Man on glitch pyramid - still from The Grannies (2019)
Still from 'The Grannies' (2019), using visuals captured from 'Red Dead Redemption 2', Rockstar Games (2018)
Stories & Ideas

Fri 03 Feb 2023

Smoke and Mirrors: revealing the magic tricks of virtual worlds

Art Craft Exhibition Internet culture Pop culture Videogames
Marie Foulston S&I

Marie Foulston

Curator & Creative Director

Four players snuck behind the curtain of Red Dead Online and discovered a surreal and haunting world created by the "hurricane of the game's development".

Like any good millennial I’m going to start by telling you about something interesting I heard on a podcast. It was on an episode of This American Life, ‘The Magic Show’ [1]. In one of the episode’s segments Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, was recounting the origins behind a performance of a magic trick.

It was a classic trick, an old-school levitating ball. It was one Teller has mastered and put a new spin on. But in order to perform it he knew that his mastery and innovation alone were not enough to capture an audience, to do so it needed to be centred in a story.

Teller strove to find that story; he showed the trick to friends and peers, canvassing opinions and trying different narrative approaches – like presenting the ball as an unruly dog he was training, but nothing felt right, until eventually something unexpected clicked. When reflecting on the times he had shown the trick to others he realised, those it had resonated most with were all those who knew the secret of how it was being performed:

“… they knew there was a thread there, and because they knew there was a thread there they were more baffled than an audience that could imagine this was being done with a little gyroscope inside the ball” [2]

By being in on this simple secret audiences were able to experience it in a different light, they could see the level of mastery on display, and they were amazed at how it was possible within such a constraint. And so it was there, with just one simple line uttered at the start of every performance, that the story central to the trick’s performance was found.

… “now here is a trick that’s done with a piece of thread.” [3]

A magician (Teller) standing next to a large red ball on stage

Teller performs The Red Ball routine on Penn & Teller: Fool Us (2011– )

It’s an anecdote that struck a chord with me and one I reflect on often when I think about my practice. I work as a curator of videogames, and I’m interested in opening up the craft and skill of videogame design and culture and translating that into physical, spatial experiences for audiences. And here in a podcast about magic was a simple truth I’d long believed about the work I undertook, that allowing audiences in on the secrets behind a creative work can heighten their appreciation of it.

The Grannies is a multi-channel installation film I created in collaboration with Luke Neher and Sam Gill. The film is a collage of screen recordings, interviews and sounds that chronicles the journey of a group of players, ‘The Grannies’ (Ian MacLarty, Kalonica Quigley, Marigold Bartlett and Andrew Brophy [4]) who broke outside the boundaries of the playable area in the critically acclaimed and phenomenally successful videogame Red Dead Online. [5]

In their travels beyond the edge of the world, The Grannies happen upon surreal landscapes and terrain. Hyper real textures clash, unnatural geometric shapes jut out the ground, cavernous seams of seemingly infinite depth separate the land and walls of water levitate in the air. It’s a place that feels all at once otherworldly, absurd and haunting.

But what might appear at first glance as a nonsensical or random space, is in fact one born from intent. As game designers and visual artists travelling through this land, The Grannies could see and appreciate the deeper meaning that these abstract spaces echoed. In the words of MacLarty at the opening of the Out of Bounds exhibition at ACMI – here, beyond the boundaries of the game’s playable area lies “the detritus left over from the hurricane of the game's development".

Virtual worlds are the uncanny valley. When viewed from the vantage points intended for us to experience them from, they feel familiar and complete, but if we step beyond that boundary they fracture and break in disorienting ways. What once felt comprehensible and tangible reveals itself as an illusion constructed from smoke and mirrors and we are confronted with the fact that these places are not governed by the same laws of physics as our own.

In this forbidden landscape lie the ruins of the craft, labour, and humanity of those who built it. Like turning over a complex and considered piece of embroidery to reveal the chaos of overlapping threads, broken patterns and knots that show the history and path human hands took to create it. But unlike many ‘tangible’ material crafts, it is rare to gain these kinds of glimpses that so honestly reveal digital materiality and process. ​​

Green jagged hills - Still from The Grannies from RDR2

Still from The Grannies (2019), using visuals captured from Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (2018)

When interviewed by British GQ about the development of Red Dead Redemption 2 [6], executive producer, co-writer and company co-founder Dan Houser stated:

“Games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.” [7]

This conflation of technology and magic is of course nothing new. As sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s oft quoted ‘3rd rule’ states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [8] Technology that we don’t understand is a black box, with no knowledge of the thread behind the scenes, nor the hands who pull it, it might as well be magic to us, it works because it works.

