Monday, April 12, 2010

Truth, Improv and Games

I read Truth in Comedy this week. If you look past the 90s "wacky font" adorned cover, inside lies a surprising and excellent book (and one not unrelated to games). It's only incidentally about comedy; it's about improv theatre, specifically an improv structure called the "Harold." The Harold was developed by Del Close, one of the premier influences in improv and if you look at his list of students, you'll see he trained an absurd number of now-famous folk.

Coincidentally, Sleep is Death was also released this week. While not exactly improv, Sleep is Death certainly shares some improvisational qualities. I haven't had a chance to dig into it yet, but it seems like it possesses the same semi-structure of tabletop RPGs. I've seen some discussion about Sleep is Death devolve into scoffing "Why not just play D&D?" style comments. But I think the structure of Sleep is Death is different enough to be quite interesting.

The representational layer Sleep is Death puts between the Controller and player both constrains and frees the storytelling. All interaction is mediated by the simulation; you cannot see the Controller nor can they see you. It sounds obvious, but that's a big distinction from live roleplaying that mimics real social interaction. And the dynamics of a single player and Controller definitely differ from that of a group of players.

The best response to any scoffing about tabletop RPGs vs. digital ones was presented by Kieron Gillen on RPS. Go read it.

Unfortunately, much like tabletop RPGs, I can only imagine the quality of the experience will vary wildly depending on who the player and GM/Controller are. And, again like tabletop RPGs, there will be a raft of cliched stories, some extreme awkwardness and a few shining gems. I hope finding those gems won't prove to be too difficult. At least with Sleep is Death I won't end up in the basement of an over 30 man that still lives with his parents. A basement whose walls were lined with Star Trek figures, still in the package (seriously, that's no exaggeration).

Anyway, that's enough carrying on about a game I've barely had time to investigate. Back to Truth in Comedy. Given that improv is all about a group of people collaborating to create something from nothing, it shouldn't be too surprising I found parallels with games. There were similarities both with games themselves and team dynamics of creating games. Given what I wrote last week, I'll make a few observations about the latter and the former in a separate post.

One thing stressed in Truth in Comedy is the absolutel necessity of the group working as a single entity. Agreement with fellow players during a scene is the cardinal rule. It's "Yes, and ..." that all improv is built upon. It's trusting your fellow players will provide the information you need and that they will support whatever decisions you make. It requires sublimating one's ego for the benefit of the group. As the authors succinctly put it, "The best way for an improviser to look good is by making his fellow players look good."

The same clearly applies in any team-based creative endeavour. Granted, improv has a bit more freedom in that its creations are inherently transitory and even the wildest of ideas can be chased. But when it comes to game teams, that same trust is vital. Developers have to be confident that their teammates will not judge them based on how successful an idea might be. A judgmental climate means people will be more conservative with their ideas and with their work. Rarely will this benefit a game's development.

The audience of players isn't going to care which name on the credits was responsible for some particular success or failure. The only evaluation they will provide is of the work as a whole. And thus, everyone must focus on the work of the group as a whole, not any particular individual.

Now obviously, I'm not going to fire up Maya or Photoshop and tell an artist what to do. But rather, everyone should feel like their decisions will be supported. The team will provide honest and non-judgmental feedback, and more importantly, will help in making their ideas real. When everyone operates with the same singular purpose, to make the best game possible, disagreements are possible without a feeling of someone having to "lose." One line I particularly liked from Truth in Comedy was, "Treat others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists, and they will be."

Reading Truth in Comedy, I couldn't help but feel that the attitude it presents is similar to the one I see manifest at events like the Global Game Jam. At game james, four or five have to create something from nothing with little preparation. It's clear that the groups that succeed are the ones that trust each other and work with a single purpose. The ones that don't succeed often bicker and measure egos about the "right" way to do something.

I'm definitely going to be checking out a few Harold-inspired improv shows in the weeks to come, but more importantly, I'll be thinking of ways I can better support my teammates and keep our ultimate purpose in mind. Truth in Comedy really was an interesting read and I highly recommend it to basically anyone.

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