Fundamentals of Immersion

Contextual AnalysisArchive

Jul 02

I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) at Universal Studios Orlando in 2012, several years after opening but before the Hogsmeade expansion. I was familiar with the Harry Potter storyworld and accompanied by an avowed super-fan I found the place captivating. Since the two of us were familiar with the Harry Potter world we found no impediment to understanding or enjoyment of the park – it was designed for us.

There is no meaningful onboarding for non-fans, and unlike some of the other rides at Universal Studios that remediate the plot of the source material, there is no retreading of known plot lines. WWHP stands alone as a transmediality, existing as a distinct artefact separate from any of the films or books (although it is explicitly based on the films, as it uses actors from the films and is designed after the look of the films). Interestingly, it seems to exist at a specific point in the Harry Potter timeline, being set before the events of the last few books, as evidenced by the presence and age of the young stars of the films.

The sense, then, is of inhabiting the Harry Potter franchise at a pivotal time in the plot – before the climax and denouement of the final books but after most of the world is established by the first few books. This is a distinction that would not be noticed or appreciated by those who are not familiar with the story world.

Embodiment in the space translates to embodiment within the narrative. It is those for whom the cult geography resonates that are the core audience of WWHP. These people become embodied within the plot by their presence at the park, and their presence at the park generates the sense of communitas that brings the park to life.

Jun 20

Contextual Analysis

Where Dark Things Dwell poster

Where Dark Things Dwell at Black Creek Pioneer Village is a unique escape game experience at Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village. It is intended a showcase of the historic buildings at Black Creek, using the escape game format as a means of bringing players who might not otherwise have come to the village on a tour of the site.

The game uses environmental storytelling to explore the true history of the site as well as the fictionalized story of a curse trapping the players in the village. Each building has a set of puzzles themed to the building, which can have Nicholson’s “Ask Why” paradigm applied to them to explore their placement in the village. The mill has a puzzle involving sacks of flour, for example, while the building containing drying racks of herbs contains puzzles involving potions.

It is interesting to note that the puzzles forms are often unrelated to their content – the flour sack puzzle, for example, could be easily replicated with paper or wooden tiles. The potion puzzle is simply a series of riddles. While thematically linked to their sites (or by content – for example, the potion riddle puzzles are themed after spells) there is rarely a physical necessity or affordance that causes a puzzle to be situated in a physical form or space.

Each space’s puzzles are contextualized by the space they occupy, bringing narrative synchronicity to what would otherwise be unrelated puzzles. By couching puzzles in the trappings of their space narrative coherence is strengthened, even when there is no deeper relationship.

Jun 04

Analyzing Destiny 2 with the Player Involvement Model

While reading Calleja’s In-Game I was struck by how successfully Bungie’s Destiny 2 incorporates the six methods of involvement. No matter the player’s taste or play style Destiny 2 has sharp, well-realized elements that are have the potential to fully involve a player.

Kinesthetic Involvement

Gameplay in Destiny 2 is primarily traversal and gunplay. Both elements are finely tuned and responsive. Traversal often involves massive leaps through otherworldly terrain; players are given unusual modes of movement such as mid-air hops, jetpack-like hovering, and a glide. Effective traversal involves mastering the movements, each of which have their own distinct feel and quirks.

Gunplay is one of Destiny 2‘s selling points. Guns, the primary means of interaction and reward, all feel and sound distinct. Guns possess statistics – while no gun is better or worse than others, their statistics dictate how quickly they can be aimed, reloaded, track enemies etc. Gathering guns and experimenting to find a gun that feels good to the player is a large component of the gameplay. In short, kinesthetic involvement is central to the Destiny 2 experience.

Spatial Involvement

Destiny 2 rewards exploration of game spaces. Like the multiplayer games Calleja discusses (like Counter-StrikeDestiny 2 has a competitive multiplayer mode in which knowledge of map layouts and details grants a competitive edge. Furthermore, exploration of the various planets uncovers secrets, unique areas. Each area is designed to feel lived-in with a strong history.

Shared Involvement

Destiny 2 takes place in shared space with other players and non-player agents. Enemies have patterns, and return to the map periodically on drop-ships (standing out from other games where defeated enemies simply return after a period of time).  Enemies have distinct tactics and utilize game spaces in attempts to outflank the player. Seperate from NPC shared involvement, Destiny 2 is largely a social game. Other players are always visible in game spaces pursuing their own objectives (which sometimes align with yours; some of the most thrilling moments come when strangers gather for impromptu battles with powerful enemies). No matter how the game is played Destiny 2 feels lived-in and dynamic.

