First of of all, thank you so much for agreeing to talk about your work in the voidspace! Pull up a beanbag and make yourself comfortable.
Yes please – oat milk if you’ve got it, no sugar.
The voidspace is about interactive arts of all kinds. Tell us a little bit about the interactive work that you create.
I make tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), and also work in interactive theatre and game-like performance (for instance, mega-games, or narrative street games). The biggest common element in most of what I do is that aspect of role-playing, where you’ve got people pretending to be someone else, whether it’s a classic adventurer, or a politician during a historical event, or a member of a fictional secret society. There’s always an element of play and collective imagining to what I work in.
What does interactivity mean to you? What is it about interactive work that excites you? What is it, in your opinion, that participants can get from interactive work that they can’t get from other artforms?
Pretty much whenever I talk about interactivity, I reference a great blog post from Hannah Nicklin which for years I’ve found a useful reference for different kinds of interactivity. Going by Hannah’s definition, my go-to idea of interactivity is towards the conversational or emergent end – or, to be less jargon-y, for me interactivity is about something that’s created together – where the player or audience member’s interaction creates things that the game master or performers or facilitators couldn’t make just on their own.
There’s so much that’s exciting about interactive work – the unpredictability of it, the brilliant creativity it invites from and inspires in people, the sense of being part of a unique, one-off thing…There’s a sense of empowerment and agency that participants can’t get elsewhere. It might sound overly sentimental, but I do think there’s something big in how interactive work says ‘your input is valuable’ because of players or audiences being co-creators in such work.
Your TTRPGs cover a wide range of subject matter, from pop culture to time travel to imagined futures. What would you say are your main influences?
I’ll never be able to get away from the fact that the first tabletop game I ever played was Dungeons & Dragons, and for a few years it was the one I played more than any other game. That’s not to say that all my games have similar mechanics or themes or player experiences – just that, if your introduction to tabletop games is a long time playing primarily one system, then you’ll take on subconscious lessons about what a tabletop game is, and then there’s a lot of work to unlearn that! So there’s probably ways I don’t even notice that D&D influences me. And there’s the fact that big influences on me are the players and Game Masters I play with – the characters and scenarios they make, the way they tell stories, their different ways of creating fun, even when with the same systems.
A lot of my games are pop-culture inspired because I often see a film or TV show and go ‘I want to feel what it’s like to be inside that world’. But that can be anything from ‘I want to fuck over and get fucked over in high-stakes business deals like Succession’ to ‘I want to have an unnerving conversation with a stranger in a diner like The Twilight Zone’.
If I was to try and hone in on something more super-specific, I think there is something in that a couple of my earliest theatre jobs were assisting a director called Carl Heap, who specialises in Medieval Theatre. Big elements of that are using whatever you have available to create costume and props, milking any skills you have to grab and hold people’s attention and entertain them, and very openly going to the audience ‘we’re gonna pretend together – we all know that this isn’t the top of a mountain, but if we sincerely imagine it and you do too, then we’re golden’. And I’ve definitely found that in games (whether using a nearby mug to alter my voice and sound more like a robot, or lying on the floor whilst multiple people hold each other’s legs to imitate dangling at the lip of a volcano) and want to explore that more.
Some of the games on roll / flip / draw take the form of solo TTRPGs. What do these have to offer players who are used to gaming as a group experience?
I remember not playing solo games for ages and not really seeing their appeal; I’d occasionally dabbled but it was mainly the first UK lockdown in 2020 that I really got into them properly. Before then the appeal of games for me was, largely, playing them with friends – so why would I play them alone?
But, just as group games make sense for telling certain stories, solo games make sense for telling others. Sometimes what I get from them is a level of absorption and immersion that can be hard to reach with a group of players – I remember playing through Thousand Year Old Vampire in one sitting, listening to moody music and adoring just rattling through this incredible story. I got to sit and pause with the emotional moments, drive through the wild revenge, take everything at the pace that felt right for me and explore exactly what I wanted to, skim by what wasn’t my personal focus. I think it can be easy to think that solo games, by not featuring other players, are less unpredictable, but they can be equally as surprising as group games.
(Also, as means of getting your imagination going or interesting ways of prompting writing, they’re really good!)
A lot of your games use interactive mechanics to explore emotional space. What draws you to this particular combination? Do you think exploring real life emotional dynamics in a tabletop roleplaying game context can serve a therapeutic purpose?
