Watch the Skies 3: my perception of the major problems (1)

Following my previous post in which I gave an account of my experience playing in WTS3 as one of Brazil’s two ambassadors, in this post I would like to detail some of my criticisms of the game itself. As I said, I found the game to be an enjoyable though flawed experience. Creating and organising something on this scale is beyond me, so much respect to the organisers and the control team. If one of the organisers was to read this post, I hope they would take this criticism in the constructive manner it is intended. Also, some of what I say here may be flat out wrong: there may be aspects I misunderstood or just missed in the days events. Right, that’s enough arse covering.

Criticism number 1. The lack of any plot.

The main point of games such as this one is that they are shared storytelling experiences. Players are encouraged to roleplay and be inventive, and as such individual stories rise organically throughout the game. For example, stories I remember  from the debriefing include the Canadians managed to persuade an alien to star in one of their reality TV series. Elsewhere, the Egyptians built a spaceport with help from a Corporation, which was subsequently destroyed. The Chinese assasinated the Japanese prime minister. This is all great stuff, and very memorable for the people involved, but the problem is that these are disjointed events. As well as stories, I believe that a collective experience such as this one needs a plot: a cohesive narrative throughout the day with a setup, a series of events and a payoff at the end, which is hopefully satisfying to the players. I believe this very strongly. I draw a key distinction here between what I am calling story and plot. Stories are things which happened entirely organically on the day. Plot on the other hand is somewhat pre-ordained, in that a framework has been drawn up beforehand. This framework can be fairly lose, in fact ideally it should be, such that there are a variety of different conclusions which could be reached depending on the actions of the players. It is the responsibility of the dungeon master to guide the players through the plot, getting them to one of the conclusions while still leaving them enough flexibility such that they don’t feel they are on rails.

As an aside, one of the key problems with an event such as WTS is that it is a time limited game. This means that developing narratives can be cut off in their prime: armies poised on the brink of war and then… the game ends. Something like that happened to us in our game: we mobilised for a potential war with Venezuela on the very last turn of the game. Note however that this problem is more of an issue for stories rather than plot. A skilled organiser should be able to guide the plot, accelerating events when need be, in order to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion.

I think plot is vital to events such as this. Most people’s introduction to WTS is through the famous SUASD video, and the reason I think this video is compelling and has sold so many on the concept of megagames is because of the plot elements in this video. I realise that this video has been edited to some extent to highlight the narrative, but it is very clear there are pre-ordained elements. There is the setup: aliens are visiting the Earth and apparently hostile. There is a hidden mystery to discover: the aliens are actually entirely peaceful, and their apparent hostility is all a result of misinformation and confusion. There are milestones in the plot as the game progresses: an alien base on the Earth is discovered, then a moon base, then a Mars base. The players develop the capability to strike the bases. Then the players face a critical decision: to launch a nuclear strike or not. They choose not, and in the denouement the true nature of the aliens is revealed, and it is noted that by not striking the players saved the Earth. If they had chosen the nuclear option, the aliens would have wiped humanity out completely.

Now, this is actually a very simple plot, and fairly ‘light touch’ from Control’s point of view. It’s just a case of guiding the players to the milestones and putting them in a position where they can make the key decision. Not everyone will have had a casting vote in that decision but everyone will have been part of the experience and will leaving knowing what happened, and what could have happened if the chips had fallen a different way. That’s a satisfying narrative.

In comparison, in WTS3 I fumbled around blindly looking for the plot. We tried to determine what the alien’s motivations were. We avoided shooting them down until we knew more about them in case it had Serious Consequences For Earth. We held a peace conference with alien representatives in which I specifically asked what they wanted from us. I worried about the fact that there were mysteries we didn’t know the answers to, like who the people wearing ‘Ordinary People’ badges were. Towards the end I became convinced that the fact that the Cetaceans were leaving meant that the planet might be destroyed. When the game ended, I knew that I hadn’t really been involved in the plot at all. Never mind though I thought: I’m sure some of the other teams were. I eagerly awaited the debriefing, and was hugely disappointed to find that there was no discussion of the plot at all, just a Control representative from each group giving a brief overview of the stories. I found this a pretty deflating end to the day, to be honest. No conclusion to the narrative meant I left unsatisfied, like when a television serial is cancelled part way through. It really threw into sharp relief the ‘time limited’ problem with collective storytelling experiences, as described above. A notable additional problem was that, in the last couple of turns, the lack of a plot meant that things did really feel like they were petering out rather than coming to a climax. A number of diplomats from other teams mentioned to be that they were at a loss to find something to do and I felt the same. From our point of view, the Venezuelan situation was becoming interesting but that’s about it. A whimper rather than a bang.

