I talk a lot about how technology (especially the internet) and performance can come together to creative meaningful live shared experiences across geographic distances, without necessarily needing venues to ‘house’ them.
I talk about them, and I want to make more of them myself. But I don’t experience them often.
One of my favourite early experiences of this kind of thing was a game-in-physical-space called “Can you see me now“. It was an early example of a process that the creators, Blast Theory, have gone on to repeat in slightly different ways. I’ve played online with most of them.
Tonight, I was in Melbourne and – as is typical of me these days – awake late at night. I had come back from the opening night of Next Wave Festival and was full of adrenalin. Over in Manchester, UK, another festival called FutureEverything was transitioning from daytime to nighttime running.
Manchester is my old home and my favourite city in the world. I knew that Blast Theory’s latest game “I’d hide you” was running live and online at FutureEverything from 8pm each night. This would be their second night. When I realised at silly-o-clock that it was 7.30pm UK time I decided I should stay up the extra half hour to have a play.
As I write this it is now approaching 10pm UK time – nearly 7am in Melbourne. So why am I still up writing tis post and not playing the game or asleep? Let me explain.
My first bout started badly. I was chatting to a friend on facebook, blissed out at seeing Manchester again (the game live-audio/video-streams from the ‘runner’ as well as showing a chat stream with other online players) and generally didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing. I died almost instantly & was booted out. Undeterred I went to the ‘help’ page, found out what I was supposed to do, and then went back in.
This time I paid a bit more attention. Before you enter the game, you see a map of the area showing three dots. These dots are named, and they move. These represent three real-life people, your runners, and their geographic location in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. You choose one and they (plus your online chat buddies) become your team. Your player – physically and in realtime – chases the other two players through the streets. Your objective as an online player is to help your runner find the two opponents and then ‘snap’ them to score points. Your opponents objective is the same; they snap your player, you lose lives. You only have five lives and when you die you get booted out and have to start again. You can choose if you want to rejoin the same team or switch sides, and your score accrues across multiple plays.
I played my first bout out by trying different runners. It was fun, but I didn’t feel a connection with any of them. I scored some points, even got myself on the leaderboard, and the bout came to an end. The website informed me that there would be a ten minute break as runners switched over. I contemplated shutting down and going to sleep, but instead waited for the second bout to start. I’m glad I did.
Bout two started and I chose “Patrick” because his was a name I had heard from the trailer – the other runners seemed threatened by him. As soon as he started talking I knew I’d made the right choice; my boy was a Northerner. You forget how important accents are until you move countries. It’s only when I hear a proper Northern accent that I remember how much of my world I left behind. The combination of Patrick’s voice in my headphones and my old haunts streaming (albeit staccato) through my screen filled me with memories. I was hooked. I was home. He was my runner, I was his player, we were a team. The game was on.
This time the other online players also seemed to have the same intention. We were all offering directions “Amy is on the corner of John St and Thomas St” we shared; “Behind you”; “Run!”. A delay in the feeds meant that while we could see both Patrick’s and opponent Amy’s locations, our chat instructions weren’t getting through as fast. But Patrick was a great communicator, whenever he saw a new message he let us know – chatting back with friendly responses to our comments or observing our navigation instructions and taking appropriate action. This was FUN!
The friend I was chatting to on facebook, Jen Southern, happened to be in Manchester, observing the game. Earlier in my first bout she told me:
Her: I’m in teacup cafe, trying to do ethnography of people’s reactions, saw you say ‘nice to see mcr’
Me: it’s FREAKY
Me: i’m homesick!!!!!
Then later, she tried to make an actual connection with me through the physical gameplay:
Her: Trying to find who you r playing on th street
Me: patrick *pause* he’s WICKED!!!! *pause* and a northerner…
… i just heard you ask for me!
… and then died
It seems so silly. Someone I’ve known for years and had just been chatting to on facebook went and stood on a street I used to work near and spoke to someone I had never met. Listening from Melbourne, on the other side of the world, I heard her voice transmitted through this strangers’ headset. And I was there. I was in Manchester, on that street, in the rain. In my soul I could hear the sound of car wheels across wet tarmac, see the passers by heading out to familiar pubs. I was transported, wholly, back to Manchester on a Friday night.
And then Patrick sneezed, and at that very moment I lost my feed! My stream turned in to a pixelated testpage. I waited, hoping it was a temporary glitch. I waited, and waited. And then the sense of urgency became unbearable; the bout had a limited duration: I needed to get back in! I refreshed the page, knowing it would send me right back to the beginning, that I would need to see the entry video for a few repeated seconds before I could click “play game”. But that would be worth it because then I could get back IN!
And then… I couldn’t. The screen went black and a spinning disk taunted me. Winding its way to nowhere, yet winding me up like a spring. Nothing. I refreshed again. This time the website wouldn’t load at all, Chrome offering me a cached copy. “We broke the internetz” I tweeted. And waited. And refreshed. And deleted my cache. And tried another browser. Eventually I got a MySQL error. Maybe we really have broken it, I thought. But no messages on twitter saying it was down, and it didn’t feel like it had stopped, it felt like somewhere this was all still happening. And it was. My screen finally refreshed showing me that there were too many users online. Somewhere else, something amazing was happening. Without me. Access denied.
And then I realised… and I grinned. I had been engaged in a truly meaningful live shared experience across vast geographic distances. I knew that because I had held something precious in my hands, in my heart… and then it had gone. Losing it made it all the more powerful. The loss made me sad but the joy of having had it in the first place was what mattered.
So, sure, we have a long way to go. This country needs better, cheaper, cap-free and un-filtered internet access. Live streams need to get more stable and Blast Theory need to expect more and more players wanting to play online simultaneously. But we’re so close. And that makes me truly happy. Thanks guys for yet another amazing experience. You continue to be top of my favourite artists groups, and that you are also delightful humans that I get to call friends is just the cherry on top. Please send my love to Manchester and thanks to Patrick and Jen for sharing a little bit of home with an expat x
UPDATE: Blast Theory just published a bundle of photos to show you what the on-street and in-dev action was like.
UPDATE2: Since the lovely Blasters posted a link to this blog from their site I’ve realised this has to be the only post written during my entire crowdfunding campaign that doesn’t mention the fact I need help to raise money so I can buy a bus and help make more geek arts experiences like this happen here. I’m a muppet. Here’s the link, please help by pledging and sharing! http://pozible.com/reallybigroadtrip. Thanks!