Three Roads (of Translation) Not Taken: Different Degrees of Openness of the Work (and of the Game)

Three Roads (of Translation) Not Taken: Different Degrees of Openness of the Work (and of the Game)


From the Julio Plaza’s proposition that, based on the concept of open work of Umberto Eco, categorises the relationship author-work-reception in three degrees, and the division in cultural events in reception, interaction and participation, seen in the research of Kristoffer Haggren, Elge Larsson, Leo Nordwall and Gabriel Widing, this study plans to compare three works called The Road Not Taken: a 1916’s poem by Robert Frost, a 2008’s larp by Mike Young and a 2014’s music piece by André Mestre. Besides that framework, this research uses the notion of game from communication and culture theorist Vilém Flusser, which divides them between open and closed. In open games, the translation process would be seen as a modification of the structure of rules in a given game. From this theoretical basis, the objective is to draw a relationship between the open work and open game. In this context, the poem would stand as receptive work, the music piece as interactive work and the larp as participatory work.

Keywords: Communication; Narratives; Poem; Music; Larp.

Three Different Roads Not Taken: A Brief Presentation of the Works

In 1916, the US poet Robert Frost (1874- 1963) published a collection of poems called Mountain Interval. The opening poem was called The Road Not Taken. In general, the four stanzas of the poem make up the story of a traveller who finds himself at an impasse after the initial event in which “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. (Frost, 1916, p. 9) After watching each of the paths, the traveller chooses one. However, he keeps thinking about the other. The end of the poem perpetuates a puzzling atmosphere, since the poem ends complementing the initial starting sentence, pointing that “two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”. (p. 9)

In 2008, the larp The Road Not Taken was created by US game designer Mike Young, described by him as “a game of emotions and decision” (Young, 2008, p. 3). In his script, designed for six to twelve players, each one will be the main character in a scene of about ten minutes, where he or she will be in a moment of critical decision. The other participants represent voices that indicate different views or decisions to the protagonist. According to the author,[1]Although the relationship with the Frost poem is not made clear in the larp script, it was clarified by Young in an email conversation on 05.03.2016. the influence of Frost occurs since both the poem and the larp are about decision making, so it seemed appropriate to give an eponymous title.

In 2014, the Brazilian composer André Mestre writes The Road Not Taken, an “open piece for two instrumentalists” (Mestre, 2014, p. 2). It is clear that Frost inspired more than merely the title, since:

(…) The two voices contained in the work poetically represent the path taken and the path that could have been. One acts upon the other as a shadow, a memory, an anxiety. It is my hope that the spirit of the poem can also be extended to alllevels of decision-making of the piece, especially those pertaining to performance. Contemplate the multitude of options at every moment, take the road less traveled.Mestre, 2014, p. 2

Mestre’s proposal extends beyond the literary sphere and the musical sphere to the imagery sphere, since the very music score escapes from a more orthodox pattern to merge itself with the poem and the wood’s image where (in Frost’s poem) the decision was taken, as seen in Figure 1.

In order to immerse the instrumentalists deeper in the experience of playing the roles of path taken and path that could have been, Mestre suggests the use of live electronics, as pointed out by indicating that the piece:

(…) makes use of two electroencephalogram headsets, to be used in real time by the performers. These headsets are responsible for measuring and monitoring focus levels and performative efforts. This data is then used to process and trigger recordings that are constantly being made during the performance. Both performers should be microphoned. Each of them, however, can only access the other’s recordings — “playing” the other on the level of the mind. It is a poetic metaphor for our constant pursuit of alternatives, of “what ifs?”, of trying to go beyond our fate of always having to choose one instead of the other.Mestre, 2014, p. 3

Thus, we present here (although superficially) three different works. Two of them, despite being made to other artistic platforms (music and visual elements in the case of Mestre, the larps’ dramatisation in the case of Young), derived from the Frost poem.

Figure 1 – Excerpt from The Road Not Taken music score. Source: Mestre, 2014.

Figure 1 – Excerpt from The Road Not Taken music score. Source: Mestre, 2014.

