Last night was the first public viewing of Mud Room. As of this morning I’ve fixed a number of bugs I identified in the first show. There’s a remaining problem where the kneeling pad errors out when the pad is set to keyboard press/release but works with keyboard write, which is a little problematic since people kneeling for over 10 seconds trigger multiple kneels. I’ll likely need to fix this after the show is over.
Here are notes from my critique-
On the second day of my show I had two very different audiences, back-to-back. The first was a class of 38 undergrad honors Art-science class students (a class that exposes students to science-based art, which I don’t think this project at all qualifies as), followed by my MFA cohort for critique.
The undergrad honors class was an intense stress test on the system, a blizzard of entropy. The students took every item in every room they could find, fired dozens of arrows at one another randomly, and flocked lemming-like into the jaws of the Wumpus and the bottom of the deadly pit. I warned them away from the kneeling pad and instead demonstrated it for them, the teachers assistant however sat on it for an extended period of time and used the joystick to scrub a clean floor, trying to understand the interaction. The sign I posted warning viewers vaguely away from this area but also inviting them to investigate it was about as effective as one might expect. As a central object in front of a giant screen with fancy graphics, the kneeling pad was the most interesting object in the room and was irresistable. Students played the actual game at the seated positions and online mainly because the kneeling pad was already occupied by the teacher’s assistant. The students also killed my character (the character who’s location is linked to the projections) with arrows, causing the unity project to stop pulling the game’s api until I resurrected the character. Sudents also encountered some bugs, like characters having been killed by arrows still being able to move from room to room without displaying a death screen. I felt like seeing this many people interacting with the piece in ways that I am used to from game events was part of what I was missing from seeing art audiences shallowly and passively interact with it.
Immediately after my cohort explored the space and gave critique. They also gravitated towards the projections and only grudgingly played the game at the seated stations. There was feedback about the difficulty of parsing the GUI of the game, and of not knowing how to navigate using the Atari joystick, although there were also aknowledgements that the project might be about the confusion of using these objects and interfaces. My initial defensive position was that people were giving me reasons why they didn’t play the game rather than critiques on usability, but I re-evaluated that position after seeing a couple of players seemingly confused by the way that up/down on the joystick would skip from exits to room items to inventory, and left right would move through individual items. This control structure seemed the best way to deal with the fact that the icon layout is fluid and responsive and there is no “grid” to move up and down in when there are multiple rows of items in a section. I had become quickly accustomed to this quirk, but it confused some players when they were first trying to understand what the joystick did. There were also comments that it was difficult to understand the connection between the game and the projections. There seemed to be a consensus that combining the difficult to parse and intimidating game with the inviting kneeling pad/projections drove viewers from the former to the latter. There was also a comment that the tonal inconsistencies in text in the online and gui versions of the game were confusing (actually pointing out some text that was appropriated from an actual RPG computer game from the 80’s). There was one very ambivalent/negative comment from one person in my cohort that they couldn’t determine an intended effect of the piece, that it did not feel like it addressed an idea of childhood trauma to them, that it felt like a formal abstraction, and that I shouldn’t pursue additional work on the game as I had stated I intended to. I think a lot of these concerns I tried to address in the printed materials, but I agree that the printed materials shouldn’t be instrumental in the experience of the piece, they should just enhance or suppliment it, the affordances to appreciate the artwork should be within the artwork. I had hoped that the looping video would do that work, but I was also motivated to partially hide the video as the last element a viewer encounters. There were many comments that the game required an onboarding or tutorial sequence at the beginning. I would add that the game also requires some timeout reset or manual reset so that new players will start at character creation as they sit to play.
There were also comments that I found positive- that a viewer felt like a guest in my “house”, that they were conscious of how they positioned their body in each of the three elements of the piece. There were some references mentioned, like modern Japanese shrines that electronically record devotions (I was excited by this, and imagined a tamagotchi-style standalone version of my kneeling pad). There was a comment from a viewer that they were able to understand that the goal of the game was some form of exploration and that the game expressed an urge to hide things and a distrust of the audience. There was a critical comment that I found generative- that the game materials stated that the game was partially about the dichotomy of play versus work, and that that concept wasn’t fully explored in the actual game. There were some positive reactions to the looping video, which to me seems like the most accessible part of the work, and one I was obliged to include. I had wanted different views of this experience for different people, especially those who I knew would be resistant to the idea of interacting with a videogame, but I feel like trying to please everyone ends up pleasing no one, and sometimes the elements in this piece end up battling one another. As I was leaving critique, two players told me that they understood and respected that I had created a structure to limit access to personal stories, and that art audiences could demand total voyeurism and that access could be negotiated.
My first professor walkthrough echoed some of the same critiques from the class, but added the idea that the seated game stations be oriented in front of the projections, so that the urge to interact with the projections was transferred to the seated spot, and the monitors and projection screen could both be seen by players. The kneeling pad could be covered until I decided to interact with it in front of the players. This professor also found the semi-hidden positioning of the looping video to be effective, but that the stage light that led people to it might be too bright. There was a strong suggestion from this professor that they wanted to see a map, with family member named landmarks, a path of where they had gone, and more doubling down on the “my family as a dungeon” conceit, which they felt was a strong summary.
My second professor walkthrough offered some ideas of other affordances for working through player anxiety about interacting with the game- How do you make affordances into the space? In another gallery setting maybe only the projections run during the day and then there’s a scheduled stewarded onboarding into the game. Also ways of showing my own vulnerability in the space other than just hiding personal info in it, so the players don’t feel so put on the spot themselves.
A third professor walkthrough was very positive, there was talk about how the project could be extended as planned into a much larger space with cenotaphs partially created from genealogy data, and about different kinds of algorithmic texts that could populate each level in the dungeon as it descended back in time, generation by generation.
After the critique I felt an immediate kind of weariness and overexposure and I started to second guess the project, but after some subsequent reflection, I have been having ideas again on how to expand the database portion of the project and use it in new novel game views, and how to add more archival use to the cenotaphs, and how to project a sort of future imaginary to levels constructed above my generation. I imagine arcologies that pull the energy of time from dungeons beneath them.