Hiding, Discovering; Beacons of Hope
While in New York over the holidays, the brothers Ma had the opportunity to head over to Eyebeam to take part in a playtest of a new installation game by Doug Wilson, called Beacons of Hope. I met Doug last summer in Denmark, where I had a chance to try some of his games and pick his mad-genius brain. In a Copenhagen university garage, he shared his idea for Beacons of Hope with me; it sounded inspired. We rode the E train and walked through a light drizzle to Chelsea.
Beacons of Hope is a quaint-sounding name for a game, especially for something as ostensibly experimental as this one, but it resonates meaningfully with the gameplay experience.
The short version of how it works is this: you stumble around in complete darkness with a dozen or so similarly hapless participants, tripping on makeshift barriers and groping helplessly. Meanwhile, motion-triggered flashes of red light from PlayStation Move controllers held by “monsters” briefly illuminate the space as they stalk and eliminate other players from the game by grabbing them. The players’ goal is to find three hidden “beacons”, (also PS Move controllers) which can shine a bright white light at the press of a button.
If all three beacons are found and triggered together, the monsters are defeated and the players win the round. If all players are eliminated, or they don’t discover the beacons in time, they lose. Any motion registered by the different controllers results in a cacophony of melodic and dissonant sounds, allowing players to get an idea of the current game situation by listening closely.
The game is creepy, confounding, occasionally thrilling, and like much of Doug’s work, social.
Doug is a doctoral candidate at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, a co-founder of the Copenhagen Game Collective and partner of his new games studio Die Gute Fabrik. He’s known for his studies on so-called abusive, broken, and self-effacing games, and their theoretical realization in Dark Room Sex Game, B.U.T.T.O.N., and Johann Sebastian Joust.
I had a chance to play J.S. Joust last summer, and its ingenious to say the least. It takes a reference point in traditional folk games, and repurposes modern game technology – objects we’re familiar with as game players – to tap into those more fundamental, more ancestral tropes of play. There is no screen for the game system to communicate feedback – communication from system to player only takes place through controller vibration, light, and music. However, the game encourages players to focus not on the system itself but rather on the social experience of actively negotiating it.
J.S. Joust does away with conventional video game tools while appropriating and “disenchanting” the minimum remainder required to still approach play from a digital perspective. It examines play in its most fundamental forms – play as in mammalian play, play that sits deep in our genetic memory, next to our experience of music and other primal-feeling phenomenon. This kind of play de-emphasizes game systems in favor of the physical, social, confrontational, and creative.
J.S. Joust subverts modern game apparatuses, in this case PlayStation Move controllers, in order to position them within a new/old context. It also seems to both reject and embrace some of the contemporary discourse on computing. It approaches technology democratically and adopts what it deems useful, but ultimately turns us away from screens and towards each other, “remind(ing) us that play is, above all, something personal”.
Beacons of Hope continues this dialogue. Mainstream game hardware lights our way in the darkness as we play what in some ways is a very old-fashioned kind of game.
Once in Shanghai I ate at a “blind” restaurant. This meant that the dining area was in complete darkness, as in 1,000-feet-under-the-earth pitch-black. We were led to our seats by blind waiters, hands on each others’ shoulders, then sat down to fumble with our utensils. We would invariably end up eating with our hands before finally being led out again.
That restaurant didn’t survive more than a year or two, which is telling – in any case I never felt the need to return. Despite its gimmicky angle, it was still worthwhile to experience the sensation of being completely blinded, especially while taking in the smells, touches and tastes of an otherwise ordinary dining experience. We were temporarily forced to interact with the food and each other in ways that were entirely dependent and incapable.
During the playtest of Beacons of Hope, I was incapacitated in similar ways. I fumbled on the floor, bumped into rows of folding chairs and other players; I felt defenseless and exposed. The knowledge that someone was out there hunting for us was eerie, despite the fact that they were, for the most part, as blind as we were.
