A Fortnight at Aldeburgh (Part 1): A Conversation With Le Guin About Community & Interactive Theatre
Updated: Feb 27
This is the first of a seven-part sequence of essays going into the work on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things done during my Creative Retreat at Aldeburgh (supported by the Britten Pears Foundation). You can read the second, third,fourth,fifth, sixth and seventh parts at the appropriate links.
This is also the essay that made me remove thirty pages of Come Bargain With Uncanny Things’ Show Bible on my final night in Aldeburgh. Read on to find out why.
Most people who know my work will know that Ursula Le Guin is a writer to whom my work is often indebted. Her translation of Tao Te Ching was one of two books I brought with me to Aldeburgh as fundamental-to-the-show reference (the other being Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies); her comments on narrative being about change rather than conflict are one of the sources of this piece of interactive theatre; Always Coming Home is one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever read (though The Word for World is Forest lives slightly closer to my heart).
Before going to Aldeburgh, I skimmed through her essays on the craft of writing, and came across an old bookmark I’d left. Something she’d said that I knew I’d have to find an answer to. I copy it in full, because I don’t think she deserves my abridgement:
“Viewing is a different transaction [to reading]. It isn’t collaborative. The viewer consents to participate and hands over control to the filmmaker or programmer. Psychically there is no time or room outside an audiovisual narrative for anything but the program [sic.]. For the viewer, the screen or monitor temporarily becomes the universe. There’s very little lee-way, and no way to control the constant stream of information and imagery - unless one refuses to accept it, detaches oneself emotionally and intellectually, in which case it appears essentially meaningless. Or one can turn the program off.
“Although there’s a lot of talk about transactional viewing and interactive is a favourite word of programmers, the electronic media are a paradise of control for programmers and a paradise of passivity for viewers. There is nothing in so-called interactive programs except what the programmer put in them; the so-called choices lead only to subprograms chosen by the programmer, no more a choice than a footnote is - do you read it or don’t you? The roles in role-playing games are fixed and conventional; there are no characters in games, only personae. (That’s why teenagers love them; teenagers need personae. But they have to shed those personae eventually, if they’re going to become persons.) Hypertext offers the storyteller a wonderful complexity, but so far hypertext fiction seems to be like Borges’s garden of forking paths that lead only to other forking paths, fascinating, like fractals, and ultimately nightmarish. Interactivity in the sense of the viewer controlling the text is also nightmarish, when interpreted to mean that the viewer can rewrite the novel. If you don’t like the end of Moby Dick you can change it. You can make it happy. Ahab kills the whale. Ooowee. [Note: this is an excellent example of why I love Le Guin’s essays - while her novels are beautiful, her essays are often hilariously dry].
“Readers can’t kill the whale. They can only reread until they understand why Ahab collaborated with the whale to kill himself. Readers don’t control the text: they genuinely interact with it…”
There are three claims here that I think are particularly important for me to have answers to:
How, in interactive media, do you avoid overwhelming the viewer so they have no time to think or reflect?
How do you make the viewer of interactive media genuinely free?
How do you make interactive media actually mean anything if the audience dictate the outcome?
I’m going to call this Le Guin’s Paradox of Interactivity: if the audience don’t truly control the outcomes, then they are not free and the piece is not truly interactive. If they do truly control the outcome, then how do you say anything?
I’m going to try and answer each point, starting in the middle.
How do we free the interactive viewer?
Of course, Le Guin is primarily writing about ‘90s video games in the context of a broader essay on how different forms of media honour or dishonour the participant-as-human. I’m not going to write about video games since that’s not really my field of expertise, and that quote has buggered my word count. I’m going to write about interactive theatre.
My initial reaction to freeing the viewer of interactive theatre was good Gamemastering/Operator-ing. In bad ‘interactive’ theatre, it’s very obvious that the interactivity is essentially moving between a series of pre-written cutscenes. But in great interactive theatre, the audience can suggest novel ideas, and the show will more or less adapt around it.
Ish. There’s two caveats.
One: it has to make sense within the world of the show. The 1979 Labour Government can’t summon Cthulhu or immediately invade Peru. This makes sense.
Two: it really needs to pull the levers of the show to ‘matter’ to the show. In theory, you could decide that your goal in the 1979 Labour Government was to try and keep everyone hydrated, or set up an office baking club. And while I’m sure both of those would be happily indulged and supported by the excellent creators of the show (The Crisis, What Crisis? team are lovely, and I think it’s fair to say CWC? is one of the first widely-acknowledged ‘masterpieces’ of the interactive immersive scene), you probably wouldn’t walk away feeling like your decisions had shaped the outcome of the show in the same way as if you’d found a novel way of negotiating an IMF loan. There is a government debt mechanic; there’s not one for average hydration level.
That’s very reasonable for two reasons.
One, CWC? is a lot of fun, and like most forms of fun, it requires a degree of buy-in. If I agree to play football with you, but hope to pretend-fight a dragon in a dungeon, I will probably be disappointed.
Two, ludonarrative dissonance is a thing that some people don’t care about. Those two long words mean “sometimes the game rules and the story are doing different things.” For some people, this is a big deal - why play the storytelling game if you’re not using the rules it has for story-generating!?! For others, they view the rules as a loose framework within which to have fun. The easiest example is Dungeons & Dragons, where many players enjoy sessions where they barely use any of their stats, because the games mechanics mostly focus on simulating combat and exploration, and that session they’re focusing on character-driven narrative.
