Randomness and Existential Immersion
Updated: May 2
A while ago, I was on an interactive theatre training course which mentioned that many mechanics (i.e. ways the audience can influence the show) start in board games. Since then, I have spent a fair bit of time poring over different board game rules and finally have something to say that might be interesting.
Specifically, what is the correct place of randomness in interactive theatre?
The basic promise of interactive theatre is that you can be a character in the world, and thus your actions will matter (it also promises a fulfilling narrative). This sits at odds with the promise of randomness, which is that sometimes, you have no significant options, or you do the right thing and it simply doesn’t matter.
That doesn’t mean that there is no randomness in interactive theatre. Often, what your choices determine is the odds of succeeding at a goal. For example, choosing a precision strike by a single agent at a carefully-researched weakness is likely to work better and cost less than ordering a platoon to charge at an unknown target. Both may fail.
Note: I’m going to use war-themed examples in this. Both exist in interactive theatre and board games, emulate a genre, and involve audiences/players making choices to achieve goals. Other options are, of course, available.
Randomness in board games takes different forms. Randomness can
affect the scenario (draw cards to determine the crisis this round)
affect your options (draw cards to determine what moves you can make)
affect whether your choices happen (draw a token to see whether your message gets through)
affect whether there is any hidden information (does your opponent have a good or a bad hand of cards? Effectively introduces a random/uncertain element for the audience, while not being necessarily truly random.)
affect how successful your choices are (roll dice; you succeed on a 5 or 6)
The fifth feels most acceptable to interactive theatre because, within the world of the show, the audience have already had the chance to shape the odds of the action succeeding. If it fails “it was a long shot, but you did your best.”
The third can be partly shaped by the audience, but it would feel odd to tell the audience ‘you did the right thing, and failed anyway.’ It’s not narratively satisfying, unless that uncertainty is offered initially.
The fourth is an issue because it means that the audience makes choices based on incomplete information. This can be frustrating, and mean that they feel cheated if that ignorance leads to failure. The obvious exception to this is if the holder of the hidden information is another audience member who did not communicate it due to rivalry or enjoyable chaos.
The first and second feel less acceptable, because they’re not necessarily going to lead to narratively-satisfying choices, they make it harder to run the show, and they’re likely to restrict audience agency - the very thing that defines interactive theatre’s appeal.
That is to say, interactive theatre’s highest goal is to create a satisfying narrative experience for the audience-participants (that takes too long to write. Perhaps ‘guests’?). Its next goal is to maximise audience agency.
To do that, most interactive theatre tacitly takes two philosophical positions:
Individualism. Individual actions can and frequently do change the course of history. i.e. they typically outweigh economic and social currents.
Determinism. The outcome of an action can be more-or-less consistently predicted.
The first builds audience agency and helps build a satisfyingly Save The Cat narrative, like those in most Hollywood films. The second ensures that those actions matter, and the audience feel their choices were informed, not based on a trick of not-sharing-information.
I’m not going to write about non-individualist interactive theatre here, though I have thoughts. Focusing on the second one, I have two questions:
First: Could you get an audience to accept randomness as restricted options (i.e. factors outside their control limited their agency) or incomplete information (i.e. they were making choices with uncertain outcomes)?
I think so. As long as that amount of uncertainty was clearly budgeted in, I can imagine an audience accepting being told “unfortunately, that tank unit you were relying on has stopped responding. You can’t get through to them - who will you give orders to?” or “I’m so sorry - our messenger stepped into a minefield and didn’t get through”. Both feel dramatic, and could add extra tension to a show.
Second: Could you get an audience to accept a show without an overarching narrative (i.e. an existentialist show embracing a world of meaningless decisions joyously, as in the Sacrament of Death)?
I’d love to try. A Beckettian interactive show in which the audience had to slowly accept the fact that their agency was not in changing the world (since it was unpredictable in effect, and the true changes came from factors outside their control like the weather, economics, and the King In Yellow), but in how they interacted with it, could be wonderful. The audience agency would shift from the power-fantasies of Save The Cat to the decision of how to face the dying of the light in a world that occasionally, for no reason, decided to slap them in the face.
Heck, people watch Waiting For Godot. Could I persuade you to try being a younger Vladimir and Estragon, realising nothing they do matters?
Would you accept that?
What would you do?
That is, I think, an interesting interactive show waiting to happen.
Following a very interesting exchange on Twitter, I'd recommend reading Chloe Mashiter's thoughts around the audience itself as a random factor, and how trade-offs can help audiences welcome uncertain success if they have a choice in the matter.