#708: Indiecade’s Sam Roberts on the Future of Play as Immersive & Experiential

Indiecade is the International Festival of Play, and Festival Director Sam Roberts curates innovations in game play and interaction paradigms that explore the questions of: What do I do? What happens when I do it? And how do I do it? Roberts sees an overarching entertainment trend where we’re headed towards more immersive, bespoke, and experiential entertainment and games where you can have your own unique story and experience.

Roberts and I talk about what Indicade tells him about the future of play including the combination of multi-modal inputs, how games are recontexualizing the space around us, interactive narratives, the latest AI-assisted procedural generated levels and player-adaptive game progression curves, the impact of table-top games in creating social dynamics in games, how role playing can create empathy or knowledge, and how games can create systemic metaphors where can come to a deeper understanding of complex systems through exploration the possibility space of the macrocosm through the context of an interactive, microcosmic game.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So I had a chance to go to IndieCade after Magic Leap, LeapCon, and IndieCade is this international festival of play. It's featuring all these independent games, and they're really trying to figure out the innovations in gameplay. And so it's a little bit of a leading indicator of what is to come when it comes to these immersive and interactive experiences. They had about five different VR experiences that were doing different experimental things, a couple of augmented reality experiences, but also games that were just you moving your body through space. So a game that is embedded within a context where you're moving around in a space, and it's also games that are starting to change the context of what is around you and looking at these larger systems. I had a chance to talk to the festival director, Sam Roberts, and he's a curator. He's in charge of looking at what is new, what's different, what is really innovating in the realm of gameplay. And he's been doing that for about 11 years now. So I had a chance to talk to Sam Roberts about IndieCade, some of the trends that he's seeing, as well as what he sees the future of play as. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Sam happened on Saturday, October 13th, 2018, at the IndieCade conference in Santa Monica, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:33.572] Sam Roberts: I'm Sam Roberts, and I'm the Festival Director for IndieCade, which means I generally am in charge of our content. IndieCade is the international festival of play. So what that means is we are looking for play and playful experiences from all over the world in entertainment and non-entertainment mediums, and we're looking for innovation. And we want to bring as broad an example of what that is together at our festival every year because I think that most of the really brilliant innovations happen from mashing up these people with different skills and different interests and different things that they are doing. Showing video game developers amazing VR, showing VR developers like big games and performance games, connecting that with the table game and the RPG community and getting all this feedback. So that's sort of like what we're about and what we do. Stephanie Barish, she's the CEO, started Indiecade in the mid-2000s because she had been working with a lot of sort of like new age animation students who were making not like animated short films, but not video games, right? Like interactive pieces of digital art, and they didn't have a home for them. And she was like, this stuff should have a home. And she was friends with Tracy Fullerton. Tracy made a game at that time called The Night Journey, which is a video game collaboration with Bill Viola, who's a film and video artist. And so it's essentially like a museum video art exhibit that you could play on the PlayStation. Tracy recently, everyone's been talking about her because she made Walden a game. So Tracy connected Stephanie with Celia Pierce and myself, who from different directions had been involved in curating play video game and play-like experiences in other venues. And Stephanie got in touch with us, we all started talking and working together, and we did a first-hand curated exhibit at E3 in 2007, and then had our first festival in 2008 in Seattle, and then have had them every year here in Los Angeles since then.

[00:03:35.045] Kent Bye: Wow, yeah, so I'm really fascinated by this concept of how ideas and new concepts get born and how they get disseminated out. Covering virtual reality, you know, it's a technology that goes back to the 60s and then the 90s, it's a big push and then it goes into the bespoke and enterprise applications and then Eventually there's consumer applications that crosses the chasm into the mainstream and it feels like that there's academic ideas and concepts that then those students create a project and then those projects are here at Indicaid and then some of those projects and ideas take root and then they are the next wave of what the future is holding. So I'm just curious to hear how you've seen that play out.

