turns into action as the characters try to save themselves.

This time the action was so fast, we had trouble following it with our cameras.

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(A zombie hangs back as the participants do a debrief round after the game has ended)

Non-Digital: Mechanics Against Character Immersion

Monday, June 1st, 2015

In my last post, I complained about the lack of published game systems conductive to tabletop roleplaying with a focus on character immersion. I said that the kind of roleplaying that I like the best seems difficult to put into a published book.

In this post, I’ll attempt to elaborate on the kind of play that to me is ideal with examples, good and bad, from published games.

Vampires

I started roleplaying with Dungeons & Dragons, but the whole thing really started to click for me when I discovered Vampire: the Masquerade. Especially in the second edition core books and the Vampire supplements of that era, the game had a street level focus. A lot of attention was paid to the player characters and who they were. The books brimmed with advice about mood and theme.

I sixteen at the time, so we had our share of vampires with katanas. Still, the game encouraged social stuff like status games in the vampire community, love, and mentor characters. This was great. Finally a game where we play out social situations while being other people.

Unfortunately Vampire also has systems that are pure poison for character-based play of the type I love, and we spent a lot of energy dodging those systems. At that age, I didn’t have the understanding or confidence just to cut them out.

The worst offender is the idea of Blood Bond, a supernaturally enfored love that is imposed on those who drink from a given vampire too many times. The Blood Bond strikes the closest and most meaningful relationships a character has and replaces them with a supernaturally stagnant, emotionally sterile, fundamentally boring force. The Blood Bond is poison because it neutralizes all organic emotional change.

Vampire and other White Wolf games have plenty of similar superpowers that affect a character emotionally or mentally. I’ve found that when playing in this kind of a game, holding onto character consistency sometimes requires a lot of work and serious game mechanical investment into every relevant immunity that can protect the character from in-game forces that would lead to a loss of character integrity on a metagame level.

The Engine

So what do I do when I play a game like this?

Normally, when I create a character, I use two tools. One is Markus Montola’s framework of enabling and disabling characteristics, where enabling characteristics (impulsive, helpful, outgoing) help the character to engage with her surroundings and disabling characteristics (shy, reclusive, distrustful) keep the character away from play.

The other tool is perhaps the more important one, and generates the core of the character. This is the character’s central contradiction, or preferably contradictions. The character is selfish and likes to help people, she’s superficial and loves classical culture, she wants fame but needs to keep her integrity. Juggling these qualities then becomes the engine that moves the character forward, and helps me know how she’ll react to a situation in a game.

Keeping the character’s engine running in my head and coming up with surprising, interesting and logical reactions, initiatives and ideas is central as I experience the world through the character in emotional terms. After a while, the character’s engine becomes second nature, and I can reflect on the things that happen around me from this specific perspective.

The result is often extremely emotionally compelling. There’s bleed all over the place. This is helped enormously by good co-players who’re also playing in a way that resonates with emotional truth. The game is subtle, nuanced and resonates with its own reality.

How to Play

In most of the games I’ve played in or ran, the game mechanics exist to regulate and support the kind of play described above, but they don’t generate it. They just fix some of the problems that arise.

A simple one is the way we as players become so invested in the success of our characters, the drama needs mechanics for us to sometimes fail.

The mechanics can also provide another flavor of enjoyment. Fighting using mechanics can be fun, but it’s not the kind of core fun I roleplay for. Perhaps for this reason, the mechanics present in the best social gameplay of my career have been practically non-existent. Just a bunch of people improvising in a room, guided by a game master.

There’s something very traditional about this kind of character based play, especially in terms of how it relates to the role of the game master. This is especially apparent when I look at modern American story games, often descended from the Forge scene.

These types of games often have a collaborative storytelling aspect, a more collective distribution of game master functions, and interesting metagame mechanics that allow situations to be resolved in different ways. They’re also often very playable, in the sense that you can experience a game with a bunch of friends without massive amounts of preparation.

My experiences with these games have been positive and I often recommend them to people. But so far, I haven’t played a game that would really support what I want. One core reason is that the kind of social play I enjoy is essentially unregulated by designed systems. It’s emergent and messy. In some ways, it depends on being able to radically change the content or the direction of the game on the fly.

Sometimes when playing these games, I feel like a boffer larper in a Vampire game: It’s great and all, but where’s my sword?

Most of all, the game’s mechanics simply can’t fuck with the integrity of my character.

Beyond the System

So how to make published games, how to write a book that would describe the kind of play I find ideal?

One core idea would be to consider what’s the role of game design and what’s the role of the emergent social gameplay and creativity of the participants. How to communicate extremely light social systems that depend on flexibility.

From a system design point of view this kind of play is conservative: I’m not trying to revolutionize the field. I’m quite happy with the tools I have. I would merely like to be able to communicate them better.

After all, campaigns of this type I’ve played in, like Jaakko Stenros’s Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish), Mike Pohjola’s Tähti (Star) and Maria Pettersson’s St Catherine have been some of the best and most defining experiences of my life.

Maybe these also highlight the problem. None of them are based on published games.

Non-Digital: Character is All

Monday, June 1st, 2015

As a matter of purely personal taste, here’s what I like about tabletop roleplaying games:

1 – Playing a complex and contradictory character engaged in interesting social environments. Experiencing the game principally through this character.

2 – Sex and violence, craziness and stupid decisions, the kind of stuff that is a bad idea in real life but great fun in fictional environments.

3 – Playing interesting social situations, or watching others play them.

I like the kind of naturalism that emerges in good groups when people play their characters and come up with cool ideas for the whole game. Consistency is good when it comes to the characters, and immersion in their emotional circumstances is key.

I have never played or read a tabletop roleplaying game that had a system supporting these goals. I’ve been able to realize them only in games that have had a strong game master vision and a group that has had the required level of social and roleplaying competence to really go there.

Many, possibly most, of these experiences in my roleplaying career have been had in games where the system has been a set of loose social conventions and the rules mechanics an ornamental bauble that’s sometimes marveled at and then tossed aside when things get serious.

Tabletop roleplaying games are propagated through published game books that explain how to run particular kinds of games. For me, a big question is: Why is the kind of roleplaying I love the best apparently impossible to package into a book?

I’ve tried once, with my book Roolipelimanifesti, a general interest guide to roleplaying games and how to make them. I’ll leave it to others to judge how we’ll I succeeded. My other tabletop publication, the game Valley of Eternity, is more old-fashioned and doesn’t really reflect my personal playing style. It’s a game of tragic adventure, not a game of social drama.

Games like Dungeons & Dragons, design movements like the Forge and the Fastaval games have their own languages for expressing ideas of tabletop roleplaying in text.

Perhaps the kind of character based play big in my particular niche of the global tabletop roleplaying community needs to invent a new language of communicating about design. Or perhaps we have to ditch the idea of the guidebook as a democratic tool anyone can use, and move to glorify the individual visionaries of each game, be they players or game masters.