Some notes on “The Play”

First off, I’ve released a new game! It’s called “The Play”, and it’s a text-based interactive story about a theatre director trying to make sure a dress rehearsal doesn’t go horribly wrong. Except, well, there’s a bit more to it than that. Anyway, go play it if you haven’t already. It’s not very long to get through, and it even plays well with mobile devices! [1]

I also entered this game into the seventeenth annual Interactive Fiction Competition and it managed to win third place! Not bad for a first entry, or so I’m told. Squee!

Anyway, below the jump are some of my assorted spoileriffic thoughts on the game. Hello, sweetie!

On the origin of the story, and dealing with the subject of sexual harassment

I’ll admit, I wasn’t intentionally setting out to write a story about sexual harassment in the beginning; what I did start out with was a reimagining of a story I was working on in 2008ish with my friend Lee, which was basically a farce about a bunch of people rehearsing for a play, heavily influenced by the film “Noises Off”. That original project ultimately never got finished, but the basic idea still remained stuck in my head, and when I discovered the Undum framework and thought it to be an ideal format for telling a story in the making, I decided to bring that old concept back.

Of course, when writing the new script, all sorts of questions came to my mind. Who is Ainsley, anyway, and what’s at stake? I knew the play was set to be a disaster and that Ainsley’s once-prolific career was hanging by its last thread, but why? And then it dawned on me: in a previous production, Ainsley was confronted head-on with a case of sexual harassment perpetrated by a popular, likeable, and talented actor, and made the difficult decision to fire him from the show — a decision that subsequently turned the final result into a horrible flop and rendered Ainsley unpopular with the greater theatre community. [2]

So, the more I wrote, the more the story itself unravelled to be about sexism and privilege, while at the same time retaining its roots as a silly comedy that was just plain fun to write — and hopefully read, as well. As is the challenge with everything I write these days that touches on some kind of social issue, I didn’t want to lose people by being too preachy and on-the-nose, particularly as I myself don’t really like reading preachy and on-the-nose. Some reviews I read suggested I went in the opposite direction towards over-subtlety, particularly since this is a branching narrative and many aspects of the harassment backstory can be skipped or overlooked completely. Others found their first playthroughs about as blatant as it would have been if the game were just a big neon sign with “FEMINISM” written on it. It’s a tough balance I’m still learning to get the hang of.

On the matter of Ainsley’s gender

One thing I definitely did want to do in this story was challenge myself to dream up a gender-neutral protagonist. And not just any old AFGNCAAP player insertion character either, but a real person, with thoughts and feelings and an actual, well, personality. Just not with a specified gender. [3] The pure text medium gave me the advantage of being able to heavily rely on the word “you” and leave out gendered physical cues, and after carefully thinking of gender-neutral names that fit the personality I had in my head, I came up with “Ainsley”.

What I found curious was that, given what I read from those who played the game, most (at first) assumed a character of the same gender as they were, finding elements in the text to support their reading. There was a part in which Ainsley is mentioned to have worn a tight dress at a college party, which led several people to see Ainsley as more likely to be female — but could it have been indicative of a penchant for crossdressing? This is theatre we’re talking about. And there’s definitely some gendered hostility and resentment from Brock, but is it because Ainsley’s a woman, or a so-called “gender traitor” as a man, or transgendered and therefore not a “real” woman/man, or visibly indistinguishable and worthy of scorn for that alone? None of these readings are any more correct than others, as far as I’m concerned. Still, I hope it got people thinking.

As for me, when I picture Ainsley, I think of a cross between Michael Caine and my high school drama teacher, Ms. Hogan. But that’s by no means canon. ;)

On the play within “The Play”, and also the game… er, play

“Nothing’s Fair in Art, Love, or War”, the short one-act scene about a talking statue, her artist, and a reluctant gladiator, was something I knocked out specifically as a) a rather trite, mediocre play Ainsley was stuck with having to direct, sort of as punishment for how the harassment situation mentioned above was handled, that b) also lent itself to multiple endings of varying levels of silliness. So, I threw together a mishmash of the Pygmalion & Galatea myth [4] reimagined as a marital argument, with a little bit of the first scene in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” thrown in. The “original” script barely gives the statue anything to do except complain and eventually resign herself to her unsatisfying life; subsequent improvisations suggested by her actress [5] give her quite a bit more agency.

