The Aluminum Cat Documentary Released Now!

When you make an interactive show, it’s hard for the audience to tell just *how* interactive it is. This is part of the rare magic of any participatory theatre; even Keith Johnstone said don’t bother trying to convince your audience that a show is improvised, because they’ll never believe you. So we at Escape Character decided to show you.

For the Aluminum Cat’s run, we had 35 shows, with a total of 131 audience members. We trained up 3 actors to run the script (Original Cast Stephanie Malek, who took the first pass on all the characters, then later me and Ted Charette). Our script (by Natalie Zina Walschots) had a few possible endings, but these are more like directions that you can depart from a forest, not set paths like choosing between a few roads. We watched all the shows, made *spreadsheets* of player choices, and assembled it all in this 23 minute documentary. Enjoy!

If you played the show and were surprised what other people did, let us know! Subscribe to Escape Character’s mailing list.

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Taekwondo does not support Double-Jumping

I started Taekwondo in November 2018. I’ve wanted to try a martial art for years, but it’s been one of those hobbies in the backlog that required a chance encounter to nucleate.

I used to do more cardio and cognitive intensive physical activities: gymnastics, figure skating and parkour (amateurishly), but the last few years have only been biking, weightlifting and rock climbing.

Being a programmer, my body goes through long daily phases of neglect where it’s kept catatonic while my mind is in Infinite Fun Space. This takes a toll over time, and weightlifting has been great to work my body through a range of motion. Whenever I let my weightlifting regime slack, I can tell that it has been keeping my posture in check.

Unfortunately, I get bored easily with exercise. With both rock climbing and weightlifting I…somehow drift away since my mind feels unengaged, and I stop pushing myself as hard as I could. I listen to podcasts, but they put me in a contemplative state, not an engaged state.

I love biking at high speeds through urban environments. If I could somehow program while also doing this, I think this would be peak activation of all my pleasure centres at once (Sidenote: I should prototype this, and maybe I can make a more visceral version of Mecha Trigger).
Sadly, biking is not really possible through the winter, so I’ve been antsy for proper exercise for months.

But back to our main topic, which is Taekwondo. My first major observation is that punching and kicking consistently is surprisingly difficult. It reminds me of the time I was learning archery. It was only two or three months into Taekwondo that I got to properly spar with someone, where we’re both actively trying to kick and punch each other, in a “fire at will”.

To my surprise, jumping is way less effective than video games and dreams have been teaching me my entire life.

You see, I’m energetic, and flighty, so jumping excitedly out of the way when I’m in danger is a natural response. A lifetime of playing videogames where this is rewarded and encouraged has not helped, but rather has reinforced this instinct. In most of my dreams, I fly. My dream flight takes two different forms: a) the muddy, drifting hovering a metre above the ground b) soaring on air currents high in the sky. Over my life, I’ve become highly familiar with how to fly in these two configurations. I’ve even had Inception-style recursive dreams, where I’m flying, then wake up and discover I can still fly, and celebrate that all this practice has paid off and I can fly in real life. And then I wake up one more time, back in the real world, and find myself staring at the ceiling, asking why I would do this to myself.

To my surprise, when you jump out of the way of a punch or kick in real life, you, midair, are bound by Newton’s First Law, and have negligible effect over your momentum. There’s no double-jumping, mid-air steering, or glide mechanics at all.

I’ve discovered this thanks to every time I jump in the air, I get kicked or punched in the fucking ribs, and land, on my side, on the ground.

I have had heated conversations with my instructor where he’s informed me that there is no way to “train enough to charge up my chi so I can fly Dragonball Z style”. Harrumph.

So my current dodge strategy has had to change to sliding abruptly across the ground. This is way less cool, but has meant I don’t get knocked out of the air as much, which is nice. When you’re in the middle of a floaty jump, you’ve effectively removed yourself from combat, so now that I’m spending more time in combat, I can opportunistically make crazier moves. My current favourite is disruptive axe kicks that force my opponent to take a step back and blink a couple times.