[00:04:12.207] Sam Roberts: Yeah, I mean, that is how it plays out. I think you and I are in sync on how we think that works. But I think, you know, there's hard examples like we showed use of force seven years ago, right? So we showed it before there was a dev Oculus kit. We were using the technology. from Mark Bolas's VR lab that is basically the grandfather of the Oculus technology. Nani came and showed the piece, she won an award, and then last night Nani was just running around as Nani and like, ah, this is great to see her. But you know, this year we have five 360, basically, VR platforms. playful, light interaction experiences that are documentary and about serious topics. We have VR games throughout the festival. You know, it's all over and people are exploring political meaning or just pure entertainment and a bunch of other stuff in that space now. And I get to see that sort of grow and happen. Early on in the festival, we started introducing big games and tabletop games. And then over the past few years, a lot of the lessons from tabletop role-playing have been filtering through, in my eyes, what I see as innovative video game design. So you see a lot more focus on, like, what role am I asking the player to take on? And how do we make games that, through role-play, create empathy or knowledge or things like that, right? And that exploration is super interesting to me. and I feel like I can track it. Some of the early tabletop role-playing games we showed are things like, so Liam Burke made this wonderful game, this is a tabletop role-playing game about when Western powers take their ships and cross oceans and then they colonize, right? So he made this game about colonialization where you were either the colonizer or those being colonized. And it's basically like a tabletop game where you negotiate the rules. And the rules are about the colonizer gets to establish rules, but if they set down too many rules, they spark rebellion, which nobody actually wants. And the colonized want the rules to be as not interfering with their way of life as possible, but would rather not actually have armed rebellion and have everybody die. And like, that idea that you could explore these topics in dialectic through roleplay is something that then I have seen again and again and again in video games in the years since then. And I'm not saying they all saw Liam's work and were like, that's what we're doing, but I do feel like bringing people together and thinking in that way, right? Bringing a dev who's just making a game that's being fun and have him look over and see a game that doesn't look anything like his game, but is doing something fundamentally different, and getting excited about that, and excited about how those mechanics work, or how they're looking at play in another way, and then exploring it. Pietro Ririva, who's an Italian developer from Milan, has been coming to the festival for six years now. This is his third project that we've shown. But the first project of his was like a video game. It was a good video game. It was really beautiful and fun with a really specific point of view and aesthetic. But this year Pietro's game is a silent auction for 30 people. where his whole goal is like, he got to go to this auction, he was like, this is like a human experience that is super engaging, that basically almost no one gets, ever. So I want to make a game where you can have a really pretty real version of this experience. And so it's this auction of 36 magical items, it's Sotheby's, you get assigned money and a role, you get bonus points for making certain things happen, and then this big emergent like playful experience happens. It's really awesome and cool getting to watch that kind of evolution. At our very first festival, one of the amazing things that happened is devs from different parts of the world met each other and started a career-long collaboration and stuff like that happens too. You know, somebody who's like exploring essentially like experimental animation and somebody who's interested in like obsessively in like physical mechanics of play, Doug Wilson and Nils Deniken came together at that festival and like fell in creative love and made games together for like six years. So I feel like you need to do this thing where you really cast the doors open and you make an open space and you invite in everything that seems interesting, then you let that miscegenation happen. It's not necessarily fast and immediate, but it creates this boiling pot of exciting ideas that people start to pull at and experiment with and go away and make new things out of. That is so much of why we do this, and I think, I would like to think we're successful at it. I see it actually happen, I guess.

[00:08:42.341] Kent Bye: Yeah, back in 2016 I had a chance to go to the Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Design and Entertainment Aid conference and saw a number of pieces there. Bad News, also Prom Week I saw when I went home, and then there's another one about Shakespeare, Elsinore, so this

[00:08:58.398] Sam Roberts: All three of those were at IndieCade two years ago, yeah.

[00:09:00.260] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah, so that there's artificial intelligence and what the UC Santa Cruz Expressive Intelligence Studio by Michael Mateus is working on. And so I'm just curious from your perspective, like what is happening in the realm of artificial intelligence and gaming here at IndieCade?

[00:09:14.533] Sam Roberts: Yeah, so this year, we don't have a ton of AI-driven stuff, but I actually think there's a really interesting thing that people tend to gloss over. And actually, I lied. So Tendar, which is an AR experience upstairs, is leveraging a bunch of AI tools. Yeah, that was at Sundance this past year.

[00:09:28.696] Kent Bye: Yeah.

[00:09:30.118] Sam Roberts: There's this interesting divide now that people talk a lot about between artificial intelligence and augmented intelligence. Augmented intelligence is tools that do parts of the work so that we can be better at our jobs. Things that survey 100,000 options and run a bunch of samples on that population and then say, these are your best options. Then I, as a human designer, have 10 things to look at instead of 10,000 things. That stuff helps. But so something that actually fits into those spaces, that's doing some of the work AI does, that's doing some of the work that augmented intelligence does, is procedurality. And independent game developers have been obsessed with procedurality and the idea of the roguelike for like six years now. I mean, for a long time, right? But it was a micro-community for a long time, basically just people making roguelikes and lovers of NetHack, and that sort of blew up six to eight years ago, and you're seeing it everywhere. But there's a ton of AI that goes into that stuff, so a lot of these procedural systems learn from the player, right? This is stuff that, like, Jenova Chen also explored in Flow, right? Dynamic difficulty adjustment. Taking player inputs and not just having a hard-coded output that goes with that, but having a systemic, possibly changing systemic response to things that players do based on their ongoing inputs. And I see a lot of exploration of that. An exploration of, well if this was a game where the humans had more control, they would slowly shape it into what they're interested in over time. So how do we make systems that are learning from what they're doing, and help shape the game into the game experience that they want over time. So that's where I see that stuff happening now, and that is being leveraged. Drawconoid upstairs, which is a puzzle game, is leveraging some like human learning systems for its design. There's some other procedural stuff. Exposure has some AI in it, and it's like a camouflage multiplayer hiding-hunting game. Yeah, off the top of my head, that's what I got for you.