A Road Less Travelled in Translation

For the scholar Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), a Jewish Czech who spent 32 years of his lifein Brazil, the game is a comprehensive concept, considered “all systems composed of elements combined according to rules” . (Flusser, 1967 p. 2) Flusser (1967) calls repertoire the set of game elements, while the set of rules is called structure. Competence in this case would be “all the possible combinations of the repertoire in the structure” (p. 2), while the universe of the game would be all of such combinations already performed. In games where repertoire and structure are unchangeable, “competence and universe tend to coincide. When this happens, the game is over”. (p. 3) Once defined, Flusser’s relevant terms for this study (repertoire, structure, competence and universe), it is observed that:

The game’s competences, although specific, given their disposal, tend to interpenetrate themselves. There is a tendency for anthropophagy between games. In spaces of anthropophagic interpenetration of competences there is the possibility of translation, and does not exist outside of these spaces. And the translation is always a modification of structures.Flusser, 1967, p. 5

In this manner, one arrives at one of the focal points of this study: the notion of translation. In the works cited, understanding that we are dealing with three different formats (literature, music and larp), there is a translation process. The common element in all of them is the notion raised by taking a road. Each of the works (or each of the games, adopting Flusser’s term) fits the elements to its structure, thus creating a completely different game, yet with elements that refer to each other. Thus, from the element taking a road, it allows to relate the polysemy of the poem both the decision-making of performers and visual presentation of the musical play score as in the creation process of a narrative in larp.

This position could be supported by a separate definition. For the Spanish multimedia artist Julio Plaza (1938-2003), the translation process between the three briefly outlined works could be considered an Intersemiotic translation, a term supported by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), which defines it as the interpretation of a sign system to another (Jakobson apud Plaza, 2003a). Plaza extends the concept of Jakobson, because for him the Intersemiotic translation would be an artistic practice, since it is:

(…) a critical and creative practice in the historicity of the means of production and re-production, such as reading, metacreation, action over event structures, dialogue of signs, synthesis and rewriting of history. It means, as thought in signs, such as tra c of meanings, as transcreation forms in historicity.Plaza, 2003a, p. 14

The common point between both hypotheticals is that the translation would refer not only to an adaptation of one language to another. Because they have different rules, they form different games.

The (Gradually) Open Works: Reception, Interaction and Participation

Although not the aim of this study, exhausting or even encompassing the myriad of possibilities related to the concept of translation, the notion presented here allows us to bring to light the second of its focal points: the concept of open work. Coined by Italian philosopher and semiologist Umberto Eco (1932-2016), open work refers to the idea of a text that conveys not only one interpretation. In these works, “a plurality of meanings coexist in one significant”. (Eco, 1991, p. 22)

The concept of Eco concerns the subjectivity of enjoyment, and not the objective structure of a work. Thus, while closed (in the sense of finished) as an author creation, Eco points out that:

(…) in the act of reaction to the web of stimuli and understanding of their relations, each spectator brings a concrete existential situation, a particularly conditioned sensitivity, a determined culture, tastes, trends, personal biases, so that the understanding of original form is found in an individually designed perspective.Eco, 1991, p. 40

Plaza (2003b) starts on this definition of Eco to demonstrate three different degrees of openness in the work. To Plaza, the fruition of the work would have different degrees of participation of the spectator, following a designed pathway between passive participation, active participation, perceptive participation and interactivity.

In this logic, the first degree of openingwould be the open work advocated by Eco, characterised by polysemy, ambiguity, multiplicity of readings and wealth of meanings (Plaza, 2003b). The second degree of opening, in turn, was unrelated to the ambiguity, which is related by Plaza with a passive participation. Instead, counts with the active and/or perceptive participation of the viewer, aiming to bridge the gap between creator and viewer, using as tools playful participation, randomness and creativity of the viewer (Plaza, 2003b). Flourishing as a counterpoint to the mass culture, this “art of participation” (Plaza, 2003b, p. 14) understand the perception of the spectator as a re-creation of the work, as opposed to the polysemy of the first degree of opening. Finally, the third degree of opening would refer to the interactivity, placed by Plaza as the art related, above all, to contemporary technologies. Here, artists were “more interested in the processes of artistic creation and aesthetic exploration than in the production of finished works” (Plaza, 2003b, p. 17), so that both the artist and the work “only exist for effective participation the public” (Plaza, 2003b, p. 19). Because of this requirement of a receiver so that there is the author and the work, Plaza also gives this degree of opening the name of communicational art as it “allows a creative communication based on the principles of synergy, constructive collaboration, critical and innovative”. (Plaza, 2003b, p. 17)

Synthetically, the different degrees of openness proposed by Plaza could then be called in accordance with the inclusion of the viewer in the work on:

  1. First degree of openness: passive participation;
  2. Second degree of openness: active/ perceptive participation;
  3. Third degree of openness: interactive participation.

