(Post-game discussion – in the dark, of course! Photos by Bryan Ma.)
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a new game for Move controllers. It’s a “horror-slapstick” installation game called Beacons of Hope. The game is for about 12 to 20 players, and it’s staged in a large pitch black room. Yes, in total darkness! I’ve described the game as a cross between J.S. Joust, Silent Hill, and Proteus.
I haven’t actually written anything about the game yet, so I want to give a full explanation in this post. The game is still a work-in-progress, but I’m very excited about it!
Like many of my physical game installations, Beacons of Hope was inspired by a specific folk game precedent. This past summer, I took Tom Gregorio (of Kill Screen Magazine) and his wife out for drinks when they were visiting Copenhagen. By chance, they ended up telling me about this crazy game, called Monsters in the Dark, that they run at a summer camp. The game is played in a house out in the woods, at night, with all the lights turned off. Players creep around the house, searching the darkness for a flashlight hidden by the game master (or, in the more difficult version, the flashlight and its batteries are hidden independently such that the two have to be assembled). Meanwhile, two people play the role of the “monsters.” The two monster players crawl around the house trying to catch the “human” players. Human players are eliminated if they are ever caught by a monster (they have to go wait in the living room). Monsters win if they catch all the humans. Humans win if they can find and assemble the flashlight and shine it at the monsters.
Of course, the moment I heard about the game, I knew the general idea was just perfect for the Move controller. I had already staged games of J.S. Joust at night and so I knew how beautiful the LED light is in the dark. It became obvious that the controller would be well-suited to a horror game. Plus, as a general rule of thumb, playing in the dark (or with your eyes closed) can be so much fun!
I wasn’t sure how well the Move’s Bluetooth signal would travel throughout an entire building, and I knew that I’d have trouble finding a suitable house in which to play the game. Consequently, I decided early on that my own Move-enabled version of the game would be played in one large room. There’s also a nice side-effect of playing together in the same room: if a light is triggered, everyone in the room can see it. This opens up some fun design possibilities (see below), and also makes the game more spectator-friendly.
I’m still iterating on the idea, but here’s how Beacons of Hope currently works: Two people play the role of the monsters, each carrying a Move controller. If they keep their controller still or move it slowly enough, their light remains off and the room stays pitch black. However, if they ever move fast enough – say, to reach out and grab a human player – the light turns red. The result is that the monsters pop out of the darkness, suddenly, in a red flash! The effect is as terrifying as it is hilarious. The monsters win if they catch all the human players, or if the round goes on too long (say, 10 minutes).
The human players do not carry controllers, at least not at first. Their task is to grope the darkness, searching the room for three Move controllers that the game master hides before the round. Once a controller is found, a player can press the trigger button to turn on the light (yellow, green, or blue, depending on which one it is). These three controllers are like pieces of the Triforce; if the humans can find all three controllers and press the trigger buttons simultaneously, they vanquish the monsters.
It sounds a little silly, but when you’ve been crawling around the dark for several minutes, the human controllers really do seem to shine out like beacons of hope (hence the game’s name). Of course, a human player won’t want to leave their light on too long, as they’ll surely attract the attention of the monsters. If a monster ever catches a human with a controller, that player must drop the controller somewhere around where they were caught. The monsters are not allowed to touch the human controllers themselves, of course.
At this point, you might be asking yourself: why does this game need to be played with Move controllers? Why not just play the original non-digital version? I’ve written about this issue a little bit before in my PhD. In regards to Beacons of Hope more specifically, digital technology opens up new possibilities for integrating multimedia content. In Beacons of Hope, the entire game is “scored” by a creepy dynamic soundtrack that helps set the right mood. After all, this kind of horror installation game is all about atmosphere!
For the music and sound, I’ve teamed up with David Kanaga (of Dyad and Proteus fame), who I was lucky enough to meet on a camping trip this Fall. We’re still iterating on the sound design, but so far David has been working on some noisy soundscapes inspired by Terry Riley (“Scary Riley”?). The most exciting part is that the entire soundtrack is generated dynamically from the players’ input. For instance, the monsters’ red lights will also trigger some layers of screams and drums. We also make use the accelerometer values, such that the music is affected by the players’ movements. When one of the beacons is moved fast enough, a hopeful little melody starts to play. Thus, even without turning on the lights, the humans can reveal that they’ve found one of the beacons.
I’ve also been exploring some of the other modalities of the controllers. In my last playtest, I rigged the two monster controllers such that a button could be pressed to rumble the other controller. The idea was that the two monsters might be able to communicate silently in their own kind of rudimentary Morse code (perhaps discussed before the round).
I’ve now playtested the game four times – once in Stockholm (at No More Sweden), once in Montreal (at Concordia), and twice in New York City (once at Babycastles and once at Eyebeam). It’s been a blast, and I think the game shows promise. But I’ve also learned a lot about running installation games. First, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find a sufficiently dark room. Once your eyes adjust, even a little ambient light can illuminate an entire room. Second, the game requires a very specific kind of space. Beacons of Hope seems to work best in an auditorium-like space filled with chairs and other obstacles around which players can crawl and hide. It also helps to have a carpeted space.
And I’m still tinkering with the game system itself. One big question is, should humans be eliminated when they’re caught? Or should they be allowed to re-enter the game after a penalty period? My recent playtest at Eyebeam (thanks Matt Parker!) this past December provided a lot of helpful feedback.
I’m eager to run the game again, hopefully in Copenhagen. Stay tuned!