My feet have had trouble dealing with all the sliding, and so I’ve had to get special foot moisturizer for them. My strength and reflexes are apparently fine, so currently the three major things holding me back in Taekwondo are:
– flexibility
– feet aren’t moist enough
my instinct to point my fingers dramatically

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Player Character Bios in Participatory Media

Originally published in Escape Character’s Newsletter.

Question: What’s the best way to hack someone who’s never LARP’d[1] before to get into character?

Our goal here is to have the player buy into the stakes of the show before they cross the threshold [2] into the space of the show. In Escape Character’s projects where the players talk directly to the actor, our initial moments have been charming, but the player engagement with their characters hasn’t persisted.

Stuff we’ve tried:
– Give them a profession: “You’re an inspector, your job is to investigate a dead body”
– Give them a unique characteristic: “You’re a nautical prodigy”

A new approach we’re trying is “You’re going to be a spy, and need to come up with a cover story”. The player does this in collaboration with the performer, and the performer pulls an appropriate prop out of the invisible Prop Box. (Suggested by performer Anders Yates)

Answer: Using collaborative “Cover Stories” seems to be a little better, but we’re still iterating.

The video above is from Sparasso [3], our in-development telepresence immersive theatre toolset for XR environments.

[1] LARP = Live Action Roleplaying
[2] From the Hero’s Journey
[3] Dionysus’ rebirth via disembodiment

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Novel FTL Flavour Profiles

Ways faster-than-light travel could be fun, while also trying to solve Fermi Paradox.

1. It’s actually hard to go slow.

I’m going to call this a Tachyon Drive approach. Once you spin up a tachyon drive, you actually go infinitely fast, and it takes precision and energy to slow the heck down. Most of the first ships are lost because they just go beyond the bounds of the visible universe. Even when you eventually want to make a jaunt over to Alpha Centauri, a tachyon drive jump lasting a few seconds, followed by a year-long slow boat inter-system, is considered normal and expected.

2. Better Space

In the hyperdrive model of FTL travel, the drive system temporarily puts the ship elsewhere – into a type of space different than our universe. So, we put all this effort into making this drive system, and the first time someone spins it up, turns out that hyperspace is just…better in like every way. Most hyperspace is fiction is unlivable, harsh, or full of evil beings. But in this version, it’s just better: stars and planetary systems are way less farther apart, space has atmosphere so you can breath in it (it’s just kind of chilly), there’s frequent entropy reduction events. Every non-luddite of every civilization emigrates from our universe to that universe as quickly as possible.

3. Wormhole Dispersion

An Einstein-Rosen Bridge, as a singularity, allows space to be irrelevant, so by passing through it, you can exit through any other Einstein-Rosen Bridges in the universe. Well, turns out that passing through all the other ones is mandatory, so when you enter, you are split into infinitesimal pieces, and exit as radiation from the event horizon of every other black hole in the universe. Normally you’d think this formal of travel would be useless, and you’re right, but if you quantumly-entangle the entire ship to…itself…somehow…before entering, your vessel, and your body, can still technically be attached to the other parts of itself. So, it’s more of an ascendance to an ethereal plane than travel to be honest. If you don’t do the quantum entangling step before entering the black hole you die though.

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Telepresence Immersive Theatre with Mice instead of Voice

This past year at Escape Character has been quiet, but very busy. Me + several collaborators have been iterating on telepresence interactive theatre. We have written and debuted three scenarios and are in the middle of writing our fourth. We’ve put on in-person shows in San Francisco, Toronto and London. We just started remote invite-only shows in December 2018, and will be publicly releasing our first show in February 2019 (announcement to come)!

What we’re making is pretty new, but you can think of it as:
* A premium role-playing video game, where you play as a party and every NPC is played by a real actor.
* A Narrative Escape Room
* A Choose Your Own Adventure, with a live actor and extremely open-ended choices
* Immersive Theatre you can access from anywhere.
* Dungeons and Dragons lite, with less prep required for audience members
* Training Wheels for LARP

The biggest leap this past year is moving audience remote interaction from from voice to mouse. I’ll explain why, but first watch this excerpt from a recent playtest. In this video, I play two different NPCs. Every player can see each other’s mouse position, and hover over conversation options, or click to move the group around on the world map.

