Monday, June 5, 2023

Managing Expectations

Hey, sorry, I've been neglecting you guys -- for a good six months it looks like!

It's been about 10 years now since I performed as "The Great and Powerful Trixie" in Second Life. I wanted a role that didn't tie me down, and didn't rely on other players to work. The show was successful, and Trixie performed in most of the existing MLP-based sims of the time. I ran two tours covering 3 or 4 years, with the last few shows adding some extra tricks.

The show evolved over the years, too, as I learned how to make the audience react correctly. Performing in Second Life is a different beast than real life - people have different expectations. For instance, I had two spots where someone needed to get on stage... originally I tried to get volunteers and pick on. But, this took a very long time. So eventually, I just revealed the sit object, and told them "first one there gets it". ;) And, many times, people were told they had to behave during the show or be ejected. So in the appropriate places, I added explicit permission to get loud and make noise.

I might add some specific pictures later. I know pictures would add a lot, but I don't have pictures of every effect.

The basic premise of the show is a travelling magician, "The Great and Powerful Trixie". She's a unicorn of mid-range magical talent, but a love of stage magic. As such, she hauls her caravan from town to town, performing for tips (at least in my case).

The the show, she was introduced as a braggart who so offended the town that they wrote her off - all but two dim-witted ponies who lured a massive beast to the town to see Trixie fight it off, as she had bragged she could. Her magic was laughably inadequate, but Twilight Sparkle managed the feat, embarrassing Trixie and setting up a long term rivalry. But there was an often overlooked spark in this introduction... despite knowing that her stories were just stories, and despite knowing she had nothing in her magical arsenal that could harm the beast, Trixie still tried to save the town. She lost her caravan and she lost her reputation, but she didn't run away from the challenge. That was why I latched onto her as a favorite character.

Speaking specifically about the show, her magic show was never really shown to be very much. Only hopping on stage and bragging. I decided to create a real show, keep some of the character, and try to be entertaining. The first thing I needed to build was the caravan itself. Both home and stage, in the show it was demonstrated to transform on the fly. Making it do this was tricky, but I pulled it off and it made the first step in the show, as objects in SL rarely perform such feats. In addition, I kept the overlap of objects inside minimal, so when it was closed, it was believable that it all fit inside.

I actually put great care on the inside... I may have shown this before. Trixie has a large cushion to sleep on, a lighted mirror to prepare herself with, and several personal touches. She has copies of her show posters plastered all over the one free wall. But prominently near the cushion is a single piece of hand-drawn fan art from a young pony that Trixie keeps close and easy to look at. She also has a very old piece of beaten up paper tucked into her mirror with a message from an old mentor: "Follow your dreams, Trixie. Become great and powerful." These were never specifically shown to anyone, but were meant to show some character to anyone curious enough to peek inside. And yes, the mirror worked, in that Trixie would appear in it when she sat down. ;)

The show ran roughly 40 minutes long, and was driven by a pre-recorded audio soundtrack. I used a pop up cueing system with the timestamps written into it, and a stopwatch to keep myself on track. Hitting the cue button would trigger effects or lines of text, and I just needed to move Trixie to the correct location.

The show opened with the stage closed and a voiceover announcing it. At the appropriate moment, the stage would unfold, an Trixie would emerge with a blast of flame from a cloud of smoke. She would prance around the stage, welcome the audience, and then it was on to the first trick.

The first was a simple card trick performed on the banner over the stage, and the only real magic in the show. This was a trick that I saw on the web once, and that three of us so-called engineers couldn't figure out for several passes! So I wanted to provide the same level of wonder (for anyone who didn't know the trick). The cards appear on the banner, and Trixie commands the audience to quietly remember one. After a puff of smoke, the card you selected is gone! I never heard how many people understood what was going on quickly enough to be "got", but I always moved on quickly to avoid anyone who was figuring out how it was done too easily. ;)

We moved quickly on to the second trick, where I wanted to do a variation of "pull a rabbit out of a hat". To do this, I leaned on more lore from the cartoon. To get revenge on Twilight, Trixie tracked down and acquired a powerful amulet, which magnified her magic. Using this, she was able to enslave all of Ponyville until Twilight tricked her into removing it.

I summoned the amulet, and told the audience that using its power, Trixie would summon a horrible beast to the stage. She put down her hat, and mystical rune-filled circles surrounded it, causing a pillar of light to appear. When the light receded, Angel Bunny stood triumphantly! But, upon realizing that Trixie called him a horrible beast, he storms off stage, leaving Trixie to make a snide comment and move on.

For the third skit, I wanted to get the audience involved to keep their interest up. This was the trickiest one, because it's here that I really needed to subvert expectations. I'll explain.

The skit was literally lifted from "Father of the Pride" - the Scary Box 5000. The idea was, I would take a member from the audience, lock them in a big wooden box on the stage. Then I would summon a frame with 10 whirling saw blades, and send the box through it. On the other side, the box would fall open and...

Well, here's the problem. In the original trick, it would be the original, unharmed character. But in Second Life, there's no problem with someone moving through an object, players do it all the time. Yes, they could suspend disbelief for the sake of the story, but I wanted to actually surprise them.

My next thought was to teleport Trixie there instead. This might have worked, but even teleportation in Second Life results in movement. With Trixie on stage, people would have seen her move. (Indeed, even moving the guest out of the way behind the audience had to be done in several steps to make sure they were not briefly visible to anyone!) Even then, I wasn't sure. Anyone in Second Life could fly and teleport, it wasn't special to do a teleport trick, even if it was in the show.

