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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Proletarian Play: Show Mechanics And Immersive Mecha

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Last week (here: I mentioned that I wanted to write an article about this. And so I am indulging myself:


Basic premise: you, the audience, are the support team and pilots for some brave and bold mecha pilots. Their job is to [win the war against, aliens, I don’t know. It’s big robots punching stuff], and to do that they need big, giant robots that make people form emotional connections with the robots and each other.

Yes, I like mecha as a concept. As the Sad Mech Jam shows: when well done, it’s great. When badly done, it’s bad. Let’s pretend the above concept is fleshed out so it works well, with pilots, strategists, and mechanics. There's tech to ensure that, when the pilots move, the mecha moves with them (there must be a Kinect-type game that does that, right?), and most importantly for this article: there are bits of mecha that fall off and need repair.

The pilot, whose every move indicates they are unusually empathetic, is needing you to customise their gear to allow them to do that vibrating weapon attack; the angry one needs a flamethrower etc. (obviously, you’re only working on the core interface, if you can get the hydraulics to work).

The premise of this blog is this: what if we had an interactive show that involved manual elements?

That is to say: instead of only having bourgeois-administrator puzzles (can you persuade this person to do X, can you write a letter to achieve etc., can you balance the books, can you come up with a plan to do Y), why don’t we have some more proletarian, practical, hands-on activities?

Practical example of cultural priorities re. industrial heritage: in Germany, this iron foundry in Saarbrücken has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the UK, Battersea Power Station has been enveloped in glassy spires nobody can afford.

I think the reason we don’t is simple at first, and then more complex. In rough order:

1. The stories we tend to tell, in conventional and interactive theatre, tend to be bourgeois. It is easy for the Marxian in me to say that is a political tendency, and whether or not that’s the case, it’s certainly one that’s reinforced by our culture. We have action movies about lone heroes, and dramatic movies about personal politics. Very few of them take place in a factory. That then means that the means of interaction tend not to be too interested in such activities.

  1. Subset to the above: it means we don’t have an easily-accessible language of tropes for how mechanical things can have emotional importance. It is a feature of some genres (magic swords and their genre-appropriate equivalents being the obvious example, another being the much-researched breakthrough Macguffin), but in general we don’t attach a degree of romanticism and narrative excitement to, for example, creating better exhaust pipes. It’s not that it’s impossible, but it’s a bit more work to bring the audience onside (bringing us nicely back to that blog about genre as an onboarding tool:

2. It’s an absolute nightmare to risk assess most mechanical things. Circuit boards and electric shocks? Hammers? Saws? Kill me now, before the insurance bill does. It might be possible to have proper safety gear, but that’s expensive. And yet really, all that means is that we need manual puzzles that are low risk - things involving water flow, or basic programming, or assembling pre-built components.

3. The big one: the audience need to be able to do it, and in our generation (most interactive/immersive makers are millenials) we tend not have much in the way of practical skills. Can you fix a U-bend? Build an engine? If not, why would you think your audience could? I bet you could teach them - heck, I recently saw someone teach a child how to unpick a basic bit of ENIGMA code - and it might be very interesting to see how that panned out. It is really satisfying to fix a broken thing.

  1. Further to that: if it’s hard for people to be using manual things at all, it’s even harder for them to be creative with them. How can you be inventive if you don’t know how to use it? It might be possible to, say, have a painting/refitting task that allowed expression (if the pilot likes it, then great, +2 to Flamethrower Of Anger!), but it’s harder to work out how to make that apply to ‘get this thing to work’. Is it the time pressure that’s dramatic? Or how well it functions? If we can check it over in the back room, then it might be that you get the satisfaction of hearing whether or not it breaks - and if someone can use the components to make something very effective indeed, then all the better! (Maybe someone can be a saboteur, deliberately inserting circuit-breakers and explosives into key elements).

  2. Equally, why not assume that we might get an audience who is very good at manual things? Why pitch our show at the university set, when we could get the plumbers in?

4. These things are very expensive, I suspect. Yet there must be bits of DIY shops that can provide them.

I think there are wonderful possibilities here beyond the political and entertainment - for more tactile storytelling, for emotionally-weighted objects that the audience are also engaged in, to give different audience members a chance to shine.

Still: if we change the mechanic so that these stories can be told, we open up interesting possibilities for the storytelling, changing the emphasis on what kind of story is told. None of the problems are insurmountable, and I’d be really interested in hearing if anyone has any other ideas about why it’s difficult to do this sort of thing or - more interestingly - whether there’s interesting ideas I haven’t considered to make this sort of mechanic really interesting.

And, of course, if you’d like to fund a show about big punchy robots.

Someone in a long black trenchcoat with long blonde hair holds a knife dramatically over their head.
Is it a mech? No! It's an Emma (Scott) playing a Macbeth. But imagine if it *was* a mech. Because this is absolutely the visual aesthetic of the Bad Boy Pilot (TM).


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