- The Interactive Theater of Video Games: The Gamer as Playwright, Director, and Actor
In storytelling, films, and novels, the audience is traditionally an observer, and by necessity a passive observer. In these media artists can often be seen as telling rather than sharing stories. To be sure, the author provides space for a reader’s imaginative input, but you cannot change the words. Both the theater and, more recently, video games have been experimenting with, twisting, and turning on its head this traditional view of narrative. Unless you’re Roger Ebert and believe that video games cannot and will never be art, video game designers, writers, and directors are starting to blur the lines between interactive theater and games.1 In the recently released video game Gone Home, for example, the player is a young college student who returns home from Europe to find her parents missing and a note from her younger sister taped to the front door. Reviewing the game in The New York Times, Chris Suellentrop comments on the work’s “gripping fiction,” its closeness to “literary realism.” One of the designers, Steve Gaynor, influenced by the current hit Sleep No More, an interactive theater production to be examined later in this essay, observes that in Gone Home the “audience…occupies the same three-dimensional space as the fictional inhabitants” and that “inside that space, players, like theatergoers, can choose where to focus their attention.” Lucy Pebbles writing in The Observer speaks of the game as if it were a video equivalent to the audience’s experience with Sleep No More: “You piece together a sense of who everyone is and what happened through seemingly disconnected items and evidence hidden around the house. And those connections are intentionally weak. It allows the plot and [End Page 169] conclusions to take place in the mind of the player and not in the action of the game.” For her, Gone Home “takes the gaming element away from the screen, and into your head,” making “room for the player/audience directly…because they are alive to flexibility of choice and narrative.”2
We use video games and interactive theater here as reverse mirrors to raise larger aesthetic questions. Is this increased role for the audience, whether offstage or at the controls, the ultimate goal, the reality of both media? What happens to the concept of plot or narrative when the audience becomes a collaborator with the playwright or with the game designer? Is the notion of author challenged, reduced, potentially rendered irrelevant with time, as the audience’s or player’s control grows exponentially in these more recent experiments in the theater and in video games? And is the video game now a legitimate rival of, some would even go so far as to say the successor to, the legitimate theater which has been described, even dismissed as “the fabulous invalid”?3
When filtering the play through his or her own life experiences, needs, agenda, interests, preoccupations, the spectator in the theater has always been a “player” in the loose sense of that word. But the idea of the spectator’s having a direct role in the action onstage or even a hand in the plot, becoming a “player” in the literal sense as it applies to interactive video games, is of more recent origin.
The 1960s saw numerous productions that drew the audience onstage, willingly or not, thereby blurring the line between the stage and the house. As a result, performances were half scripted, half improv, the latter coming into play when audience members joined the actors onstage, their role ranging from nonverbal members of a crowd to “new” characters in the ongoing story. Behind such experiments was the principle of, even the political need for, inclusivity, making the spectator more than a passive receptor and challenging what the innovators saw as the stilted, even undemocratic theater of the past.4
An actor friend tells of a workshop performance in the 1980s that offered a variation on such inclusion of the audience. Those present were confronted with an actor dressed as Frankenstein’s creature, standing motionless before them. He continued to do...