For years, we have seen filmmakers tap into video games as a source of inspiration. And the relationship certainly contains a certain degree of logic. Many have long viewed games as interactive, movie-like experiences, so it makes sense to attempt something that's the other way around.
Yet the end result, as we've seen time and time again, can be a bit disappointing. But in recent years, video games have slowly but surely found a second home: the live stage. The very idea of the two seems rather nonsensical, admittedly, and that's one of the reasons why it's so awesome.
Movies based on video games usually concentrate on the tangible details, like its plot. But what about the act of playing a game all by itself, or simply the player him/herself? That stuff is awfully hard to articulate in almost any instance, but creating a motion picture around such vague concepts is a gigantic risk. Which is why most filmmakers won't consider such topics, but those kinds of limitations don't exist in theater.
Furthermore, and back in the day, the stage was where people reveled in the human condition. The theater has always been about telling stories, "our" stories, regardless of who "us" might actually be. Something that motion pictures and television has usurped, somewhat.
But not totally, and given how more modern methods of storytelling is ineffective in telling us who we are as gamers, it almost makes sense to embrace more old fashion methods. Instead of looking at some director's idea of what a live action Sonic the Hedgehog or Mass Effect movie might be, why not a mostly barren stage?
A stage that's ready to be filled, with our experiences as gamers and our relationships with games. That's what Game Play has been about. For the past four years each summer, the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has brought together some of the finest playwrights and actors to explore the subject of video games in numerous ways.
And this year's edition was no different. I got the chance to check out four different offerings, and each was as different as they could possibly be.
The highlight once again, as it has been every year since Game Play first started, was the EK Machinima Theater. The basic concept is simple: breathing life into classic literature via video games. Yet the execution is anything but.
The stage is primarily comprised of a series of long tables, each with assorted gaming PCs, laptops, and consoles. And at each machine is a young boy, no older than junior high aged, who are all digital puppeteers. They drive the action in various games, which is projected on the wall in front of everyone.
This year's production is "Kwaidan: Four Machinima Theater Pieces", a retelling of four tales from Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese ghost stories. EK Machinima Theater's specialty is parables, and half the fun is seeing which titles are employed to illustrate the drama. Often, more than one is utilized for a single story.
As the narrator and actors do the talking, the kids on stage do all the acting, via in-game characters, and in real time. The title that is used most often is "World of Warcraft," which makes sense, since it offers a fair deal of customization when it comes to characters. Plus, the fantasy setting works well with the tales of old that are often tapped into.
Half the fun is seeing which titles are employed to illustrate the drama.
But the real fun comes when other games are inserted into the mix, specifically to illustrate a particular action. A perfect example is "Oshidori", which is about a hunter who, unable to find any game and is starving at this point, decides to kill a pair of sacred ducks that he comes across. This is acted out in the form of "Duck Hunt" for the NES.
While watching, it's easy to take for granted that these are just kids playing video games, albeit on-stage and in front of a live audience. But then comes a moment that reminds us all that the players are indeed trained thespians, following a very tight script, and using a medium that can be at times unpredictable, even chaotic.
Back to "Duck Hunt"; only one of the ducks is successfully shot, which might lead one to believe that there had been a mess up, but no. According to the tale, the hunter was only able to nab one, leading the other to haunt him in his dreams. The remaining foul recites a poem about the loss of her loved one and the sorrow that is now contained within her. She also demands that the hunter return to where he killed her mate to pay for his sins.
And return to the scene of the crime he does, where the other duck commits suicide. Is Duck Hunt used again? No. Instead, the hunter is Toon Link and the remaining foul is King Dede, from Super Smash Bros Brawl. And the latter commits suicide, in the same basic fashion that any player loses a match.
To the casual theatergoer, one who is not versed in video games, they may find the overall spectacle amusing. It's a bunch of kids, on stage, acting out famous stories, via video games. Just the premise alone is a novelty. And some might also appreciate the strong visual contrast from this mixing of games. Like in the tale of the "Yuki-Onna"; a relatively cartoony looking game delivers the bulk of the story, which once again is "WoW", but switches over to "Modern Warfare 3" at a pivotal moment of the narrative that takes place primarily in the lead character's mind.
