Wanderer Sabaku met me at the foot of his mansion’s grand double stairway on the Diabolos server of Final Fantasy XIV. He was nearly twice my size and towered in a purple floor-length coat. A crown sat on his blue-gray head. He welcomed me from behind a partition and led me down some winding stairs into the basement, which opened onto a theater. It was his theater, where, on December 30th and 31st, he will direct a full-scale, in-game production of “I Want to Be Your Canary,” a play from Final Fantasy IX.
Moving past some cushioned benches, he perched on the edge of the stage. Lights, stage doors, a VIP balcony and all the trappings of a modern-day drama hall surrounded us. “It’s what I believe in,” he told me. “The fact that a video game, something people sometimes see as a waste of time, can be used for something that the community can truly benefit from.”
Wanderer Sabaku, whose real name is Steve Pederzani, is a full-time law student in Seattle. He spends his spare time directing, coordinating, stage designing and acting for his FFXIV theater collective, A Stage Reborn. It’s a play on FFXIV’s tagline, “A Realm Reborn.” “I Want to Be Your Canary” is his first magnum opus as a director in FFXIV. It’s about the drama that unfolds around a princess and her peasant lover.
Over a dozen players act in it, and even for rehearsals, strangers travel across servers with level one accounts to witness some live, in-game theater. Over 50 players can fit into the space. After being invited to a rehearsal, I can say that it is, by far, the most mirthful player project I have seen in an MMO.
Pederzani’s theater background stretches back as far as elementary school, when he was the lead in a play about a farmer and his obstinate animals. Through undergraduate, he pursued acting, eventually majoring in it. But over time, acting took a backseat to something more abstract: the way theatergoers collected around drama. What would a projector add to the mood? How do people feel on their way out of an absurdist play? After Pederzani graduated from college, he pursued theater professionally. But he found that the focus was more on peddling tickets than providing an experience.
“All of my greatest memories and moments were when I wasn’t paid,” he told me from his seat on A Stage Reborn’s set. “Paid contracts were very, very different. Some nights I only got 2 hours of sleep because of the workload.”
All the while, Pederzani was playing the first Final Fantasy MMO, FFXI. The game’s plot is level-one armor thin. But the NPCs’ cutscenes, to him, felt immersive, like a non-interactive drama. That inspired him to write little scripts—creative explanations for FFXI’s plot lapses. For example, according to FFXI lore, the servants of Altana, the Dawn Goddess, are FFXI’s Game Masters (GMs), real-life players who role-played as the game’s guiding angels and punishing lords. But lore never really elaborated on where they came from. There, Pederzani saw an opportunity.
“I figured, wouldn’t it be fun if one of those servants went rogue? It’d give us a reason to pry into the lore of ‘what is a GM?’” Pederzani told me. But more, if the GMs were actors of sorts, completely integrated into the game, what could he do with a whole cast of MMO actors?
Actors, ushers and fans of A Stage Reborn told me they heard about the collective, born last year, when Pederzani did a ten million-gold giveaway. A Stage Reborn hosts skits, costume contests and, in October, a fully-functioning haunted house. Around Halloween, players on the Diabolos server were led through a decrepit mansion set where a mystery plot unraveled. Actors jumped out from corners and through doors, impersonating ghosts or monsters.
It’s not role-playing, Pederzani insists. It’s acting. “A lot of players, when they see that we do in-game shows and that we take what we do seriously, come in thinking we’re a role-playing troupe,” he said. “Those are two common misconceptions — we consider ourselves a community organization free and open to all to enjoy, and we’re not role-players.” Acting in “I Want to Be Your Canary” is in a theatrical context, he says. It’s not simple self-expression. It’s art.
