As a game designer at Future Proof, my job is to oversee the gameplay aspect of our immersive shows. I work with the rest of the team to make sure patrons know what they can and can’t do, and why they should play along.
Patrons like to interact with our shows and break them in all sorts of beautiful ways, but that’s only once they know they can. Walking into a Future Proof show can get a little overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time. A lot of our work doesn’t necessarily follow an explicit, mandatory-to-view narrative structure. So if you’re not careful, you might miss it, along with some valuable information.
Our content doesn’t just welcome audience participation; it relies on it. Our shows can run without audience participation, but the more the audience plays, the better of a show it becomes. But how can we communicate to patrons what to do without it feeling like we’re grabbing the controller from you and doing it ourselves?
In the business, we call this a story hook, or that bit of narrative design that gives the audience a reason to buy in to whatever you’re selling. Sometimes it’s the bug that travels back in time to tell you you’re destined to save the earth from sure destruction. Others, it’s the giant who follows your family to their secluded island getaway to inform you that you are, in fact, a wizard, Harry.
In our universe, it’s the conspiracy theorist in tin foil shouting at you to save his best friend before you even enter the venue.
The Three Clue Rule
The Alexandrian, an ENnie-nominated game design blog, has a post about The Three Clue Rule, which explores mystery scenarios and why they’re so hard to convey in interactive settings. Justin Alexander says that for every conclusion you’d like your players to come to, you should write three clues to support it. Players won’t see every clue, of course. And even if they do, they might not think it’s important, or worse, they get the wrong idea from it.
It’s best to have several healthy servings of information, delivered in different ways, in order to give your players the best shot possible at coming to the correct conclusion.
While we’ve done murder mysteries in the past, we’re not talking about mysteries here. We’re talking about story hooks and quests. In other forms of interactive storytelling, there are plenty of blunt methods of putting the plot in front of you. Video games will force unskippable expository cutscenes and lock you out of areas of a map until you view them. The game master in an RPG might place the same non-player character in front of their ragtag group of fantasy roleplayers over and over again in hopes that this time, maybe, they’ll agree to take his quest.
Our latest show, UCC Omega, was about a convention, and a big part of conventions is that you can’t be everywhere at the same time. There were “cutscenes” you could very well miss if you happened to be at a different booth, t-posing at an old man, or otherwise indisposed. So even if the conclusion is as simple as, “The game wants me to go to the Loading Bay,” the Three Clue Rule can really help us make sure that conclusion sticks.
Clue One: The Map
The Loading Bay was listed on the convention map with all of the other interactive booths. But nobody reads those (even though every patron got one), so nobody saw it.
Clue Two: The Set
There were clearly pieces missing from the set, replaced with a sign that read, “Awaiting a delivery from Logistics and Transport Enterprises.” But most people, as The Alexandrian predicted, ignored those, because they didn’t know what was supposed to be there, and why they’d care anyway.
Clue Three: The Script
Actors in the space were tasked with asking patrons if they could check up on a “delivery” for them. With that face-to-face call to action, most players felt more motivated to find the Loading Bay.
Everything is Connected
The Loading Bay was an important part of UCC. There, you’d find a man named Bruce who hadn’t quite finished delivering all of his packages to the convention floor. He needed a bit of motivation to get him to finish his job, in the form of football chants and cheers.
Additionally, the outcome of the night hinged entirely on whether or not this man made all of his deliveries. The contents of those packages were necessary for both of the convention’s antagonistic groups to enact their nefarious (or righteous? you decide) plots.
So you see how the Loading Bay could be a little bit of a chokepoint.
On the other side of the equation, delivering packages for Bruce could have been its own isolated enjoyable thing. Just by hanging out with Bruce, a patron could have met with other characters and learned about their motivations and quests.
The idea was to give every install some kind of lead-in to something else, so you’d never run out of things to do.
Kind of like a convention.
Action and Objective
All acting is based on characters having an objective and using an action to achieve that objective. Especially in improv, where the words aren’t written for you, it’s invaluable to be able to refer to what you’re going after and your tactics for doing so.
But I’ve found one of the most effective ways of getting patrons involved in the world around them is to give them an action and objective. People like being told what to do, so long as it doesn’t break immersion. We can’t do it, but we sure can ask an actor to target specific players with their sob story about how their best friend has been brainwashed, or their tuna didn’t make it to the convention floor on time.
In rehearsal, we make sure all of our characters both have a clear objective and know their actions: to persuade patrons to their cause and to equip them with the tools necessary to go forth in this crazy world.
The biggest drawback to this technique is that patrons and actors tend to rely on it a little bit too much. For example, one game centered around patrons gathering a bunch of memorabilia around the convention related to a man’s past, to shake him out of his brainwashing and remember who he was. This relied on patrons understanding the references from his past. If they didn’t know those, they could learn by exploring the convention or our online content.
This quickly devolved into patrons relying on other characters to just tell them which items to try. With the answers in hand, patrons were able to turn the trial-and-error puzzle into a convoluted fetch quest. It might have been more fun than guessing what esoteric references were going to cause a confused old man to doubt himself. It might not have been. But it wasn’t what we designed.
“…like a cooler version of Westworld’s Lee Sizemore”
The strongest tool we have to communicate our story is its actors. Patrons are more likely to be invested when actors speak with them directly. What they say and how they say it is mutable in a way that re-painting a prop or redesigning a sign just isn’t. And if something just really isn’t working right because of a particular crowd, I can make minor track adjustments in the middle of a game like a cooler version of Westworld’s Lee Sizemore.
There are so many opportunities for us to bolster our environmental storytelling chops in the future. The roleplaying aspect of speaking with actors is an effective way to communicate our story. But there’s an awesome feeling that come from private moments like looking through a drawer and finding something cool, or drawing connections between a map and a sign. Those are the kinds of things we’re really excited to tap into next year and beyond.
Leon Barillaro is a game designer, professional GM, published TTRPG author, and elite Pokémon trainer. Follow them on Twitter: twitter.com/barilleon