But seasoned gamers will appreciate EK Machinima Theater the most. Before the action even begins, you can tell what the kids are going to be utilizing by glancing at their personal monitors, and often you'll watch them hurriedly prepare for the next scene, by getting into the right position and prepping the appropriate setting. It's basically seeing what happens backstage at any theater production, but right in front of you. Yet I'm fairly confident that most actors are not burdened with the task of not just memorizing their lines, but also making sure the right disc is inside the Xbox 360 at the right time, let alone making sure that they connected to the proper server.
Game Play also offers more conventional forms of theater. Like their triple bill of "The Sequel/Rock Paper Scissors/The Cute-Radioactive Couple."
The first play is about two kids who finally get ahold of the follow-up to their favorite game, "Apocalypse Rising: Armies Of The Undead". It's a two-player co-operative zombie blast-a-thon that has all the staples you would expect. You've got a jacked up tough guy who says "witty" things when thinning out the undead populace, and his female counterpart who does the same with the help of her comically large breasts and nonsensical backstory that's supposed to add "depth" to a one-dimensional character.
But things go awry with when they realize that zombies are actually real people that have been plagued with misfortunes that no one asked for. Eventually the two game characters start freaking out, and thusly the two players who were driving the action become depressed as well. Granted, it's a somewhat clichéd set-up, at least in the realm of game-related web comics and the like, but not on stage. At least not here. Most importantly, it's done justice via solid performances. Something that those who are not quite hardcore gamers, but are familiar with its tropes, can appreciate.
The same cannot be said for "Rock Paper Scissors". At the risk of giving too much away, it's basically dueling banjos between two game designers, who are trying their best to impress a third party. Their goal is to create a party game, one that sounds like the most complicated activity of all time, which draws from virtually every recognizable game in existence. But ultimately, the game they come up with is a simple one, which I suppose is to say that all games, when you get down to it, is simply Rock, Paper, and Scissors. I think?
It's one of those video game plays that examines a situation that is common in many titles, but is often packed with goals and activities, and pushes all that aside. It really makes you ponder what being in such a situation is truly like.
It's funny how, for something that's not just about games, but making them, "Rock Paper Scissors" was so polarizing among friends that I saw the show with. Friends who are game designers themselves, and responded with "I don't get it" afterward. Because it was less about the subject matter itself, and more of an exercise for "actor-ly" actors to have fun, to play around with the form and be in the moment. Which, sadly, can be a bit difficult to swallow for non-theater aficionados.
Though "The Cute-Radioactive Couple" should be instantly relatable to anyone who is into games, Fallout in particular. It's basically about a couple and the time they spend together in a (you guessed it) fallout shelter while all hell is breaking loose outside. Unfortunately the husband purchased the radiation-proof abode during his bachelor days, so it's only built for one, and that includes supplies.
Again, those who aren't necessarily gamers will appreciate the play; ultimately, tales of two souls being brought together when the world has seemingly come to an end is fairly universal. But those who are fans of Fallout will appreciate it even more so, and not just because its chock full of references. It's one of those video game plays that examines a situation that is common in many titles, but is often packed with goals and activities, and pushes all that aside. It really makes you ponder what being in such a situation is truly like. The best part is how the play ends on a cliffhanger, and the rest is spelled out in the form of a Fallout: New Vegas mod.
Game Play is all about experimentation. As such, some of it works and some of it does not. You can file "TBA (text-based adventure)" in the later category. I myself was the most excited for this particular show. It sounded like a production from last year, in which all the actors were basically living, breathing characters in an adventure game that the audience played. It's the same basic concept, but the execution is completely different.
Front and center you have three people, each identified with a letter on their shirt, K, R, and N. To the back you have a guy wearing a rat mask and holding a MacBook. All around the stage are random objects: stuffed animals, pasta bowls, a bottle of baby powder, etc. And before the action stars, you are given a phone number.
The goal is this: you issue a command through text message to one of the three (or all three at the same time) to perform. The command is sent to the guy in the rat mask, who relays the message by speaking into ear mics that the other three are wearing. Such a scenario lends itself to infinite possibilities, or so you'd think.