[00:11:22.999] Kent Bye: OK. Yeah, well, another trend that I'm seeing, I just did a quick walk around, but multimodal experiences that are bringing in many different senses. I think, obviously, virtual reality, augmented reality is starting to do that. But playing with sound, playing with haptics, perhaps, I'm just curious to hear from your perspective of over the last 10 or 11 years how you've seen this immersive or embodied or multimodal gameplay come into action.

[00:11:46.192] Sam Roberts: So this is something that I personally am very, very excited about. It might be the reason that I try to shove all these people together and have them explore things. I've been interested in transmedia for a long time, multimedia, yada yada, we all say these words. But basically, we settled culturally for a fair amount of time into image and text as how we delivered content. And video games, which have been the torchbearers of games for quite some time now, really even leaned off of sound. But, like, when it comes to interactivity and responsivity, sound is actually one of the most, like, leverageable human senses. Like, we are extremely responsive to sound, and we like making sounds, and we can play sounds. And over the past six to eight years, you've just started to slowly see people, like, taking stabs at that. Part of that's related to 360 sound, the way you can layout sound in game engines now and some of that stuff. But like, so seven years ago or five years ago we showed a thing called Papa Sangre, where basically the screen is dark. It is a 3D, like you move through 3D space, but you play it by listening. All of the feedback that tells you what to do in the game comes from the audio. You take a step and you hear the footstep and how it echoes, and you have to place walls and figure out where there are openings, and hear the monster, and hear the things you're looking for, and you move throughout the entire space just by moving, right? So, I think that we, to go back to the beginning of your answer, what I saw 10 years ago is people saying, aha, there are angles to attack games that we're not attacking it by. And what I'm starting to see now, which I think is the step from beyond that, is how do we integrate multiples of these angles into single experiences? How do we not just deliver an oral experience or a visual experience or a textual experience or a taste experience or a touch experience? But how do we leverage audio and touch and visuals in a layered way or in a separated way to build something that is more complete and fills the world around you more, which is how I get to the word you used, immersive, right? I think this is actually one of the real keys to immersion is that when we can tap as many of the inputs into the human system as possible with what we're trying to express, it's much easier to immerse that human being in an experience, right? So like, this was in an Indie game. I had a student two years ago do a thesis project. It was a VR meditation experience. You put on the VR helmet, there's the sound, you're in this beautiful forest. But then he also bought Essence of Pine and a fan. Like, that's it, right? But, like, you would sit down on this cushion and you'd be in this forest and you could see things and you could hear the forest and then a pine-scented breeze blew across you and, like, bam! It helped you jump right into that space, right? It's small, it's not that much, but, like, why aren't we doing that with more things? And then I think you see Things like Tale of Ord, which is upstairs, which is essentially a mail order ARG. You sign up, and they mail you clues, and you solve them on the internet, right? And so much of that is text-based, but it is, as you say, multi-modal. It's jumping between, like, I'm reading stuff and solving a hard puzzle here. Then I'm doing a different kind of internet breadcrumb trail following to solve a different kind of puzzle. And again, by leveraging different ways of interacting with the thing, A game is creating a much larger immersive space. And so I guess that goes back to also then what I was saying in the beginning, is that helping all of these developers find different ways to attack human interaction, human experience, sensory inputs, and like think about combining those and leveraging them together, is really pushing towards this sort of more immersive future. And for me, like this sort of like I'm excited about quite a renaissance but an explosion of playful experience that I think is coming over the next 10, 20, 30 years.

[00:15:41.643] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the big open questions I have for VR is, is there an experiential design framework that's able to take the theoretical concepts from game design, add in the cinematic storytelling from film, and then also put in the different embodied aspects of what it means to be present from Eastern philosophies, Chinese philosophies, and other dynamics of how do you hack the sensory motor contingencies. And so you're adding gaming with film with embodiment, and that I feel like that virtual reality and augmented reality are really encompassing that. But from you, as you're curating all of this stuff, I'm just wondering if you use any type of specific game design theory, if there's ones that are really popular, or if it's kind of an open question as to how to translate all these things into a design framework.

