Free Choices, Free Goals, Ending Goals: Changing the Win Condition In Interactive Theatre
Updated: Aug 7
While tearing out pages of my To-Do List (much of which had been done since the latest edition began in October 2021) I found this note: “Slow mechanics; can slowly change the ‘win’ condition”.
These were both goals for Come Bargain With Uncanny Things. As has been observed by my peers, it was a ‘situation room’ show like many others, but made various changes to create more audience-to-audience interaction, and make it feel slower (and thus more ritualistic).
It became slow partly by setting a reflective mood, and partly by encouraging discussion.
The idea of slowly changing the ‘win’ condition has been less remarked upon, and as I tear out that sheet, I want to reflect on it.
Win Conditions And Their Absence
Most interactive game-based theatre that I’ve seen has a very clear way to ‘win’ - beat the Nazis, steal the gold, save the government…
This is because, I suspect, it draws on games that have a clear ‘win’ condition. In Dungeons & Dragons, you kill the monster. In most videogames, you survive and achieve whatever task you have been set (as memorably subverted by Bioshock).
However, there are other traditions of play. Two seem relevant here: LARP and boardgames for boardgamers.
In LARP, you play by being-in-the-space. It might be that you play a human-like character, or the embodiment of something more abstract. But in many ways, winning is irrelevant. Whatever you are being might have goals, but as long as you successfully be, it does not matter whether those goals are fulfilled.
After all, people do not always achieve their goals.
Even by calling it a goal, we begin to redefine the purpose of attending an interactive show. It is not victory (i.e. domination), merely the accomplishment of something.
I’m sure there’s a better term than ‘boardgames for boardgamers’, but I mean games like Settlers of Catan and Twilight Imperium rather than Monopoly or Mouse Trap. Games aimed at aficionados. In many of them, play is not directly competitive. It is about individual acts in a limited arena, meaning that sometimes people act in contradiction to one another.
For example, in Settlers of Catan, the goal is to accumulate points. One player might choose to do so by successfully trading resources with other players to build wealth, while another might gain points by building the longest road on the board. Each player defines their own way to accumulate points.
However, many games offer ways to get individual goals, unique to the player. Twilight Imperium has numerous different factions, each of which plays differently, with different goals available.
Between these two forms of play - between being and choosing-what-goals-to-pursue emerged something I think is important to anyone hoping to emulate Come Bargain With Uncanny Things: although the overt situation was ‘come and bargain with an uncanny being to help members of our community’, there were several ways to change the actual goal of the show, or choose one for yourself. Some deliberate, some deliberately creating unpredictable spaces for freedom.
Ways To Change The ‘Goal’
For example, the whole group might see their actions expose a part of the community to greater risk; dealing with it might be a goal, as might pushing for greater risk, but potentially intriguing discoveries as a result.
An individual might decide their goal is to befriend a facilitator, or the uncanny thing itself. One memorable night, an audience member decided they were uncomfortable with what the group had decided to do, and went around the room discussing it with people, leading to the group changing its mind.
It’s an area I think there’s plenty of room for more exploration in. I do not think it is inherently unintuitive, given people’s experience of living, to suggest that you enter the theatrical space as a person, without an obvious task to do.
While much of the fantasy recently offered has been the heroic ‘your life and actions have meaning within the clear framework offered’, there are other areas to go into.
‘Your choices redefine what’s important’ is the easy one.
‘Your choices include defining what’s important’ the next step.
‘You have free choice in this space’ is a more ambitious one that veers towards LARP.
‘You cannot win, but this is how we reimagine society so that that’s not important’ is a more philosophical other.
‘Place is more important than people; wander through or linger in them’ a more esoteric fifth; weirdly, an idea drawn partially from golf.
But all allow room for redefining the audience ‘goal’.
Which raises the question: why do the audience need a goal?
Because they need something to define their role in the space, broadly speaking. Because as a form of play, it is easier if there is a clear ambition to pursue; a hook.
Or, at least, that is what the dominant mode of play indicates. Even if it’s somewhat tricky to separate traditional British play and sport (at least) from imperial doubts about masculinity and so on in the 19th century.
However, interactive theatre is not about proving yourself and improving the nation’s health, so other ways of navigating are possible.
Just to start throwing options on the table:
‘Follow the signs’ is the best-established option. There might be a narrative reason for it, but everything from haunted houses onwards tells audiences to ‘follow the arrows’ as their hook to lean on.
‘Being in the space’ is fairly obvious, drawing on longstanding traditions of LARP. If people are supported to be characters, they can be characters.
‘Fuzzier mechanics’ is, intriguingly, an option. If actions have unclear, subjective outcomes (e.g. giving an instruction to the Uncanny Thing usually left quite a bit of leeway as to how it would be interpreted) the emphasis shifts to other parts of the experience. You can’t win, but you can do…
An under-explored option is ‘competing goals’, especially if people have a choice of loyalties. In a complex-ish but fuzzy game, that can be difficult to detect (is someone just pursuing another facet of the overall goal, or actively working against you?) or motivate others to care about (they’re not targeting me though!). I do write this while listening to a review of the board game Nemesis.
While goals there are directly contradictory, one can easily imagine a wheeling-and-dealing game where everyone comes in, gets two loyalties (e.g. to another guest and a faction in the narrative), and the relevant goals are not mutually exclusive. A member of Faction A might decide to help Faction B, because that might make their friend - who is in Faction B - do better. If Faction B want to rebuild the power station, that doesn’t actually block Faction A trying to re-open the school.
‘Experiencing the feeling/atmosphere of the space’ is another possibility, much as at a concert. We do not listen to music to achieve a goal, though some might choose to listen analytically, others for pleasure, and so on. This might tie into a more abstract sort of show.
‘Assess potential partners’, as in Mr Darcy’s Dress-Up, Dining, and Dancing, a hypothetical show of mine, might be an interestingly off-game goal that is merely facilitated by a show, as in ‘dinner and a show’.
‘Nothing here matters, though there are things to do’ is another option. Interactive game-based theatre can be abstracted to ‘the audience are given stuff to fill their time’. While so far ideas around agency have tied the actions the audience take to outcomes in the show, a less goal-oriented option might instead allow the things-to-do to be valuable in themselves, rather than as means to an end. For example, you might eat dinner, or learn to weave. Yes, there’s a hint of cosmicism in this, and of Come Bargain’s offering-creation as a valuably human act.
Finally, ‘the perfection of the form’ seems vague, yet appealing. Creating beauty, or doing something really well, in order to do it well is something I find valuable. Inviting the audience in as co-creators could be intriguing; give them materials and guidance to create something with the facilitators, as in the best community theatre workshops.
However, I’m not yet satisfied that any of these entirely meet my expectations. Intellectually, I see a logical space beyond goal-oriented play.
I’m just yet to find it. If you have any thoughts, do share them.
If not, it may well become a later blog.