From the very beginning of Escape Character, the goal has always been to use streaming and other telepresence technology to enable performers to put on interactive narrative shows for intimate-size audiences. Immersive Theatre is a great medium which will define much of the next stage of entertainment, but currently it is difficult to access. It’s expensive because it requires custom physical venues, or because the audience for it tends to only exist in big entertainment cities (e.g. London, LA, NY, SF, Toronto).

For most of 2018, our setup was to have one performer play all the characters in a scenario, while 3-6 audience members were in the digital space as players. The players communicated with the performer by voice. Check the following video for excerpts from our scenario The Sea Shanty, by Tom McGee. The performer used VR equipment to play all the non-player characters, and all players used video game controllers. We did this in closed rooms with only the players, and at events where 40+ audience members were watching the players.

Why does voice not work?

  1. The Pressure of Acting. Many regular people are uncomfortable having to “act”. If you have a background in improv, or playing Dungeons & Dragons, it’s easy to forget how common this is. These people are still quite eager to participate, but often terrified of the (perceived) pressure of performing.
  2. Internet Lag. Think of any video call you’ve done. If you increase the number of people in the call to 4-8, the peer-to-peer lag, even if it’s a relatively low ping like 50 ms, gets so high as people negotiate trying to speak without interrupting each other.
  3. Moderation. You’ll always have people who are trolls, hecklers, or simply ignorantly impolite who don’t know how to share the space with others. Audio as a medium is single-channel; you can’t really have more than one person talking at once. We could build a muting system, but it’s way easier for the moment to avoid audio altogether.
  4. Environment. If the show requires you to speak, you can’t participate somewhere where it isn’t appropriate to, like an airport lounge.
  5. Anonymity. Part of the joy of engaging in immersive entertainment is the option to present as someone else. Theatre has for a long time known of the transformative power of mask, and having to use your real voice omits that option.

How audience use mice to communicate

Systems using live actors should take advantage of live actor’s ability to respond improvisationally to novel audience behaviour. If any audience communication system involved a poll, yes/no, or multiple choice, that’s an impoverishedly simplified form of live expression. One of the curious things about the depiction of ractors in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is that actors were mostly used as mere voice actors, and it was AI systems that actually wrote and managed the interactive narratives in the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This doesn’t take advantage of the skills that improvisors have a-plenty! There’s a massively underutilized skill set of performers able to manage live storytelling and Escape Character exists to give these people a performance platform, and give audience access to immersive theatre remotely.

Our current conversational UI design is just a static image, almost like a Ouija board. The actor responds to where and how the audience positions their mice, as a whole but also as individuals. If you’ve been a live performer, you know this is like reading the room – something you say may elicit a whole-audience guffaw, or a chuckle from just one person, or made the front row gasp. This subtle input is currently missing from remote audience engagement systems. We’ve seen really clever behaviour audiences figures out on their own, like gesturing between two different options to indicate they want to combine them.

From one of our audience members:
I always knew where my colleagues were positioned in the decision space, and I could easily express my own positioning by moving my cursor or placing it in a default position (e.g., over on the right). The movement between options and movement on the map was parsable to me as a kind of continuous decision making, and the fluidity really underpinned the aesthetics of the team experience for me.