[00:16:26.563] Sam Roberts: I think lots of people have different ideas. Actually as a curator I try to very explicitly as a curator not have one that I think is right. I want to be proven wrong and again I want to have you and you who think fundamentally different about this talk to each other and start to maybe solve for what's deeper. The thing that will stop VR from establishing a set of best design practices and pieces of knowledge about how you communicate and leverage the affordances of the medium is if it continues to be a medium in flux. Now, a medium can continue to change once you start to establish these affordances, and those affordances can change. Look at film. But, you know, you need something that sort of is pretty settled before you really start to establish a lot of those, like, these are best practices for the affordances, this is how we manipulate film editing to make you cry, this is when we put the sound on the cut, you know, that kind of stuff. Like the film does, and game design has its own stuff like that. Games is a little odd because it is both got sort of the play medium, but it has a ton of different technological platforms. So each of those has their own affordances. This is actually where VR is. I think that until there is a standard interaction paradigm around VR, that a lot of these best practices and this is how we use this medium to tell stories are going to stay pretty divergent, right? So like when I advise students working in this space, I push them towards as much gaze interaction and as little other interaction as possible because it to me is the universal interaction point right now in VR. Like, if you're doing VR, you're looking at things, so let's start from there and solve that stuff, which likely isn't to change. Whereas, like, I don't know if there will be a settled solution around gestural interface, controllers, speech. Like, all of these things are possible and being used, and none of them seems like anyone knows what it will be versus one of the others. And like, you can learn a lot by exploring that stuff, but you're not going to necessarily be establishing best practices. Because in six months, everybody might be like, oh, we figured it out. It's totally stupid to have a wand. Or everyone will be like, oh, they figured it out. everything will have a wand now, you know, and you don't really know until that kind of happens. I'm part of figuring out whether it'll be that or not is experimenting with and playing with those things, which we'll watch, but if I'm looking for where people are making steps towards what you're asking about, it's people who are exploring mostly gaze-directed interface right now.

[00:19:10.808] Kent Bye: Well, the way that I think about it, as an experiential journalist who is paying attention to my own direct experiences, my phenomenology, I'm seeing a bunch of stuff and I'm trying to make sense of it and then talk to the creators. And so I have to use some sort of mental map and model to do that. But any model is going to be, if I look to mathematics of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, he basically prove mathematically that any consistent set of rules is going to be incomplete. And so there's not going to be one universal framework to cover everything. And so I'm taking more of like, what is the one that I'm going to personally use, but also see that there's other philosophies, other approaches that may never be possible to fully integrate all those. But anytime you have qualitative experiences, there's an infinite number of way you can slice and dice that. And so the way that I do it personally is through the four elements. So the fire element being active presence of how much agency and will you're directing into the experience to either explore or to chase your curiosity and then the air element being the mental and social presence where you're you're making choices or you're making sense of the world or you're solving puzzles and so you have making choices and taking action of the expressing your energy outwards like more of the young and Then the more yen of both the water and earth which is the emotional presence as well as the embodied presence And so how are these things engaging your emotions through narrative and story and plot and music and cycles? But also your sensory motor contingencies of what kind of haptics and what's the sound with the visuals? And what's it make your body feel like and so it feels like to me That's the essence of how I at least make sense of things and I don't know if you have any thoughts on that

[00:20:38.571] Sam Roberts: Well, I have heard this before because I heard you on Noah's show. I really actually love that framework. I think it's a really interesting way to break down media. It also, I think, lets me answer your first question a little better. If I take a step back, particularly from any medium or platform, I analyze everything we get around interaction paradigms. Because we are a play festival for play experiences, I am always asking, what do I do, and what happens when I do it, and how do I do it? And that's really all I want to know. That's where I start looking at an interactable piece. And that is definitely because I'm a game designer. As you say, it is not going to work for everything, and it's not universal, and it's not that everybody has to do that. But that is how I start with looking at things. And that sort of puts me just on a slice of your pie. Although, it could also spread across your pie, right? Depending on whether, like, my feedback is leveraging your emotionality, or your physical presence, and whether the way you act in is about sort of, like, taking a very active pushing role, or if you're taking a passive defensive role. And like, I, you know, like, some games, the point is to conquer things, or to win, or to move into territory, and that's all active. But some games are super defensive. Like, in a classic game sense, like, Arkanoid is a game where all you're really doing is responding to the situation and trying to keep it functional. And then stuff goes in between those. And then likewise, some games are giving me feedback through story and audio and visuals that in my mind are mapping to what you talk about with water. They're trying to leverage my emotional presence. You did a thing and I'm going to reward you or feedback by feeding into that. But then there are like, I mean, there are less, well, but there are not less of these. You know, there's like Tag, which actually is very much a game that is giving its feedback and interaction through physicality and asking you to be embodied in the space. There's LARPing, there's a bunch of stuff that sort of falls into that category. Or even if you look at like the stupid video game controllers from late 90s and early 2000s that had Rumble in them and I don't know if you've ever played The Pain Station or know what it is, but it's a video game that delivers electric shocks when you fail. It's horrifying. I like the paradigm you talk about because it acknowledges the breadth of the space. There's so many points of entry to that, which is what I think is really interesting about it. And then I generally agree with you about the utility of having a framework, because once you have a framework, you can start to talk about things in a way where people can understand you.

