The first time the Asylum Demon came crashing down to greet me in Dark Souls, I actually made a noise: the kind of pathetic mewl of protest you might let out after decanting a mug of hot coffee onto your keyboard. Really, can you blame me? The timing is divine, holding back just long enough to let you feel safe, beckoned in further by those inviting double doors. And then BAM. Corpse pancake.
Of course, if I’d been a little more observant, I wouldn’t have been taken by surprise. Pause in the doorway just after the first bonfire and you can spot the big pot-bellied bastard squatting right there on the rooftop, poised like an acrobat in the rafters, waiting for his queue to drop. It’s a fantastically ballsy bit of theatre. Glance the wrong way and the whole moment is ruined. It reminded me of something Jeep Barnett said in the developer’s commentary for Portal: ‘One bizarre fact of game design is that, without some serious prompting, players will rarely look up.’ Jeep and his team had to find a workaround – in that case, a crumbling ladder – to guide people towards the solution.
We like to label visually compelling games as ‘cinematic’, but film directors never have to deal with crap like this. David Fincher can put the camera wherever he wants, cut to a closeup, pan out wide or even glide through a wall. But on a stage, things are very different. You’re vulnerable to the audience’s waning attention, an errant turn of the head. Take a scene transition: unless they want to have an intermission every time the story moves somewhere new, directors have to hide the change in plain sight. One actor folds up a table, while another, clad in black, rolls a piano through the shadows. Think of all those hidden loading screens, the elevator rides in Mirror’s Edge and the slow tunnel crawls in God of War. It’s the same principle. Forget what’s happening in the wings, the frantic costume changes and the unfurling backdrop. Keep moving forward. All eyes on the spotlight.
I’m well aware that, by writing this, I’m exposing myself to heckling from two separate groups of notorious pedants. But perhaps while they’re yelling at me, the drama nerds and the gamers will suddenly lock eyes, thus beginning an irrepressible whirlwind romance. Because they really are natural allies: like a game, a play is an intricately planned, live, continuous experience, full of hundreds of unseen moving parts. Each show follows the same script, but no two performances are the same. There’s a million spanners that might clog up works. Buggy AI. A hen party in the front row. Oblivious players. Missing props. Anything that has actual human beings involved, even just a single human, is imbued with the delicious possibility that everything could go completely to hell – which is why it’s so bloody exciting when things go off without a hitch. This isn’t just some neat visual cooked up eight months ago in a studio in Los Angeles. It’s happening now, and it’s happening here. Take Phantom of the Opera, that moment after the prologue when the broken chandelier bursts into life and rises to the ceiling. It’s not just the stage. Suddenly the whole theatre is lit up, all four walls plus the gormless audience. Look at your hands: they’re glowing.
Also, and maybe we’re going off into the psychological weeds here, but I think that video games scratch an itch which theatre used to fill – not just to see something new, but to be something new. Live comedy (panto, comedy of errors, all those lads) started with topsy-turvy festivals like the Roman Saturnalia, where servants would get to boss their masters around for a day, or European carnivals with the ‘Carnival Prince’ issuing bogus royal decrees. Playacting allows us to safely try out different identities, to live out a different life.
This rampant fantasizing might explain why theatre has such a bad reputation with the upper classes. Why pretend to be someone else when you could be, I don’t know, ploughing a field, or filing your taxes, or maybe giving birth? Cromwell famously closed all the playhouses when he came to power, but script censorship has been a feature of British law for hundreds of years. At it’s best, the theatre is a politician’s worst nightmare: a chaotic hotbed of sin, gossip, prostitution, fistfighting, and sedicious acts of make-believe.
Alright, so maybe there’s some surface level similarities. Still, can theatre actually teach us anything new? After all, it’s a dead medium, or at least nearly dead, eyelids fluttering, vital signs growing weaker by the day. But two thousand years of artistic development cannot be discarded like so many sneezes in the wind. The twentieth century in particular saw some fascinating discussions around performance. Konstantin Stanislavski, for instance, thought that a play ought to reflect reality as closely as possible – real time, real props, real emotions. He’d find a lot to love in Red Dead Redemption 2, with its richly nuanced characters and non-stop beard growth. Then there’s people like Bertolt Brecht, German auteur and Baldrick-from-Blackadder lookalike. Brecht was keen to maintain ‘critical distance’ between the audience and the play so they could think the story through without icky emotions clouding their judgement. If that sounds like a boring night out – well, I won’t argue. But his ideas have power. Every time a game breaks my immersion long enough for me to think, ‘Christ, what am I doing with my life?’ I can feel Brecht’s grubby little ghost hovering over my shoulder, rubbing his hands in glee.
I’m not the first person to make this connection. The object-based storytelling in Gone Home was partially inspired by the interactive Macbeth remake Sleep No More, and survival RPG Pathologic uses live theatre as a narrative framing device, ribbing both the characters and the player for having no real agency in the face of an unfolding health crisis (ouch, my bones, it cuts so close). Great games, one and all. But we’ve still only scratched the surface of what live performance has to offer. So what if theatre is dead? Let’s go graverobbing!