However, polysemy also affects the very theoretical concepts that underlie it. This is the case of the positioning of Swedish researchers Kristoffer Haggren, Elge Larsson, Leo Nordwall and Gabriel Widing. Similar to Plaza, they divide the arts according to therelation author-work-reception in three different categories.

The first artistic category would be spectative art, assuming that “to spectate an event is to subject an individual to a solitary internal mental process: our senses perceive stimuli, we interpret them and create an experience for ourselves” (Haggren et al, 2009, p . 33). For the authors, the works of art encompassed by this category would occupy the space of thinking, had here as the “potential experiences that a certain sensory stimulation can bring up at a certain time in a certain observer” (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 36), including that spectrum “all possible thoughts, emotional reactions and associations that the subject can connect to the stimulation of the work” (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 36).

The second category is the interactive art, which “can be described as a perception of stimuli driven by choice” (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 39), since the works in this category “gives the observer the possibility to choose which sensory input will be exposed “(Haggren et al, 2009, p. 40). Here, although the authors show that the vast majority of works generate a space of potential thinking, we also have the space of choice, or “the range of all possible stimulus where the viewer can choose” (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 41).

The third (and last) category would be participative art. Participation in this context is understood as “the process by which individuals produce and receive stimuli to and from other subjects in the framework of an agreement that defines how these exchanges will be performed” (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 43). Here, the viewer’s notion breaks down, since he becomes a participant, a simultaneous consumer and producer of stimuli. The rules of stimuli exchanges make up a pillar of the participative art, since they give to this agreement a social meaning and, therefore, communication. It comes as the space of action, that “indicates to participants subsidies and restrictions to act communicatively”. (Haggren et al, 2009, p. 46)

The main difference between these two theories are in the meaning employed to the word interactivity. While, in Plaza’s research, interactivity refers to the “reciprocal relationship between the user and an intelligent system” (Plaza, 2003b, p. 10), showing the position of the author of that interactivity is related to “issue of technical interfaces with the notion of program” (Plaza, 2003b, p. 17), for the Swedish authors interactivity refers to the notion of choice. From this concept, the categorisations of both are distinguished by creating distinct incremental positions.

In this respect, this study is based on the second theory, marked by the apparatus notion viewed in Flusser (2002; 2007): the apparatus would be the producer of information, or non-things (as opposed to tools and machines that perform work or, in Flusser’s terminology, produce things), always subjected to a program. The person operating the apparatus (or that for it is operated, if we take the servant’s notion mentioned by Flusser) seeks to exhaust the options already pre-prescribed in the program. In this sense, it points to a connection between the use of the term interactivity both by Plaza and by the Swedish authors: interactivity would occur for a series of choices resulting from the user’s relationship with the program. The participation, however, is part of a more complex level: a deprogramming of the apparatus, namely the freedom to incorporate noise as part of the repertoire (Flusser, 1967) of the apparatus. The American media researcher Henry Jenkins also points to this sense of insubordination to the apparatus as ulterior to the interactivity, under the name of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2009). Explaining: only a culture that has dominated the apparatus, as seen in some contemporary groups, could insubordinate themselves as the way we see in the Jenkin’s participatory culture that deprogram the apparatus moved mainly for entertainment and pleasure.

In short, the spectative art is a first degree opening, polysemic, where there is a dependence of an viewer on a finished work by an author. In interactive art, the third degree opening restricts the dependence between author and spectator just to one program mediating the process, and no longer to a work. Finally, participative art, the relationship between the participants (a second degree opening in Plaza studies) is given by an agreement.

