Thursday, November 20, 2008

Improv Math: Military Clock

A few weeks ago, I went to see PROJECTproject, an improv show in the Toronto area. They had just come back from a tour to Western Canada, and one of the things they brought back with them was a structure called Military Clock. I think they said it came from Winnipeg. I'm always on the look for interesting improv structures, and this has a mathematical tilt to it, so that's why I have written it up.

The way it works is:
- split the team up into two groups
- have each group form a circle on either side of the stage
- the people from either circle who are closest to the audience (two of them) are in the scene
- whenever anyone not in the scene feels that it is getting stale, they yell "Clock!" and both circles rotate
- a new scene starts with the two people who are now at the front
- repeat until you feel you're done, or everyone has had a scene

When I saw PROJECTproject do it, they had one circle of three and another circle of four, like below.

Go ahead! Click on the stage to make the clock run! Also, click on the arrows to add or subtract improvisors to each circle.

However, this only "works" for certain numbers of improvisors in the circles. Ideally, you want to be able to run the military clock around without having any repeats, and have every possible pairing of improvisors show up. When I saw it, the improvisors would keep their character for future scenes, so we saw all possible character combinations (7 choose 2).

So what numbers does it work for? It is possible to find these numbers for any troupe size?

To rotate through every possible combination, the size of the circles must be mutually prime.

Can every troupe size be expressed as a sum of two mutually prime numbers? NO. I'm also assuming we can't have circles of size one, since that isn't the spirit of the game.
It works for
5 - 3&2
7 - 3&4 (PROJECTproject)
8 - 3&5
9 - 4&5
10 - 3&7
11 - 5&6

It doesn't work for 6, sadly.

Does it NOT work for any troupe that is larger than 11? I am not sure. But seriously, who has an improv troupe larger than 11? Think of the egos!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Playing your part

One of the problem with video games that have a story component is that the player you represent can behave inconsistently with the "story of the game". Games that do not have a story component, such as most Will Wright-style games, are the exception. An example of this problem is the very detailed story and character development of Grand Theft Auto IV, and yet the cartoonish violence which is actually fun and deviates from the character that the story has built for you. Also, in some levels of the Thief Series, it is sometimes just easier to sprint through an entire level instead of being stealthy, and thus having the entire complement of guard and monster AIs making a racket trying to find you.

Elsewhere, video games have adapted strange conventions to prevent this problem, such as the "silent protagonist" seen in many first-person shooters that avoids the sticky issue by simply shutting up.

One potential cool way to synthesize story and gameplay is to somehow reward or punish the player for acting more or less like their part. I hadn't yet seen this in a game yet, until I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Valve's upcoming game, Left 4 Dead. The Tank, concept art seen below, is one of the playable zombie characters in the game.

Obviously, this character is not meant to just sit still and remain pretty. Strategic thinking also doesn't seem to be suggested by its form. To quote the article:
"Also, the tank has a "Frustration Meter" which means that control will be taken away from a human player if the Tank does not engage the survivors for a certain time."
Cool! There are other varieties of playable infected that have different characteristics, and they don't have this same description. So, the game designers are suggesting a certain "play character" in their design. I can't wait to see what more comes of this.

Suggestion: make the physical appearance and gameplay characteristics change automatically based on the game learning a player's "style".

Note: The most famous silent protagonist is Gordon Freeman, the main character of Valve's Half-Life series. Valve is great.