For Global Game Jam 2018, I took on a local organizational role to make sure that things could run smoothly when our creative director, Gina Hara, was having her film, Geek Girls, launch in theatres on the same day. Nevertheless, the jam was relatively hands-off except for keeping an eye on the space, once I had made announcements, played the keynote, and helped a few people form teams. That meant that I had a fair bit of time to work with Squinky (Dietrich Squinkifer) on a project. Jammers rarely take my advice, but I never work in teams largely than three for a jam project, if I can avoid it, and in fact, two has been an even more ideal number of late for me, when working with Squinky. This year, the theme of the jam was “transmission”, and since Squinky and I are both nonbinary trans people, we decided that we absolutely wanted to make a game with trans themes and content.
We scoped tightly but ambitiously, aiming to write, record and subtitle a number of original texts as well as finding and editing other audio to fill out our soundscape. It’s rare that I work with narrative or writing-heavy projects for a jam, so I was actually quite pleased that things worked out so well this time. I think that what was helpful was that I was able to write what was working in the moment, and discard the ideas that weren’t, and that I didn’t have to sustain any of the pieces for very long. Since the narrative for our game was that the player was meant to follow a trail of radio station-style broadcasts, each piece was distinct and self-contained, but also working with larger themes related to identity, acceptance, and frustration, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. That was helpful in terms of the writing. There were a couple of more serious, more explicitly personal pieces that I might have liked to be able to write and include for the project, but I couldn’t get that kind of writing done in the jam context, so rather than getting stuck on that, I wrote several pieces simultaneously, moving around when I got stuck.
When jamming, one core challenge is to on-goingly check in and understand your teammates’ needs and negotiate each other’s expectations — in our case, our schedules didn’t necessarily match up, since Squinky is a bit of a night owl, and I had to be at the jam relatively early to watch the space as one of the organizers. I would have preferred that we could be at the jam space at the same time and spend as much time as we could on the project (although I always make sure to have 8 hours of sleep a night during jams, regardless of what’s happening) — but I understood Squinky’s needs. Similarly, Squinky was concerned about the scope of the writing and audio involved in the game, given the jam context, but once we had gotten started, I really wanted to foreground the writing and audio and work with a distinct gated narrative, so I pushed for it.
The jam went smoothly on the whole!
I used my Zoom H2n for the first time, and am super pleased with how easy it is to use and how good the sound quality it produces is. In the end, we got it all done, including writing and recording an original theme song. In the end, we got it all done, only to discover during the first few minutes of playtesting that some of the audio was accidentally skipped because it was triggered when people accidentally passed the right station very quickly. Since Squinky isn’t big on crowds and there was a lot of potential for sensory overload, they decided to go somewhere quiet and add a delay as to how much of the audio had to be played from a story-related clip before the player could move on to the next. That prevented any accidental speed-running of the game.
I am super glad with how the project turned out and I feel very good about the trans-positive content that I wrote. Squinky is a very resourceful programmer too, which really allowed us to push that extra little bit to make the game feel right.
It seems wrong to call this a postmortem given that the project was just born on the weekend and involves living creatures, so instead I’ll call these “some thoughts.”
Plants, wow! Plants are amazing! I’ve been thinking of plants as an example of an “other” that could be helpful in conceptualizing designs’ for entities besides the standard human user ever since some conversations last year with Ida Toft. Donna Haraway’s writings are especially relevant here, but here’s an easy-to-digest BBC article about plants and their various sensory abilities and complexities that might serve as an introduction to the subject.
I’ve just recently started to split my time between here and Fort McMurray, Alberta. As a result, I had been talking with Squinky about making a plant that people in our lab could take care of that would signal their care to me far away through the internet. To that end, I had ordered things for a tweeting plant project , so I had a sparkfun redboard, some breadboards, some moisture sensors, and some other odds and ends for working with plants.
It was only after I had ordered these parts that TAG’s local diversifier for Global Game Jam 2017, Sustainability, was announced. As part of this diversifier, one of this year’s TAG Global Game Jam co-organizers, Liane, acquired a bunch of plants. Our brainstorm quickly turned to what we could make with these plants, and I don’t regret it.