In a recent chat about character bleed (where, after playing a character, you might find it difficult to separate out their feelings and experiences from your own), a friend told me that I’m really into ‘imaginative empathy’. I don’t personally have a problem with character bleed – for me, it’s an experience of sitting inside someone else’s feelings which is one of the things I really love about tabletop roleplaying games. So the exploration of emotional space has always been a part of how I think of interactive media. There’s also something fascinating about trying to take something as intangible as feelings and emotions and give them concrete form – that this Jenga tower is a fragile relationship, that this coin is the care you have for someone, etc.
The therapy question is a hard one. On the one hand, I’ve seen tabletop roleplaying games be an incredible place for people to explore some things they may be dealing with in real life, especially around gender (I definitely explored with playing characters with they/them pronouns, or genderfluid characters, to see how it felt and explore some of my own feelings and thoughts prior to coming out; I’ve seen this with a lot of other people too). On the other hand – let’s say that games can be therapeutic, but don’t mistake them for therapy. I’ve seen people cross that line as well. The other players aren’t your therapist. There are boundaries regarding what it’s okay to bring to other people, or how much real-life dynamic to introduce into gameplay.
But as a last thought re therapeutic purpose of games – they can help you model behaviour. Say you’re playing a game about revolution, the actions you have as a character might be a specific selection of things that advance a revolution. And now, you have a small toolkit that you might be able to apply to the real world. There’s something really powerful in how games can re-frame what we think is possible in certain situations, what avenues or actions we think are available to us in that moment.
Alongame combined weekly releases of solo role-playing games alongside weekly streams, with both geared at building up the imagined parallel world of ‘Alongame’. Players were encouraged to share the artefacts, maps, recordings, photos and stories generated through playing games and these were then archived online to create a shared world, as well as being used to inform the content of subsequent games and streams. What did you take away from the project?
So much, that’s probably an interview in and of itself! A lot of my instinctive answers will sound a bit like downers – they’re all things to do better in future with such projects (making the process by which participant contributions are worked into the later games more transparent; give more time to actually market and publicise the project; build in more time, especially for developing stream content), because that’s how I think.
But it was such an incredible project – the atmosphere on the streams, where we were pretending to have dinners together, with ‘traditions’ drawn from this imaginary world, and created games that could be played with chat, was absolutely brilliant and I’d love to do more specifically in that vein. Another big thing was that, as a group, we (the brilliant Thryn Henderson, Mo Holkar, Hannah Raymond-Cox and Isa S-A were the collaborators on the project, doing just as much as me) mapped out our ‘metrics for success’ at the beginning. Some of this was ‘get some people writing poetry for the first time’ or similar, but one was ‘avoiding crunch or overwork’. And that really impacted how we worked on the project – because you could actually step back and say ‘if I push any harder right now, we have – in one way – failed to do what we set out to’. And it made it easier to advocate for rest, for pauses and breaks, for shuffling work around, etc. That was a really big thing.
Do players ever take your experiences in directions you don’t expect?
I know GMs do – one thing that’s been interesting is seeing people tweet about running Time Heist, my most popular game by far. And they’ve shared maps and reference images and so much more planning than I’d ever imagined going with the game. Though they’re not doing anything wrong – it’s just interesting to see that, whilst the game absolutely doesn’t require that kind of prep, it’s the way they approach it as a GM, and it’s a good insight for designing future games too.
A big part of play-testing games is basically finding out where players take things in unexpected directions, and identifying where you want to leave space for that and where you want to close those avenues up. Time Heist is again a good example here – in the first play-test, players were travelling decades back and forward in time; I think the overall timeline was 500 years long or something. Which was horrendous to keep track of as a GM! So I deliberately made some things about the game more concentrated – it happens on an island, you’re mainly travelling in time across a few hours etc – to make it manageable to run. But I say ‘mainly’ because in other play-tests there were very specific player choices that created cool stories that needed some openness left to allow for those.
You also create interactive work in twine, and run workshops to help others learn the platform. What do you feel twine has to offer creators and audiences?
So much! For creators, I think it’s an incredible tool in that it’s a) free, b) quite easy to pick up – especially so with recent versions, that cut out the need to know code for certain functions and tricks and c) it’s incredibly flexible. Some people think it’s a text-adventure tool so that’s all it does – but you can incorporate images and sound and all sorts, and once you’ve picked up a couple of tricks or pieces of code you can then just combine those in loads of different ways to make increasingly advanced things. The amount of times people who’ve come to Twine workshops have almost immediately gone off and made work that incorporates it speaks to how versatile it is and the variety of experiences you can create with it.
