Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: The Book Ritual
The 2019 Game Developers Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.
The Book Ritual has players exploring loss and grief through taking a book and defacing it, in a sense.
Players have to customize the book with their artwork and feelings, transcribing thoughts or altering the text to make it their own.
Then, they must feed pages of their book through the shredder, actively destroying something they've loaded with their own importance.
Gamasutra spoke with Alistair Aitcheson, developer of The Book Ritual, to talk about the emotional impact of destroying a book, and how this act can help players think on loss in a safe environment.
Exploring your own story through shredding books
I’m Alistair Aitcheson, and I’m the sole developer behind The Book Ritual. I did the programming, built the hardware, wrote the dialogue and did the artwork and animations.
The Book Ritual is a narrative game played using a real book and a real shredder. Your book becomes a character talking to you through the screen. It has a story to tell, but it wants you know your own story too. It asks you to write in its pages and deface it in creative ways to reflect your feelings. The book also needs you to tear out its pages and put them through a shredder.
This is where the custom hardware comes in: the shredder is attached to the computer by a USB cable and detects when paper’s going through it. So, you actually need to shred pages in order to progress.
The shredder itself is dressed up as a character, with big cartoon eyes and teeth. Because the subject matter is quite melancholic, I want the player to feel welcomed in by something innocent, childlike and friendly.
On creating a game about destroying books
Questions about loss and regret had been on my mind. I wanted to capture these questions in my creative work because when I talked about them I couldn’t get to the heart of what was troubling me. A lot of my previous games have used physical interaction, physical props, and physical performance (I do an alt-controller comedy show, for example), and physicality has become quite a natural way for me to tackle creative ideas. I wanted to see if I could use these same methods to explore a more emotional subject that I struggled to capture otherwise.
Tearing up a book asks the player to act out the process of damaging something permanently. They see their book gradually decay, and are responsible for making those irreversible changes. As they’re actively destroying the book, and seeing the changes they have made, they can reflect on how they feel about that in the here-and-now.
Having made several alternative controller games in the past, I’d noticed that destruction was ever-present, but it was always something I avoided. I’d worked so hard to make my creations more resilient, but I’d never been in a situation where destruction was the point of the controller. This time I wanted my work to talk about how nothing lasts forever. Why not explore what it means for a creation to be impermanent?
I’m also aware within myself of how many souvenirs I keep, and how much I fear losing or damaging them. Yet these souvenirs are just objects - losing them doesn't erase the people or events we wanted to commemorate. On the same note, to destroy a book feels painful, even when we know it will never get read. Even when there’s thousands of duplicates of that same book around the world. What are we afraid of losing? What are our souvenirs protecting us from?
On making players leave a part of themselves
I’m very keen to make the player connect emotionally to their book. To that end, I wanted to make sure there’s always a piece of the player inside its pages: something they’ve written or drawn that makes it feel unique and personal. I also try to use playfulness as a way to welcome players in, so they feel safe opening up. The book should feel like a friend.
Ultimately the book should allow the player to reflect on their own experiences, and how they’ve been affected by grief, loss, and regret. Yes, I have things I want to say through the work, but unless I ask the player to bring in their own experiences, it’s just me talking at them. Your experience with this book should be a conversation. If the player feels like they’re caring for their book, drawing on their own personal growth to offer advice, or lending it a sympathetic ear, that’s a really powerful way to reflect on the ideas.
Creating bonds and new memories through loss
Games are a safe space for us to explore ideas and see how we feel about them. Destroying a physical book is an invitation to get into a headspace of thinking about loss, about decay, about responsibility. But at the end of the day, it’s just a book. So it’s okay to reach a point-of-no-return. It’s an opportunity for growth.
I love how by the end of the story people come away with their own unique object - a book with a face and a personality, maybe a few little secrets in its pages - that is totally different to anyone else’s. They’ve destroyed something, but in the process have created something brand new and much more special.
On developing a love of unique controllers
I started making games as a teenager, back in 2001. I studied Maths at university, and when I graduated in 2010, I started a one-man studio making iOS games full-time. A lot of my games focused on social interaction and physical contact: making players share an iPad, for example, and encouraging them to cheat. This led me to make games with custom controllers for events and public spaces, where I could be bolder and get players to be even more physical.
Tap Happy Sabotage (2014) is a game where up to 20 players jostle over one giant touchscreen, and it’s currently on display at the Game Science Center in Berlin. Dash & Bash (2014) and Codex Bash (2015) are both in the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, and get players running around a room hitting buttons on the wall. I also perform a live interactive comedy show - The Incredible Playable Show - which I’ve been running for the past two years. It’s a collection of alt-controller games I’ve made where the whole audience gets involved. It won the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade 2017 in LA, which is one of my proudest achievements!
On creating a shredder controller
The game itself is all built in Unity, with art and animations created in Pixelmator.
The shredder unit is a basic strip-cut shredder from Amazon, with a new body made from cardboard and Duplo. The body is covered with pages from one of my old Maths textbooks and a bit of Shakespeare! The shredder unit lives under the cardboard and has an Arduino attached to it, which reads from infra-red sensors above and below the shredding mechanism. This is how it tells when paper is going through.
How The Book Ritual's unique controller evokes real feelings
The biggest opportunity is to bring players out of the computer screen and into themselves. With my comedy show, I use custom controllers as a vehicle for people to be silly - to find their inner clown, to perform, and to make people laugh. With The Book Ritual, I’m using the book and the shredder to get people to feel into an action - the permanence of an act of destruction - and experience the feelings that go with that.
They’re two very different experiences, but they draw upon the same idea. If the experience occurs behind a screen the developer has to work hard to make that experience about you. But if the experience occurs in the real world, it’s about you before it’s about anything else.