[00:23:12.959] Kent Bye: I'm curious to hear from your perspective, what is on the bleeding edge of what's new or the trends that are happening when it comes to independent games?

[00:23:20.226] Sam Roberts: So I do think that games that are becoming embedded in spaces is a lot of what's exciting and interesting right now. This is why escape rooms are blowing up all over the country, even if many of them are not really even all that exciting, right? It's like, oh, I go to this place and I play this game that sort of is like feeling like it's in the real world. You know, I've been interested in alternate reality games for a long time. Those are all about the bleed of the fiction into the world around us. I love Klaxo Radio Hour, which is upstairs, which is an audio only game that is embedded in a physical radio and you make your choices by spinning the dial. Like I'm really interested in these play spaces that are transforming the world around us. I have been for a long time. I really love big games that give you sort of like a fictional framework and some sort of physical interaction and just by doing those things It literally reshapes the space around you into being or meaning something other than what it means. You know, that transformative power of the Magic Circle, that, I think, is actually where tons of the most exciting work I see happening is happening now. And even in little ways, people are throwing it in. Drakenoid that I mentioned upstairs has a thing where you can pull in Steam reviews of the game instead of Bricks. Right? But what that's actually doing is saying, I'm going to take all this commentary, this word space of the internet that exists around this game I am playing, and I'm going to destroy and mash it. And it actually changes the activity and lets you feel a... ability to interact with that thing that is not interactable. It transforms it. Those reviews become an obstacle in the game, and you see that, and that changes the way you feel about them. Like, that game is not about doing all this stuff in a big way, but it has this little way in which it explores that, I think. And, you know, Phenomenology, which is a VR experience, we're showing upstairs, I think it's very much about, like, how mood and sense and choice totally reshape spaces around you and let you experience them in these unique in different ways, even if they are not always unique and different, because you're bringing this different interpersonal framework to the space around you. And yeah, that is what super excites me right now, and where I think a lot of the cutting edge of play experience is happening. Again, there's a huge explosion in ways to make these things all of a sudden. We have mobile phones, and we have VR, and we have computers, and we have consoles. There's a board game renaissance in America. You can make so many different kinds of games. plug them into each other. You can make a board game and add a speaker or another way of input to it that uses digital stuff. You can like play with all of this stuff and everybody's doing all of that playing and it's wonderful. But then where they're innovating in design, where they're innovating in building play is about using all of these new tools we have to leverage those interactions in this transformative way. And I think, again, that is because, and I've talked about this with a bunch of people, but I generally believe that entertainment is headed towards experiential, bespoke, and immersive. People want to change the world around them, to have it feel different. They want to have an experience, not just see a story, and they want to have something that is theirs. And all of that suggests wanting immersive experiences, suggests wanting play experiences that are different every time, depending on what you bring to the experience. And so, that's sort of my answer.

[00:26:51.317] Kent Bye: Yeah, I went to the Spatial Reality Art Show last night, and there were some augmented reality art pieces, and what I found myself doing was that some of the pieces, like Sutu's piece had like 11 pieces, and you had to to put the pad down and lift it up and then it would add the next one. And I found myself just going through and just lifting it up without really even looking at the art piece at first. And then I would look at it with augmented reality animation and then I would see the whole context and be like, oh wow, maybe I should actually take in what's there first before I transform it. And then I started doing that and I noticed throughout today I was starting to notice things more. and just like paying attention into my sensory experience and I feel like there's this almost like cultivation or training that we can start to create a magic circle in the world through augmented reality where we can start to overlay things that are magical but when we do that it allows us to pay attention to the entirety of the entire scene and see once we turn the augmented reality off now all of a sudden we've got this cultivation of awareness to be able to be more aware of everything that's surrounding us.