A comment from a friend finally solved the problem - I wouldn't take it so seriously. Inside the box was a cardboard cut out of a goofy looking Twilight Sparkle, which would then fall over. (Sadly, with apologies, I no longer know who created the art.) This provided the surprise to the audience, and a moment of laughter to anyone who knew that Trixie had a lifetime rivalry with Trixie. Later, in some shows I replaced Twilight with a dancing 2D cutout of Discord, and once I replaced her with an actual Sweetie Belle dancing in a bee costume.

This skit took a bit of effort. I lined up the box with the blades so I could create line textures that looked like the box was actually being cut, and multiple pitched sawblade sounds helped the illusion. I was pretty proud of this effect.

For the next skit, I turned Trixie's bravado up to 11. Most of this skit was actually interacting with the audience, as I welcomed two more onto the stage.

The set up was simple - Trixie would tell the "Story of the Two Sisters". All ponies know this, it is the legend of their very own leaders Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna. Celestia raises the sun, Luna raises the moon. Luna gets jealous of Celestia, attacks her, and is banished to the moon. This all happened a thousand moons ago. Trixie told it differently. Again, needing to defy expectations.

First, Trixie invited someone to play Celestia, and placed them on stage, then the same for Luna. She gave each of them a 'costume' to wear - which consisted very obviously (as obviously as I could) of hastily drawn wings and cutie marks on lined paper ripped from a notebook, and a rolled up paper horn. The goal was to look cheesy as possible.

Once in place, Trixie began telling the story. When time for Celestia to raise the sun, Trixie would let the guest say anything, then trigger a rather magnificent miniature sunrise from behind the stage. The guest's paper horn would actually light up and sparkle, implying they were doing it. The same for Luna, except the moonrise would eclipse the sun and block its glow.

With the stage now set, Trixie posed the question, "Who could help this terrible conflict between sisters?" After a beat, Trixie proposed that she herself did! She uses her magic to move the sun and moon slightly apart from each other, and each of their glows fills the sky, ending the jealous conflict.

This got the most reaction from the audience, some amused, some outright calling it out as incorrect. While the audience wrapped their heads around it, Trixie dismissed the helpers, and graciously allowed them to keep the costumes.

This took us to the finale, and I was heavily influenced by an "Epic Mix" of Disney's Let it Go. As the main beats kicked in on the soundtrack, Trixie's cape transformed into an icy version resembling Elsa's, and she raised a massive ice castle on the stage, block by block. In a cloud of smoke, she then poofed to the balcony, and waved to her adoring fans as the last beats faded out.

Without hesitation, as the final soundtrack starts, the castle explodes in a flurry of snow and ice, and Trixie dons magical wings to fly back to the stage. As she lands, the gilded magical wings slowly derez line by line, and she bows in her new tuxedo. A massive glittering mortar launches from her horn into the sky, and the final bows are taken underneath a massive fireworks show. As the music comes to an end, a massive spray of mortars lights the sky, and Trixie vanishes in a final puff of smoke as the stage folds back up once again.

The show was well received, and many ponies attended multiple performances. These ponies helped A LOT. They knew what was supposed to happen and prompted those who didn't, letting me get a smoother show while staying in character.

I did three custom shows, as well. One year, there was a single Halloween (or, Nightmare Night as they called it) show. For this, I degraded the stage with dirtier, decayed textures.

I changed the card trick into a jump scare - instead of changing to the second set of cards, it made a loud spooky noise and flew ghostly Nightmare Moons at the screen. Unfortunately, due to lag this trick didn't fire. I changed the on stage sparks to red, to look like blood spraying up. I changed the Twilight inside the Scary Box 5000 to a fully articulated pony skeleton, which fell apart on stage after the reveal.

Then I changed up the ending. At the question point of the Story of the Two Sisters, Trixie still declared herself the savior, but this time she took action. Surrounded by a ball of plasma, she lifted into the air and transformed herself into Nightmare Trixie.

Then she fired magical beams at the two ponies on stage, transforming them into fully realized versions of Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker, the evil versions of the Princesses. (For this, I had friends play the additional roles). This ended the show with the Nightmares in charge, and was a surprise twist that nobody seemed to expect. I had hoped to repeat this show, but it turned out to be a one time thing.

I also did a show in the Fallout: Equestria world. For this I reworked the stage into an armored machine... although I didn't change up the actual effects much.

For the final show, which was only performed twice, I did a Christmas version (or, Hearth's Warming Eve in their canon). For this I decorated the stage with snow and Christmas lights, and composed a new story to tell.

The new stage had text prompts on the banner, though I don't think they helped much. The new story related the story of Hearth's Warming Eve - where Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns come together in unity to defeat the evil ice-bringing Windigos. Although this one let me bring up three members of the audience, I didn't feel it flowed as well... and indeed the only recording completely failed to look up and see the Windigos circling. ;)

Some locations really got behind it. There were few experiences in Second Life that let you live parts of the actual show, and a Trixie performance was one. There was another Trixie who tried to do their own. Their Trixie was much more bumbling and included her later friend Starlight Glimmer. It was a slick and impressive show but I felt that it missed the mark on Trixie's character. It only had a single performance as well.

Anyway, if you'd like to watch a couple of captures of the show, I'm sad to say we never got a perfect one. But there are a few here in this playlist: