In Conversation: Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz is a Swiss film and theatre director, and founder of the 400asa Theatre group in Zürich. Libby O’Loghlin asks him about ‘Polder‘, the largest transmedia storytelling project to come out of Switzerland, of which he is the founder and director. Schwarz is also writer of the feature film, which he co-directed with Julian M. Grünthal

Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz, film and theatre director, and founder of Theatre group 400asa. Image copyright: Stephan Rappo

The Polder film is being released in 2016, but the film is in fact only one adaptation (or ‘touchpoint’) for the whole Polder project … tell us a bit about what a ‘polder’ is, and where it all began.

At the beginning, there were two projects. We planned a ‘conspiracy’ game to evolve over time, with the 400asa theatre company and, in parallel, I developed the script for the movie with some small funding from SWR (Süddeutscher Rundfunk). Then I pitched both projects to a game start-up we wanted to collaborate with. But the CEO of that start-up (GBANGA), Matthias Sala, said, “Listen, Sam, this is not two projects. Think of Polder as one project.” That was in 2010.

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

According to John Clute’s “Encyclopaedia of Fantasy”, polders are:

enclaves of toughened reality demarcated by boundaries (thresholds) from the surrounding world … an active microcosm, armed against the potential wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time. Polders change only when they are being devoured from without.

The classic examples would be Tolkien’s Shire and Oz or Hogwarts, but digital worlds make especially intensive polders possible—with the large global corporations being ideal ‘hosts’.

Our Polder is a hellish trip into the magical psycho narrative of IT corporations, and it tells us about our relationships with those major corporations that administer our fantasies. It is also about our disappearance into these parallel worlds. What will happen when the machines can emulate sentient beings? Will they enjoy human rights … even when these beings can be reproduced by the billions, with quantum computers?

When we posed these questions at the beginning of project development, they were still questions of fantasy. Pure science fiction. But now, they preoccupy the most important scientists, neurologists and jurists. That’s how quickly Moore’s law has brought these questions out of the realm of fantasy into reality. Scientists and computer pioneers like Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Bill Gates have, in the meantime, even founded the Future of Life Institute, in order to warn us of the dangers of artificial intelligence.

“Moore’s law” is the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.
—Wikipedia, Moore’s law

How did you go about orchestrating the Polder Alternate Reality Games (ARG) in 2013, and how many people were involved?

We had different manifestations. In the urban games storyworld, in Zürich and Bern, the effort was gigantic. There were more than 40 actors in the game-zones, and of course an interactive storytelling like that is not possible without the integration of role players who bring themselves in, free of charge. We paid 15 professional actors and crew as though they were in an outside-theatre production.

Professional actor Luc Müller plays an addicted

Professional actor Luc Müller playing an addicted NEUROO-X technology ‘user’, in the Polder Alternate Reality Game in Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

On several days—like the Halloween special—we also had some school classes as zombies in the game zone. But things like that just ‘happened’ … we didn’t plan it. Although you could say that because the system was built in this way, it was bound to happen.

At one point, there was a very strange mix of users, and prosumers in the game zones. One night, we had an ‘audience of users’ of about a hundred people.

In Sils Maria, in the countryside—which was our other ARG storyworld—our audience was older, it was the ‘geriatric audience’ version, if you like. For old people who like to be immersed in a wonderful landscapes—and be entertained by good-looking young actors who read Nietzsche for them in a warm comfort zone!

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche's concept of the 'Übermensch' was played out in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (super human) is played out with Zürich actress Meret Hottinger, in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game, Zarathustra.

Of course, from a commercial point of view, the alternate reality games were PR-campaigns for the later phases of the storytelling. [Because there was going to be a movie, for example.] But because we tell the story across a long timeframe, we and the actors were ultimately immersed deeply in the stage we were at, with no thought that it was a ‘PR character’. There was of course a commercial master plan, but we always forgot about it … in this way, we are no different than the naïve Star Wars fan who knows that the franchise is always pulling his money out of his pocket … because the story is still cool! This is—again—terrible and beautiful at the same time.

At the 2013 XMedia Lab held here in Switzerland, World Building Institute’s Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Fight Club) talked comprehensively about storyworlds, placing the importance of world-building far ahead of plotting or character development. Does this resonate with your experience in developing the Polder film?

We developed the main themes of the plot in in several manifestations of Alternate Reality Games, as I mentioned—in urban landscapes, but also in nature. The ARG in nature became a very important manifestation for us—this was the Alternate Reality Game Polder: Zarathustra that we set in Sils Maria [in the Swiss canton of Graubünden]. In this world, the Game start-up, NEUROO-X, like science and technology, help us to evolve or transcend our own humanity.

Sils Maria was for us the perfect landscape, because Sils Maria as a ‘mindscape’, is very connected with the Idea of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The valley itself looks almost CGI-rendered in its extreme beauty, and it is also where Nietzsche in fact wrote Zarathustra.

Our theatre-audience (‘users’) were immersed with the Polder-App: they were guided with GPS tracked audio walks, and they had to solve mysterious riddles, and then they could meet in the wood wizards, knights and witches from our universe.

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Sils Maria

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

In Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra there is a passage in which Nietzsche is full of anger against the state. For him, ‘the state’ is a monster. And he reflects on freedom (in opposition to this state). In Sils Maria, we realised the inner core of our project is the struggle of ‘old structures’—countries, parliaments—against the power and intelligence of smart Silicon Valley narratives, which don’t need states and parliaments anymore and who are created by brilliant men and women.

And the characters?

In our story, the brilliant game designer Marcus is a kind of reincarnation of Edward Snowden, who rises against the ‘evil’ IT industry. Then we have fantastical characters like the beautiful witch Kuchisake Onna, who we developed out of a basic warlike conflict—a mixture of Old Testament Lilith, manga demons and Lara Croft. A real nerd fantasy.

Screencap, Polder movie stills, courtesy

Montage, various Polder movie stills, images courtesy: Dschoint Venture/Niama/Kamm(m)acher.

Our Urban Space alternate reality games in Zürich and Bern was made for younger people, for gamers, for fantasy fans and role players [called ‘cosplayers’, from ‘costume players’]. They—like us—like storytelling about ‘evil’ companies, idealistic heroes, rebels, artificial Intelligence, thinking machines, wizards and monsters. They also like level systems … and the participation culture.

Linear storytelling (immersive audio walks) guided these users to the interactive ‘game-zones’. They had to solve riddles within the game-zone, and interact with the actors. And—to your question about characters—at the end of the game, they had to fight against the Boss called Fritz (played by the very charismatic and clever professional actor, Philippe Graber). The users played in Fritz’s subconscious. Fritz was a character influenced strongly by Nietzsche—but that was not essential for the understanding of the story, it was more a joke for the insiders. (Fritz, as a character, is intact without the philosophical background.) But for the game system it was essential that there was a character who had the problems of Fritz, who was lost in a mental labyrinth—like Nietzsche. And it was essential that the users help Fritz ‘kill’ himself in this alternate gaming-dream-world. With this act of humanistic violence they could prevent a massacre in the game’s ‘real world’. Of course it was also a reflection about violence in games.

Some might say true transmedia stories (i.e., stories that are designed to unfold over time using different elements across various media) aren’t for ‘the masses’ because the inherent fragmentation of the narrative requires more commitment or engagement from the consumer—‘context-switching’, if you like—and most people don’t have time for that. Yet others would argue that this fragmentation leaves much more ‘space’ for the viewer/reader/consumer to engage or bring their own experiences to the story. Where do you stand on this?

I don’t think it’s necessary for the user to change platforms all the time to have a good story experience. I think storytelling gets better when the creators use several platforms, though, because they can create deeper worlds, and they have to address several audiences for the same content.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development. Image courtesy: Philippe Antonello.

One can’t deny that cross-media projects can be enormous in scope, with a lot of moving parts and ever-changing and evolving technologies. What attracts you personally to working with numerous media, and what’s the most challenging part for you?

For us, the use of the technique is not the most challenging part. It’s more the fascinating new relationships of users to the story. I like to think about the changes the technologies attract with our thinking. But I am still not sure if the high potential of transmedia storytelling is just a very smart simulation of the ‘franchise’. Just look at the example of soccer: every ‘real soccer fan’ thinks he is a real ‘soccer fan’—and he hates FIFA and Sepp Blatter. But in the end the fan is a creature of Sepp Blatter.

Maybe the users just think they can ‘create’ a story and be part of it, and maybe that’s just an illusion the ‘machine’ or the thinking ‘franchise’ creates for him. But how sweet is this illusion! The joy of the user is also a reality. That means: I still don’t know if we live in a nightmare or in a wonderful, colourful dream. And it’s this ambivalence the polder wants to express.

Tell us more about this ‘ambivalence’.

Today users play ‘retro games’ and experience a kind of melancholic longing, and the kids dress up as cosplayers and want to be like their beloved entities. The boundaries have shifted. This has a lot to do with the stronger influence of Japanese storytelling. The moral ambivalence of narrative attitude is also a result of the confrontation with the magic ‘Trickfilms’ of Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away—but also by the Cartoon Heidi), an important example for us. So the parallel worlds and the main world are converging, and when the differentiation between reality and gaming is dissolved, there is no more game, then we are—as one of the Polder characters says—”… in hell”.

We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

Big Data makes it possible for the corporations, the secret services and their machines, to provide us with the dreams we always wanted to dream. The algorithms know more about us than we do. Polder is a ‘user’ project  that illustrates our ambivalent relationship with these corporations, that can fulfil our most beautiful, but also our most terrible longings. We are bound in an unholy/holy love-hate relationship. We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

But can we say with certainty that this loss of our sense of reality is only bad? Is perhaps the sweet desire of Friedrich Nietzsche’s last human being fulfilled for us? What will it be like when the machines simply satisfy more of our desires? Will we defend ourselves? Should we defend ourselves? Will we even play anymore when everything has become a game?

Nietzsche and 'users': Image from ARG in Sils Maria

‘Fritz’ Nietzsche and ‘users’: image from the Polder ARG Zarathustra in Sils Maria. Image courtesy: Jules Spinatsch.

Finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey is very very high on my list. Why? Because of the line of HAL, the computer: “Will I dream, Dave?”

The Polder film will be released in 2016.

The Polder storyworld, and all its adaptations, can be discovered by diving down the Polder Facebook rabbit-hole: www.facebook.com/derpolder

The Polder feature film teaser:

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