Communication and plot forming in horror – creating ideas

If we observe the communications between characters in horror cinema, for example those between Clarice Starling and Dr Hannibal Lecter (Silence Of The Lambs. Hollywood: Jonathan Demme, 1991. film.) the interactions between characters serve as a vehicle to move plot forward, as well as adding characterisation to those involved. The decisions made by Clarice during conversation with Dr Lecter directly affects his responses. When Clarice’s character is trying to liaise with Dr Lecter in order to find out information in relation to Buffalo Bill, the serial killer the FBI are trying to locate, she often has to change her approach to the conversation in order to satisfy Dr Lecter’s curiosity, as seen here in the first meeting between the two characters, Dr Lecter’s dialogue is abstract in nature, and he refuses to relinquish information quickly:

The curious nature of the dialogue, coupled with the explicitness of the language used could be argued, is a psychologically compelling narrative as it plays out. If we consider the subject matter, particularly the background of Dr Lecter’s character, it can be argued to be a very real horror, a human and visceral horror that can be communicated through the simplicity of communication from one person to another.

Suppose that we are to consider this perspective in immersion explored in this blog before; ‘The immersive perspective enables to see from within the image’ Bay-Cheng, S  et al.(2010). Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 47. This might suggest that if a similar communication driven narrative with dark themes were to adopt the idea of placing an immersant inside the image, central to the issues faced, might make for effective use of horror narrative, specifically from a communicative perspective.

In gaming, communication between characters can often unavoidably alter the outcome of plot. An example of this is The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012) in which the player assumes the role of Lee Everett, a character within the world of The Walking Dead, in which a zombie outbreak threatens the survival of the human race. Decision making in conversation is central to how the plot progresses. The Walking Dead utilises ‘conversation trees’, a concept used in many different games spanning many genres. In essence, the choices a player makes when communicating with other characters in the story arc affects either how plot unfolds, or how characters act towards you. The game provides the player with a number of pre-determined responses that they may choose in order to progress, often with ambiguous outcomes. Critically well received, as shown here in a video review from online gaming site IGN, The Walking Dead shows us how decision making in conversation, much like that exhibited in the above example from cinema, can be an interactive experience with input from the player:

This networking of characters could be argued as an integral part of forming an affecting, emotive and compelling narrative for a user in a gaming environment.

If we consider this from a game theory perspective, we may consider Gordon Calleja’s theory of alterbiography explored earlier in this blog:

‘Players might focus on this aspect to make decisions in the game that are congruent with the already accumulated alterbiography or to consciously shape the future of the character within the game world.

The generation of alterbiography can also accumulate without conscious attention being directed toward it. Here, the existence of an alterbiography does not make itself apparent until it comes into question in one of the ways mentioned above. Narrative involvement in the micro phase is highly dependent on the formation and interpretation of the alterbiography, as it can become an important overlay which players use to interpret their actions and the other events in the world.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 131.

Calleja shows that the formation of an alterbiography, i.e narrattive developed by a player’s own decisions, can directly affect their interpretation of the story, and the world they are playing in. He also demonstrates that the decisions made are not always conscious on the part of the player in changing the trajectory of the narrative. In The Walking Dead this is apparent because there are not distinct choices to be made, other than what the player feels is the appropriate response during a conversation with other characters. This could be argued to be an effective way of delivering conversational material as it is both non-passive, and demands input and attention from a player, unlike cutscenes, which are absorbed much in the same way that filmic examples are, such as the one above. It could be argued that this networking of characters adds an additional layer to narrative, which could make a player more involved in the game.

Suppose we consider mixed reality performance which adopts the notion of communication with others in order to affect snd develop narrative:

‘The location-based game Uncle Roy All Around You (2003-), developed by Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Laboratory, was a hybrid experience merging aspects of computer games with live performance. Following a brief induction, participants were required to venture into a city in search of an elusive figure called Uncle Roy. Online participants were able to track their progress in a parallel online virtual model of the same city. As in other Blast Theory works, the induction constituted an important gateway into the piece. After handing over their possessions, and having a photo taken, participants received a handheld computer or PDA, and were told to locate the mysterious figure of Uncle Roy in approximately sixty minutes. The PDA showed a map, which corresponded to the game area. Meanwhile remote players could monitor their progress through the online virtual model, and offer advice via text messages that could reach the participants in record time.’ Benford, S Giannachi, G (2011). Performing Mixed Reality. London, England: The MIT Press. 34.

This example of mixed reality performance also adopts the idea of communication as a means of furthering narrative and the personal experience of the immersant. The networking and interaction between the immersant and the online users communicating with them mirrors the idea of communication between characters in the interactive narrative of games, such as The Walking Dead evidenced above. The significant difference between the game world in The Walking Dead and the hybrid performance space explored by immersants in Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy All Around You is that unlike the game, Blast Theory’s hybrid space afforded for spontaneous and personal interaction between participants, both online and those on the street seeking out the character of Uncle Roy. Whether this is more, or less effective than the predetermined nature of the game programming that offers a fixed number of responses to a situation is something that could be debated at length, however this offers an interesting alternative look at the interactions between different members of the same experience.

‘There was also a built-in microphone, allowing participants to communicate verbally with the online players. Once participants left the venue, and became street players, they received a message from Uncle Roy saying “Meet me in the park by the lake. I’ve marked your map with the location. Click on the ‘I’m here’ button to confirm you’ve arrived and I’ll come to meet you.”‘… ‘Street players searched for Uncle Roy following a series of clues. These were predominantly prescripted and developed site-specifically. Their main function was to direct participants across the city, engage them into live interactions in unfamiliar settings, and turn their attention to specific sightings.’ Benford, S Giannachi, G (2011). Performing Mixed Reality. London, England: The MIT Press. 34-36.

This idea of narrative unfolding through the communication of characters is not dissimilar to those narratives explored in the interactions featured in Silence Of The Lambs and The Walking Dead in that they do not afford a straight forward answer, and leave the character, player, or in this case immersants, in search of answers, in order to satisfy their curiosity. In merging these technologies and the real world exploration of the participants, Blast Theory create an interesting hybrid performance space that provides a good example of how mixed reality performance can span many forms of interaction and involvement.

What would be the effect if similar tactics in communication from Blast Theory’s work were to be applied to the genre of horror, in order to create an intentionally unnerving experience, through hybrid performance space, networking immersant with other characters and participants? One may consider a situation offered to us from Silence Of The Lambs. In developing an exciting performance concept that borders on mixed reality, game design and intermedial practice, it could be possible to explore the narrative of captive hostage in a horror-style setting, placing a character in danger, and similarly to Uncle Roy All Around You, information and communication may be delivered through the means of technology from immersant to immersant, and from performer to immersant, in order to develop an alterbiographical experience that is changeable and adaptable based on the interactions of those involved. The aim of the experience may be for those involved to locate and liberate the aforementioned hostage, with outcome dependable on decisions made. In order for this to be effective, sufficient systems must be in place to create this conversational link between users, whilst also maintaining a overarching sense of horror.

In the next entry of this blog, exploration will be made into how horror environments are created digitally, how to realise those within a mixed reality performance context, and how communicative networks can be established in order to realise some of the concepts explored in this entry.





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