For a month and a half now, I’ve been taking my first steps towards developing a piece of work for Headlong as their latest Digital Artist. It’s a piece that’s a little tricky to define (like so many items of both digital and live art), but currently hovers between audio game and interactive audio fiction - a playable piece of work that uses purely sound to create places, characters and atmosphere, leaving any visual elements entirely up to the listener’s imagination. Whilst audio games are relatively few and far between, there’s enough titles - such as Papa Sangre, The Nightjar and A Blind Journey - to draw inspiration from in making this.
Whilst I’ve a little experience of making text adventure games (with Twine, software that I’m using to help develop this piece), this is my first time going through a development process that involves live playtesting: making a non-digital versions of the ‘game’ as a way of trying out ideas, before getting into the more involved and complex process of actually creating it. In my case, this means a kind of script that I read from, which gives players instructions on how to make decisions, that I then respond to.
I’m not new to sharing work before it’s reached its final form, whether that’s work-in-progress performances or sharing at the end of R&D periods. However, playtesting has felt very different to me, as I’m publicly trying out ideas and sharing thoughts far earlier than I would, were I making a piece of theatre. The kind of conversations I find myself having with players are the kind I might have with collaborators I’m about to make a show with, so it feels very different to be having them with people who’ve had no previous contact with something that I’ve already made a working version of.
What I feel most sharply with playtesting is having to resist the urge to try and answer the question of ‘what is good? What works?’ myself before testing the piece out with people. There can be a desire to self-censor, to bypass testing certain ideas out, to pre-empt people’s responses to elements of the piece, to over-think things in private and therefore limit what gets shared in the playtesting. It’s partly wanting to present a coherent set of ideas, to not engender a negative response by sharing something that’s messy and difficult to understand, but it’s also partly from the fact it can feel incredibly exposing to openly say ‘I don’t know what works best’, to admit that kind of ignorance - even when, as the maker of something, you’re inherently coming at it from a different perspective than the player.
However, playtesting forces me to shake off that instinct, to share a variety of ideas and be genuine in asking what players think is good and avoid assumptions around that. The conversations I’ve been having following the playtests have been fascinating and driven my ideas and understanding forward so much. The mechanics of the piece, the content, the form, the characters - it’s wonderful to be rigorously testing all these elements so early on and to have conversations with so many people shaping the piece.