Getting comfortable with inflexibility

This morning, it occurred to me how a digital larp I’m making (about a haunted Teletext broadcast) is somewhat like a one-on-one show I made about 6 years ago (about my grandparents’ love for each other, my love for them, and what happened with that love after they died).

Which might seem like a stretch. But kinda worth for me to figure out and articulate, so here goes.

The hardest bit of the one-on-one show – called Inheritance – was the fact I was silent throughout. The audience member would join me on a bench, and they’d listen to me monologuing over headphones, whilst I sat silently and knitted (thematically relevant: my nan taught me how to, and when I found out both her and my granddad had cancer I collapsed into a wool display at John Lewis’ flagship store. It’s pretty funny in hindsight). Sometimes I’d interact with them, timed to the monologue (hold their hand, give them a humbug, etc) or just in response to them (give them a tissue if they’re crying, etc). But I never said a word, whilst they listened to me talk pretty openly about a lot of emotions.

And it’s genuinely one of the things I’ve found hardest about any performing I’ve ever done (made harder, admittedly, by not being able to hear the monologue along with them). It was worth it though – I’m so happy with how that show was, and keep thinking I should re-do it…

Cut to now – and soon I’ll begin play-testing Transmission, a Zoom-based larp where people play a group of friends isolated during the blackout of 1987’s Great Storm, when Teletext starts impossibly broadcasting on the TV. It’s a larp that requires the me, as facilitator, to be present and active throughout – to operate the Teletext emulator I’ve built for the game, live-edit content and respond to player choices.*

But I’ll still be silent. Able to see the players when they won’t be able to see me. Doubtless sometimes trying to do things I think would be cool but not managing them in time. And whilst I’m used to play-testing games I’ve made, till now they’ve been play-tests where I’m simply there, running the game and in regular conversation with players. Where it feels less of an ‘event’ to stop, tweak mechanics and content, then keep going. Here I’m pretty bound by what I’ve pre-programmed – making changes is a pretty involved process in this case, not just saying ‘fuck it, you can travel in time but not space from now on’ or suchlike.

Sure, they’re play-tests – different to the people-have-paid-money-for-this of Inheritance. But it still means a lot that people give up their time and attention to try things of mine out, and this aspect of the game – me hidden behind a laptop, feeding my fake Teletext into Zoom, only able to communicate or respond within the bounds of what’s already in place – isn’t going to change.

I’m very comfortable with improvisation. I’m not as comfortable when that option isn’t available (and, as much as I can make my emulated Teletext flexible – and OH GOD I SEE THE VALUE OF STREAM DECKS SO MUCH NOW – it’ll never be the same as full free-wheeling improv). I think that’s the biggest challenge of this game – designing it in such a way that it feels like a magic trick. That the inflexibility isn’t clocked, that the limitations I’m myself working in aren’t felt by the players. That is still feels as organic (for want of a less annoying word) as possible.

But also, I need to just accept the fact that I’m making something that is gonna demand these limits and points of inflexibility. And that’s okay.

*Yes, this does mean that I’m designing a game that, right now, no one else can facilitate. They’d need a hefty laptop, OBS, a Stream Deck (an XL one at that), all my image/video/audio files, and generally need to feel comfortable with operating it all. So it won’t be a case of ‘write it and release it’ but I’m okay with that – it’ll be something different, and my gut says interestingly so.

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