Narrative Involvement

While the dialogue in the Destiny franchise is famously bad, the narrative is deep and well-seeded. Much of the storytelling in Destiny 2 is done through implication, with sharp-eyed players able to discovery secret locations and hidden details in the levels that hint at the larger narrative. Furthermore Destiny and Destiny 2 feature “the Grimoire”, short prose segments that can be found through gameplay or attached to rare gear, that are in-universe story elements. Each Grimoire entry is part of a short story that reveals plot elements which provide context for the action of the game. The lore of Destiny is deep and comprehensive, and the main plot of each game barely scratches the surface. Involvement in the Destiny lore is a large component of macro-involvement, as the community is constantly analyzing and discussing the content of the Grimoire.

Affective Involvement

Every element of Destiny 2 is designed to elicit emotional engagement. Every interaction is a positive feedback loop, keeping players involved regardless of the activity they are taking part in. The most basic loop, the engagement and defeat of enemies, is made rewarding by the satisfying sound of the gun, informing the player of the damage they are inflicting, and the beautiful animation and sound design of the animations when an enemy is defeated (personally, the tremendously satisfying pop of enemy heads is one of the things that sold me on the game initially). Enemies occasionally drop loot, which is a microcosm of the thrill of gambling – wondering what goodies you’ll unlock when you pick up the glowing loot orb. Even destroying junk loot is made pleasurable by the sound effects and climbing currency numbers. At a wider view, the reward loop of missions is clear, with structured adventures granting powerful rewards. Even the player’s gameplay schedule is structured as a reward loop, with “weekly” rewards of powerful goods available for completing extended tasks over long periods of time.

Ludic Involvement

While character ability customization is minimal, gear loadouts are potentially endless. Finding the most effective and efficient weapon and ability combinations is a constant task in Destiny. And, of course, the physical mastery of the gameplay mechanics is a core part of the game.

Conclusion

Destiny 2, intentionally or not, engages with every element of Calleja’s involvement theory and provides multiple angles for players to become immersed. As they get comfortable with the game and need not mindfully engage with any one involvement, they move to the centre of the proposed Player Involvement Model where Calleja’s incorporation can take place.

May 29

Role Playing Games: Contextual Analysis

Curse of Strahd Announced (Spoilers) - YouTube

Curse of Strahd is a self-contained adventure for Dungeons & Dragons. It contains all the information required for players (including a referee or Dungeon Master (DM)) to play out the scenario inside, covering approximately 100-200 hours of gameplay time. It describes the country of Barovia, its ecology, the terrible curse it exists under, and the characters who live within it.

While it contains detailed game statistics for many monsters, characters, and dungeons, it is light on details beyond those features of the game that it expects players to encounter. Instead, it focuses on establishing mood and setting, detailing the plots at work in the world, and giving examples of the kind of strange magic encounters players are likely to have. Unlike some fantasy gaming modules, whose features are all painstakingly rendered by the in-game mechanics, Curse of Strahd provides only a light framework and trusts players to fill in any gaps.

Thus Curse of Strahd is a Wunderkammer itself – a book full of possibilities, laid out not as a straight narrative, but a mixed bag of interrelated occurrences that can be arranged by player choice into a narrative that is recontextualized every time it is played.

Sub-Creation

Curse of Strahd lays out the details of its world, Barovia, early. It is a relatively small plot of land in which dark forces are at work. The book lays out the facts of the world, such as its choking fogs and constantly overcast skies, that remain constant. The Sub-Creation of the fictional world informs the narrative, performance, and the ludus, of Curse of Strahd.

Narrative

Curse of Strahd has a series of loose narrative thread running through it, with one – the liberation of Barovia from the titular Strahd – serving as arguably the main plot. None of these plots need be followed, however, to have meaningful narrative play. Indeed some of the plots may resolve without player input, lending Curse of Strahd a lived-in verisimilitude, as many RPG narratives expect players to serve as lead characters. Curse of Strahd presents many opportunities for dynamic narrative while never constraining players by forcing them to follow one “true” narrative.

Performance

Performance is the aspect least contained within Curse of Strahd. The non-player characters (NPCs) are often colourful with clear desires, and the book does well in suggesting tics and voices to play the characters with without outright telling a reader what to do. Mostly the performance aspect is assumed to be covered by non-DM players who, reacting to the horrible situations within Barovia, give role-playing performances that challenge their characters in unexpected ways. Curse of Strahd is explicitly a horror module (a rare genre in D&D) and players are unlikely to have encountered similar situations – indeed, CoS intentionally misleads players who assume that it will keep to popular D&D tropes – and their performances are likely to reflect that experience.

