Last week I went to see The New World Order, a production by Hydrocracker that adapts several short plays by Harold Pinter into a promenade format. As a designer playing it, I quickly became fascinated by its approach to managing the audience’s progress through space – and how similar it was to games.
Originally performed in Brighton’s Town Hall in 2007, it’s now been adapted for performance in Shoreditch Town Hall. Starting in the well-lit upstairs rooms, for a press conference, the production slowly moves the audience behind closed doors to ministerial offices, and ultimately into the basement of the building, where the reality of the fictional government’s actions is made viscerally clear. In Brighton, the building’s basement housed the town’s old police cells, likely giving these scenes a vivid reality. By contrast, the Shoreditch basement, is decrepit and run-down, and feels like a more metaphorical space: are these cells and prisoners literally in the basement of the building, or, in a less literal reading, are they just in the basement of the system, of society, and of the country?
It isn’t an interactive piece, though there are times when an audience might want to intervene. The passivity of the audience is handled subtly: it’s made very clear we’ve been invited to the events we’re witnessing, and yet we have no agency over them, nor do we have a role to play in them. We have to stay silent.
This is, of course, deliberate. Through the performance, my desire for agency was managed – not being drawn too far in to interrupt or disrupt a performance; not being allowed to hang back too far and just “watch”. I was pushed and pulled from role to role.
But, most interesting to me as a game designer, was the careful management of the audience throughout the experience. As I dwelt on it, I realised it brought nothing to mind as much as Call of Duty.
Bear with me.
Shortly after the start of Charlie Don’t Surf, an early level of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the player character disembarks from a helicopter, and is instructed to run towards a TV station building being held by militants. (around 0:32 in this video, the rest of which you needn’t watch)
The player charges down the street of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. In front of them, two marines drag a coil of barbed wire across the street, and so they turn left down an alleyway, still running towards the TV station. When they get there, their squad assembles outside a door, and another marine plants a charge to blow the door open. Then, they can move into the building.
They’re not really moving through a town, though. They’re moving down a very carefully pre-determined corridor. The road isn’t blocked by barbed wire to stop them going down it; it’s blocked so that they don’t discover it goes nowhere. It’s an illusion of a road. The barbed wire is drawn in front of it as a form of gating: a narrative excuse as to why they can’t go that way. Indeed: an excuse as to why they can only go one way.
Why can’t the player open the door? Why do they have to wait for another marine? Not because their character lack hands, or explosives to deploy at contextual moments with the X button. No, it’s because the player can’t be trusted to open it at the right moment given the drama unfolding.
That’s not a pre-determined time, though; this isn’t a movie. The canned animation of another marine opening the door is displayed as soon as all the actors – canned animations on AI NPCs, really – are all in the correct position for the scene to continue. The player’s interactive desires are put on hold by the demands of passive narrative.
The reel of barbed wire and delay outside the door are forms of gating. Gating is a tool for managing player progress: stopping them advancing until they’ve achieved specific criteria. Those might be narrative – not advancing to the next level until this one is complete – or mechanical – not advancing to an area until a particular technique has been mastered or skill acquired.
Regardless, gating is about managing players’ progress: through space; through narrative; through skills. I often describe Infinity Ward’s Call Of Duty games as “rollercoasters”. They encourage and reward relentless forward movement, often relying on endlessly respawning enemies to force the player to take a risk and push forward, rather than holding ground. This relentless push couples well with the frenetic, bombastic scenarios the games place the player in.
And yet, if you pay careful attention to your surroundings, the facade falls apart and you realise you’re not in a beautifully detailed world: you’re just on a ride. Look at all the doors closed off to you; all the alleys that lead nowhere. Look at the many ways the game stops you moving backwards: falling from a height you can’t climb back up; closing a door that you’re suddenly powerless to re-open; placing a friendly NPC in your way. Strip the world down to what it, functionally, is: a corridor.
Infinity Ward’s gating is fairly obvious when you start looking for it. Many players discover it by accident: often, when lost, hunting for how to ratchet the pace back up, and instead finding locked doors and grumpy NPCs.
But their gating is detailed, comprehensive, and carefully designed. There are rarely ways to get around it, and even though it may be obvious, it’s almost always explained by logical narrative. For the majority of players, the hectic forward pace is maintained, and this pace is part of the appeal of the Call of Duty franchise.
Hydrocracker’s show reminded me of Infinity Ward’s game through its masterful gating – herding fifty Real Human Beings around such a show is hard, and they never missed a beat. But what it also showed was how effective, and non-artificial, gating can be when implemented by human actors.
I encountered my first such human gate after the first couple of major scenes. Moving onwards, some of the group through a doorway to the staircase; the rest of us were redirected into the conference room where we found a caretaker, fixing a broken door.
“Won’t be a minute.”
We chatted amongst ourselves, waiting for our next in-narrative instruction, and watched the man in a grubby brown overall fix an automatic door-closer. He wrapped up, got of his ladder, and let us out, whereupon we were led downstairs: a classic example of gating. Later, he’d be used in a more directional capacity – walking through the group whilst we were still on the stairs, indicating the end of a scene, and hinting at the direction we were to move in.
The show was overseen omnipresent black-clad security guards. They act as ushers and colour – and as gates. Often, having entered a room, they subtly move to block the exit, leaving an obvious direction to follow another actor. In one memorable occasion, they blocked the sides of a four-way junction, only to lead us in a loop around it – and as we passed through it in the other direction, blocked the ways we’d come without even acknowledging we’d been down there. Their reaction to our attempts to explore or comprehend the topology of the space served to strengthen the illusion: was it really the same corridor? Were we just misled? We had to keep moving forward and doing what we were told.
The security guards weren’t just human gating tools; they were good gating tools because they were human. A marine in a doorway in Call of Duty has a couple of repeated “barks” to explain why you can’t pass him. But a human actor can improvise, responding sympathetically and organically to the situation in front of them. The gates feel much less forced when you can have a dialogue with them.
As we move forward through the show, the group is split into increasingly smaller numbers, and the guards purpose is not only to pace the experience, but also to stop the audience finding other groups. It stops congestion in the corridors, but also adds to the suspicion that your fellow audience members are disappearing. And then, emerging into a corridor to find familiar faces, the guards bark at us, pushing us on, as if nothing has happened.
As a game designer, this was all so very familiar, and yet it was a reminder how something that seems so frustrating to the ludic brain can be used so effectively in a linear, performative space. As the caretaker fiddled with his screwdriver, I saw two marines lugging barbed-wire across a road in front of me.
If you’re interested in gating, Steve Gaynor of Irrational Games gave a particularly insightful presentation on it at PRACTICE in New York last month. You can view the presentation on Slideshare here, and it’s well worth your time (do make sure to read the “presenter notes”, which contain the meat of the talk). Gaynor explores how to implement gating whilst giving the player as much agency as possible – and how to make that gating as subtle and unobtrusive as possible. There’s a lot to be gained from that, be it for designers of complex open-world games, or interactive theatre.
The New World Order is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 11 December 2011
Images by Hydrocracker, myself, and Natalie Maynor