Get notified about when Escape Character opens up public tickets! Email us at

If you want to read more about our prototyping process, check out the article after a grant to work with UK-based artists GibsonMartelli: RealityRemix – Prototyping VR Larping

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Books Read 2018

The year’s best books: Live from New York and Hugh Cook’s Wizard War


Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson – Jan 1, 2018

Starfish – Peter Watts – Jan 3, 2018

The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls – Jan 24, 2018

Surface Detail – Iain M. Banks – Feb 17, 2018

Steal the Stars – Mac Rogers – Feb 28, 2018

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin – May 7, 2018 (reread)

Shadow Ops: Control Point – Myke Cole – May 12, 2018

The Practice Effect – David Brin – May 21, 2018

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge – June 6, 2018

Live From New York – James Andrew Miller And Tom Shales – June 9, 2018

The Freeze-Frame Revolution – Peter Watts – June 13, 2018

Alien War Games – Martyn Godfrey – June 23, 2018

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin – July 4, 2018 (reread)

Against a Dark Background – Iain M. Banks – July 24, 2018

The Startup Playbook – Rajat Bhargava And Will Herman – July 29, 2018

We Have Always Died In The Castle – Elizabeth Bear – July 30, 2018

Gnomon – Nick Harkaway – Aug 28, 2018

Crisis in Zefra – Karl Schroeder – Aug 30, 2018

3 Essays on Virtual Reality: Overlords, Civilization, and Escape – Elliot Edge – Sept 9, 2018

28 Seconds – Michael Bryant – Sept 15, 2018

Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds – Oct 1, 2018

The Forgotten Forest of Oz – Eric Shanower – Oct 13, 2018

Saturn’s Children – Charles Stross – Oct 29, 2018

Debt: The First 5,000 Years – David Graeber – Nov 7, 2018

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese – Nov 9, 2018

The Jewels of Aptor – Samuel R. Delany – Nov 18, 2018

All You Need Is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka – Nov 20, 2018

The Ballad of Beta-2 – Samuel R. Delany – Nov 25, 2018

Development and Deployment of Multiplayer Online Games: Volume I: GDD, Authoritative Servers, Communications – Sergey Ignatchenko – Dec 3, 2018

Chess with a Dragon – David Gerrold – Dec 9, 2018

Toronto 2033 – Spacing – Dec 25, 2018

Wizard War – Hugh Cook – Dec 27, 2018

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Breaking Up With Git LFS

After using Git LFS on and off for over two years, even going through one major version change, I’ve decided git LFS is not for me, at this stage. Here’s how I took an existing repo using Git LFS, and removed it to return to a vanilla Git repo.

Briefly, Git LFS is a way for Git to manage large binary files such as large textures/audio/video, typically found in content development pipelines. Git itself isn’t really meant to manage large binary assets, and most git server implementations (like GitHub) reject files above a size limit. I’ve blogged about Git LFS before, almost a year ago, when I determined it was the least-bad of my options.

Why I decided don’t need Git LFS
– Onboarding engineers is harder
– Sometimes it breaks in surprising, unrecoverable ways that require re-downloading the repo. Usually something goes wrong with the smudge filter.
– Installation and managing versions is unreliable (see previous blog post)
– Accidentally running a normal git operation on a git-lfs repo without git-lfs installed can break the repo unrecoverably (locally). This can happen if you accidentally use the wrong shell. I have done this several times.
– I’m only using it for a handful of almost-never changing files: big textures for prototyping assets, audio and video. I can instead gitignore these and sync via Dropbox.
– I’m paying extra for it (one Github “data pack” @ $5/month)

How I broke up with Git LFS:

1) I copied my git-lfs repo folder locally, and then pushed it to a new repo on Github while experimenting.

2) I compressed files that could be compressed further.
Turns out I had a great deal of *.tga files in my Unity repo. Both TGA and PNG are lossless formats. Some time back in the day, game engines preferred TGA; something about alpha depth, but to Unity and other modern engines they are indistinguishable.

I wanted to bulk convert all the tga to png, while maintaining Unity’s .meta files references. Turns out this is pretty easy, thanks to this Stack Overflow response to me here.

3) I excised lfs files from my git history.
To remove lfs from a repo, I couldn’t just do it in the modern day, I had to be a revisionist historian; these files never existed ;) Unfortunately, this means that if I rewind my repo to before the lfs removal commits (which I tagged), some references will be broken. But, at least the history will be there for diagnosis.

git-filter-branch is the traditional way to remove unwanted files from your git history. However, it can be slow, and bfg-repo-cleaner is a shockingly feature-packed alternative

I used this command:
bfg --delete-files *.tga *.TGA *.tif --protect-blobs-from master

4) I uninstalled git-lfs from the repo, I think.

