Red Planet: Revolution design diary – part 1

A chalkboard map. In the corner is a scoreboard showing a contest between the USA and USSR

Making our critically-acclaimed interactive show started with looking at one from the archives…

Years ago now, we made a show called The Situation Room. Directed by me and James Blakey, designed by Hannah Sibai and performed by Simon Carroll-Jones, Robert Macpherson and Jack Bennett, it cast its audience as leaders of the American CIA and Soviet KGB during a fictional crisis in the Cold War.

Throughout the show, audiences on both sides were given a scenario and asked to make a binary decision. For example, the US side might be told that a rebel cell was planning to a launch an attack, and intelligence had located them in such and such a village. Should we call in an air strike? Or avoid civilian casualties?

Meanwhile the Soviet side was being given the scenario from their own perspective – the rebel cell is asking for explosives in order to blow up an oil pipeline, which risks major civilian casualties but will massively help the war effort. Should we supply the explosives, or not?

Depending on the choices both sides make in each scenario, the story would branch in one of four different directions – delivered by a prerecorded radio report.

The game was that each choice was what we called hawk or dove – aggressive or defensive. We used a prisoners’ dilemma style matrix to determine the outcome of each scenario:

  • If one side chose hawk and the other chose dovehawk wins
  • If both sides chose dove, both win
  • If both sides chose hawk, both lose

This simple matrix led to compelling, tense drama. You could see audiences’ desire to win the game battling with their own sense of morality, even in the fictional world. Most often we’d see audiences trying to be as dove-like as possible at the beginning, until realising that in order to win, they’d need to become hawks.

The Situation Room is one of my favourite shows I’ve ever worked on, but it had a couple of limitations. I’ll talk about them some more in my next design diary – and then we’ll get on to how those limitations inspired Red Planet: Revolution

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