Sometimes, the most interesting games are also the most controversial. They push the limits of expectations and possibilities, presenting new challenges and opportunities for participatory play. Purity Towers, the latest campaign from Funnel Productions, operated on two levels of controversy. First, the producers created a competitive game environment between two divergent camps: the hegemonic Proscript Party, and the representatives of the underclass, the Grotian Underground. Secondly, the game’s content, while often presented in a light and humorous way, touched upon real social and political issues, including illegal detention and torture, revolutionary change, and political oppression.
The Grotians and the Proscripts were once two antagonistic kingdoms forced to cooperate because of frequent dragon attacks. When the dragons were finally defeated by Edward Jameson, a mythical hero and ancestor of the last Proscript President, the Grotians were in worse shape than the Proscripts. According to the mythos, the Grotians agreed to become the servant underclass of the Proscripts, and for several generations the People’s Proscript Party (PPP) ruled over the “Proscription Zone.”
One day, the Grotian Underground (GU) started recruiting players. A luxurious Party-owned residence, Purity Towers, was about to open its doors, becoming a landmark in “The Proscription Zone.” The GU defaced the Purity Towers website, and a high-ranking Party member encouraged players to create their own GU cadre, resulting in a ning network, an underground newspaper, and the blogs of two symbolic leaders, Levi Waltershield and Rosa Wells. To complicate matters, two recurring Funnel Productions characters, Earl de Rosa and Randy Porknut got a contract to sell Sticky Itchers Shower Scrub to Purity Towers. Randy recently recovered from a bout of undeath from a previous game while Earl, in his drunken grief, got married in Las Vegas and misplaced his new bride. Inspired by this, a GU player starred as Earl’s lost wife, Bertha Marie Effenberger. Making some heartfelt videos, Bertha’s mission was to get Earl to sympathize with the Grotian side and infiltrate Purity Towers while delivering Sticky Itchers Shower Scrub.
Even though most players joined with GU, there were a few players that defended the status quo by swearing allegiance to the Proscript Party . Several weeks into the campaign, players on the “establishment” side were encouraged to create their own resources, such as a ning network and a semi-official Party newspaper. My alter-ego, Jezebel Nephthys, was hired by the President as Party spokewoman to create this infrastructure because of a video submission; she became active on Facebook and later kept her own blog. I was also a member of the GU. At first, my intention was to ingratiate myself to the President and take the Party down from within, but I chose instead to pursue my own goals. Other players also acted as double agents to varying degrees, although the majority played on one side or the other.
Throughout the story, things were changing in the Proscription Zone. The Sword of Flames, a symbolic artifact of Party power, was stolen and later recovered, but not before a government crackdown and a wave of re-education. Three in-game characters, Party biographer Melissa Alsford, celebrity actor Archie Rebel (a recurring Funnel character), and the President’s Grotian Assistant would at times assist players. Another in-game character, Living on the Inside (LOTI), advanced the revolutionary plot by organizing daring escapes of oppressed Grotians, often requiring cooperation from players on both sides of the political spectrum.
In addition to a full cast of in-game Funnel characters, player-generated content was integral to the creation of the game’s universe and the advancement of the plot. While player interactions with in-game characters served as the most direct means of influencing the story, the competition and cooperation among players on both sides often determined the next step of the game. For example, in the first wave of Grotian escapes, LOTI approached me to get security passwords from the President’s Assistant. Rather than just give them to him or to the GU, I chose to involve another player as a neutral third-party. At any point, either one of us could have given the GU incorrect information, leading to a different result.
This element of individual choice complicated the stark bifurcation of the player base. The sheer number of Funnel in-game characters made it possible for individual players to become personally invested in them. Some players became “friends” with particular in-game characters, which sometimes altered their individual goals, diverging them from the goals of their “side.” Neither side was completely transparent to its own members. Instead, individual members pursued sub-plotlines with or without a group mandate. For me, this calls into question the very idea of “winning.” As a player, what if your personal goals run counter to the group’s goals? What is your place in the group you purportedly support? Do you “win” if your side “wins,” but you personally don’t achieve your goals?
Unfortunately, the competition and roleplaying in this game led to out-of-game unpleasantness. Allegations of player harassment, player exclusion, and unfair gameplay affected both sides. In-game and out-of-game spaces (for example, the ning chat rooms) did not have clearly defined limits or expectations, and roles were never fully apparent in these liminal spaces. Double-crossers like myself added another element of chaos and paranoia, and reputations within the player community suffered. The lack of established canon exacerbated things even as it gave players leeway to be creative. Not having both “sides” established affected the make-up and tenor of both groups, probably to the detriment of both. Furthermore, the very nature of the story, revolving around the oppressed revolutionary underclass taking on the hegemonic status quo, contributed to the emotions within the player base.
However emotional the players (myself included) became as a result of Purity Towers, it shouldn’t detract from the complexity of the plot and the real ability for individuals to influence the story. Admittedly, the Funnel PMs could have acted to alleviate the OOG unpleasantness, but perhaps their expectations of the players did not hold true. Some plot advancement required both sides to cooperate with each other, but enough bad blood had occurred to make that nigh impossible, which left the Funnel PMs to force cooperation in the end. Collectively, we pushed the limits of the PM’s expectations, and presented new challenges and opportunities for them.