Yes, and? What improv theater has taught me about video games. (part 1)

I started taking improv courses last year for fun, and I have really enjoyed them. The structure of modern improv, how improvisers play ‘the game’, is not exactly what I expected. And the more I understand how their rules allow people to play together better, the more I find parallels within the world of game design.

In improv the number one rule is to listen. You accept what others offer in order to advance the scene, and you try and contribute to that scene based on what has been offered previously.

Video games trick us into thinking they are listening. They wait, with the grace of Eliza, and only when the right combination of inputs is achieved will the game offer up some advancement, a branching path with less than a handful of options.

I grew up dueling with text parsers.

The first principle of improv is summed up as “Yes, and”. “Yes” I will accept what you have offered up, “and” I will add the following context or content or call-back or whatever – in service of that initial offering. For a comedy nerd with little improv training this is hard to accept at first. ‘When do I get to use a silly accent, or present an absurd non-sequitor?’. The answer is always ‘only when it serves the scene’. Wouldn’t you know it, mugging and gags go a long way to ruin an improv scene. Pre-canned reactions, one-liners, pratfalls. They have their place, but more often than not they can derail a scene.

Video games are constantly committing this faux-pas. We’ll look more into this soon in part 2.


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