A starscape glittered on a suspended screen, the projector mingling with twilight at the edge of IndieCade Village. Red, jittery, chaotic spots flicked alive one by one, until dozens of laser pointers fritzed across and beyond the projection- onto palm trees, trash cans, people’s faces.
An old school computerized voice called us to action – most definitely us, even though I didn’t have a pointer, even if I couldn’t touch the screen. From the very beginning, I, the observer, the inquisitive designer on the sidelines, was drawn into the shared experience.
It started with bright geometric shapes slowly rotating in space, unwound and destroyed when there was at least one laser pointer on each vertex. Red lights flit everywhere, darting and twitching in tiny circles as players fought to discern their pointer from over fifty others. I held my breath as the shapes started to disappear, grinned when a static pop and particle effects signaled success.
These first exercises in coordinated laser pointing were, as the cheeky computer voice told us, not even the beginning of the end. After this abstract tutorial, the real game started.
The Waki and Daisan
Renga is aptly named after a Japanese style of collaborative poetry, and mimics its structure. After an initial stanza, the Hokku, two stanza styles alternate repeatedly ad nauseum.
Renga’s first phase involves collecting floating blocks from space while defending from antagonistic geometries. The second is using the collected blocks to build out a spaceship. The spaceship has three elements: Silos to store blocks, Harvesters to go out into space and fetch them, and Launch Boosters, all four of which are required to battle the final boss.
Our initial harvesting missions were… a bit pathetic, as emphasized by the computer’s “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” Enormous spoke-monsters appeared and before we’d halfway depleted them they’d lurch at our ship and destroy our harvesters. People were unsure whether to use their pointer to unlock the floating blocks, move the harvester to collect them, or focus on the encroaching enemies. Similarly, the first time we were building up our ship (done by holding a laser pointer still in a certain location to “vote” for where you think a block should be placed) the line connecting us to the Launch Booster we wanted was two blocks thick, jagged, with wasted blocks everywhere. We were a mess.
Then the next round began, and the next, and the lines between our ship elements got more and more precise. We were better able to handle those aggravatingly random and aggressive monsters. We realized that keeping our harvesters closer to our silos saved time. 10, 20, 30 minutes passed. The crowd grew, oozed out onto the sidewalks, collected passersby. I had no pointer, but I cheered, gasped, hollered, and felt so much a part of the experience it made no difference. The moments belonged to all of us, actors, observers, and otherwise.
Those with laser pointers shook out their hands before the initial vote on whether or not to fight the final boss. We’d unlocked all of our Launch Boosters, but our blocky exterior had a hole in it and we were just finally figuring out how to strategize as a collective.
“What a bunch of cowards,” the computer said as we voted for another round of harvesting and building. It was the most difficult round yet, but we came out of it with more resources than we’d ever had before. We reinforced our walls, filled in the holes, and when the next vote came, the majority agreed: it was time for the final boss.
We’d been annihilated by the boss at the end of the tutorial, and tension tightened up the air as we held our collective breath.
It was chaos, but this time we knew how to deal with it. Little teams of five went off to tackle the spoke monsters, while the majority mass swarmed the boss from the inside out, destroying continuously larger geometries, each with more vertices than the last.
Two circles – the largest – remained of the boss, with 45 and 50 vertices respectively, by estimation. They rotated faster than any of the previous geometries, and were slowly moving across screen, forcing our ship (which was now controlled by just a few lone laser points) into a corner.
“Everyone on the boss!” came shouts, as we slowly realized we didn’t have enough pointers to attack both the small enemies and the boss. Little red lights tracked back across the screen and fell into line around the perimeter of the circle. I’m not sure I breathed as its life depleted, and then that static WHUFF and it was gone, and we were cheering, and the next one went that much faster.
Red pointers made circles, whirls, and joyful streaks as the computer voice congratulated us. I was clapping furiously and whooping along with everyone around me, who’d sat enraptured for the better part of an hour because this was something special, something spiritual, something sacred.
We hear about mob mentality and think humans fall apart and disintegrate in large numbers. We think they become thoughtless, angry, stupid. But here, without a leader, without any chance to form strategy, without any plan or pretense, over a hundred people not only worked together, but got better. The same way an individual’s skill improved, this collective’s ability visibly, markedly increased over time. It wasn’t chaos, it wasn’t stupid, it wasn’t random. It was beautiful.
Renga ended and I wasn’t sure what had happened. I knew in that soul-deep way that it was important, that it had changed me, and that it was unforgettable not in a puppy-love sense but in that truly transformational capacity. I knew that it had, in a single hour, kicked the field of game design ahead by leaps and bounds. I felt it had seeded the potential for stadiums of people to be as engaged as football fanatics over a team of strangers all building, fighting, defending together. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the developers, to the game master, to everyone around me who made the experience what it was.
Few games deserve the word sacred, none as much as Renga.