Ludus

As discussed above, Curse of Strahd contains enough game mechanic materials to establish a mechanical Wunderkammer. It has enough new and unusual content so players will always be discovering and incorporating new materials into their play, but it is not bogged down in game mechanics. It walks the line between providing new game material and trusting that player ingenuity will serve to merge any situations that do not have associated game mechanics into the experience.

May 21

Contextual Analysis – DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life


DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life

DR SILVER: A Celebration of Life is a joint production of Outside the March and The Musical Stage Co. Billed as an “immersive musical”, it is the brainchild of librettist siblings Anika and Britta Johnson who, partnered with director Mitchell Cushman, developed an ambitious musical presented in a unique way, with many feints toward total immersion. However, due perhaps to the creators’ comfort with traditional musical theatre conventions, the production falls short of achieving the kind of immersion striven for by Machon and her contributing artists.

Held at Heliconian Hall in Toronto, a small gothic building that looks and feels uncannily like the kind of hall in a small town that a small cult might rent for a gathering, DR SILVER is a musical about a family who is at the centre of a cult whose messianic patriarch figure, the titular Dr Silver, has recently passed away. It explores the grief of each of the family members and their desires for the future. Much of the drama comes from each of the family’s feelings about the absent Gordon, who forsake the cult some time ago and may or may not be dead in the present. Aside from the family, who represent the entirety of the speaking cast, a chorus of young cult members fill out the space and serve as ushers, dancers, and singers.

The space is decorated and lit in a clever fashion, allowing the production to pivot from the feel of a mundane meeting hall to the rapturous wonder of a church congregation. A projection of the late Dr Silver rendered as stained class changes subtly as the production goes on. Audience-participants, who are treated as welcomed visitors and (it is presumed) are cultists as well, are seated on pews along four walls of the space and invited to paw through a gorgeously printed chapbook that serves as the holy book of the cult.

The chapbook, like a bible, also contains hymns, and early in the production audience-participants are invited to sing along with a number.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the production are deeply immersive. From the moment the audience-participant arrives on the site (which, as mentioned, is an imposing but out-of-the-way building) are are greeted by signs advertising the funeral of the late Doctor, they are treated as guests of the cult. Ushers/chorus members are dressed in identical unsettling blue scrubs and welcome participants with euphoric words and wide smiles while led to places on the pews. The performance takes place in full light, so every audience-participant is equally present as the performers. After they are invited to sing, the audience-participants are offered a drink of what looks like blue Kool-Aid that, it is suggested, contains a hallucinogen. This is perhaps meant as an explanation for why the remainder of the play is staged as it is, but sadly it is the last feint toward immersion that the play makes.

Shortly after the Kool-Aid sequence the show pivots from immersivity into traditional musical theatre-in-the-round. The remainder of the show is rendered as a series of flashbacks featuring the family, catching us up to how and why they find themselves relating to one another as they do in the present. These flashbacks are staged under spotlights, removing them from the present/presence of the immersive space, and the audience-participants are darkened, endistancing/alienating (as Brecht would say) them from the moment being staged. All pretenses of immersivity are gone – from this point on, the audience-participants are participants no more.

It is particularly disappointing because DR SILVER had, until this point, been an exemplar of Machon’s total immersion. The greeting and setting, as well as the opportunity to chat with other audience-participants, establish a firm external form through which to experience immersion as absorption, and the book of hymns, performers, and especially the drink of Kool-Aid engage all five senses, succeeding at immersion as transportation.  Not totally realized is the social communitas discussed by Machon, though it is arguably attempted through the invitation to sing with the rest of the group.

The first act of DR SILVER delivers an embodied praesence (defined by Machon as being “at hand”) for audience-participants. The remainder is a familiar piece of musical theatre. Immersive elements remain as the chorus of cult members stalk the pews and the projections on the walls metamorphize as the plot continues, but there are no further invitations to engage – in other words, to realize one’s own praesence – and no further sense that the event possesses live(d)ness – that is, a uniqueness, and the knowledge that it will never be repeated as experienced.

May 13

Pre-Cinema Immersion Contextual Analysis: The Pseudoscope

img_20190513_134316 img_20190513_142307

As a contextual analysis for a series of artefacts that are no longer being produced and experienced at scale, I thought it would be interesting to build one from scratch. I have encountered most of the artefacts discussed at some point in some form or another, but never a pseudoscope. I thought it would be interesting to build and experiment with one.

A pseudoscope is a device that uses a series of mirrors to swap the inputs of each eye.

pseudoscopeImage from pseudoscope.blogspot.com

Looking through the pseudoscope makes the viewer confront and consider the minute differences between what is glimpsed through each eye. It is said to cause fascinating optical illusions. For example, looking through a pseudoscope at a spinning sphere with a stick in it is said to appear as if if the stick and sphere are spinning in opposite direction.

