There But For A Lack Of Ambition Go I

Punchdrunk are brilliant. I went to see their last London show a couple of times and was blown away (in different ways) each time. I’ve even compared their style of immersive theatre to what some videogames are getting up to.

Their latest show, which I haven’t been lucky enough to get tickets for, is on at the mo. In pairs people are led on a tour across London with a story and myth unfolding around them. It’s an alternate London, a psychogeographical twist. Apparently it takes in a major London landmark, and other lesser known spots. A handful of actors move things along, but half the game is not knowing who is an actor and who isn’t. In one review the critic spent a merry few minutes chasing after a random stranger and listening in in people’s conversations hoping for clues.

For halloween two years ago Lyd did something along these lines for me. We started in Highgate cemetery and went on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure across London. Instead of actors we used our imagination – at times purely imagining ghost figures in front of us, at other times picking members of the public to follow. We both agreed it was a fun idea and, given the number of actors we know (I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, Lyd started acting training but realised it wasn’t for her, and also worked in a drama school) discussed the idea of taking it a step further. Get a few mates involved, bring a few other friends along as punters and see how it goes, maybe then get some actual paying customers to come along.

But we didn’t do anything about it. Last halloween there were quite a few events on that, for once, we spotted in time to book for them. So although the idea crossed our minds again we didn’t do anything about it. 

This year it was my turn to lead Lyd on a trip through an alternate London. I recruited a couple of friends to handwrite some notes for Lyd to find, but that’s as far as the extrapolation has gone. It was just the two of us, dashing between events and landmarks that I had tied together in an occult conspiracy. We started at a mummy unwrapping at the National Archives, looked for clues at tombs in Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls, chased a suspect actoss St James’ Park and ended up eating Elizabeth I’s mummified flesh in Kensal Green cemetery at the climax of a concert.

And I can’t help but think about the lack of ambition that means it’s still just the two of us taking part. Neither of us has much in the way of entrepreneurial drive – we’re both ideas people, and although we often follow those ideas to their immediate conclusions, that’s where we leave them. Scattered novels, workshopped play scripts, immersive tours, cabaret sets… 

A little splash of ambition and who knows. Oh well. One day. So many hurdles leapt, and so many more to go.

Still, I realised that NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and using that as a bit of inspiration got back to a novel I’ve been wrestling with (without writing anything) for a year or so. Managed a 587 word lunch break, which is ok by me.

So.

Here we go again.

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The Punchdrunk of Videogames

Hitman Theatre

On the debut episode of the new podcast I’m co-hosting (plug plug plug) I briefly touched on how the game Hitman reminds me of immersive theatre legends Punchdrunk. I’d actually written an article about the subject a few weeks beforehand and forgotten to publish it! Have a read below, and if you haven’t played Hitman or seen it in action, have a quick look at my attempt at a one-try, limited time mission, then read on:

I had the great pleasure of seeing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man a couple of times when it was on in London. It was a revelation – truly immersive theatre. A building had been stuffed with interesting, weird, David Lynchian things going on for me (and a lot of other people) to explore as we fancied.

The first time I went, I entered through the main space, masked and anonymous of course, then found a door and started exploring. Within minutes I was lost in labyrinthine corridors, hearing snatches of conversation that piqued my interest but didn’t quite deter me from my wanderings. Then I happened upon a red-draped room with a black and white tiled floor. Some kind of party was going on. Music started to play and the whole party segued into a strange, lurching, leering dance routine. I was hooked.

When I returned for a second visit, I knew the lay of the land. I followed specific conversations at specific times. I came to understand at least some of what was going on. I knew that if I reached the feuding couple at the right time, I’d be able to witness their fight through the medium of dance. Downstairs in the orgiastic party I would see the temptations being thrust at the ‘hero’ of the piece. It all connected, but I had to pick and choose. It wasn’t possible to take it all in, to explore every option.

I’ve just experienced something very similar in a videogame. There’s a case to be made that Punchdrunk has many similarities with games anyway, from the themes of exploration and the player/visitor’s own agency within the world to the creation of a fully realised location that you can inspect from every angle. Some of the (dare I say it?) Walking Simulator games give a similar feel. Wandering around Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, tugging at threads and seeing where they lead is definitely close. But one game has come even closer to replicating that experience: Hitman.

I hadn’t played a Hitman game until a few weeks ago. I’m not really a stealth afficianado so always put the series in the ‘not my kind of thing’ category. Then, after seeing  ‘let’s play’ videos and hearing endless praise on the Idle Thumbs podcast, I decided to take the plunge and try the latest in the series for myself.

And it’s brilliant in so many ways. Unlike Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and its ilk, Hitman presents a busy, bustling alive world. That’s not a criticism of EGTTR, by the way – that game specifically presents a beautiful, heartbreaking loneliness. Rather, it’s what brings Hitman closer to Punchdrunk’s theatrical exploits.

Stroll into the Paris fashion show in the opening episode and you’re an inscrutable, blank-faced guest – much like the masks Punchdrunk guests wear. Over the buzz of conversation you might hear an interesting titbit, an argument perhaps, or furtive whispers. So you follow where the voices lead, through grand corridors and off-limits backstage areas. You see the glamour and how the glamour is created.

Of course you’re not allowed in all areas, so you must track down disguises, further anonymous masks, to avoid raising eyebrows and drawing attention. This show isn’t about you after all. This show stars Novikov and Margolis, you’re simply an anonymous onlooker tugging threads, following stories.

Live, immersive theatre has its perils. What if a member of the public dashes through the middle of a scene? It’s the same in Hitman – you can blend in perfectly, behaving just like whatever mask you’re wearing should behave before sneaking away unseen, or you can run through the middle of a crowd disrupting for just a moment the illusion of a living world. In theatre the show must go on, and so too in Hitman.

The big difference is that in Hitman you’re not there as an observer and occasional minor participant. The closest I came to being personally involved in the story at The Drowned Man was being taken to one side by a performer, led by the hand down a secret passageway and having a one-on-one interaction while my fellow visitors wondered why I’d been singled out. In Hitman, you’re there with a purpose. It’s not look-but-don’t-touch; it’s look-then-touch-swiftly-and-viciously. The show will go on if you do nothing, but you’re there expressly to stop the show. To disrupt the perfect theatrical evening. Agent 47 is a heckler. A troll.

Returning to being singled out at The Drowned Man, that came about because I knew it was coming. It was on my second visit, so I knew someone was going to get picked and inveigled my way to be in the right place at the right time. Just like how I now know how to find the Sheik at the Paris fashion show and be in the right place at the right time to infiltrate the auction of secrets. Done well, immersive theatre has immense re-visit value. That’s something games have known for a long time and brings particular depth to Hitman.

Hitman may not (so far, at any rate – we’re only a few episodes in) have the Lynchian weirdness that Punchdrunk conjured up, but I can return to it again and again, finding new secrets, different pathways and strange characters every time. And where Punchdrunk’s storytelling revolved around visceral bursts of dance, Hitman relies on swift flares of violence before a sheen of normality, however fabricated, descends again.

Films and videogames are often compared, and of course one is often remade as another (seldom well *koff* Hitman *koff*). But perhaps we’re missing a trick. What if theatre and games are closer siblings than film and games? What experiences could that lead to? It’s surely no coincidence that Hitman’s marketing revolved around an interactive theatrical experience.

So what theatrical tie-ins should we expect? And which plays are begging out for the game treatment? Why is it that games seem to be the one medium Shakespeare hasn’t yet breached? Maybe Assassin’s Creed: Dunsinane will be the next instalment in that series. Or how about Hitman: Verona?

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