I couldn’t find any documentation that gave me a clear answer on a clean uninstall of git-lfs, so here’s some things I did, some of which may be unnecessary.

I ran this command in the repo:
git lfs uninstall

I deleted some lines with lfs in them from .git/config

I deleted the .gitattributes file, which contained the listing of all the files I used with lfs.

However, once I did all this, the folder .git/lfs exists still with 2.5 G in it. I know that git does lazy, occasional garbage collection, so it’s possible that this hadn’t been triggered yet. I just removed the folder.

5) I gradually pushed my new repo in parts.

After bfg, nearly all my git repo history had diverged from the remote on Github. I had to force push the new repo (this is a dark-aligned force power, btw). This didn’t work initially, with the error “The remote end hung up unexpectedly”

Some answers suggested I increased my buffer size, with:
git config http.postBuffer 524288000

This did not resolve the problem at first.
This post suggested I push the repo history in parts.

It’s unfortunate this process is so manual. My repo had 477 commits, from looking up my rev list with:
git rev-list --all --count

However, HEAD~477 isn’t an accessible commit, probably due to merged branches in my history.

Apparently this is my first commit accessible this way:
git push -u origin HEAD~305:refs/head/master --force
I finished the push with
git push -u origin HEAD~105:master
git push master

6) I tested that git-lfs via cloning without git-lfs.

.git/lfs folder was present, but empty, when I cloned again. Suspicious, but it seemed gone.

7) I resolved billing issues with GitHub support.

After deleting the original git-lfs repo, it took a couple hours for my lfs data usage to disappear. The usage even then didn’t go to zero – turns out there was another repo I forgot about still using lfs and had to contact GitHub support to find out. Unfortunately this usage bar doesn’t tell us which repos are using the quota.

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POV Edit: Star War’s Obi-Wan Kenobi

I’ve taken Star Wars I-VI and cut out every scene that Obi-Wan Kenobi didn’t directly witness. I wasn’t trying to make a movie, and the end result has some bumpy transitions, but in the spirit of this upcoming standalone film, I wanted to get to know Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life better.

I’m calling this a “POV Edit” because I think you could do this for any character, in any movie. The rules are simply to cut out any scenes the character doesn’t witness directly. If the character gets knocked out, the edit just jumps ahead to when they wake up again. I also cut out scenes that Obi-Wan didn’t witness directly, but heard about later.

This edit is the answer to the question “What does Obi-Wan experience and know about the world?” Parts of the final edit are just as disorienting to us and they would be to Obi-Wan, with major events happening off-screen and out of his control. Because I think a lot about non-linear narrative in theatre and games, this helped me think about how to use lack of information, or possibility for misinterpretation when designing this type of media.

But let’s talk about the edit. The final cut is 3:35.
48 minutes from The Phantom Menace
63 minutes from Attack of the Clones
64 minutes from Revenge of the Sith
33 minutes from A New Hope
6 minutes from The Empire Strikes Back
3 minutes from Return of the Jedi

Major stuff that Obi-Wan doesn’t see:
– Tatooine Qui Gonn/Anakin seduction
– Almost all awkward Jar Jar
– Padme/Anakin seduction scenes. It’s actually spookier because it seems like Anakin has magic seduced her. All Obi Wan has seen is Anakin confess he’s distracted by her.
– Anakin/Palpatine
– Lots of Yoda/Windu political context scenes
– C3PO/R2D2 misadventures

A recurring theme throughout Obi-Wan’s story is powerlessness despite best intentions. Anakin gets dropped in his lap, and seems to be able to do really creepy stuff when not in Obi-Wan’s presence. I use the term “seduction” above for both Qui-Gonn and Padme, because Obi-Wan hears second-hand about these people he knows well developing an infatuation with Anakin. There’s one funny sequence on Tatooine where all Obi-Wan is just hanging out on the Naboo royal ship, and gets a series of increasingly enthusiastic phone calls from Qui-Gonn about this kid he’s hanging out with.