Initially, we were supposed to have a third team member, Six, but unfortunately, after the initial brainstorm, they weren’t feeling up to jamming. I just wanted to make sure to highlight their contributions to our conversation, which sent us down some interesting rabbit holes that ultimately lead to us making what I think is a really cool experience. It’s called “rustle your leaves to me softly” and it is an ASMR Plant Dating Simulator. I’ll try to take you through some of our process in this post.
This year’s theme was “Waves.” We began to talk a lot about soundwaves and Squinky half-jokingly mentioned ASMR — I of course wrote this down on our brainstorm. We began to brainstorm around the idea of an “ASMRchestra” played by touching various plants. Six suggested a more intimate relationship with one plant, with more varieties of interaction, including flex sensors, touch, sound detection which would activate sound and LEDs on the plant, possibly in an intimate space like the tent.
After Six let us know that they wouldn’t be jamming with us, Squinky and I had to scope the design in a bit more tightly to accomplish our work with two people instead of three. As we experimented with the simplest version of what the game could be, we discovered that rather than just being a switch, the redboard could detect consistent/predictable ranges of resistance when hooked up as a button (with a ground, a resistor, and a plain wire). With a strong enough resistor, the ranges of numbers we were receiving varied consistently with softer and firmer touches, and a variety of touch locations (as well as on the person doing the touching – some people are more conductive than others, based on their skin moisture).
The ASMRchestra and the more focused single-plant experience were both still possible avenues of exploration, but we didn’t determine right away which we wanted to do. Instead, Squinky focused on the programming, both physical and digital, of the Arduino, determining how things should be connected up, and programming a system that would let us detect the variations in resistance, and play sounds accordingly. They massaged the feel of the interaction with different numbers and adjusted how sounds faded in and out based on those numbers. They found and implemented what we would need to achieve fine grain control over the sound.
Meanwhile, I began to research ASMR more closely, writing down common traits of the voices and sounds that I was hearing, including what kind of sound combinations were common. Here are some of my notes:
Overall, the ASMR community seems to think that everyone can experience ASMR and it’s just a matter of finding the right triggers. That means that there is a huge variety of possible triggers. What helped us focus in on the kind of ASMR we would be creating was the notion of a reciprocal relationship between human and plant. The human inputs caresses, touches, and other inputs (such as blowing wind across the plant’s surface, or speech) and the plant, in this narrative, responds to the touches that it appreciates by outputting an ASMR soundscape that it hopes will be pleasing to the human. Respect for the ASMR community was important for us, despite what might be considered the inherent absurdity of humans and plants in a sensual relationship like this one (I don’t think it’s all that ridiculous – we are intimately linked to our environment). We wanted our attempts at ASMR to be sincere, despite our limited time to work on it.
While Squinky worked on programming, I took up asset creation, including physical crafting. My first task was to select robust plant specimens that would be the least likely to be harmed by our touches as long as we were respectful (I chose one plant with waxy leaves and several succulents).
Next, I worked on building controllers/homes for our chosen plants using ceramic cups, river rocks, dirt, copper tape, wire, electrical tape, and screws. The copper tape on the outside of the cup was a convenient and aesthetically pleasing place to put the ground, as people could grasp the cup to steady the plant as they touched it. With Ida Toft’s advice, we used the fact that both the plants and the earth in their pots contained moisture and were conductive to avoid attaching anything to the plants themselves. The screw provided a large contact that I could simply plant in the earth.
As usual, a jam involving a good deal of crafting meant that I took several trips to the Dollarama to find and repurpose objects there for the project. We decided early on that we wanted to avoid using screens as much as possible if we could, so, with that in mind, I made sure that what there was to look at instead (the plants, the electronics, the instruction booklet, the housing for the electronics, the table where the game would be played at) would look as unified and as pleasing as possible. Aesthetics when people won’t be completely focused on a screen are important (and of course I’d argue that they’re important in general, with or without screens). Right before the playtest, I found a quiet spot and decorated it with a green tablecloth, setting up just what was needed to play our game on the table. It was a bit removed from the rest of the space since audio was important to the game. I made signs to lead players to the game that said things like “4 plants in your area looking to meet” and the name of our game and team (we were “TEAM TINY CACTUS,” by the way – everytime Squinky and I work on a new project together, we give ourselves a new team name).