It's tough to evaluate these kinds of performances because much of it depends on the audience. If they don't come up with any interesting ideas, then the actors won't do anything interesting either. Yet, much of it also depends on the energy and perceived competency of those on stage. The first red flag was when they openly admitted that they had no classic improv training. It was all downhill from there.
At first the audience was engaged, but after just a few very awkward, low-energy, and flat-out tedious minutes, the mood in the room became uncomfortable. After noticing that the amount of texting from the audience had screeched to a halt, myself and one other person (from what I could tell) began to feverishly pass along commands and suggestions in hopes of salvaging the scene, yet to no avail. But then came the intermission and everything from before was repeated. Literally.
You issue a command through text message to one of the three (or all three at the same time) to perform.
At first, one might wonder if things were going to be done differently. My companion and I had initially assumed that they would be doing everything from memory, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Next I wondered if they might try to compose a narrative out of all the disparate elements that they had been given. Nope. Everything the second time around was just slight variations from before, with no real meaning or importance behind the changes. The show overall simply lacked focus. As a result, it was a massive disappointment.
"TBA (text-based adventure)" is definitely one of those things that could have been much better with the right people involved. But that could be said for the vast majority of experimental theater.
One thing I noticed this year was the addition of pen and paper gameplay, like the group did with "Of Dice & Men", one of Game Play 2012's headlining shows. It's the tale of six people, all in their mid-30s, whose bonds with each other are forged and strengthened when playing Dungeons & Dragons. It's also about how the real world can play havoc with such relationships.
The narrative is primarily told from the perspective of John, a man who is at a crossroads. We see firsthand how D&D became a cornerstone of his formative years, because it provided "rules for playing pretend". It's also how he became acquainted with his life-long best friend, Justin, who is the total opposite to John's levelheaded, laid back, and non-aggressive tendencies.
Justin on the other hand is juvenile, temperamental, and passionate. And his D&D counterpart—the character that he plays in the game—reflects these qualities as well. Throughout the show, we become more acquainted with the principles by the direct dialogue offered by their characters, and it's intriguing to see the differences, or lack thereof, between the player and the character.
Back to John: there's a token girl gamer in the group, Amy. Naturally, he's in love with her but is either too much of a shy dork to say how he feels, or his timing when trying to do so is just the worst. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that he's simply going in circles and needs to change things up, hence the decision to take a job offer across the country. It's the chance to start a new life, and it's big news that he's eager to share with the rest of his D&D buddies.
That message is clear: to recognize destiny and do whatever you can to attain it, even if we are not truly in control of our fates.
Unfortunately, their pal Jason has an announcement of his own: he's joining the Marine Reserves. Which sends emotional shockwaves throughout the rest of the group. Again, much of the drama that unfolds—specifically, how everyone relates and deals with each other—both in the real world, sitting at a table, rolling dice, and inside the game. Often, how their other selves deal with each other is how their real counter parts wish they could be. Yet they too are victims of circumstance—the numbers that are rolled—which is one of the underlying messages of the play.
That message is clear: to recognize destiny and do whatever you can to attain it, even if we are not truly in control of our fates. A message that is timeless, yet told in a very fresh, effective manner. Of all the shows I've seen this year at Game Play 2012, "Of Dice & Men" is near the very top. It has the perfect combination of captivating acting, a script that effectively mixes comedy and drama, and an approach towards that subject matter that is heartfelt, yet not at all pandering or overly sentimental. Fans of D&D will surely love the play, and even video gamers as well.
"Of Dice & Men" had its final performance, tonight at 7pm. It's highly recommended. "TBA (text-based adventure)" has its last run as well, tomorrow afternoon at 3pm. I say give it a shot, in hopes of a particularly lively audience, though my warning from before still stands. And "The Sequel/Rock Paper Scissors/The Cute-Radioactive Couple" closes out the festival tomorrow evening at 7pm.
For more information, be sure to check out The Brick's website.
Matthew Hawkins is a NYC based game journalist who once upon a time used to be an editor for GameSetWatch, currently writes for MSNBC's In-Game, plus numerous other outlets, self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of the Attract Mode collective, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on his personal home-base, FORT90.com.