– Especially in the prequel movies, lots of climactic movies involve cutting between simultaneous action scenes. For example in The Phantom Menace, it’s between the Duel of the Fates, the dogfight next to the Trade Federation station with Anakin, and the Gungan-Trade Federation battle. In these, we’re just spending time wherever Obi-Wan is, which often seems more boring, pacing-wise. I think this is more a general film note than a POV note.
– Sometimes characters show up at “just the right time”, which feels like a Deus Ex Machine, without having knowledge that Obi-Wan didn’t witness. e.g. Yoda has a feeling Dooku is escaping in Attack of the Clones, and then confronts him seemingly just in time. This sort of reminds me of some of the complaints of Neal Stephenson’s writing, where major events happen outside the main POVs. I think this is great – someone isn’t in pause mode if they aren’t in your life.
– Did Obi-Wan see Count Dooku fight Yoda? It seems like he passed out some time after Yoda entered the room, and woke up sprightily just as it was over. I left the fight out of the final edit, but it seems vague.
– It’s ambiguous whether General Grevious died in the intro of Revenge of the Sith. During his escape, all the escape pods are launched, which to Anakin & Obi-wan, seem like an unlucky malfunction at the time until Obi-Wan deduces that it’s Grevious. What a guy! The scariness of this POV is way cooler than in the original film, which shows both sides of this action sequences.
– Padme starts to go mad as she’s dying, while Anakin is also becoming Vader. Is our audience extra-smart to be able to tell that Vader is becoming Vader off-screen? I believe they can be.
– Obi-Wan’s first line ever is “I have a bad feeling about this”
– Obi-Wan is the first Jedi we see the Order 66 order given to.
– At the end of Episode 3, Yoda says to Obi-Wan, “I will teach you to commune with the spirit of Qui-Gonn”, and we cut to like two decades later in A New Hope as Obi-Wan creepily Jedi screams to spook some minor Jawas. So things have not been going hot for Obi-Wan.
– Obi-Wan never gets to talk to Leia as an adult.

Notes on the POV Edit process:
There’s some cuts I had to make which felt arbitrary. As Obi-Wan is a jedi, there are some scenes he doesn’t directly witnesses but he senses. For example, in A New Hope, I include the shot Alderaan blowing up because Obi-Wan directly reacts to it in the next scene.
Character vs Action scenes seem to have different rules
Establishing shots are okay and good. Establishing shots that feature other notable characters without Obi-Wan (e.g. Mace Windu) are not okay as they sometimes contain plot information Obi-Wan doesn’t have.
I haven’t bothered to make any smooth transitions at all. If I tried to make a couple elegant ones, then I’d have to do it everywhere. Lots of scene transitions have weird cuts with background audio and music because they’re taken out of the original movie. This type of edit is primarily informational.

If someone created metadata for movies on a per-scene basis for which characters were included, we could generate these edits automatically, which would be sweeeeet.

Other potentially interesting POV Edits:
Hans Gruber in Die Hard
Godzilla in any Godzilla movie
Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings
The Terminator in The Terminator
The Shark in Jaws
Prince Edward in Braveheart

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Deep Fryosleep

(a summary of a drunken conversation from last night)

For the voyage across the stars, deep freezing is bad for most biological organisms. Ice crystals, when they form at the microscopic level, can pierce and break cell walls. Animals that endure deep cold and space successfully[0] do so by removing all the moisture from their bodies first [1].

Tardigrades are really small, like half a millimetre. What happens if you wanted to take all the moisture out of a body of a human? Probably (we were drunk) not much good. Inspired by that scene in The Abyss [2], let’s replace our bodies’ water with some other liquid. Oil doesn’t freeze. That’ll do.

