Notes on the black box scenario Inside myself, outside myself

This is a short talk on a black box larp that I gave at Larpwriter Summer School in Lithuania. The text is more precise than the video…

I will present a scenario played at the festival Black Box Copenhagen in 2014. The project was initiated by Nina Runa Essendrop and Marie Holm-Andersen under the poetic but generic title Inside myself, outside myself.  This larp is not presented because it had a fancy location or visual appeal, quite the opposite. It was just people in a black box. So I have no pictures from the larp.

Nina and Marie gathered a dozen of larp writers and performance artists to create a new and playable scenario for the black box festival audience among who most were larpers, but some were not. There were many challenges in this venture, like how to come up with ideas, share them and weed out stuff? The biggest problem might have been this: how to conceive a scenario to a random number of participants, making them ready to play it and letting them play it, within a 2 hour time frame.

mario

A general rule of participation design is that the audience, the participants, must know the rules and the premiss of the scenario in order to engage with it. Otherwise you run the risk that they default to passive observers. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. Now, there are obviously other approaches. Some of them apparent in computer game design. When you start playing Super Mario there is no explanation for where to go and how survive. You learn the rules of the game by playing it and exploring the boundaries and the possibilities of interacting with the game is a part of the enjoyment and possibly also a key part of the aesthetic experience.

One participant in Inside myself, outside myself, Simon James Pettitt, later wrote in a game report that he had expected an introduction or a workshop starting things off, but there were none. So how did it start? Well when the participants entered the black box the designers, now performers, were spread out in the room frozen in different sculptural positions. The participants roamed around in the room and looked at the ”sculptures”.

I think there are two things to learn from the design of the scenario. The first thing being the game design concept ”call for action” the second thing would be the idea of emergence – how patterns, movements, situations can emerge from some simple rules.

To simplify we set up 3 acts for the scenario. In the first act the sculptures functioned as ”calls for action”. Every sculpture worked as a kind of puzzle. The participants soon realized that the sculptures could come alive, become animated, if you approached it in the right way. So for example my position was kneeling, holding an invisible object in front of me. I could only be activated if someone put their shoe between my hands. Then I would untie the shoe and take it off. This was the only thing I could do in act 1. So eventually all the sculptures were unlocked by the participants and some of the simple tasks they carried out created chain reactions, so all the shoes ended up in a proper line and so on. The mixing desk communication style fader was definitely physical rather than verbal.

I don’t know if a less game oriented audience would have unlocked the sculptures. They might have. I think only play testing can answer such uncertainties.

The second and third act of the scenario worked through emergence. Emergence is something that happens when a collective of actors or objects follow a small set of rules from which a complicated or unforeseen situation or pattern appears. In the second act the sculptures turned into something closer to machines or robots and they could learn from the participants by copying their actions, what they said, how they behaved. That created some bizarre feedback loops where everything that happened echoed around the room. In the third act the intelligence of the machines were updated a second time and they could start to teach the participants what they knew. These small guidelines generated a lot of interaction and produced some kind of aesthetic consistency although the scenario turned out generally chaotic. Simon describes it as a ”strange living machine” in his game report.

Hopefully this case study of Inside myself, outside myself can give some hints on what is possible to do with small means on a short notice. To sum it up the scenario used calls for action as a means to teach an unknowing, uninformed audience about how to engage with the scenario. It continued to create interaction by simple rules – such as ”you can repeat what you see or hear”. Different situations emerged from these rules.

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