Overlap - Investigations in new and forgotten storytelling

Amusement Arcadia – The Machine

Described as “…a computer designed to analyse and decompose Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Rambler’s Lullaby II”, on the page, The Machine’s chattering, clattering stream of data at first looks like book music for an organ or the kind of game listing I would have typed into my beloved Spectrum 48k.

It’s neither of these things, but the comparisons are interesting. Written in 1968 by author, filmmaker and Oulipoist Georges Perec, The Machine is in fact a radio play, adapted for live performance by Sheffield-based performance artists Third Angel in Sheffield  just last month.

The play’s story borrows the forms and restrictions of computer programs, but it’s a lot more interactive than its monolithic title suggests. Not so much in the dazzling – and often very funny – back and forth between the computer’s separate processors as they attempt to fathom Goethe’s poem about solitude by (for instance) substituting its nouns for fairy tale motifs, as in the audience’s slow assimilation into its subroutines and  algorithms…

I used to spend hours diligently typing lines of game code into my Sinclair’s Cronenberg-like rubber keyboard and after a while I’d find myself in a eerie, molecular version of what gamers call ‘the zone’. Hypnotised by the rhythmic typing and featureless pages of numbers, I’d almost fall into the code; a ghost in the machine.  The Machine’s tooth-like subroutines, which grind and break down Goethe’s storytelling and imagery into kipple-like abstractions by calculating everything from the poem’s word count to the surface area of forestry in South America, have a similar effect. There comes a point where you’ve heard Goethe’s poem deconstructed so much that you realise you’ve lost its meaning. As Third Angel Associate Artist and The Machine director Christopher Hall described it when we met to discuss the play, “All you hear is words, you don’t hear the poetry.” You’re stranded, like the machine, in a world of zeroes and ones.

Our imaginations eventually kick in, however. Perec’s drama presents itself as a set of subroutines for a computer but we’re as much the subject being fed through the circuits of The Machine’s three processors as Rambler’s Lullaby II. All I have to do is write the words ‘My hand rests on the dry bark of a fallen oak tree…’ and you’re there, unable to stop yourself conjecturing the feel of an imaginary tree’s mossy surface, or the last leaves rustling in the air above you. The Machine is bereft of this type of response, whereas we can’t help ourselves from imaginative conjecturing of story, even in the most arid of landscapes.

A ‘Death Map’ from Half Life 2 Episode 2

Both The Machine and Third Angel’s recent production Homo Ludens - which saw an audience of four players invited to engage with a life size gameboard – suggest a preoccupation with the use of systems to facilitate stories. So is this a Third Angel theme? “There are a lot of Third Angel shows where there’s a series of restrictions, like there is in Georges Perec’s writing,” Hall offers. “A lot of rules that Oulipo - the group that Perec was part of with [Raymond] Queneau and Italo Calvino and Mercel Bénabou – play with and used to play with. There’s a Queneau book called Exercises in Style which is the same story written a hundred different ways.” This put me in mind of Valve Software’s ‘death maps’ for Half Life 2 Episode 2. A visual representation of thousands upon thousands of player experiences in the most recent part of the videogame developer’s acclaimed franchise, they’re experiential data, each marking the ending of a story.

Third Angel use Oilipuian ‘restrictions’ in the devising of stories as well as a tool in the end user experience. But Hall’s example from Third Angel recalls both videogame mapography and boardgames. Where From Here [2001] featured two people in a white room and it was a story about a relationship falling apart,” Says Hall. “The way in which they talked about the rooms that the bits of the relationship were in was interesting though. The rooms were made of white board and the two actors had to draw floor plans, but they had to draw them with their eyes shut. So that was a theatrical version of a Oulipuian restriction or a Perecian restriction..”

Where from Here (2001)

Here too there’s a gaming parallel in the kind of scenarios modern games provide for players. How can I release Yorda from the cage? How can I get ghouls and humans to live in harmony? How can I follow the train, CJ? The way Chris Hall describes it, Oulipu presents a set of game-like restrictions to prompt creative actions. “And creative problem solving,” He suggests. “Which is where sometimes the magic happens. On The Machine, we didn’t know how we were going to light it until we were in the space. I imagined it being very ‘forth wall’, with the performers in a row on a stage. But it wasn’t until we were in the space all together we decided to use radio mics rather than handheld mics and make it into a square. It’s a box.” The result was immersive, bringing the audience ‘into’ the performance as avatar-like characters. Each of us was sat nearer one of the four performers in particular and felt like we were on their team.

The Machine offers a rich Swiss army knife of tools and rules that twist the audience’s blood. So is Perec’s story – and Third Angel’s production in particular – more a process rather than a story? More a game than a play? “It’s not a story,” Hall suggests. “But it does have an emotional arc. Because it ends on silence. And that repeats. I don’t know whether the emotional arc is intentional or not.” I’d suggest it is, but that might be a result of my gameified approach. The Machine is a framework that we operate and that operates on us in turn. In so doing we bring it to life, in the same way that the game worlds of the likes of Grand Theft Auto and The Sims come to life with our engagement with them. The Machine is a story system. We bring the narrative.

The Sims 3 – Town Life Stuff

The apex of this comes with Chris’s description of how The Machine might work with other poems. “One of the things I did think about was substituting Ramblers Lullaby for an iconic English poem like Wordsworth’s ‘I Wanderd Lonely As A Cloud’.” The idea is you’d basically take the program routines, such as ‘recitation in groups of three’, and my favourite, ‘nouns are replaced by nth noun following in University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary’ and apply them to a different poem. Every Fallout 3′er who’s played under the shadow of permadeath; every Skyrim player who’s named their avatar after a Tolkein character, has engaged in this kind of play – and the likes of Something Else’s SuperMes is a consistently engaging experiment in this area – but The Machine’s human element means it remains thrillingly, unsettlingly, untethered by comparison.

The Machine is touring. Visit The Third Angel website for more information.

Category: Interviews, Performance, Videogames

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