Thinking about it on the train home, I assumed that some of the things that happened towards the end of the game were the plot, chiefly the visit of alien representatives to the UN, and the arrival of battleships in orbit to provide a kind of Earth quarantine. That didn’t feel right though, since I’m not sure what the human teams could have done to affect these events. Were there paths we could have followed which would have led to Earth being welcomed in the Galactic community, or others which would have led to the Earth’s destruction? Without being told the key decision points, it’s difficult to understand the plot. Another oddity was the behavior of the alien players. We never divined any of their true purposes: all they wanted from us was vague assurances of peace and resource cards. In many ways, they seems just like human players but with artificial communication barriers in place. Also worrying was the fact that the alien Control noted that all the alien teams began the game in peaceful cooperation, and they had to artificially introduce some conflict. This does not suggest a heterogeneity of alien objectives, and does suggest that our attempts to determine the motivations of the various groups, and not shoot down saucers because Shooting Down The Wrong Aliens Could Have Dire Consequences For Earth, was in fact a fools errand.

Something also notable to me is that some of the most compelling parts of the day were not when we were left entirely to our own devices to tell stories, but when a spanner was thrown into the works by Control imposing some new situation on us. Examples include the Papal quarantine and the Venezuelan revolution. Interventions like these are key to driving the narrative.

This week, after reading other people’s experiences, an even worse picture emerges. It seems that there was no plot at all! No bases to discover, no decision points, no alternative fates for the Earth. The UN visit and the battleships were just story. While this explains why there was no plot explanation in the debriefing, it seems a huge backward step from WTS1. I don’t know why this decision was made. Is it because of the complexity of this new form of the game, with many more human teams and different alien factions? If the plot was lost to make the game bigger in scale, it seems to me that price is too high. Some teams had an air of mystery about them, such as Humanity First and the Ordinary People, but with no plot pay-off they were a complete red herring and might as well have not been there. Indeed, I’ve read that there was some potential for these factions to affect the plot: the Ordinary People for example were apparently the Deep Ones, and had the ability to trigger the melting of the ice caps and the flooding of the world. But with no debriefing discussing this there is no satisfaction. Did they just choose not to do this or did the human nations stop it happening by doing something? If so, what? I’ve heard these teams have been urged to keep their nature secret for future games. Again, if having these mysterious factions in a future game means they must be neutered in the current game, the price is too high. Why not just introduce them at the point where they make a difference?

To be fair, there were some bits of plot in the game, if you take plot to mean an ingame event which was pre-ordained. Every turn we received an orange sheet of paper detailing a world crisis: the usual solution of which was to debate in the UN whether to send in observers or peacekeepers or whatever, which often cost money or resources or whatever. To my mind, this was also a bit of a failure. For one thing, these were discrete events, one not solving the other. Secondly, they tended to be solved trivially. This is mainly because there was no real reason not to solve them, and the resources of the world were more than adequate. For example, our Foreign Minister was in the UN in turn 1 when there was a crisis in Uganda. Apparently the people around the table collective chucked in enough cash to solve the issue 8 times over. Later in the game there was an issue affecting us in the Americas, between Nicaruagua and the Honduras I believe. We were out of the UN at the time, but Canada amd Mexico were both in. We all agreed we wanted to solve the issue and were willing to chuck in a few quid. I asked someone how it was going a turn or so later, and apparently it was all resolved. Um, great? The worst part of this is, I’m not sure what would have happened if we had completely ignored it and just let the crisis happen. Maybe the terror track would go up a few points, but that was going crazy anyway from all the UFOs buzzing around. Maybe the slip of paper had some Serious Consequences on it for American nations which I overlooked, but it was easy to overlook, since solving the situation was so trivial. We did it for role-playing reasons, not because we felt we had to. And these minor, disjointed speedbumps do not make for a plot.

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