Last week, Pederzani invited me to a dress rehearsal for “I Want to Be Your Canary.” I arrived at 11:30 PM. Dino Dexee, a cat woman in a dapper red suit, was waiting by the mansion’s grand stairway before she led me down into the theater. “If you have any questions, please let me or any of the ushers in red know,” she said. When I entered the theater, it was full of a dozen humanoid felines, elfs, humans and little munchkin beasts. I followed Dexee as she wordlessly guided me through a small red door at the back of the theater and up some stairs, where there was a red curtain. “Just type /sit at the red curtain where you’d like to have your character sitting, it’ll automatically pull your character onto the spot,” Pederzani explained from below. The command glitched me into an ivy-trimmed VIP box. Someone had left an idle, hefty female avatar there.
“I deeply apologize for the delay,” Pederzani said. A character who played a larger role was running late. After some anxious waiting, Pederzani volunteered to read his lines. “Everyone to places,” he said in a commanding yellow font. After a moment, the lights dimmed and a rousing string track played. Fireworks went off on stage and from behind a window at its back. Finally, King Leo, played by Pederzani, entered. The avatar was an alternate—Pederzani’s “Wanderer Sabaku” was still stationed in the audience. The word “<<ACTOR>>” hung above King Leo’s head. He bowed and we applauded. Then he sent a series of messages to general chat:
King Leo: Ladies and Gentlemen!
King Leo: Tonight’s performance is a story that takes place long, long ago.
King Leo: Our heroine, Princess Cornelia, is torn from her lover, Marcus.
King Leo: She attempts to flee the castle, only to be captured by her father, King Leo.
King Leo: Tonight’s story begins when Marcus, having heard of this, crosses swords with the king.
A fight scene broke out. The actors drew their weapons while King Leo cast colorful spells on aggressors. As actors scurried around the stage, in a kind of Yakkety Sax runaround, King Leo grasped at them, looking around with an urgency that broke through FFXIV’s rigid emote system. Bombs flew. The dead /lied down. After the fight was over, the lights dimmed and casualties got up and walked off stage.
King Leo wasn’t typing every line live, in-time with the action. Typos are a risk. But he was hitting emote macros and moving around the stage with mouse and keyboard. His timing was a measure of perfect only reached after weeks of rehearsal. He was performing, and doing a damn good job. More impressive was the stage tech. Garrett Melton, who plays a lead in “I Want to Be Your Canary,” told me that FFXIV has severe limitations when it comes to acting. In a safe zone like A Stage Reborn’s theater, players can’t actually be killed because they’re not formally in combat. And there isn’t a great emote for faking death unless you’re near a bed. On a wood stage, a few spare beds scattered about could look a little unprofessional.
“You face interesting limitations,” Melton said. “To address this, we hid beds at the appropriate spots beneath the stage. When someone dies, they’re actually just using the /doze emote directly above one of the hidden beds, which allows them to lie down on the stage and fall asleep at that spot.” Melton thinks video games are, in his words, a “creative medium.” To get a lead, he auditioned for Pederzani with Andrew Ryan’s introductory speech to Bioshock’s City of Rapture.
Pederzani meticulously studied cutscenes in FFIX before putting the set together. He drew sketches. He made lists of must-have architecture, like the balcony, entrances from stage left, right and upstage center, as well as a below-stage entrance. “We couldn’t mimic the set entirely since housing just doesn’t allow that in-game, but we were able to make a close derivative that worked for the show,” Pederzani told me. Throughout the show, actors entered from surprising locations while fireworks flew about from various angles. It was like a magic show, all articulated with rigid code in an equally rigid MMO.
At the end of rehearsal, the actors strode out on stage in small groups, Melton and his co-lead among the last. They all bowed together several times. We in the audience /cheered and /clapped. Then, they all started dancing.
“A lot of folks are surprised when they come to our server or [mansion] and find out that we’re just a bunch of normal players doing a show,” Pederzani told me. “Think of us like you think of your local or regional community theater. Just inside a video game instead. We’re all normal players that, outside of events, still play the game the same as everyone else.”
“I Want to Be Your Canary” will be performed on December 30th and 31st at 5 P.M. PST on FFXIV’s Diabolos server. The stage is located at the Lavender Beds, 8th Ward, Plot 28. You can also view the show on youtube.com/astagereborn and twitch.tv/astagereborn.