I wasn’t particularly intending the performance of this piece to be a realistic depiction of a dress rehearsal so much as a symbolic commentary on collaboration and interpersonal conflict, particularly when Serious Issues are at stake. Usually, the key to a successful performance is to practice the same thing over and over again until it’s sufficiently polished, which would lead to gameplay that feels more like an RPG grinding mechanic. [6] But then, since that’s not really the kind of gameplay I’m personally interested in tackling, I have instead a game mechanic that encourages you as a director to collaborate with your actors and allow them to improvise alternate takes on the story. In most productions, this would be a recipe for absolute disaster, but in this particular play, which is already established as hackneyed and tired and predestined for disaster anyway, trying all sorts of silly things to subvert the audience’s expectations might just make it work. You’ll still end up with a mess, but at least this time around, it’ll be more fun to watch.

Reviews and such

If you’re interested in reading what some of the competition judges thought of “The Play”, you can check out some reviews here. I especially recommend Emily Short’s analysis, which literally made me exclaim “YES! Someone gets it!” when I first read it. Also, someone did lolcat reviews this year, which amused me.

“The Play” also managed to get itself mentioned in a few mainstreamish publications, such as indiegames.com, Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer, and even The Guardian. I’m pretty thrilled that I managed to write something that not only interests the interactive fiction crowd, but also appeals to a broader range of gamers as well.

EDIT: And now Lee, who has more insider info on “The Play” than anyone else, has posted his kind and flattering impressions of the game.

For some extra fun

In a previous post, I included a small teaser image of the mind map I made to keep track of all the different branches possible in “The Play”. The full-sized version can now be viewed here — take a look and see if you can find some interesting outcomes you may have previously missed! [7]

Footnotes:
  1. Provided that said mobile devices are Javascript-enabled, that is.
  2. You can say I was very much influenced by the ire-inspiring cases of certain popular media figures tried for similar charges over the last couple of years or so.
  3. My main inspirations here were news stories of progressive parents refusing to reveal their babies’ sex, with the idea of avoiding some of the heavy gendering — and associated advantages to boys vs. girls — that takes place in our society in early childhood. That, and my Echo Bazaar character, whom I was allowed to make “an individual of mysterious and indistinct gender”. And lots of other things. Yeah, I think about gender a lot.
  4. Indeed, Emily Short’s “Galatea”, the quintessential conversation-based IF game with multiple endings, was admittedly somewhat of an inspiration.
  5. Who, I might add, was intended to come across as rather annoying about it.
  6. There’s actually a quest in Echo Bazaar that involves training actors to perform a play which actually does involve grinding, amusingly enough.
  7. Bear in mind that many of these branches aren’t available all the time, in that they depend on decisions made previously and the current moods of the characters.
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11 Responses to Some notes on “The Play”

  1. Bystander says:

    Wow, The Guardian?! I’ll go check it right now, then I’ll begin looking forward to your claymotion musical. By the way, if you’re interested in IF’s, I really recommend you to play Blue Chairs. It’s so awesome I even wish it was made into a graphic game.

  2. Mory Buckman says:

    The premise of having just a few hours until production, with a replacement actress suddenly stepping in and refusing to cooperate, hits a bit too close to home for me. I’ve been in rehearsals like that, and it’s extremely unpleasant. Once someone stops the scene repeatedly and deflates all the energy in the room, that’s it. You’re done, you’re not going to be getting anything of value out of the rehearsal. When there was an actress who hadn’t learned her lines and didn’t seem to care to (She said “I know my lines when I’m sitting.”. Can you believe that?), I felt bad for the director and I felt bad for myself and I felt bad for the eventual audience and I had such a deep hatred for the actress who was causing all that with her selfish indifference.

    So the first time I played through this game, I just wanted to survive it. And I got to the end, and the story had not been interesting at all. To get some drama out of the game, I needed to ignore the voice in my head telling me “No sane director would ever do this in this situation.” and just treat the experience as a novelty puzzle. I think that is a failing of the game.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly an interesting experience. You had points to make, and you made them clearly. But personally, I think any game which requires the player to ignore his character’s motivations (rather than encouraging identification) to get anything out of the experience is missing the point of the medium a bit.