I found several sources online for building a pseudoscope quickly and for cheap. After gathering materials and overcoming some logistical problems with the maker lab, I was able to assemble a working pseudoscope in about half an hour.

img_20190513_142307

The experience of looking through a pseudoscope without an illusion ready is lackluster. It takes some time to adjust it for the spacing of your eyes, and it takes time for your eyes to adjust. The minute imperfections of my pseudoscope are pronounced – the base is not perfectly flat so it must be held a certain way, or else the images do not line up and result in double vision. It also does not “auto-focus” for distance in the way our eyes do, requiring manual adjustment of the reflectors if you move from viewing something close up to something far away.

Once these issues are settled, though, the pseudoscope proves fascinating. It feels like it requires focus and alertness to view images through it, and although the images are familiar it feels like it is more work, physically, to view them.

The next steps would be to research and create a series of illusions for the pseudoscope, as well as tweak the current design for user-friendliness.

Works Consulted:

Make: “Weekend Project: $10 Pseudoscope.” YouTube, YouTube, 7 May 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=107&v=_Y9rmizlrg8.

Make a Pseudoscope, pseudoscope.blogspot.com/.

May 12

Contextual Analysis

Speculative Design in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

The 2018 TV show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (created by Noelle Stevenson and produced by DreamWorks Animation, a re-imagining of and not to be confused with 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power) demonstrates strong understanding of the speculative design tradition. Originating from a series of tight constraints – that is, being required to keep the same core characters, setting, naming conventions and basic plot from a quarter-century old show that famously was not very concerned with logic or narrative consistency – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power proves itself a work of speculative futurism masquerading as space fantasy.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is about Adora, a soldier from the army of the fascist Horde that has invaded and has been terrorizing the planet Etherea, who defects when she is chosen by the Sword of Protection. Using the sword she can transform into She-Ra, a powerful being dedicated to protecting Etherea. She makes friends with Glimmer, one of several Princesses of Power who are granted supernatural powers by ancient Runestones, and Bow, a talented archer. Together they travel Etherera with the goal of to reuniting the Princesses and defeating the Horde.

While the show has the trappings of a fantasy (and indeed the various powers of the Princesses are referred to as “magic”) the show contains details that suggest the show may be a science fiction instead.

Presumably the show’s creators were mandated to keep details from the original show – for example, the lead character and her iconic transformation into the titular She-Ra. These details would serve as entry points into the world.

The Sword of Protection, arguably the defining artifact carried over from the 1985 show, is described at one point in the 2018 version as a “portable Runestone”. The Runestone, then, is the source of She-Ra’s power. When Adora is removed from the sword she is unable to transform and access the various powers of the sword. Another clear requirement is the presence of the various Princesses of Power, who are holdovers in name and power from the original show. It is explained that each of the Princesses gain their powers from a Runestone as well, and that if their Runestones are destroyed or tampered with their powers can suffer.

So now we have the Runestones as artefacts of the world, and requisites for the existence of the princesses. This is further extrapolated by the existence of the First Ones, a highly advanced but mysteriously vanished progenitor species that left their technology (usually referred to in short hand as “First Ones’ Tech”) scattered around the planet. It is eventually revealed that the First Ones created the Runestones and that they are all connected through First Ones Tech that runs throughout the planet. The Runestones are technology, not magic, and dictate the nature of the communities that they belong to (the Runestone that affects nature is surrounded by a great forest and is tended by a community of survivalists, while the Runestone that affects cold is suspended inside a mountain of ice and is tended by Inuk-inspired arctic-dwelling people). They can even be hacked by computer, which happens several times in the show, at one point causing She-Ra’s behavior to change (suggesting that She-Ra’s transformation is technological in nature).

This further lends context to the question of why only Princesses can access the power of the Runestones (perhaps they are descended from First Ones?) and the question of why the world of Eternia is in such a bizarre state  —  why it seems to be divided by ecological biomes (the elemental influence of the Runestones, which aside from Adora’s are immobile) and lacks stars in its sky. None of these questions are the focus of the show, which tends to focus its plots on brief adventures and the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists and antagonists.

They serve as worldmaking details that belie the absurdity of the show’s presentation. Stevenson and the team behind She-Ra and the Princesses of Power used details from a defunct and little-cared for story world as entry points (or “core samples” if considering McDowell’s Mandala framework) to extrapolate an internally consistent story world that holds up against scrutiny – that is, stand up to suspension of disbelief – and ask the question “how would the world be if an ancient progenitor race distributed supernatural runestones on the planet?” with a straight face.