Doug and his colleagues describe “abusive” game design as “refram(ing) gameplay as a dialogic relation between player and designer – a kind of conversation that presents itself in the form of a dare.” Beacons of Hope is “abusive” in the sense that we were taken abruptly out of our comfort zone in a distinctly physical way. It was designed to disrupt, yet enthrall.
I started at the sound of footsteps, I huddled behind what seemed to be an obstacle that would protect me; I hid in the corner, flattening myself against the wall. A light would flash from across the room, the sound of the monsters’ controllers would intensify, and I would scramble away. This experience was about helplessness, and how it caused us to react to sudden visceral stimuli.
Then something amazing happened – I actually stumbled across one of the beacons in my blindness, and immediately felt a surge of adrenaline. The helplessness I felt was transformed to a sense of clear, weighty potential. After a moment’s hesitation, I held it over my head, and pressed the button. A penetrating note as from a bell sounded as the controller vibrated in my hand. I could see everything in a 15 foot radius. Two other players, groping on their hands and knees, looked up at me, startled. So did the nearest monster, who came for me immediately. Oops.
In a later game, other players were smarter and illuminated their beacon only for an instant, immediately moving away. I heard one, and then two melodies intertwining over the sound system, indicating as many beacons had been found. Two players cautiously and intermittently flashed their controllers, then suddenly the third was found. The beacon-bearers realized they had nearly won and ran to each other, lights flashing, and the round was over. We applauded. You probably had to be there, but it was a dramatic moment, heroic even.
We played a few rounds, discussing alterations of the rules as well as possibilities for the playing-space. The game wasn’t complete, and many fundamental rules were open to discussion.
Though we seemed to be striving for an ideal “completed” Beacons of Hope, the uncertainty of it all invited comparisons to Doug and co.’s ideas on “broken” or self-effacing games – games that invite “physical and subversive play, hinting to and even telling the players that the terms of the game are up for debate.” Though its hard to imagine much player creativity manifesting in complete darkness, some intentional ambiguity seemed to allow for potentially interesting possibilities. For example, monsters could “buzz” each other’s controller by pressing a button, though we weren’t sure what that could ultimately mean for the game.
Meaningful player creativity in this case may mean being able to tweak the code for controller sensitivity or determine new standard methods of tagging out players – whereas lighting a match you find on the floor, or hiding the beacons in inaccessible areas would be obviously inappropriate. This wasn’t exactly the kind of subversive play that B.U.T.T.O.N. invited.
The game was far from perfect. Monsters had the ability to light their path by moving their controllers – though they were supposed to strive for stealth. In practice, the benefits gained by sacrificing stealthiness for sight far outweighed any drawbacks. Players could see a revealed, moving threat, true – but the lit area wouldn’t reach far enough for the player to move effectively in the direction that mattered: away from it. Meanwhile the monster could easily advance to eliminate a player unhindered. This meant that monsters had to agree to “not cheat” – which in essence meant that they were facilitating the game for the players’ benefit, rather than participating fully. This was the most striking systemic issue.
In any case, its hard to imagine a universally perfected version of Beacons of Hope. Some dissonance seems inevitable, and even central to the experience of the game – based on the limitations or features of the space, numbers of players, potential real-life hazards, or through other constraints. In a way, most minor conflicts felt enriching, though occasionally frustrating. It seemed like even a finished, well-tested version would need to tailor some of the rules for each play experience – and the game was inspiring enough to engender constant speculation on gameplay alterations.
It wasn’t a comfortable playing experience, per se. In the end, we spent ten minutes at a time bumping into chairs and groping around on the floor on our knees. Though cultivating discomfort is certainly intentional, a “finished” version will need to find a sweet spot of “This is uncomfortable, but I want to play again!” I should want to go back to the blind restaurant again and again, as it were – but not for the sake of novelty alone.
I’m not sure the game is at that point yet, but it was close. I have a feeling that the emotions I felt as I grasped the beacon in the dark is something that will remain with me for a very long time.