Starry Heavens, the large-scale game installation I designed with Nathalie Pozzi in 2011, recently had a run in Berlin. You can see a video about the game produced by Asia Dèr here.

We were invited by Invisible Playground, the amazing Berlin-based game collective that organized the Playpublik game festival in Berlin, to mount the game. This was the second time that we were to install the game – the first was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as part of the Kill Screen ARCADE event. You can find more information about the original Starry Heavens here on my website.

This time around, the game became a collaboration with the team at Invisible Playground and they helped us transform the game in several ways. To begin with, as part of the festival we held a 3-hour playtesting event where players helped us explore new rule variations, resulting in substantial changes to the gameplay.

The physical components of the game also evolved. Starry Heavens takes place on a life-sized gameboard, and we fabricated lightweight rubber mats for the gameboard spaces. The game was to take place at night, and Nathalie worked with Invisible Playground to put LED lights inside of the helium weather balloons that hover above the playfield, creating an amazing visual arena for the game. You can see more images of the event on the Invisible Playground flickr stream here.

Perhaps the most striking new element was collaboration with live muscians. In the game, a single Ruler stands at the center and tells players to step onto a particular color (black, white, or gray). The rest of the players work with and against each other to banish each other and overthrow the ruler.

The musicians improvised based on game events as they unfolded. We also changed many game rules specifically to heighten the theatrical drama of the game. For example, every time a new ruler appeared, they had to announce their new kingdom, saying “I am the Ruler of [blank]” – resulting in “I am the Ruler of the Rules,” or “I am the Queen of Love.” The musicians keyed off of the new ruler’s reference to begin a new theme for their improvised music.

We had no idea what the addition of musicians would do to the game, but now it is impossible to imagine Starry Heavens without this performance component. The experience makes me think about the power of performance and bringing more of it into the games I do with Nathalie. It is another testament to the necessity of the iterative design process, in which our players help us see our old games with new eyes, and in doing so bring them to places we could not possibly have imagined on our own.

Very deep thanks to the wonderful people at Invisible Playground, especially Anna, John, Josa, and Sebastian, as well as to musicians Ketan, Josa, Daniel, Andreas, and Kalle.

Check out Asia Dèr’s video here.
Photo credits: Merlin Nadj-Torma