By Saturday evening, we knew that our game was no longer ASMRchestra, despite that being an excellent pun name. I was concerned that hooking up all the plants up at once would discourage people from discovering their individuality, that it would instrumentalize them in more ways than one: that people would cease to see them as living creatures and see them just as controllers, and that they would just try to play them as instruments simply making sounds instead of responding to the feedback they were receiving. The relationship between each plant and human, with the human taking the time to discover their differences, became an important part of how I was thinking about the game. We retreated to the jam space’s campground (complete with tent) to figure out a new name for our game. Names are important, because they’re conceptual tools — they help me figure out how to think about a game. As we giggled to each other in the intimacy of the tent, we settled on “rustle your leaves to me softly” – it immediately suggested something that we hadn’t considered before: poetry.
For me, this was the missing piece of the ASMR script. I would write a poem that could be randomized, line by line, from the plant’s perspective. We recorded the poem and other sets of words that night. Here are the word sets and the lines of the poem.
Sunday morning, I worked on the instructions and on creating housing for our electronics. The instruction booklet is another example of functionality and aesthetics combined. Using a book from the Dollar store as a base, I had to remove the metal spiral because I’m left-handed and planned to handwrite the instructions inside. I replaced the spine with twine, and painted the name of the game on the cover. crafted the book itself and the instructions to go in it. With safety of plants in mind. Respect for plants and their safety became a key concern for us. As I wrote the instructions, I realized that the plants already had built-in personalities based on their physical properties and their needs in terms of physical safety. As I wrote the instructions, I had to translate their needs and suggest interactions into the language of dating profiles. Here are what the instructions looked like:
The conceptual thought behind the game is rather twisty. As designers, we were trying to take on the perspective of plants, thinking in ways that we thought a plant might think, where the plant in question was trying to conceive what a human would appreciate most from them, without understanding just what a human was, and thus thinking of it in plant terms. Based on what we decided plants would like in ASMR, the plants are then trying to please human tastes.
Since the sounds could be dropped in afterwards, collecting them and putting them into the game was one of our last tasks. I collected Creative Commons 0 attribution license ambient music tracks, water droplets, rain, rustling leaves, and other sounds (sources can get a bit tricky in the heat of a jam, so I usually use CC0 resources). Based on my notes about ASMR, Squinky and I then recorded a series of plant-related words and the individual lines of the poem that I wrote to be randomized. Squinky then figured out how to layer them beautifully, figuring out volumes and when sounds should stop and start in order for the plant to feel most responsive without the sound design being too busy.
As we playtested the game, I was surprised at the intimacy created by the experience. I was also surprised that the context was so transposed, and that the sound was working so well together, that I didn’t even mind listening to the sound of my own voice coming from a plant. It was eery and touching all at once.
The official jam playtest went well, but there were way more people that wanted to play than could be accommodated over the course of the time that we had. This was a good sign, although it was also a shame. Those who did play seemed to enjoy the game. Their first reaction was frequently laughter – I think they laughed out of surprise. Afterwards, they often got quiet, contemplative. Some seemed reluctant to stop playing, but felt the pressure of others waiting behind them to play. Some players also experienced ASMR sensations for the first time. Many seemed to discover that touching the plant felt good – and felt intimate. The textures, combined with the responsive sound, made for a pleasing sensory experience.
Thanks to the very talented Matthias Graham (@coraxincarna), who took photos and filmed for us, and Squinky, who figured out a way to record the sounds as people were playing, we were able to cut together a rough version of a video of what the experience is like — unfortunately, without the tactility and without the pleasure of that immediate connection between touch and sound — for those who haven’t had a chance to play.
We hope to set up the game at TAG sometime soon so that more folk can play it! There’s more to say, I think, about this game, but I wanted to get out a few thoughts as soon as possible after the jam before they faded away.
After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.
Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.
I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.
The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.
Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.
(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).
Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.
For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.
Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).
As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.
The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?
As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.
After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.