As Houser acknowledges, to obfuscate an awareness of process and craft comes at the expense of a connection to the humanity of a work. Gone are the skills, talent, compromises, mistakes, ideas and collaborations of those who created it. Gone also is an accountability of the human decisions that shape the way a given technology functions. Living in a world that is exponentially shaped by digital creation and culture, equipping people with a knowledge of digital craft, allowing them to see and comprehend the human choices that have guided its creation, and in turn have the confidence to challenge them, feels like an increasingly imperative task.

The original journey of The Grannies happened, as many in videogames do, on computer monitors and TV screens in private personal spaces. It was then shared publicly through a series of tweets by Kalonica Quigley that recounted their adventures. And this was how it reached me, through threaded prose and evocative screenshots in the Twitter app on a phone in my hand.

In contrast The Grannies as a film is a work that is intended to be experienced publicly and at scale, spread across two room-sized projector screens sitting at offset angles. This form seeks to give the digital world a tangible weight, shape and presence. It brings the content of the game closer to the size of the world it mimics and encourages audiences to make a more literal visual comparison. The presence these screens command also offers audiences the opportunity to focus their attention solely on the details of a videogame world, freed from the pressures of interaction or distractions.

Houser’s quote is one I have a love-hate relationship with. I love it because I disagree with most of it, but it provides such a perfectly encapsulated antithesis to what drives my own practice, and especially so in regards to The Grannies. If magic and wonder are what we’re seeking to create with our craft then as Teller understood, sometimes the best way to evoke this is to break the cardinal sin of a magician and to allow an audience in on its secrets. Because if videogames are truly made by magic, then they are free of constraints, and if they are free of constraints then anything and everything is possible… and if anything and everything is possible, what is there left to be awed by?

Nathan Fielder’s genre-bending documentary series The Rehearsal (2022) is another recent work that left me unexpectedly reflecting on the ambitions of my curatorial practice. The show loosely establishes its format, relying on its audience’s assumptions of the genre to do so, before it abruptly pulls the rug from beneath us by revealing glimpses of mind boggling Machiavellian illusions it is actually undertaking. These revelations unmoor us as an audience and breach our trust, leaving us in a speculative place, no longer certain where the boundaries of the show’s facade ultimately lie. The suspicion and curiosity it evokes then spills over into how we perceive the constructed realities of other reality TV shows and documentaries, eyeing them with a healthy scepticism.

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal (2022)

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal (HBO, 2020)

Whilst Teller and Fielder reveal the secrets of their performances, there is still a lot they leave unsaid. Teller might inform his audiences of the thread’s existence, but not where it lies or connects or how it is pulled. What is left to the unknown allows their audiences to remain curious and eager to interrogate and discuss.

I guess it’s here that I have to concede that there is something in Houser’s words I do agree with after all, that there is genuine value in allowing some mystery to persist. The Grannies as a documentary also doesn’t lay bare every detail of how the world of Red Dead Online was constructed, it too embraces the speculative and intentionally leaves empty space to encourage viewers to ask questions about the nature of the constructed reality it presents.

If Red Dead Online is Teller’s magic trick, then the story of The Grannies’ voyage out of bounds is the preceding opening line, giving an audience just enough awareness of the thread that holds the world together… but not tooooo much. The Grannies trespassing exploits infuse the world of Red Dead Online with a complexity and humanity that feels so much deeper than when simply seeing the game’s world as intended. Just like the story that frames Teller’s magic trick, the story of The Grannies is one that leaves its audience no longer impressed by the world of Red Dead Online – now we are awestruck by it.

…. “now here is a trick that’s done with a piece of thread” [9]

Lean more about The Grannies

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[1] This American Life, 'The Magic Show' (2017)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The collective name 'The Grannies' refers to their choice to play as older characters that are underrepresented as protagonists in videogames.

[5] The online component of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

[6] The version of Red Dead Online The Grannies played was released as part of Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

[7] 'Red Dead Redemption 2: The inside story of the most lifelike video game ever', GQ Magazine, Sam White (2018)

[8] Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, Arthur C Clarke (1962)

[9] This American Life, 'The Magic Show' (2017)