To safely transit across the stars, people will have all their bodily water replaced temporarily with oil. The best way to do this is in some kind of deep fryer [3]. While you’re there, you want to seal in the people while they’re sleeping, so it’s safest to include some bread crumbs so the resulting deep fryosleep cocoon is covered uniformly.

There’s a danger that there will be lurking beasts in the stars or on the planets we’re heading to, who will jump at the chance to nom some human tendies. Even on our planet, not everyone likes every flavour, so the key is to flavour the exterior of your fryosleep cocoon different from the people next to you. I chose Honey Mustard. Someone else chose Ultra Hot.

0: Tardigrades!
1: Removing all your body’s moisture to survive an extreme environment is also a plot point in Three Body Problem.
2: Where to go really deep in the ocean, they start breathing a pink liquid that oxygenates your lungs similar to air.
3: Like a bacta tank for flavour.

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Studying Narratives in Small Spaces, Part 3: Conversations

At the Augmented & Virtual Reality roundtables at GDC 2015, there was consensus that moving a player through space made them uneasy. While in the future, I’m sure we’ll discover interesting tricks to ease the transition, what if we aren’t worried about that, and instead an entire interactive narrative experience happens in a single space?

This multi-part series examines inspirations for interactive narrative design in small spaces. These reviews are going to at times sound oddly mechanistic, as the goal is to focus on moments of potential narrative agency and player interaction. There is a separate movement towards Virtual Reality film, where one would semi-passively take in narrative in a virtual environment, but, as usual, I’m more interested in the interactive stuff.

In part of the series, let’s look at narratives that are one long conversation: 12 Angry Men, Circle, and The Man From Earth.

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men is a well-known ensemble cast scene in the form of an argument between jury members discussing the guilt of the accused. Initially, all except one jury member thinks the accused is guilty, but the one dissenter brings the rest around until the unanimous verdict is not guilty. The setting is a single room, all 12 members around a large board table, while some side conversations happen in the adjacent bathroom. The time of day is mid-afternoon on “the hottest day of the year”, and the temperature continually rises during the play. I reviewed the 1957 movie, but this production had an interesting history, with its first iteration being a live teleplay on CBS in 1954. Only later was 12 Angry Men adapted for the stage, and then a movie.


In Circle, 50 people, unknown to each other, wake up in a dark room, each stuck in a red outline on the floor. Every two minutes, someone is killed by an energy emanating from a dark sphere in the centre. The group discovers they can mentally and anonymously vote for who dies next. They quickly reach a consensus to initially vote for the older people first, which buys them time to try to figure out what is happening. In this game of artificial scarcity, people must convince each other of their self-worth as their number is reduced from 50 to 1.

The Man From Earth

A professor has several of his friends show up at his house as he’s packing up to move on from his career to another stage of his life. On a whim, he tells them that he’s a Cro-Magnon, and has been alive for 14,000 years, moving from life to life so people don’t notice his immortality. He’s encountered many historical figures, and even been a few historical figures. The entire conversation takes place in his living room, with some brief moments outside. He initially poses his immortality as a hypothetical, which his academic friends eagerly take up as a thought experiment. When he tells them he actually is 14,000 years old, many get offended, but are eager to continue the conversation. To ease tension at the end, he tells them it was all a joke, though events at the end of the movie make it clear it was not.


All of these conversations take place in real time without major time jumps. The setting shows gradual progression of time. In 12 Angry Men, it starts hot and gets hotter. In The Man From Earth, the sun is setting and it gets darker and colder, while people crowd closer to the fireplace. In Circle, the setting is artificial constant; however, frames of the film start packed with people, and as people are killed off, frames are mostly filled with black negative space. 12 Angry Men particularly feels like a claustrophobic pressure cooker. The focal length is actually slowly reduced over the course of the film. In a Virtual Reality setting, similar effects over an hour could occur by having the set slowly shrink, or the lighting slowly change angle or colour.

