Don't Wander Off Dev Blog #1

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The next Theater Ninjas project is called Don't Wander Off and it’s a “playable sci-fi story”. It’s also an “Interactive Fiction Performance”. It’s also “game-like” or like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.*

So what is this show? And more importantly, is it truly a unique experience unlike any other you’ve ever had in live performance?

To the second question, the answer is easy. Yes. You won’t see a show like this anywhere else.

To the first, it might be best to describe what has inspired us up to this point. Those of you who have followed our work over the past 10 years know that we often make audience agency a part of our theater. What we usually mean by audience agency is that members of the audience have some meaningful control over their experience.**

Our best-known show that hinged on this concept was “The Excavation”, a museum-like show where the audience could move between different performed ‘exhibits’ about Pompeii. The audience didn’t really affect the show, but each person had their own, personalized experience based on a set of simple choices: go listen to the discredited archeologist or pretend to be a butterfly with the site-specific artist. It was impossible to choose everything, so each audience member constructed their own version of the show by deciding what to see (and what not to see), not unlike carving a statue from marble, or chipping away stone to excavate one of Pompeii’s lost citizens.

There are small number of theaters experimenting with this kind of theater. It’s usually paired with ‘immersive theater’, a kind of 360º performance where audiences typically explore different rooms filled with roving, interacting actors and is usually either entrancingly magical or uncomfortably embarrassing. It’s still theater, after all.

As we explore the role of choice, agency and customization in theater, we most often find ourselves looking not to other forms of theater, but rather to different kinds of games. While our goals are often very different, there’s a lot of kinship between the work Theater Ninjas does and elements of role playing, story-creation games and video games that revolve around branch narrative mechanics. Our last show, The Last Day, felt more like an adventure game in the Myst sense.

What we're building for Don't Wander Off.

Bottleneck-branching diagram via Sam Kabo Ashwell

Bottleneck-branching diagram via Sam Kabo Ashwell

For this show, we want to actively collaborate with the audience to tell a sci-fi story about survival. The story revolves around a deep space exploration team that immediately has to deal with crash landings, broken spaceships, bizarre scientific phenomena, and the real possibility that they may not make it home again. We’re calling this a ‘playable’ show because it’s more like a game than a traditional play. Through a mixture of mechanics (which we’re still developing so I can’t tell you what they are) the audience will direct, guide and invent aspects of the final story. What will that feel like? Well, sorta like Interactive Fiction, kinda like immersive theater, a lot like choice-based storytelling and the one thing we can promise is that it will be something totally new.

Who is this for? Gamers? Theater Fans? NASA Engineers?

At the risk of sounding like a marketing slogan, we think it’s for you. One of our goals for this event is that it can scratch multiple itches for different kinds of audience members. If you want to take charge and try to help guide the fate of the people stranded on an alien planet, you can do that. If you want to hang back and watch how the story unfolds in a more passive way, you can do that too. Our goal with the show is strike a good balance between directing the action and watching it play out.

Typically on a show, we want to preserve the mystery of what happens. But on this show, because it’s so new, even for us, we decided to start this regular development blog. We’re learning as we build, and we’ll be recording our discoveries, our insights, our mistakes, and our inspirations as we go along.

This is going to be something radically new. It’s exactly the kind of thing Theater Ninjas needs to be making.

Don't Wander Off is being created by Jeremy Paul, Christopher Hisey, Lauren Joy Fraley, Eric M. C. Gonzalez & Ryan Lucas. It runs from February 9 - March 5, 2016.

 

* This has become a catch-all term for choice-based narratives which problematic because A) it's limiting and B) it's copyrighted. We're gonna try to avoid using it from here on out.

** The word 'meaningful' is important here, because you have some level of control when you go to the movies: where to sit, what snacks to get, see the 3D version or not. But your choices do not affect what the characters in the movie do, it doesn't change the perspective the movie takes and it doesn't change how other people experience the movie. And that's fine, but we're messing around with something else here.