Lighthouse Arts & Training Ltd
South East England

For a week my intention was to begin by writing the following:

“A leading surrealist once commented that a bad film is better than a good one. Blast Theory‘s Day of the Figurines, a multi-user game (most recently played between the 4th and 27th April in Brighton) was interesting for exactly this reason, because of its faults.”

However my game character (Downtrodden) gave me something more poignant as time progressed, an experience which is less easily describable. Definitely the conjunction of an essentially dysfunctional simulation games engine with pretty component parts (seemingly crafted) and forms of interactivity, which appear poetic rather than pragmatic, is what makes this game like art. Otherwise Day of the Figurines is merely a prototype which might easily have been developed more fully by some commercial games or new media company.

With the launch of this run of the game (centred around Lighthouse‘s new location in Kensington Street) it was surprising to frequently (over)hear conversations which comprised reading the piece like it were any old MUD (Multi User Dungeon/Domain/Dimension) or MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) developed for entertainment purposes. As if benchmarking with popular computer and video game worlds such as Second Life or World of Warcraft made sense here.

Attitudes were not helped greatly by the explanatory material surrounding the event, nor by Matt Adams from Blast Theory, when he spoke, rarely veering from descriptions of the system in relation to everyday games design principles and the technological challenges, hinting only once that they were aiming for more difficult and unpredictable outcomes. In fact one essential idea implied in the bumph associated with the launch, declaring that the game is “the world’s first MUD for mobile phones”, overstates matters. There certainly already exist multi-user mobile phone games, Brighton-based Galaxylife is an example, but this is not the main point.

Possibly Blast Theory are mocking us (I hope so), the sad participants who signed up to play, and they know quite well that from the point of view of holistic game design Day of the Figurines is seriously flawed. The learning curve for average players is steep, interactivity is too sporadic and slow, tasks and objectives are complex (giving an impenetrable Twin Peaks feel to the experience). Other factors don’t make up for this lack. The costs of text-messaging are not insignificant either for younger players or those on low incomes. Blast Theory really made the process painful in terms of interactivity, which is considered to be the schwerpunkt for games. So viewed according to the rules of light entertainment, the chat-room, the culture of fun and instant gratification the initiative is weak.

Day of the Figurines however is not about quantity of interactivity but its depth. Spaces are imagined through a slower burn, triggered by the steady flow of flowery text information. A scheme might grow in the players mind, mix with what was seen or recollected from the real physical map situated at Lighthouse. An objective allegedly was to help other characters but most attempts to do this ended in disaster (at least for Downtrodden). All but two attempts for Downtrodden to communicate with others failed. Silos were so small in places that even nearby players could not ‘hear’ each other.

Yet (arguably tragically) I, Micheál O’Connell, did find myself conversing in the real world with other players, comparing narratives, sharing frustrations and recounting amusing experiences. Any game leads a person onto the existentialist plane. As far back as 1964 Marshall McLuhan gave games attention as art, writing that “games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions”. In the end, having failed to achieve anything, Downtrodden died in style. I understood that the controllers, Blast Theory potentially could read every communication or intervene to change the rules at any point and so naively I appealed for mercy, tried to subvert the game. I wondered where I would like to die and the Royal British Legion was not it but my prayers went unanswered. Instead this text arrived:

At 01:12am hot ash fills your lungs; a wall collapses across your legs, the pain feels far away in a hail of smoke and noise. You’re dead.