[00:27:49.497] Sam Roberts: I just fully agree. I was nodding vigorously while you were speaking. I argue with my wife all the time about some of this stuff. She's a little bit of a Luddite. I'm not, which is fine. But I fundamentally believe that a lot of the power of expanding playful experience, of augmented reality, of digitizing the world around us, is actually this ability to take us. Human culture is its own powerful system with all of these inputs, and we're super internally focused on it right now for a bunch of different reasons. So much of it resides in screens that are here and all that kind of stuff. And augmented reality to me is about taking all of this amazing stuff we've done and these systems we've developed for communicating, for love, for all of that stuff, and helping to spread them back out into the physical world that we live in. Because we are very much physical creatures. and changing actual spaces around us, changing how we see and hear things, just like you say, makes us pay better attention to our bodies, to the way we see, to the way we hear. We pay a special attention to the world again once it has been transformed in those ways, and once we're engaged in the activity of doing a little bit of separation, and being, oh, that's augmented and that's not, and this is, you know, and like, it is, it's a thing that we can train inside ourselves. I agree with you, and I think that these experiences are doing it on some level.

[00:29:12.628] Kent Bye: And so for you, what do you want to experience either in VR or AR or any game that's out there?

[00:29:18.951] Sam Roberts: So the thing that I want, which I talked to a lot of people about this and nobody else wants it, I want an augmented reality hiking experience. that gives me essentially like poetic fantasies in the wilderness. Like that is what I want. And you VR game AR developer who are listening to this podcast, make it for me, please. I would like this for myself.

[00:29:42.656] Kent Bye: I think that I'm already starting to see this as a trend. If we think about like Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey, it's like the young, like, you know, you're really expressing your agency outward with the fire and the air. It's a lot about your will, or you're making choices, taking action, and that a lot of the strength of augmented and virtual reality is this yin archetypal journey, which is you being connected to yourself, your body, your emotions. I'm about to see everybody sad as an experience. I mean, this is a, for me, a perfect embodiment of like these emotions of sadness and depression and shame that didn't necessarily fit into the hero's journey that we're used to. And so I feel like there's that, but it's also the more yin principles is how is the individual connected to the whole. So as you have this concept of what type of augmented reality experiences that as you're walking through a forest would allow you to connect to the larger story that's there. I was talking to somebody who was telling me about Native American trackers. And the trackers, they have to be able to notice disturbances. So they have to see what's different.

[00:30:40.697] Sam Roberts: So, like, the whole space in a very real way because it's not, oh, I'm looking for this specific thing to find it. It's, I'm, you know, it's like those games we did as children where it's like, what's different between the two pictures? They've got a picture and then they have to find what's wrong with it. And that's really, it's a different way of looking.

[00:31:00.935] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I want that too, so if nobody built it, I might make something. Because I feel like that's something that I want is, as I'm walking through the forest, I'm trying to now see the whole ecosystem and notice what's new or what's different.

[00:31:13.895] Sam Roberts: This is actually one of my favorite things about the possibilities of AR is I'm very personally interested in systems. Most of the game work I do is systems driven. I find systems very interesting and systems are super hard to understand. One of the things that's amazing about games is that games are actually, they are the art form that is best at doing systemic metaphor. You make systems that are metaphors for larger systems and we get that it's a simplified version of the system and we can experiment with it and understand things about that larger system, right? So to your point, how do I walk through the forest and have these genuinely magical, natural, almost like beings without consciousness that are the systems that operate the world, that operate an ecosystem, that make nature function, that have that bird taking that fluff and making a nest. And in that process, they spread a seed. Yeah, whatever, right? Give me beautiful metaphors for those systems while I am walking through them and embedding with them so that I can play with them and understand them in a consequence-free way, right? You can experiment with the system of nature on a hike by taking a shotgun and shooting birds out of the sky. But I'm not particularly personally interested in that, though some people are. It's not what I want to do. But I am really interested. And I would love to be like, what would happen if all these birds were gone, right? Is there a game I can make where I go through the forest and I toss speculative futures at the forest and it responds by showing me the forest's version of that future. I mean, I don't know how you do that, but right? Like, that sounds magical and amazing to me, you know? Or like, I've loved the idea of somebody making ley lines. You know, ley lines are like magical lines of force that encircle our globe. And if you come to a nexus point of Ley Lines, that's where you can get real magical power together, right? You could build a game experience about that, where you filled the world with Ley Lines that you had chosen or driven by magnetic force, or the arc of water through our planet, or migration. You could define it any number of millions of ways, and then use that to highlight these systems that are making our world churn and you know I want to be able to like someday be able to take a hike and be like oh I'm gonna hike out to that nexus point and then I want to summon a phoenix or I don't know you know what I mean like and again this is just me and not everybody wants these things but I want them and I think that they're exploring space that is Very interesting. I think whether it's what I exactly said, but like this idea that by augmented reality we can view and tap into and metaphor and understand the systems that are heavily operational around us all the time is really exciting. And it reminds me, if you haven't seen The Game the Game, which isn't VR at all, it's 100% that. You immerse yourself inside a system that exists in bars and have to experience it. And it's a simplified version of that system, but it's like you start to see how this thing works in a way that you wouldn't if you were just there.