Open Work and Open Game

Once demonstrated, the three aspects that make up this study (i.e. the aforementioned works of art, the concept of translation, and the opening of the work), this research reaches its central point: the relationship between opening of the game and opening of the work. It is evident that by opening the game means the increase or decrease of the repertoire and/or modification of its structure (Flusser, 1967). The increase or decrease in the repertoire would occur by the transformation of noise in game elements, and vice versa, understanding noises like “elements that are not part of the repertoire of a particular game” (Flusser, 1967, p. 4).

In Frost’s poem, the original[2]Despite the use of the term original, it is assumed that even the poem can be considered a possible translation of Frost’s thoughts, memories, perceptions and interpretations. of which the other two works has operated translations, could be admitted an opening of the first degree, or a spectative art. The possibilities of game openness are limited to the repertoire of each spectator, i.e. the set of elements, in this case the meanings, that he can give to the work. However, the structure of the game/work remains unchanged.

In Mestre’s music piece, the translation, or modification of structure (an openness in the game), incorporate different elements to Frost’s poem. The usual score’s pentacle is replaced by a structure that unfolds in the image of a tree, in allusion to the point where the roads diverged in the poem. The two musicians take on the role of the possible paths, invited to improvise on the suggestions of musical notes that they may possibly take from such subjective musical notation. The very distinction between the two demonstrated interactivity concepts here have their place: on one hand there isthe third degree opening, the interaction between user and program, seen as changing the music through the capture of concentration and relaxation states of the performer (hereinafter also receiving the output of the other performer) by electroencephalogram (EEG).[3]This study highlights the metagame played by Mestre, who incorporates a noise to the electroencephalogram repertoire, which could be understood, in Flusser’s terms, as a deprogramming of the device in question. On the other hand, the relationship with the possible choices, based on the music feedback returned to each of the performers, suggests a second degree opening.

Finally, in Young’s larp, the very perception of the participants on the few lines describing each scene and each role is the heart of the matter, because it allows them to create, in every execution, a completely different work for producing and receiving completely distinct stimuli.

Which Road to Take Forward?

Although Mestre never played Young’s larp, he has been a role-player for several years. To which degree would the immersion in a participative art affect the production in other (and sometimes less opened) artistic structures?

Larps have been around for a while: about 20 years as an artistic expression, if you take the nordic larp slope; about 40 years if you take a common origin with the tabletop role-playing games; or even millennia, if you take the relationship between larps and Roman Saturnalias, as pointed out by Brian Morton (2007).

Eco stays in the metaphor of a wood to the narrative. The Italian semiologist, with this term, honours the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), for whom:

(…) a wood is a garden of diverging roads. Even when there are not well-defined paths in a wood, everyone can draw their own path, deciding to go to the left or tothe right of a particular tree and, in every found tree, choosing this or that direction.Borges apud Eco, 1994, p. 12

Using this metaphor, the narratives, whether they be literary, imagistic, musical or ludic, would be composed of options all the time. Eco even compares the fruition of a work to a game, given the relationship between the author and the spectator, whom he defines as “someone who is eager to play” (Eco, 1994, p. 16). As pointed out by the Brazilian communicologist Monica Martinez, human expressions, even over the millennia and innovation of techniques, relied on “new interpretations layer overlaps on the same content”. (Martinez, 2015, p. 4)

Thus, passed this literature review, it is suggested that a possible road to be taken in the future would be to research, learn and absorb how a participative art, as is the case of larps, could contribute (or already contributes) to the choice of new layers to overlap the elements contained in different artistic expressions and/or structures.



This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

Cover photo: Allison Balcetis and Manuel Falleiros performing The Road Not Taken (Mestre, 2014) at University of Campinas in 2015. Photo by Luciene Mourige.

References   [ + ]

1. Although the relationship with the Frost poem is not made clear in the larp script, it was clarified by Young in an email conversation on 05.03.2016.
2. Despite the use of the term original, it is assumed that even the poem can be considered a possible translation of Frost’s thoughts, memories, perceptions and interpretations.
3. This study highlights the metagame played by Mestre, who incorporates a noise to the electroencephalogram repertoire, which could be understood, in Flusser’s terms, as a deprogramming of the device in question.


Tadeu Rodrigues Iuama
Master in Communication and Culture at University of Sorocaba, Brazil, where he has researched bleed in, under the title "Communicational processes in storytelling games: the relationship between player’s roleplay and life stories ". Member of the Mediatic Narratives Research Group, also at UNISO.
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