“Show don’t tell” is a common maxim in storytelling. The settings for all these films are mundane; a board room, a living room with a fireplace, an dark room with red markings on the floor. Each of these films features every character giving rich narrations, of what happened in the court room (12 Angry Men) of his meeting with the Buddha (The Man From Earth), or of their dubiously honest biographies (Circle). There are long shots in each film of just a character’s face, speaking. I am constantly impressed with how engrossing these movies are, where if you get slightly distracted, you miss a really rich description. This is a surprising contrast to “show don’t tell”. Are these just well-written movies? Maybe. In 12 Angry Men, and Circle, the characters are captive, whereas in The Man From Earth, characters describe themselves as “trapped by the story”.

“Stage business” is a term for incidental physical activities that actors can do to occupy their hands, express their character, or maintain physical interest. The Man From Earth has the most stage business; the professor’s friends show up with assorted picnic-like food. Later, they serve whiskey and get closer to the fireplace, surrounding themselves with blankets and sweaters. In the middle of the movie, furniture movers show up to take all the couches and tables to the thrift store. For several minutes, all the characters need to stand up and walk around to avoid the movers, before settling back on the floor as the professor’s story continues. In 12 Angry Men, a prop floor plan showing the apartment where the murder took place is briefly taken out, and they adjourn for a bathroom break, where there are a few one-on-one conversations in the bathroom as jurors try to convince others to their side. Jurors are continually wiping sweat from the heat off themselves. Jurors use body language heavily to represent their opinions, leaning forward or backwards, or moving to the side of the table of people they agree with; they can also leave the table to lean against the wall or stare out the window. In one quietly intense scene, as one juror is monologuing, every other juror slowly turns to face away from him, to show they disagree.

All that people can bring is their individual perspectives, and impressions based on their appearance. In The Man From Earth, every character is an academic, which sort of makes it feel like a Robert J. Sawyer novel. They call out how perfect of a group it is to judge his story, a biblical literalist, a medical doctor, a philosopher, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and archeologist. One of the characters has a clearly faltering body and is dying of poor health and old age. He accuses the main character of possibly stealing everyone else’s life force. In Circle, everyone is judged first by their appearance, and later how much of a story they can muster up for why they shouldn’t have to die. Then they find out someone has had cancer, and debate killing her next. Turns out one guy only speaks Spanish and someone quickly decides that they might as well kill him since they can’t talk. They decide a while back that a pregnant mother and her other child (the only one in the group) will probably tie for last, which means one of them will have to kill the other, which is traumatic, so they determine they should make a choice between them earlier.

In 12 Angry Men, by stark contrast everyone is very similar in appearance: older-than-middle-age average-looking white professional men who live in New York wearing business clothes. You could assume this was the nature of casting in the 50s, but it becomes interesting how diverse the perspectives and opinions are, given that everyone starts looking similar. From these tiny differences, erupt a diversity of viewpoints. Some characters are loud, and grab your attention, which makes it more interesting when a quiet character gets their turn for your attention. A surprising theme in this movie is the abject hatred of poor people for being poor. The cast is entirely white, including the boy on trial, and if this movie was filmed in a later era, I suspect there would be tense moments across race lines as well, but the underlying feeling of many on the jury is that poor people are bad for people poor, and probably criminals. Sports are still a metaphor for manly man American relationships.

Stray Notes:

– The Man From Earth would be a great LARP. Come up with an absurd claim about yourself, and then try to defend it in front of close friends. Similar to the game Two Truths and a Lie.

– 12 Angry Men still has a “star”, Henry Fonda. The camera focuses a lot on him, and he seems inexplicably competent in expressing himself, like a distracting Mary Sue.

– In Circle, they briefly develop a theory that maybe they are all on trial and are supposed to judge each other. You could possibly implement this in a multi-user vote-off Chatroulette format.

– In The Man From Earth, he introduces his crazy claim as a hypothetical first. He says “What would it look like if a Cro-Magnon managed to live to present day?” They discuss this for 20 minutes or so before he says “I am immortal”. I think this is a great demonstration of how to convince people of seemingly implausible facts.

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