Things to do in Improv when you’re chess

In 1995 I saw a wonderful and sadly overlooked film called “Things to do in Denver when You’re Dead”. Everyone in the cast, which included Christopher Walken, Andy Garcia, Gabrielle Anwar, Christopher Lloyd and Steve Buscemi, among others, was at or near their very best, and the writing by Seth Rosenberg was simply amazing.

The story was simple, and featured a powerful existential question: If you know you’re going to die in a matter of days, how do you spend your remaining time on earth? And for that matter, what does time even mean in such circumstances?

Anyone familiar with Tom Stoppard will immediately recognize that the title is a clever riff on his “Rosencranz and Gildenstern are Dead”, which ponders similar questions — which is itself in turn a clever riff on “Hamlet” (which tackles existential questions of its own).

A conversation today reminded me that this film was an influence on my thinking about interactive narrative. The conversation came in the wake Emily Short’s recent brilliant talk about interactive narrative at GDC. My take-away from Emily’s talk was that it might be more interesting let players manipulate not what interactive characters do, but rather how the characters do it.

In other words, you don’t get to decide your fate, but you do get to decide what you will do on your way to your fate.

And then I remembered that I had done some experiments along these lines when I was working with Athomas Goldberg on our “Improv” research project. Shortly after having seen “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” I had put my little Improv characters into a chess game. They couldn’t affect the outcome of the game — which was played by real people. Rather, the characters would react emotively to the moves of the game.

Imagine for example, a pawn and a knight who have fallen in love. As one of them falls in the heat of battle, they say their tearful goodbyes. Now imagine a toolbox for creating such character personalities and for generating little scenarios between them. Characters can be comic, tragic, or simply absurd.

This direction opens up new possibilities for interactivity. Once we are freed from responsibility for plot, we can focus on character.

I called it, of course, “Things to do in Improv when you’re chess”.

4 thoughts on “Things to do in Improv when you’re chess”

  1. Thanks — I should have credited Zevon’s song in my post. I still think the title is a clever riff on the title of Stoppard’s play. Let’s follow the provenance: “Mr. Bad Example,” the Zevon album containing the song, was released in 1991, and Stoppard published his play in 1966.

    More significantly, Stoppard’s film version (which I highly recommend — Stoppard directed, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth playing R&G, respectively) came out in 1990 — just one year before the release of Zevon’s album.

    It’s a good bet that Zevon was riffing on Stoppard’s title. You are right to make sure that Zevon gets proper credit. After all, it’s his song playing over the closing credits of the eponymous film. 🙂

  2. Not only does this project sound incredibly fun — I vaguely recall Barbara Hayes-Roth doing similar stuff back when I was in grad school. I always wished I had paid more attention to her work.

    Things to do in improv when you’re chess is a delightful riff off “Things To do in Denver When You’re Dead. ” Though I must admit, I don’t really see how that is a riff of the Stoppard title (Great film, I watch it once a year at least). To me the film’s title is squarely part of a wave of unusually long titles that crested in the mid-90s — “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”, this trend would be ultimately parodied in, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central while Drinking Your Gin & Juice in the Hood.”

  3. Ah yes, Athomas and I collaborated with Barbara. In her work Story-Making with Improvisational Puppets, our Improv system provided some of the “puppets”. She also used the characters from Joe Bates’ Oz project.

    The reason I think it might be a quote of the Stoppard title is that the meter matches perfectly (in addition, of course, to the theme of humorously self-aware existential nihilism).

    I agree that film titles tend to echo each other, as though producers and distributors are looking to replicate some sort of magical formula. Some of my favorites are from the same general era: “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Year of Living Dangerously”, which both echo “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (the original) and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and, before that, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “The Killing of Sister George”. Maybe it all goes back to Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

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