[00:34:16.907] Kent Bye: So, yeah. Yeah, I just had a chance to actually play that this morning. It's like a massive 400-page script of deducing all of the interactive tactics of the pickup artist scene in that you are a woman basically being confronted by all these men. And so, yeah, I went through a number of different paths, but it was fascinating. And it was like just to see the psychology of what they were doing and to sort of break down and also to empathize, like, how gross it feels.

[00:34:39.779] Sam Roberts: Yeah, I fully agree. I'm a big fan of that game. I'm a big fan of all of our games. But I'm big fan of that game.

[00:34:46.645] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual or augmented reality, or games in general, and what they might be able to enable?

[00:34:56.057] Sam Roberts: I think a lot of it actually goes back to what I just said. I mean, I think that games are the best way of helping people understand systems. And I think our world has always been made up of systems, but we have been making a lot of systems on top of it for a long time without a lot of necessarily, like, look at what all the systems are. And I genuinely believe that, like, the future of games is partially about making the whole world more systems literate. letting us play with them and experiment with them and understand that they are there and a little bit more about what they're doing and how they're doing. And then for me on a technological level, the possibility of VR and AR is everything I want, but it is all AR. I want to be back to being embodied in a real physical world, paying attention to it and spending time with it, And I don't want to give up the wealth of knowledge and communication ability and augmentability and things that exist in this computer that I carry in my pocket everywhere. I want to be able to access that knowledge when I need to. I want to be able to reach back into that human cultural system and talk to someone about what's happening out here. And I just want them to be as seamless as possible. That's the technology future I look for. Many people want the holodeck. I'm supes not interested. I want to be in the world and having the glory that is so many of the good things that we've developed over the past thousand years as humankind.

[00:36:33.405] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to either the gaming or immersive community?

[00:36:38.103] Sam Roberts: No, I think I said most of it. Mostly just make wonderful things. Make wonderful things. Make wonderful things. Awesome. Great.