For audiences – this kind of depends on how creators use it and what they do with it. It might be a small tool that enhances audiences’ experiences, or it might be the entire focal point of something. I think the biggest thing is that Twine is a means to make games or digital interactive media that is often used by people who’ve never done that before, like theatre-makers. Which means they bring very different approaches and ideas, and create distinctive experiences for audiences.
You are also a regular performer in interactive theatre. How does performing in interactive shows differ from acting in conventional plays? How does your performance work feed into your practice as a creator?
I’m trying to remember when I last acted in a conventional play! That might genuinely be university, I think all my professional performance work has been interactive or game-based in some way…I mean, being a good performer in an interactive show is a different skillset from being a good performer in conventional plays (some people might be both, but being one doesn’t guarantee being the other). They’re totally different things, but probably one of the biggest things is in interactive shows you’re often improvising with audience members – many of whom likely don’t think of themselves as improvisers, haven’t thought about improv or been trained in it in any way. So a lot of the job can be supporting them in making their own decisions, contributing to what’s happening, showing them how it all works whilst still remaining in the world of the show.
My performance work definitely plays a role in how much I love games with physically interesting or metaphorical mechanics – Dread’s Jenga tower, Time Travel Thaw’s melting ice, Ten Candles’…well, ten candles. I’m starting to consciously move towards trying to make games with theatrical aspects to them, which means thinking about physical components and lighting and sound and suchlike.
What does 2022 hold for you? Any projects that we should be looking out for?
I’m designing game mechanics for The Broad Cloth, which is just in R&D phases for now, but it’s an online larp that runs for several weeks, following an island community during significant events. It’s specifically being developed with and for players with ADHD (the lead creative, Jen Toksvig, also has ADHD) – so if anyone out there is curious, there’s more info here.
I’m trying to make an idea I’ve had for a while – a Zoom-based larp facilitated by, essentially, a haunted Ceefax screen! Its working title is Transmission and I’m currently making a short test version then hopefully expanding it out later in the year.
There are some exciting potential collaborations I can’t talk about yet – primarily part of a trend I’m seeing of theatre companies becoming more interested in what larp and tabletop could add to their practice and offer their audiences. Beyond that, 2022’s a bit of a blank slate – I’m taking a bit of time to think about what projects are important to me, and what I want to make happen. Likely theatrical tabletop games, a lot of experimenting in improvised tech for remote and digital shows, and maybe I’ll finish some longer-running projects that I was writing throughout 2021!
(If anyone wants to keep up with these, the easiest way will be via my mailing list: here)
What advice do you have for aspiring creators in the interactive space?
Consume all sorts of media/art, not just the kind that you are making or trying to make. That song, that comic book, that exhibition on medical history, etc – they’ll all feed into your work, even if they’re not interactive themselves. Think about what makes you distinctive from those around you – this is true for all creators, I suppose – but a while back I began describing myself as a ‘game-maker’ when I was at theatrical networking events and a ‘theatre-maker’ when at gaming networking events (though both were true, don’t just lie!), and by framing myself in terms of how I was distinct to others, it helped me stick out in people’s minds.
Read through submissions to the Golden Cobra Challenge to see what LARP scripts look like; go over the archives of the 200 Word RPG Challenge to get some quick, snappy and interesting insights into TTRPG mechanics and character generation; start an itch.io page and join in with jams on the site (deadlines *and* prompts? What an absolute gift); if you’re curious about TTRPGs specifically, look into the Tabletop Mentorship Program which is fantastic; look to what the indie or solo publishers in gaming and the fringe companies in theatre are doing (it might be easy to stop at discovering the big names and consider them authorities on interactivity, but in my experience it’s the smaller groups who are more nimble and flexible and therefore doing interesting stuff before the bigger groups have even noticed the possibilities).
And I guess, to try and end on something neat and personal – I define stories as ‘descriptions of change’ and therefore, when you’re making something interactive, the core question is ‘how can the player/audience member/etc affect change?’. All too often unsatisfying interactive work, where the interactivity doesn’t feel meaningful or even real, is unsatisfying precisely because they’ve not properly answered this question.
Thank you for joining us and for giving us these insights into your work. Mind your head on the way out.
Find out more about Chloe’s work here: