[ALERT: This blog contains minor spoilers and peeks behind the curtain for our upcoming show, Don't Wander Off. Read on if you don’t mind knowing a bit about the show is written, structured and created.]
Our goal for Don't Wander Off is to create a show that uses interactive mechanics to tell a story with an audience. From that general premise, we’re drilling down into world building, game mechanics* and developing ways for the audience to contribute their own ideas to every show. In this post, we want to share the goals and principles that have been guiding our process and informing the decisions we’re making as we create the show; this is the Magna Carta for Don't Wander Off.
The mantra for Don't Wander Off is “the audience’s choices matter.” This is not always a given in choice-powered experiences, but having already created work where the audience is primarily responsible for the manufacturing of meaning, we wanted to branch out into audience authorship. On Don't Wander Off, the audience affects the narrative primarily thru the navigation of either a geographical world model or a matrix of story points and states (better known as CYOA, which stands for “Ci, Y dO we have to keep referencing those books? A). Some choices also alter tone and perception of the story world. The same event can take on different meanings based on these tonal lenses, so that the participants at any given show not only choose outcomes, but also genre.
Additionally, there are chances to interact with the story in a more open-ended, responsive way. Specific questions about the history of an object or for the description of an particular phenomena, and then make alterations or adaptations based on that input. This is most similar to the Exploration segment of MegaGame: Sundered Sea, which was itself inspired by games powered by the apocalypse. This is going to require we be able to think on our feet and find ways of taking previously established lore and event points into the creations of the audiences. It also means that the show will be more tailored to each individual audience.
SPLIT THE PARTY
Whenever the Theater Ninjas Cadre has daydreamed about doing our version of a live action point-and-click adventure game/Interactive Fiction piece, inevitably we’d talk about the problem of how to do so in a way that gives the audience control as a group.
Our first solution, with Don't Wander Off, is to cheat by dividing the audience into two groups very early on. This is important thematically, but it also helps us to utilize two different forms of group choice-based storytelling systems:
A smaller group that uses a more interrogative form of storytelling. This allows for a more open-ended form of storytelling where the players will be able to contribute significantly to the detail and plotting of the story.
A larger, but still manageable group that will use voting and discussion to navigate a series of options. This is the more choice-based of the two groups, and while there will be some randomness and mathematics hiding in the background, it will be more about making choices that will result in events and scenes playing out.
DEATH HAS CONSEQUENCES
If part of the story concerns making life or death decisions in an extreme situation, the only way those choices will feel meaningful for the audience is if there are consequences. This idea is still developing, but the creation of a death mechanic has been a part of our thinking for awhile. We don’t want to penalize players for taking risks, especially when those risks can lead to a better story, but we want failure to be meaningful as well because that’s just more dramatic and interesting.
We eventually ended up combining the challenge of group choice mechanics and this ‘death has consequences’ idea. As it stands now, there’s a much larger cast of characters for the show, many of whom will putting their life on the line for the audience’s sake. The audience’s choices will guide them to success, failure, or noble sacrifices.
Okay, I’ll level with you. Even if we could afford to build a realistic spaceship with a million flashing led’s and holograms and lasers….well, we would totally do that. But one of the reasons we’re using Sci-Fi is to explore theater of the mind techniques. We have experience in using sound techniques and video projection to good effect, and while this show will include a fair amount of techno-wizardy happening off-stage, Don't Wander Off ultimately shares in the currency of campfires and amphitheaters, in the simplest and oldest forms of virtual reality yet invented: the worlds that unspool in our minds when we immerse ourselves in imaginary places, people and ideas. Expect crazy lights and projections, but also expect quiet moments where the story exists primarily in your head.