Unreliable interfaces, performance and play

22 January 2012 | 2 comments

I have a large Arts Council literature application to write, so inevitably I’m thinking about trumpets. Specifically, the kinds of trumpet that J.S.Bach had in his orchestra in the mid-eighteenth century, round about the time he was assembling his masterpiece, the B Minor Mass. And this has a lot to do with game design. Bear with me.

Trumpet hero, Crispian Steele-Perkins

Instruments evolved into the current form they occupy in a standard symphony orchestra. We all know that the concert grand piano is an evolved version of instruments like the harpsichord, but it might be less clear that instruments like the trumpet had a similar genesis. Without going into the details, the history of trumpets starts with a basic hunting horn and evolved into a family of instruments that can play all of the notes in tune at very high speed. Bach’s time came about halfway through that process.

Until the twentieth century, Bach was always performed on contemporary instruments, and often substantially rewritten to suit the tastes of the day. More recently, the idea of ‘Urtext’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘historically informed performance has been in vogue’, musicians returning to the original scores and historical material to try and figure out how Bach would have done it himself. Including, finding or remaking ‘period’ instruments that might have been around at the time. Now, feast your ears on this 1985 recording of the Gloria, in which the players use period instruments. Listen out especially for the trumpet part. (nb – they don’t sound like modern trumpets, it’s a much softer tone quality, about halfway between a flute and a modern trumpet).

The Monteverdi Choir – J.S. Bach: Gloria in excelsis Deo

Here’s the thing about 18th-century trumpets – they are really, really hard to play. And in 1985, when they were still relatively new to the players using them, they were even harder. And, Bach wrote music that was at the limit of technique for any player on any instrument, let alone a 20th-century player on an 18th-century one. If you look at the picture opposite, you’ll see there are no valves. Crispian Steele-Perkins, playing lead on this recording, had to cover a tiny hole instead. I had the privilege of singing in the choir once for this piece when he was leading the trumpet section, and let me tell you, they didn’t nail it every time in rehearsal. Risk becomes an essential component of performance in this context.

Now, listen again to the recording, especially around the one minute ten second mark. Crispian goes off with and exquisite piece of ornamentation – a trill. I think you can hear in it all the tension of a brilliant performer wrangling an unreliable piece of kit into a moment of beauty. It makes the entire performance fizz with energy.

The implication that this has for me as a game designer is interesting – rather than designing perfect interfaces, I’d like to think about how imperfect ones can be vehicles for play. I feel this runs against the current design orthodoxy that interface must be perfect, seamless, invisible. Rather than the joystick, things like Doug Wilson’s installation version of Bennett Foddy’s marvellous game MEGA-GIRP springs to mind.  I love the high-octane potential, and the freedom to celebrate the occasional spectacular wipeout as a natural consequence of the interface in use, rather than a failure to realise a perfect score.

Mega GIRP! from doougle on Vimeo.

I think, as Hide&Seek further investigates technology as a material and games with audiences, so this question of how we make interfaces that can act a vehicle for play and performance will become more and more central. Rather than overcoming the awkwardness of designing certain kinds of game for interfaces like a smartphone touchscreen, maybe we should foreground that awkwardness and build the play around it.

Finally, I wonder whether the predictable unreliability of an 18th-century trumpet can be recreated in digital form. The balance between risk and reward for a player clearly comes where it’s possible, with diligent practice, to consistently master it in the heat of the moment, and the way a piece of analogue technology wraps all the elements in a consistent system enables that. When digital interface and digital technology are often much more separate, can we achieve similar systems?

Mostly, just go and listen to the whole of that recording, it’s still the best there is.

2 comments on this post.

  • On 22 Jan 2012, George Buckenham said:

    Fantastic stuff.

    What’s interesting about Doug’s stuff is that by leaving stuff unspecified, and by having broken interfaces, it makes the players take on some of the responsibility for making the game. It becomes more about the players than the game.

    Monkey See, Monkey Mime is a great example of this. The algorithm for whether you followed well or not could be totally broken – what’s fun is trying to copy the other persons movements, not the computer. It’s an excuse for getting into the play state, not prescriptive.

  • On 23 Jan 2012, Dean Vipond said:

    Interesting post. I’m sure the serendipity that imperfection allows, or even the *potential* for serendipity, really compounds a game experience.

    I would read plenty of people bemoaning the vehicle handling in Grand Theft Auto, for example. For me, he fact that the vehicles bounced around like crazy, and took corners terribly made the game so much better. When you’re being tailed by a legion of cops through a city, the knowledge that your worryingly smoking car may completely miss the turning you needed to make, and plough down a hill into the middle of a busy freeway… the very potential of that is thrilling.

    If I were in complete mastery of my vehicle, failure would only be down to my lack of skill, and not due to some random event, brought on by (thankfully) unreliable controls.

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