  3. Thanks for the cookie, dear. Here’s one for you:
    My Review
    And Congratulations on third place, hon. I knew you could do it. :) *heads off to incapacitate the first and second place winners*

  4. Mory, sometimes a little suspension of disbelief can go a long way. I was there at the very beginning of the project, and even I had no idea where she was going with it, but ultimately enjoyed where she took me. You might want to give that a try some time. I sometimes think it’s you who doesn’t get ‘the point’, for all that you are a highly intelligent man. But anyway, you’ve made some valid points.

    Sorry for grousing, Deirdra. Perhaps Thornley is the wrong music to be listening to this early in the morning; tends to get my aggressive energy up.

  5. Ron Newcomb says:

    I was surprised the blogosphere was so interested in the director’s gender. I kept thinking, “how is the director’s gender even relevant?” Granted, I missed the harassment bits, but I would’ve said if the gender was important to that, it would have been stated somehow.

    Congrats on the highest-placing CYOA in the IFComp ever. Perhaps it’ll set a trend.

  6. Deirdra says:

    Thanks, everyone! And thank you, Mory, for the feedback.

  7. Brinstar says:

    Very cool on that 3rd place win. Congratulations, and big congrats on the great reviews and coverage you’re getting!

  8. Podkayne says:

    I’m finding the game really interesting (currently on first play-through) because it is dividing me against myself. For one thing I don’t feel like I should let the game interactions that bug me go uncorrected; for another thing I tend to be someone who follows orders and my instinct keeps being “must stay on ‘script’, must get job done”, an instinct I must subvert in order to truly think out my play decisions. I keep re-reading dialogue, asking myself if Karl here, or Erica there, needs my validation, and comparing my opinions on this to how I would react IRL.

    I -really- like the potential here.

  9. Max Battcher says:

    Interesting. I had assumed Ainsley was male due to some uptight British male in some literature I’d read somewhere in the past that I don’t recall fully. (Although I think in that case it was a middle name or a surname, but again I don’t recall where that association came from, if it ever really existed.) A brief google “survey” turns up that baby books tend to associate it as feminine (with a couple suggesting it as a more rare alternative to more common and similarly derived “Ashley”). The links did corroborate “uptight British origin”, though, so I was at least half “right” in my initial gut reaction to the name. However, it feels like too “strong” of a name to truly come off as “non-gendered”. Admittedly, finding good unusual non-gendered names is tough, and I appreciate the attempt, but certainly in my reading of The Play I would not have guessed that you were attempting a non-gendered main character…

  10. Lance says:

    Deirdra,

    I know I’m coming late to the party, but I hope you don’t mind some observations. (I always forget to check the IF Comp until long after it’s over.)

    First, I think this firmly deserved at least a third-place finish. (I haven’t played “Taco Fiction”; I did play “Six”, and it has a lot to recommend it, but I’m not sure I prefer it to “The Play”.) You’ve managed to pack a lot into a small space: definitely comedy, certainly the harassment issue, and best of all a lot of believable characters. All five of them, in fact; I’ve done enough theatre that I recognize all of them. (I think I’ve probably been all of them at one time or another.)

    I think my favorite of them is Ainsley: definitely not an AFGNCAAP, but also with enough space for me to identify, and to feel that I was really in the part. I did think, a little, about Ainsley’s gender–it helps that I’ve known both male and female Ainsleys, I suppose, but even after hitting, on my first pass, the wore-a-dress-like-that-once line, I realized that Ainsley’s gender was left ambiguous. I think I ended up reading her as female (i.e., apparently unlike many earlier players, not my own gender), but perhaps not for any good reason, and certainly not in any way that made it particularly relevant to the plot.

    And about that plot: I thought you did a fantastic job of balancing the sexual harassment “plotline” with the general tone of comedy and exhaustion. I didn’t feel hit over the head with it, but neither did I feel like it was irrelevant. (I do sympathize with the feeling of some players–Emily Short? did she mention this?–that the sexual harassment elements should have been harder to miss on one’s first playthrough; but since I didn’t miss them, it wasn’t an issue for me personally.)

    So…yeah. Really excellent work, good use of medium, strong writing; and I do appreciate the “some notes” writeup here. Thanks for writing it!

  11. Deirdra says:

    Thank you for your kind comments, Lance!

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