An attempt at street games criticism: Incitement
This month, on consecutive weekends, there were two weekend-long festivals of live games in the UK, curated and hosted by Slingshot and Hide & Seek, in their home cities of Bristol and London respectively. I went along to both. At IgFest (the Interesting Games Festival) in Bristol, I was running my own game: The Eschaton. The game went well and I was pleased that, after repeatedly refining and tweaking it over the course of an initial play test at Battersea Arts Centre with Coney followed by running the game at playARK in Cardiff and Playpublik in Berlin, it felt like I had got it down to something that was as accessible and fun to play as I could make it. I also have to say that the players at IgFest were a really great bunch who seemed very literate in their understanding of these kinds of games and also, more importantly, up for engaging and being playful. I wasn’t running anything at the Hide & Seek Weekender on the South Bank so I went along as a punter on the Saturday and mostly watched people playing games. One of the things that Hide & Seek have been concentrating on in their recent series of Sandpit events has been games for audiences and this came across in the performative nature of several of the games, making it an enjoyable experience for a spectator as well as for the players themselves.
There was one large-scale headline game that featured at both festivals: Incitement by the Bristol-based “purveyors of fine experiences” Splash and Ripple. I want to write a little about that here because I am aware that games like these don’t get “reviewed” in the media and this means this limits the wider discussion of the work to those who have actually experienced them.
There are, of course, a number of difficulties with criticism in relation to games of this kind. The first is the fact that they are often one-off events. While plays get reviewed at the beginning of their runs and video games and novels are available to buy and experience ad infinitum, live games are often only being run once or twice. However, gigs and concerts get reviewed after the event and the consumer information element is similarly absent there. Also, increasingly, as live games gain popularity, I think we are going to find more and more of them having further lives. For example, Slingshot’s Zombie Chase game 2.8 Hours Later has been going for two years now and continues to sell-out in cities across the country.
The other difficulty is the fact that this is still a new form of urban experience, distinct from either video games or theatre, and, as such, games can frequently be works in progress, still learning from their mistakes. Due to this and the still relatively small number of people making work in this area, a very supportive community of games makers has been formed and it is therefore with some hesitancy that I would approach any criticism of someone else’s game in the public forum. On the other hand, I do feel that, for this kind of experience to move on to the next level, it does need to widen out the level of discussion and put itself on the same level as other forms of art. In doing so, my hope is that the bad habits that other kinds of criticism have fallen into can be avoided.
Finally, there is the subjectivity of the experience which is something that plagues all criticism to varying degrees and which I have actually discussed before on this blog. Each individual’s experience of a game however is significantly more divergent than it would be for a traditional piece of theatre, a novel or an album. You can see this reflected, I think, in the kinds of verbs used in a good video games review, as the critic attempts to grapple with the multiplicity of possible player experiences. For example, this is from Kelly MacDonald’s review of Fallout: New Vegas from The Guardian in October 2010:
“Head out into the wasteland with no place in particular to go and you may well get yourself killed, but you might also discover something miraculous; a closed community, a broken-down old supermarket stuffed with lifesaving supplies, a pre-apocalypse radio station with the computerised diaries of its staff at the moment of annihilation still intact.” [my italics]
This a challenge for anyone writing reviews of games and something that must be acknowledged but it should not prevent us from discussing our incomplete, subjective impressions and attempting the leaps of imagination required to envisage how someone else’s experience might have been different. It is also something that is becoming increasingly important for criticism of immersive and experiential contemporary performance.
With these lengthy disclaimers out of the way, I will say a few words about Incitement, which I played in its second outing in London, starting around the South Bank. The experience begins when you buy your ticket. You get an e-mail telling you about the world of the game. The nation is controlled by an all-powerful force called the Authority. The Authority holds detailed information about every citizen in a “profile”. At some point in recent history, the body that was to become the Authority dealt with the issue of political apathy by allowing a computer program to predict how you would vote according to your profile (based on post-code, shopping habits, newspapers you read, etc.) In time this was of course manipulated by the same body to dispense with having to choose a new party altogether. Since then, the Authority has been in charge but this is okay because the Authority “is everybody”. I got an e-mail telling me that I was a member of one of four underground resistance factions and giving me a meeting place. There were also videos to watch on YouTube: warnings from the authority. This kind of detail meant that I could begin to immerse myself in the narrative of the game world straight away.
The rules of the game were explained at the meeting point. We were competing against the other factions for the chance to have our views heard at the “Platform”. One faction was chasing us, while we were chasing a different faction. If you caught a member of the faction, you were chasing they had to give you a band. There were also activities that you could do at each faction’s base for which you would be rewarded with bands. Everyone started off with three bands and the aim of the game was to get the largest number of bands for yourself as an individual and for your faction.
The catch was that you could only claim bands off other players within the “chase zones”. These were the zones immediately surrounding each base. In order to find other factions’ bases you had to use your map to find clues. These would eventually lead you to a base where you might be able to claim bands from other players (if you found any from the faction you were pursuing) but you would also be at risk of having bands taken from you from the faction that was pursuing you.
The world of the game was brilliantly realised and each faction had its own distinct identity, which was represented by the personalities of the faction leaders as NPCs (non-player characters) and the bases became a part of that world and an extension of those personalities. The representatives of the Authority were imbued with just the right amount of cliché for us to recognise them within a gaming context (dark suits and aviator sunglasses) but the real coup was when they stopped me and knew my name and the fact that I had been in Bristol last weekend… For all the broadness and cliché of the encounter, it succeeded in making me feel for a second like I was living in a police state. I was sufficiently immersed in the world of the game to feel both scared and angry at their invasiveness.
The actual mechanics of the game were deceptively simple. It was a little frustrating being confined to the chase areas, as opposed to something like 2.8 Hours Later, where you feel that a zombie could be around every corner. The simplicity worked less well with the clues because there was a lack of consistency in these. Some involved a basic level of puzzle-solving while others were simply giving you grid references for your map. I felt that the clues were a distraction from the more interesting tactical element of the game (though this may be my fault for not working it out sooner): the second-guessing of the other faction’s moves. If I wanted to find members of a particular faction, I could try going to their base but there was no reason for them to be there because they would have left to go looking for whichever faction they were pursuing, so it should go to that faction instead. However, if the faction, I was pursuing were thinking the same thing I was thinking, then they wouldn’t be at that base but the next base along, which was actually the faction that was pursuing me, therefore exposing myself to danger. So for all the apparent simplicity in the chase mechanism, there was actually something more complex going on though the circularity of the chasing and I thought that the game could perhaps have capitalised on this more.
I am not going to reveal the climax of the game except to say that it takes place at the platform when the contest is over. In London, this was on the South Bank right outside the BFI on a Saturday night. Maybe approximately 200 players gathered there on a busy late summer evening in a very public arena in the capital. Something happens that it is an act of both solidarity and resistance. At that moment, it felt like being part of something: like each one of us had agency but that together as a collective we had power and we had a voice. For any reservations I have about the mechanics of the game that led up to that, I do feel that the brilliance of that moment had only been made possible through our shared experience of that evening, our competing against one another while avoiding the oppression of the Authority. It was a political act within the world of the game but also one that resonated powerfully with the world outside the game and its public nature was an intrinsic part of that.
I hope that Incitement continues to develop and that more people will get an opportunity to play it. I also hope that this entirely subjective account of my own experience can inform people about what the game is and encourage them to take part if it does have any future outings.