Video Games as an Art Form

Everything’s Interactive

What can theatre artists learn from gamers? How do you effectively incorporate technology in a video game turned theatre performance? This series addresses audience engagement in theatre and gaming, and the need for relevance in theatre to the gaming generation by looking at the process behind an innovative show in San Antonio, Texas.

The late, great Roger Ebert wrote a definitively-titled think piece, “Games Can Never be Art,” six years ago and it’s stuck with me since. Ebert argues that there are no examples in the medium yet worthy of artistic merit, but also that games in principle cannot ever be art because of the way you interact with them. Since then, Ebert went on to write with love and dignity, inspiring others to go out of this world with joy, and I penned some shows where dancing pirates’ swordfight a lot. But I never stopped thinking about this.

I don’t know if games are art. I only know two things about this topic. The first is that all art is interactive. From the way we build a picture in our mind of a book that may or may not match the author’s vision, to the way a painter guides our eye across the canvas, and to the obvious connection between theatre performers and their present audience. We control our experiences in all forms to one degree to other. The second is that I really wanted to combine a video game with another art form and see what the hell happened. So I created Heroes Must Die, a transmedia project combining a full video game with a full theatrical production. It certainly didn’t answer the question, but I hope it helps theatre artists learn from the power of raptured engagement behind game design, and gamers reach out to the theatre for emotional heart and artistic vision.

With some workshopping, I crafted a variation on the choose-your-own-adventure method. The script would branch out based on audience decisions, but these decisions wouldn’t just be binary, direct choices.

a group of people rehearsing on stage
Playwright and fight choreographer Rick Stemm guides actors through the interactive video game dungeon set piece. Photo by Bill Caldaza.

Megan Reilly already covered what theatre professionals and theatregoers can borrow from games in her piece "Learning from the Gamification of Theater." I would instead like to discuss the nuts and bolts of creating a video game theatre show hybrid, in hopes that exposing the process can facilitate more discussion on this topic, encourage others to experiment with these ideas in their own works, and make Ebert turn in his grave just a little bit.

Heroes Must Die was originally a rejected pitch for a musical set in the world of video games. But the errant comment, “Dude what if it was, like, also a video game?” sent me on a three-year quest to make that half-thought a reality. So what would that look like? Where do games and theatre intersect? And just how would I implement this?

I started with some basic assumptions:

  1. The audience is the common denominator between games and theatre. Both have engaged consumers with some level of control. In games this is obvious—the audience literally controls the piece at all points. In theatre this is not a given, but can manifest in different ways—improvisation, choose-your-own-adventure, and other ideas mentioned in Megan Reilly’s article.
  2. The story needs to flow between the media. I didn’t want the game to just be a tangential component, but as much a part of the narrative as the show. Each medium’s story would build upon the other and to a bigger whole.
  3. Each medium has to inform the other. At the very least this meant the game needed to have characters and plot with depth equal to a piece of theatre, and the show had to have an interactive component for the audience to control the direction. At best this meant they would share art and design, and influence the story of the other.
  4. People have to experience the video game and the show. Both game and show would need to be accessible regardless of location and finances, and each would have to stand alone in case the other couldn’t be experienced.

So how did this vision actually play out? Chaotically, of course. Let me say up front that it was a terrible idea to try to time a video game (which is notorious for taking years longer than expected to produce) with a stage show (that needs to be scheduled in a season a year in advance). But certain things became clear to address the above needs.

To engage the audience, the play needed to have a mechanism for them to make choices. With some workshopping, I crafted a variation on the choose-your-own-adventure method. The script would branch out based on audience decisions, but these decisions wouldn’t just be binary, direct choices. The audience would collaborate on mini-game-like challenges, with their success or failure changing the course of the plot. This also doubled as an experiment in audience collaboration in the theatre.

three actors on stage in costume
Stagehands create the video game magic of Heroes Must Die. Photo by Bill Caldaza.

The game would need to have a strong storytelling focus to connect with a narrative play. I settled on an RPG (role-playing game) not only because my game design team and I enjoyed that genre, but also it is the most story-driven of all types of games. This would allow us to put detail into characters, plot, and world-building. A dialogue-heavy, plot-driven game would more naturally flow into the play.

The play would then be a direct sequel to the game. The play would pick up where the game left off, following the surviving characters, addressing challenges that exist because of the events in the game. I liked the idea of a direct prequel-sequel connection because it allowed each medium to tell a stand-alone story, but taken together you see the larger scope. Furthermore, the sets, costumes, and other audio and visual elements could match. I actually wanted to have multiple endings for the game and multiple beginnings of the show, and for show tickets to unlock content in the game. Yet, it became clear that this would be out of scope for the initial production. Hopefully it will be added on, or readers will bring that to life in their own future works.

Finally, accessibility was important. We ultimately decided to release the game for free to engage as many people as possible and spread the word of this wild experiment. Anyone with a computer could download it before or after the show. The show would go up at a college, allowing for student involvement and affordable tickets. Finally, in a flash of inspiration that also added another technical headache to the growing list, I decided to livestream the show, so gamer fans and interested parties around the world had a chance to experience it.

I still don’t pretend to be any closer to understanding the artistic merit of games, but at least I brought into an existence a piece to continue the discussion. I’ll go into more detail on the creation of the game in and the development of the show in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, watch the recording of our livestream, or begin creating your own insane, impossible convergence of media to spite a beloved icon of the industry.

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Thoughts from the curator

Rick Stemm discusses his process for writing Heroes Must Die.

Video Games as an Art Form

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@disqus_BV9xXhNwAR:disqus @stevenschwall:disqus I bugged you both on Twitter for further conversations. Also my next piece, about production of the game, is coming up soon.

Spooky Action Theatre in Washington DC is about to premiere a play, Happy Hour, in the style of a video game, this May. It is a collaboration with a german theater company, machina eX whose sole focus is the intersection between videogaming and theater. What I like is that it maintains the traditional framing of the audience as observer (since they will be in a remote location) but also as an active participant since they will be the ones steering the action in many respects. Very interesting acting challenge as well. Since every inch of the piece is scripted and planned, but you can't plan how smart or challenged any particular group of audience gamer-teams will be and so what logic they will use to solve the puzzles that the actors find themselves in. So for us, the path the actor/avatar takes is planned and known and is the same each night (like in a scripted play), but the interaction of the audience with each other and their emotional connection to their actor/avatar is the variable. very fun change up

I would be interested in seeing the script, if it's published. This looks like a great piece for our Theater school.

Absolutely! I'd love to meet up. At best we can find a way to collaborate and at worst we'd have a great discussion and I can show you some of SA.