I just returned from a great weekend at Marfa, a beautiful town in the middle of the Chihuahua desert, located at the open wide landscape of West Texas, my favorite part of this South Western state. We assisted to the Marfa Film Festival, played indie games at the Space Cowboy Arcade, and demo-ed Marfauria, a geo-locative game and a fanzine I have been designing during the past two months. The process of making it, running it, and setting it up was a fantastic experience. An experience plenty of surprises and design challenges. At the end, my collaborators and I made it to the Marfa Film Festival, the final deadline and destination. Running against the clock we were able to set up landmarks, signs, and objects in different (secret) public places, implemented a text message system for interacting with players, and distributed 40 copies of the zine around different Marfa venues, including the space cowboy arcade that Juegos Rancheros collective set up.
The idea of transforming a city or a town into a playground has always fascinated me. Since a kid I have enjoyed transforming spaces through play, movement, and narratives. Further, my interest in media and technologies that are bounded to place (geo-locative media), has been driven in part by this passion for circulation, exploration, curiosity, and engagement with physical space. Designing a game that uses both a town and media was a challenge that finally I had the opportunity to address and complete. I did it in the context of the game jam that the Juegos Rancheros indie game collective organized at the end of May and that invited designers around the world to submit games inspired by the myth of the Space Cowboy. A selection of these games was going to be exhibited in the southwest town of Marfa, Texas, a destination I had visited a couple of times when crossing the continent by land. Although the geo-locative game I designed was not ready for the deadline of the jam, it was ready for the time of the Film Festival and the showcase, so two of my collaborators and I had time to travel and set it up for the 4th of July weekend.
Designing and running a geo-locative game turned out to be a very motivating challenge. The goal that I set up was simple, to make the players engage with the physical space of the town of Marfa, to be able to walk it, explore it, and discover objects, messages, and places that were part of a narrative. The narrative that set up the game world, was a mixture of fiction and fantasy that fit very well the aura of mystery and magic that surrounds the Chihuahua desert. In order to develop it, I found inspiration in the local legends of the Marfa lights, the topographic and geological history of this high platau North American desert, pataphysics and relativistic time-traveling theories, cryptozoologists and paleontologist speculations of living Pterosaurs, and, of course, the myth of the space cowboy. The result was an open ended and playable story that was told in the 12 pages of the Marfauria zine, a black and white booklet that was designed and published independently. Although only 40 copies were printed, I have uploaded digital images of all the pages of the zine here.
One of the most challenging aspects of the designing Marfauria was to build a playable game world for a physical space I had just visited twice and I could not access easily given the 7 hours driving distance from Austin, my home base now. A useful tool I used was the light version of the G Map Engine. Using it I was able to visualize clearly the grid that the players will use in order to interact with the narrative. You can check out the map here and see how the use of different layers helps to identify different kinds of places and venues where interactions could be built. We also used G Earth and normal G Maps in order to check the street view of the different locations.
Setting up the different marks, signs, and treasures was a very exciting process we did it during one night. We utilized a repertoire of street art practices such as stickers, chalk, and even rocks in order to create the different messages and symbols on specific location. The players of the games were encouraged to find, open, read, and use the secret objects and messages. The scale of Marfa, made this process manageable and in a span 4 hours we have all the marks and clues on place.
Distributing the Marfauria zines took us a little more time and we did it through the course of one day leaving them in different venues. The next two days we were monitoring not only an SMS message system that broadcasted text messages to all the players who decided to use their mobile phone in the game. This system provided an interesting way of interacting with the players, and although only few of them decided to use it, it was definitely one of my favorite features of the game. For future iterations of this kind of geo-locative games, such kind of messaging system can be super useful for doing more experiments with real time interaction and feedback systems between the game world and the players.
I look forward to designing and running more games like Marfauria. And in fact I would love to run another iteration of it, with more elements, and perhaps in a sort of competition mode where the players are not only motivated by the story and the mysteries but as well by creative competition and time constraints. Having teams, for instance, or a system of points or rewards could be useful for making the game more engaging.
* Photographs of the process of setting up the game and distributing the Marfauria zines by Jesus Garcia.