Myself, I lean slightly towards the “if you’re using a game to tell a story, but that game’s not helping you do so, it may be time to get a different game” side of things. Which means that, to an extent, I’m still stuck with Le Guin thinking “but the audience aren’t truly free; the rules mean there is merely the illusion of freedom, even if they ignore the rules!”
I do think there is an answer, however. And that’s letting the audience choose their own rules.
How to free the interactive viewer from rules?
Imagine that we’ve reached a confluence of two rivers at this point. We’re going to go back up the other river a little way, just to see what’s coming down the other branch.
How to free the interactive viewer from overwhelming content?
Much interactive theatre at present has a clear ‘situation’ to deal with. Get the money! Win the vote of no confidence! Finish the heist!
This lends itself to being governed by clear rules.
There are only so many things governments/criminal gangs [insert joke] can do
Audiences will come to do those things, assuring a degree of buy-in.
People come wanting to achieve the goal, accepting that their freedom is limited to an extent in the name of simulating a particular situation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful interactive theatre is also committed to particular genres and tropes. People want to experience those things - and to be absolutely clear, I am one of those people! There’s another blog to be written about the value of play for adults, and the artistic merits of interactive play (a later section delves into that a bit).
But in this one, we are engaging with Le Guin. I think that one route to freedom is via her first critique of interactive media - removing overwhelming content.
What do I mean by that? Interactive theatre, of its nature, usually needs to engage about 30-40 people to break even. Within pulp genres, that means you need 30 or 40 people to be running around, doing stuff, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups. Thus there’s a lot going on, and it’s hard to keep track when you’re in the thick of it. Even when going back to a show where you know more or less what’s happening, it’s hard to get a sense of whether things are going well or not. An observation, not a criticism - that sense of confusion both adds to the stakes and enhances the genre-simulation.
But there are other options. And this is where this blog post veers really pretentious.
Those pulp genres are rooted in broadly individualistic narrative structures, usually along the lines of Save The Cat or the Hero’s Journey. Most interactive shows replicate those structures on two levels. First, the ‘group’ of the story (a government, criminal gang, a paranormal investigator) face an overall arc. Secondly, each audience member also gets an experience of a similar arc. As they do stuff, they typically experience a slow build-up of their skills, then the challenge increases, and then they triumph/fail gloriously.
This is fantastic fun, but the narrative model is rooted in a very particular set of cultural assumptions about what’s interesting. I remember one writing mentor I had, when I tried to explain the existence of non-Western narrative forms, absolutely insisted that “yeah, but in the end it always gets to two guys punching each other, doesn’t it?” Which shows a) how deeply these structures are treated as assumed values in our culture, and b) how poor some of my life choices have been.
Because you can write narratives that are about communities slowly, quietly working together, or just existing in the same space. Or ones where the ‘protagonist’ is a whole community of people. We might refer to them as non-Western, feminist, queer or by a range of other alternative value-systems. The crucial thing is that such tales mean we can say, rather than creating enough content to excite 40 individuals, we could create content that will quietly engage a 40-person group. I do think that’s possible, and means that suddenly it’s easier for everyone to keep track. They are, after all, all watching the same thing.
At which point, we’re back at the river confluence. Thank you for the detour.
How to free the interactive viewer from rules?
The rules exist, as discussed, to help simulate the world of people in a situation working towards a particular goal (they might fail, but that’s another matter entirely).
However, in a world of a community quietly working out how to engage with a situation together, a few possibilities come to light.
First, that group can set their own goals. Within the world of the show, it is possible for them comprehend and discuss options, then vote on their priorities. They might reject the offered goals entirely and decide to make their own suggestions.
By doing so, they can (to an extent) free themselves of the pre-set goals. As long as they choose to exist within the world of the show, things should work out.
We still have rules to govern the world-simulation coherently. But equally, the players can more easily choose to (for example) never involve a core mechanic, because none of the problems they’re addressing need it.
Second, the interest of the show then shifts to the interactions of the audience itself, not in unlocking new skills or overcoming the odds. The reason freeform games of Dungeons & Dragons, or local community meetings, work is that most humans basically understand how to have a conversation, so having one in a fictional setting is quite straightforward. We don’t need written rules to navigate that, because we more or less know the expectations (within our given culture etc. etc.). We free ourselves from rules by moving to a place where we don’t need them (too much).
All of which then leaves us impaled on Le Guin’s final spike:
How to make interactive media actually mean anything if the audience dictate the outcome?
I’ll be brief here, and not pretend to originality.
The way you do it is by worldbuilding. Rather than making a point through narrative structure, individualised morals, or otherwise, you make the point through how the imagined world works.
Like the reader of a book, the audience accept that they are involved in a shared act of imagination. As they poke it to see how it responds, they participate in its assumptions and learn its values. To an extent, they internalise them by living in that world.
Great interactive theatre often makes its ‘point’ by steering the audience into situations where the world reinforces certain assumptions about how the world is - people are basically decent, family trumps all other loyalties, government is innately chaotic, and so on. But we can do more - craft worlds where they can, in real-time, take a moment to reflect and choose. A ritualistic interactive theatre.
Le Guin, of course, has a great deal to teach us about such worlds - worlds where people can be free, with difficulty and effort; worlds where cooperation is more powerful than domination; worlds where the little passages of life matter as much as the grand events of the powerful.
Hopefully, Come Bargain With Uncanny Things will be such a world. But we shall see. After all, writing this essay has made me realise that I can strip out about 30 pages of the Show Bible in the name of that elegance, simplicity, and comprehensibility.
Thank you for reading. Come back soon for more.
This is part of a series reflecting on my time at Aldeburgh on a Creative Retreat. There will be seven parts in total.