VR and Forum Theatre

In Chekhov’s The Seagull a young, snobby playwright bemoans the old traditions of theatre. New forms, he calls out for. New forms he (spoiler) kills himself for. I think it’s time to take this naïf’s clarion cry into the videogame community.

I spoke on a previous episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast (plug cough splutter plug) about VR game The Circle and the exciting possibilities for roleplaying (in the purest sense of the genre) it presented. I’ve also written about games being more analogous to theatre than film. Now I get to combine the two topics!

I went to see a new play on Friday – Cathy, produced by Cardboard Citizens at The Pleasance (now touring). The first half of the evening was fairly standard: I sat in the audience and watched an interesting and affecting play, a sort of updated version of Cathy Come Home. It was a moving and provocative piece of work. After the interval however, there was a slightly different second half.

In fact the play had ended at the interval. The second half of the evening was thrown open to the audience to suggest different ways the main character could have behaved. This was a play about a mum and daughter (weeks away from GCSEs) being evicted and then falling through the cracks in the housing system. The challenge was thrown to the audience to try and spot the moments where Cathy could have done something different, tried another option.

Suggestions were tossed out for debate, from small delaying tactics when dealing with unruly landlords to names of charities and support groups to contact – there were a commendable number of people from said organisations in attendance. And then the extra twist. The play restarted. When an audience member had a suggestion, all they needed to do was shout ‘stop’, pop down to the stage, and take on the role of Cathy. The other actors would then react to the new direction of the scene. This isn’t something new – it’s called forum theatre – but it was my first time, despite training and working as an actor for a number of years. 

It was fascinating, and I was reminded more than once of Tim Schaeffer’s observation that writing adventure games is all about imagining the protagonist is drunk (see Shitfaced Shakespeare for a more literal translation of this on stage). Some alternatives sputtered an failed, others provided a glimmer more hope than that of the scripted drama. It was a piecemeal choose-your-own adventure. Kitchen sink drama where you could save and reload.

No one tried anything ‘dramatic’ – taking an estate agent hostage for publicity, going on a murder rampage – but that reminded me of my experience with The Circle. I was an actor playing a role. I could react how I liked and sometimes the world might react, sometimes everything would carry on just the same. Much like life.

In the brief demo of The Circle I tried at EGX I played as a trans woman recovering from a traumatic experience. I was effectively stuck in my flat in front of my computer and unable to move around. What was so exciting about that proposition wasn’t the immersive email replying, but the ability to get angry, in character, with the content of the email I was reading, and physically fling the empty bottles of beer surrounding me against the wall. In the demo that made no difference (apart from the most fundamental difference of course – my individual experience of the game), but when it’s complete it may impact on what happens later. If someone comes to check on me, the invalid, they’ll find a collection of smashed beer bottles. What will that do to their interactions with me? Or do I want to hide the evidence and collect the shards in the bin? The developer has big ideas in that direction.

So could this be a way for VR games to go? I really hope so. The games unveiled for PSVR so far all seem fairly standard. An amalgam of the usual suspects – a few Duck Hunt style target shooting titles, driving, shoot ’em up… Casual, if that’s a descriptor that suits. Isn’t this the time for role playing games to shine? True role playing, where you can try a scenario (whether it’s storming a castle or trying to claim benefits) in any way you see fit and have the immersive VR world adapt around you?

VR has yet to convert me, but if developers can harness it to bring us true roleplaying rather than a collection of reskinned novelties then maybe I’ll start to pay attention. Maybe there’ll be an upsurge in games actually about something more than instant gratification. Maybe we’ll have the new forms Konstantin raved about.

@BornToPootle 

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