The player’s the thing

looks at the relationship between theatre and gaming

Image: K putt on Flickr

Image: K putt on Flickr

Games are movies. At least this has been the traditional belief, that there is a kinship, games often taking the premises of movies and making them interactive fantasies. In Red Dead Redemption, you get to be a cowboy, in Splinter Cell, a spy, and in Grand Theft Auto, a criminal. Of course, this isn’t always the case – there is no filmic genre that games like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog are based on – but if you look at most modern mainstream games, that similarity exists. Yet while premises may be cinematically inspired, the intricate elements that construct games have a lot more of a heritage from theatre.

Whereas film is framed and has the capability to show you exactly what the director wants to show you, games and theatre don’t necessarily have that luxury (at least during play of the game, rather than filmic “cutscenes”). This is because the spectator exists in the same three-dimensional space as the action, regardless of whether that space is a real one in front of you or a virtually recreated one on a screen. In a conventional play, if you’re sitting in the audience, you make the choice to look at a certain part of the stage, to focus on one actor or another, at any given time.

Being a spectator in games extends beyond merely being guided around a world. In many games, the environment has lots of plot to non-verbally show to the player. These can be smaller, singular stories within that world, or larger sprawling stories told almost entirely through the environment. For example, in System Shock 2, a first-person shooter, the player can find a dead man with his back against a wall, a blood splatter near his head and a pistol by his feet. This small piece of narrative, the suicide of a guard, reflects the mood and tone of the main story back to the player, who becomes a spectator of the world that they can traverse and explore.

2013’s Gone Home, which takes place solely in a family’s house, takes this form of telling stories environmentally to new extremes. Each room is filled with objects of all kinds, which, when considered together in their context, tell the stories of the characters who lived in those rooms. Gone Home has a lot more in common with a play like Sleep No More than it does with most games, both giving the ‘spectator’ the freedom to explore their respective spaces and understand the characters and their stories through the rooms they inhabit.

Where games notably diverge from theatre is that in games, we are not just spectators of the action, but participants – or ‘actors’ – too. This is most evident in games where you get to role play – where you can choose what the character says and ultimately, who they are as a person. There is clearly an analogue between an actor in a play and the player-character in a game; both are participants in the act of creation, speaking the lines or choosing which lines to speak. Take Kentucky Route Zero, in which – during the opening minutes – someone asks you what your dog is called. We get to decide between the male Homer, the female Blue, and a nameless stray dog. Each one reflects the nature and sensibility of our protagonist, Conway, who, through this act of play, becomes our version of Conway.

Of course, not all games are similar to theatre. These comparisons, while useful as a way to think about games in a new light, don’t really apply to games with more abstract spaces, such as many strategy games. For something like Civilization or Crusader Kings, the only graphic we see is the world map from a top-down view. Sure, we see these spaces – cities, counties, states – but they are abstract spaces: easy, simplistic representations of an actual city, an actual county, an actual state. It doesn’t have the same 1-to-1 navigation through physical spaces that theatre does. However, it is not just 3D games that have a kinship with theatre – 2D games do too, of course, especially point-and-click adventures like Monkey Island and the aforementioned Kentucky Route Zero. They may not have a 3D space for us to move around, but we still get to be a spectator, viewing the environment side-on, and we still get to be a participant, choosing where our character goes, who they talk to, what they say, etc.

This idea of simultaneously being spectator and participant is perfectly summarised in The Entertainment. In it, the player takes the role of “bar-fly”, a character in a play in the world of the game, giving us a view of the audience watching the play as well as the main characters of the play onstage. The player views the game through a first-person view, and so we can, whenever we want, choose to be a ‘spectator’ and watch the main characters perform the play (or watch the reactions of the audience), or be a ‘participant’ and say our lines and do our actions when it is our turn to do so. Representative of many games as a whole, as well as theatre, both from the side of performer and watcher, The Entertainment excellently collapses the idea of actor and audience. Because it is a game set within a play, it is able to clearly show the similarities between the two.

It’s an odd comparison, sure, especially because theatre is thousands of years old, and videogames are decades old. Theatre is incredibly well respected while videogames are largely not; if they are, more often than not it is because of how much money the industry makes, not because of any meaningful artistic capability of games.

Yet the connection is certainly there. As game designers like Steve Gaynor (Bioshock, Gone Home) and Tamas Kemenczy (Kentucky Route Zero) have said, the structure and techniques of theatre are a huge inspiration for their works. But beyond the side of developers and designers, this comparison is useful to us too, if only to give us a new angle to consider games.

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