[00:36:45.670] Kent Bye: Well, thank you so much. Thank you very much. So that was Sam Roberts. He's the festival director of Indiecade. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, so it was interesting to hear Sam actually talk about augmented reality and what he wanted to play in augmented reality. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to put this interview out now is just because this idea that you could use augmented reality and to be able to change the context of a meeting of a physical space. And so one of the trends that Sam identified was games that are embedded into spaces. Now, they had different games where you had to actually physically be there, you're blindfolded, you're having other people direct you around. There's a really fun game that I played that was called Laser Mazer, which it's an iPhone game where you can play it either on a phone or a tablet. you're essentially walking through space and it's using all of the augmented reality features to be able to detect the volume of where you're at and it allows you to walk through this virtual world that you're seeing through this window this portal of the augmentation but you can play it in a small confined space and as you're walking around you can pause and move around and try to have a game within a game as you're walking around you're trying to navigate a space that's constrained but you can also play it in this huge open field out in like a park and so it's a game that's designed for you to be out in nature and to be able to use that full space to locomote around. So this is some of the trends that he's starting to see of ways that you can start to be connected to the environment around yourself and One of the games that he wanted to see was just, you know, walking through a forest and having this mythopoetic fantasy that's laid on top of the world around him. And that part of the reason why he wants to do that is as you start to augment and change your world, you start to notice and pay attention to what is already there. And so you're adding this augmentation, this new layer of meaning, but as you create that new layer of meaning, it actually allows you to juxtapose that layer of meaning with what the meaning that is already there. And just the process of doing that changes the meaning of the world around you. I think this is probably one of the most profound implications of augmented reality that we have is that we're going to be able to start to layer stories and games on top of these systems that are going to maybe give us access to be able to have this interactive playable experience that allows us to have this systemic metaphor for what that system even is. We're going to be able to take the macrocosm and have a very small microcosm interaction that is trying to, in some ways, reflect the larger ecosystem of what that metaphor is talking about. I think a good example of that was the game called The Game, which is essentially a gamification of a lot of the pickup artist techniques. And it's an interactive dialogue. And so as you're going through, it's a bit of like, from the game perspective, you're trying to make a prediction as to what's going to happen based upon what You are saying and there's a lot of things that are counterintuitive and it's also giving you an experience of what it might feel like to go out and to try to hang out with your friend and you are barraged by line after line of these men who are doing these different techniques and in some ways by playing the game you start to understand what those techniques are so you can start to understand the larger trajectory of what they're doing both as a defense to be able to you know be able to handle it but also just trying to unlock these different aspects of human psychology it's a really interesting game and i think there's actually a lot of buzz about it but i think it's something that what sam was saying trying to represent something that is an entire complex interactive system that really has all these rules and and how you navigate it and by doing this Interactive narrative through it. It's like this 400 page script and many different endings You get a sense of trying to explore this possibility space of these different philosophies of seduction But that is just an example of trying to take something that is a complex interactive system and trying to break it down in a way that you can translate it into a game and so That, I think, is what I found some of the most profound implications of what gaming as a communication medium can do, is to take these really complex systems, to break them down into these component parts that are interactive, but are trying to, as you play them, you start to get a sense of the larger ecosystem. And I did actually have a chance to play the interactive auction game, and it was fascinating to be able to play it, and to be able to see what I learned about what it means to be in an auction. And yeah, there's a social dimension to the game, for anybody who has a chance to play it, you start to learn about these systems. Like I feel like I have an experience of what it means to be in an auction now, even though I'll probably never actually be in an auction. But like Sam said, that game gave me this access point to be able to have this embodied experience of something that is a bit of a social dynamic that can happen within these auctions. So it was also just interesting to hear from Sam about the different genres of games and the evolution of games, some of the different trends that he's seeing and trying to find new multimodal inputs to games. But now at this point, it's about how to integrate multiple angles for how to attack the game and how can you combine all these things into a single experience. And so some of these radio plays, I had a chance to watch some of that radio play that was there at IndieCade and talked to the creators and they were like, yeah, this is a game that we could start to put onto like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home. And you have this interactive conversational interface that is taking something that is a story and a narrative, but you're able to participate in that and be able to interact with it and change the direction of this branching path and narrative. There was a number of different VR experiences that I had a chance to go through and I did a few interviews with some of the creators as well. So I'll be talking to the creator of Phenomenology as well as the Everybody's Sad experiences. But that overall Sam is really focusing on the interaction paradigm. It's a play festival for play experiences so he's really thinking about what do I do, what happens when I do it, and how do I do it. So he's really focusing on that active presence and expressing your agency and making choices, taking action, but there's also this new dimension of the embodied presence, the environmental presence, the emotional presence and storytelling and how to balance those two things I think is one of the challenges of game design is to do this balance between the generative control of the player either through procedurally generated content that is a little bit random in some ways or different every time, but also this authorial control of the creator of the game to be able to have a fixed narrative and having that balance between the authorial control and the gerund of control of the player to be able to explore around. And so that balance between the yang and the yang of what is going to be received by the user and what ability and agency does the player and the user have to be able to actually determine their own destiny within the experience. And just going back to the transformative power of the magic circle, the magic circle is essentially like a set of rules that you are saying that this has deeper meaning. Just as an example, if you look at soccer, you are essentially just kicking a ball into a net, but the meaning that happens when you're able to actually do that, it takes on much larger significance of this competition and the context of that competition that goes way beyond the mundane act of a ball going into a net. It's a goal and it's in the context of a game. So with that magic circle, that magic circle has the power to literally reshape the world around us to having different layers of meaning that mean something more than what it means just with our mundane meaning that we have ascribed to it. And so as we add more and more layers of meaning and purpose, then that is going to recontextualize the original meaning and take on a completely new meaning after that. And I think that's the thing. It's just changing our relationship to the world around us, and it's changing the way that we are able to see the world. And finally, you know, Sam said that the future of entertainment is headed towards this experiential, bespoke, and immersive experiences where people want to change the world around them and to make it feel different. They want to have an experience, not just a story, but they want to have something that's theirs. They want to have these immersive and interactive experiences, and I think that both the augmented and virtual reality, all these conversational interfaces, ambient interfaces, multimodal input with transmedia types of experiences that are either by yourself or with other people, but it's able to have these shared experiences that are not just something that you're passively consuming, but something that you're actively interacting with and that they want to have a lived experience that is theirs, that is very unique to them, and that they're able to tell the story of their own experience. And so they want immersive, interactive, bespoke experiences, and that they're able to actually participate and interact with, and that the future of play is going to be immersive, social, interactive experiences to allow you to understand these complex systems. And these games are systemic metaphors to allow you to have a small experience that allows you to have a greater understanding of the larger whole. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a member-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show