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ARG Designer Skarped: Games Can Learn From Theatre

Alternate reality game designer Adriana Skarped, who won an International Emmy for her "interactive television series" The Truth About Marika, recently spoke about the experience of being a living character in her own game, then sat down with Gamas

July 2, 2008

7 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan Van Zelfden, Staff

At the Dutch Festival of Games in Utrecht, The Netherlands, alternate reality game designer Adriana Skarped gave a lecture discussing her work on the International Emmy Award-winning alternate reality game The Truth About Marika, which was commissioned by Swedish television, and produced by The company P. Skarped talked about not only being the game master, but truly becoming a living character in the game. As the starring actress, there was even a moment when players were supposed to rescue Skarped from a van where she was actually bound and gagged. The designer spoke on the nature of ARGs, their ethos of questioning society, and changes in perspective, saying, “If you want to, you can look at this game as a spell.” Afterwards, Gamasutra sat down with Skarped for an exclusive chat in which she talked about living the game, business models for the ARG, why the genre is shunned by the game industry, and why games are like theater. Tell me about winning an Emmy. Adriana Skarped: I think that part felt more like fiction than the fiction that we made. Do they normally give games an Emmy? Which category was this? AS: This was the category of interactive television series. Basically we compete against Dr. Who and the other BBC productions, I think. What are you going to do next? AS: Well, if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. [laughs] Actually, I have been talking today with the Dutch television companies. I’m meeting with both the commercial television channel and the public service television channel within the next week. So you’re interested in similar work involving television and interactivity. AS: It would actually be very interesting. Somebody asked me if I’d be willing to do a sequel. Usually I’m pretty much against sequels when it comes to movies and stuff like that -- both you and I probably know are never as good as the original -- but I think that people should actually be aware that this is the third game in a series of games we’ve made. So “The Truth About Marika” is not a sequel, but the third chapter, and I don’t think there will be anything wrong with that. We had built on previous experiences, with every game that we have made, and doing this other game would not be the same. It would be something that would evolve from the experience that we all have. It’s one thing to be an actress. It’s another to be a game designer, or a game master. What’s it like combining the two, and becoming an actual character in your own game? AS: [laughs] It is truly bizarre, I would say. It’s not like anything else that I’ve tried. I don’t know even if there is anyone else who tried it, except for me. Sometimes game developers will record their own in-game voices. AS: This is a bit more than voice work because basically, I had to I had to respond to everything the players were doing, both as an actor – or interactor – but also as a game master. So you have to be really alert all the time, really on your toes. What about the connection between theater and games? A lot of developers talk about movies and games, because they watch a lot of movies, but do you think there might be more relation to theater? AS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is an underdeveloped area to explore. I think it’s amazingly interesting. What gaming has in common with theater is not the relationship between the audience and actors on stage, but rather the relationship between the actors. It is evolving, it is engaging, and the action actually takes place between the players themselves, rather than between the audience and the players. So I think that games, and especially ARGs, can learn a lot from theater. Have you worked on games that weren’t ARGs before? Would you be interested, or is there something about the meta-game that’s too appealing? AS: I like the meta game, I love the meta game, but basically, I got into this by being a story writer. I think the whole idea of telling a story to make characters come to life, that is one of the things I’m passionate about. I also love to play games, and I have a pretty good grip on what that’s about. What do you like to play? AS: Basically, I’m an RPG person. I like stuff that involves me, that takes me out of myself. What’s the next big thing? AS: During this conference, I really realized that in the gaming industry right now, everyone’s looking for the new thing, and I really believe that people should keep their eyes peeled on the ARG scene, because there is a lot of interesting stuff happening. I think it’s sort of a genre that’s developing on its own, very much the way the gaming industry is a genre in itself, something that is still very new. But we need to be alert, we need to keep our eyes peeled. In her keynote, Margaret Robertson said that the game industry seems to look down on ARGs, neither liking nor understanding them. AS: Well, the movie industry used to do that with gamers. Everything that is new is going to be frowned upon. Do you think the ARG could replace traditional games as we know them? AS: I don’t think they will replace them, because, as you see, the gaming industry hasn’t replaced movies. I think they will exist in parallel. They can definitely learn from each other. Do you see the ARG as separate? AS: Slightly, yeah. Whenever I talk to people who are just into console gaming, or computer gaming, I realize that, yes, there is a difference. To me, there is not a big difference, but to most people, there still is. How much would traditional game design ideas apply to an ARG? AS: Well, this is all about tracking human patterns, tracking what people do, and then being able to use that information into making them do what you want them to do. Hopefully that is going to be what they want to do also. What about the business of ARGs? It doesn’t seem to get much discussion and traditionally ARGs are tied to something else. Do you think of the future of the business at all? AS: Yeah, I do, and I have to say, it kind of scares me, because I realize we are not selling product. We cannot sell the ARG. What we can sell is basically the ability to warp people’s minds. I think that is very scary, because that can be used for purposes that I personally cannot stand for. I wouldn’t, for example, do a commercial game for Coca-Cola. That’s not really me. But I also think this mind-warping thing can be used for creating social change in a way that is extremely interesting. This project, The Truth About Marika, we really had high ideals when we did that. We wanted it to be outside-the-box thinking. Have you found that most ARGs have a feeling of ‘question everything’? AS: Yeah, I think so. I think that is also the basic aesthetic of them all, and I think that is also why the ARG is so interesting. With every ARG you make, you have to push the limits. ARGs are about getting the feeling that the boundaries of life as you know it suddenly disappeared, that anything can happen. If you’re going to keep that feeling, you cannot repeat yourself. You absolutely cannot. You have to always sort of find the new ways, the imaginative ways to do that. If the business were to develop, it could be subscription. AS: Yeah, actually, that is not an all that bad of an idea. I talked to Margaret earlier, and she said that a very difficult thing with ARGs is that you never hear of most of the good ones until they’re over, because people don’t get that this is going on. We have that problem, too. We still had a lot of participants, but not as many as we could have. And afterwards, a lot of people came up to us, and they were like, "My God, I can’t believe I missed this." It’s like a play, you can do an encore performance. You can let new people who didn’t see it the opening night see it through. AS: Actually, that's not all that bad of an idea.

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