The Games As Art debate grows more one-sided each year as game designers find ever more profound themes to explore. However, artists in other media are using video games as a source of inspiration, including a burgeoning community of theater artists. The annual Game Play Theater Festival in Brooklyn New York bills itself as “The intersection of video games and performance” and features nine such productions. Explosion attended several of the shows to see how various artists are combining the two experiences.
Filmmakers have been using a technique called Machinima for years. It means using video game footage to act out stories, usually accompanied by voice over work to add in dialog that tells a different tale than what the game’s designers intended. EK Theater uses a similar premise, but does so live onstage, mixing gameplay video from several different games in a single story. Their latest performance is called Grand Theft Ovid 2.
Grand Theft Ovid 2 is played live by a team of gamers seated onstage, with their laptop screens fully visible to the audience. A separate (Unseen) cast provides voice overs for the animation, and the video is projected onto a large screen on the upstage wall of the theater.
They manipulate video game characters to act out scenes from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphosis using games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. Each scene uses a different game, based on what happens in that scene. So when the Narrator describes Cadmus’ journey to find Princess Europa, a scene from Super Mario Brothers appears and you bet his princess turned out to be in another castle. In other stories they use world-building games like Minecraft, Little Big Planet and RPG Maker to create custom levels that suit the story.
It’s interesting to see deliberately mindless games like Goat Simulator being used to being used to tell serious Greek tragedy, but that’s also a core weakness of the project; the games are often intrinsically goofy. One sequence has vengeful gods murdering innocent children because of their mother’s hubris. This is told using Halo, so the tragic deaths are accompanied by the game announcing “Headshot! Sniper Frenzy! Killing Spree!”
Other shows in the festival use a more traditional theatrical format. Harrison Young’s Online Fighting is a play about a pair of gamers whose friendship was destroyed by a video game competition. Lucas (Played by Phil Blechman) was beaten and humiliated by his friend Josh (Julio C. Toledo) and the two haven’t spoken since. Josh went on to attain every Dude Bro’s idea of success by getting a hot girlfriend, a fast mid-priced car, and a job as manager of a Gamestop. Meanwhile, Lucas is unemployed, lives in his mom’s basement, and lost his girlfriend – to Josh. After three years of living like this, Lucas finally gets the chance to turn the tables when a big video game tournament approaches.
Online Fighting doesn’t use multimedia or Machinima, it’s all done by live actors. When Lucas and Josh play a game, performers dressed as the game characters fight right onstage, just inches away from the front row of the audience. They’re original characters, essentially parodies of the sort of oddballs who appear in fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. As these fight scenes play out, Josh and Lucas engage in trash talk with each other upstage.
Writer / Director Harrison Young is obviously a true video game fan; the script is peppered with in-jokes that only real fans will catch. There’s a character named “Justin Bailey”, at one moment Lucas mumbles the “Konami Code”, and there’s even a scene where Josh enters in a karate uniform that is a perfect replica of Ryu’s outfit from Street Fighter.
The gaming jokes are funny, particularly for audiences who get the inside gags, however there isn’t much drama holding the audience’s attention. It’s a young man’s fantasy with very little self-awareness. Lucas and Josh vie for the role of Alpha male, and caught in the middle are several female characters that fit stock roles of The Girlfriend, The Mom, and The Hot Waitress. The story follows all the tropes of underdog sports movies. It all boils down to “The Big Game” where Lucas conveniently solves all of his problems without having to change, or learn anything.
A third show in Game Play is the bizarrely-named Tabletop Cabaret: Hedgepig Races. As strange as it sounds “Tabletop Cabaret” is a very accurate way of describing this piece. Essentially, the audience divides into small groups, each playing Dungeons & Dragons at a table, and when the story hits an important moment, a drag queen comes out and sings a musical number about what’s happening in the game. It’s a surreal and very entertaining experience.
When the audience enters, they are assigned to one of several tables on stage. Each table has its own Game Master, and seats a party of about five adventurers. Players then choose from a selection of pre-rolled characters and the groups embark on an adventure where they try to get a giant hedgehog through the tunnels under a sinister mountain.
The mysterious ruler of this fantasy kingdom, Princess Luna (Played in drag by Carlo Bosticco) appears periodically to sing songs that explain the backstory of the adventure, and remind players just why they’re pretending to race giant hedgehogs through an imaginary cave. It all comes to head with a final boss fight against a dragon (Also played by Bosticco) who runs amok through the theater, tearing up character sheets, and stealing dice off the table even as players try to find a way to defeat the fabulous beast.
The gaming aspect is a simplified version of D&D and highly accessible to new players. At the same time it’s an entertaining cabaret show too. The two elements wouldn’t seem to be a good match, but it actually makes an evening of terrific fun, and it’s a perfect way to introduce friends to tabletop role play gaming.
The Game Play Festival runs through August 2nd. There are nine different shows, and the three profiled above all have at least one performance left as of this writing. More information can be found at www.BrickTheater.com.
Image Credit: Kim Craven