Or: why can it be so difficult to achieve a satisfying conclusion to a larp, and what can we do to change that?
Aristotle (Greek philosopher) was the first to describe the structure underlying most dramatic storytelling. It goes like this:
First introduce a hero we can identify with – the protagonist. Then introduce a problem or conflict for our protagonist. In the middle of our story the problem grows worse and worse. The protagonist’s attempts to overcome it grow increasingly spectacular and interesting. We hold our breath as the tension reaches a peak, a resolution, which culminates in the problem disappearing. Maybe it disappeared because of the protagonist’s victory. Maybe it disappeared because the protagonist failed in an interesting way. At any rate: the conflict is gone. Tie up loose ends with an epilogue or two, and end the story.
When you draw this structure as a graph, it forms an arc:
Or maybe, as later thinkers have done, like an arc composed of smaller arcs (little problems are being resolved but the big problem keeps getting bigger):
You know the Artistotelian arc. It’s there, hiding, underneath pretty much every movie you have seen, every novel you have read. And * cough * many of the better acts of sexual intercourse you’ve enjoyed. The Aristotelian arc is not universal: there are narratives without the arc and with different kinds of arcs. But it’s so pervasive in Western storytelling that we tend to have difficulties with stories that fail to follow it.
In a larp the protagonist is you: the player. Or rather: the character that you play. Which means that if there are 50 characters, there are 50 protagonists.
And when you have 50 protagonists and 50 arcs, there will be a crescendo of conflict-resolution towards the end.
This is the Aristotelian Curse.
“A curse, you say? Why is it a curse?”
Let me give an example:
The peasant. The priest. The prince. The estranged lovers. These characters could all co-exist at the same larp.
The peasant’s noble sacrifice. The priest’s triumphant banishing of the demon. The new king’s coronation. The re-kindling of estranged love. These are all good resolutions to their respective stories.
But imagine them concluding simultaneously. The estranged lovers try to re-unite, but before they can admit their mutual love, they are called to the throne room to witness the coronation of a new king. But alas! The evil Royal Chamberlain had a different plan – the crown jewels, now in his hand, were the last missing component of his spell to summon the demon Shmoronzon and bring about the Æon of Fishy Darkness. So the coronation is interrupted by fire and brimstone, the booming voice of Shmoronzon demanding human sacrifice with a side of anchovis.
But wait! There is another voice in the room – the nervous Priest is chanting something, something that makes the demon afraid. For you see: A few hours back, he figured out the chamberlain’s demon-summoning plot, and managed to piece together an exorcism. The priest succeeds, the demon is banished, and ta-da! the larp is over.
Except the new king’s story, the estranged lovers story, and most of the stories of the other people are left open-ended. Unsatisfactory. And did I forget about the peasant’s noble self-sacrifice? So did you.
Why does this happen? People hunting for a good narrative can cause the curse. But it can also be described in economic terms: A dead character is worthless. But a victorious character is also worth little, having no driving force left, or reason to interact with others. So resolution is postponed. As the larp approaches the end, though, the cost of resolving the conflict lessens and the potential reward for resolving it increases. For all players. Simultaneously.
In other words: gamists and simulationists, you’re not off the hook.
So how do larpwrights avoid the Artistotelian Curse?
Because they do avoid it. Some larps end in cacophony, but most don’t. While we didn’t even have a word to describe this phenomenon before this blog post, I don’t think that’s because the Aristotelian curse isn’t a problem. On the contrary, I think it’s because it’s such an obvious and common problem that it goes without saying.
But all wisdom, to quote Confucius (Chinese philosopher), begins by calling things by their right name. Finding names for larp design challenges allows us to have clearer discussions about them (“where’s the zombie?”), and pass this knowledge along to others.
So here are some strategies for dealing with the Aristotelian Curse:
- Design inclusive conflicts: Many or all characters have the same goal, and face the same opposition – e.g there are two armies, not two individuals, who are about to settle their differences. So all characters get their resolution simultaneously, but without cacophony.
- Isolate conflicts: Love in the age of debasement, for example, has 12 couples at the same cafe. Each couple reach the climax of their relationship crisis, but since the couples don’t know each other, it’s none of the others business.
- Distribute the climactic moments in time: Love in the age of debasement also assigns each couple a song. The players are off-game instructed to bring their conflict to a peak when “their song” plays. Those who resolve early can spend more time on epilogues.
- Distribute the climactic moments in space: the demon-summoning will not disrupt the coronation if it occurs in the monastery that is 800 meters away from the coronation.
- Have supporting parts: characters that can engage in low-level play of their own, but are expected to be the audience to the spectacular resolutions of others. For this to work, the supporting parts need to have a meaningful audience experience by following the arc of the protagonist-participants. A cultist who assists the cult leader in obtaining the clues and ingredients to summon the demon Shmoronzon can have an interesting experience.. But not peasant #15, who never heard of Shmoronzon before the climactic summoning.
- Low-key conflicts: Coronations and self-sacrifice and demon-summoning are examples of high-key resolution: they invite exaggeration, demand attention, overshadow other resolutions. But the resolution for the estranged lovers does not require an audience, does not stand in the way of anyone elses resolution. If all conflicts are similarly low-key, the Curse is avoided.
- Being upfront, e.g. by clarifying to the players there shall be no arc and no resolution: this was my strategy at Europa. In one sense it didn’t work – several narratives reached their climax towards the end of the larp. In another sense it did: the climaxes that did occur were few enough and subdued enough that the Curse was avoided.
- Design transitions rather than conflicts: We don’t actually need conflict to enjoy a narrative – we need change, transitions, even if what we change to is back to the original state. Transitions are verbs: Finding, loosing, leaving, coming, learning, unlearning, maintaining. Fighting is a very dramatic verb, one that sucks attention to itself. Ditch the conflict, and these other kinds of transition can be given the space to flower. Very few larpwrights actually do this.
- Design the larp around micro-arcs: have plenty of beginnings, middles and ends leading to the next beginning. For example, PanoptiCorp features an ad agency where the characters are constantly working towards their next pitch. The customer’s acceptance or rejection of the pitch concludes the arc, but there’s always a new project waiting. Just a little lovin’ is divided into three acts, each lasting roughly a day, and each ending with breakfast. So you can resolve your arc before going to bed, or at the breakfast table, or in the next act, or all of these.
- Make it a slice of life: encourage a highly realist playing style, where emphasis is on living the ordinary life of an ordinary character. 1942, for example, was not particularly cursed by Aristotle. Nor are the low-key fantasy larps built around ordinary life in a medievalish village.
OR you can embrace the curse: Allow the larp to become a competition about who gets to dominate its ending. Accept the cacophony. Ignore the irreality of it. This is “low-resolution” roleplaying, to borrow Andie Nordgren’s term (source). And it is a natural consequence of “brute-force” larp design, the approach where you throw lots of exciting shit on the wall and see what sticks. Nothing wrong with that: lo-res larping can be fun, worthwhile, easily approachable. But what if you want wanted hi-res larping, the kind of role-play with nuance and subtlety, where everything that happens now is consistent with everything that happened before? In that case: don’t.
Any other strategies? Examples of good or bad ways of dealing with the Artistotelian Curse? Go ahead – the comment field is waiting for you: