On Games and Theatre

“Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role—and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role.” (Anthropy 20)

Throughout the semester, one aspect of videogames has struck me the most and really distinguishes games from any other medium: the power it gives the audience. In other art forms like television, cinema, or painting, the audience never performs any action beyond observation, except for a certain kind of theater known as “interactive” or “immersive theatre.” It’s a type of theater that actually makes the audience participate actively in theatrical spaces. The most famous contemporary example of this theater is Sleep No More, a production of Macbeth by the UK’s Punchdrunk theater collective. This version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play takes place at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, a six-story where audience members physically inhabit and interact with the same space the actors are in. Journalist Scott Brown writes of the audience’s involvement in Sleep No More, “Sleep allows its ‘guests’ great freedom. Presented with a bone-white Venetian beak mask (the kind favored by plague doctors in the Renaissance), you’re invited to gawk, shame-free, at whatever you see, to rifle through drawers, files, Rolodexes, and even coffins. You and your fellow voyeurs, enskulled in your morbid headgear, quickly become part of the creepy scenery. More to the point, you’re a ghost. (N.B.: This doesn’t exempt you from actor contact — in fact, you’re practically guaranteed to be interfered with at some point in the approximately three hours it takes to survey the space and absorb the long arc of the story.) Fending for yourself in the fictional “McKittrick Hotel” (a pointed Vertigo reference that dizzy or claustrophobic types should take to heart before booking), you’re given the run of six misty, intricately detailed floors, with more than 100 rooms” (Brown). These rooms include “‘situations’: a man who may or may not be Duncan, right king of Scotland, being murdered in a sheikh’s tent. A gelid blonde who may or may not be Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca — here in loyal service to Lady Macbeth — spooning milky poison down the gullet of a soused, super-pregnant woman who very well might be Lady Macduff” (Brown). Sleep No More builds a world that immerses people fully in an expansive place, where story unfolds through exploration. The audience is no longer assembled of passive spectators but active, investigative witnesses. This type of theater engages audience members to explore and connect with an old story through a completely new environment unlike any other medium, except for videogames. This immersive theater seems (to me) to be a kin to videogames, a medium that also allows for audience members to explore, play, and connect with an environment. 

Shot of Sleep No More

That is, videogames could be a medium like immersive theater that engages and makes the audience active. I say this because in order for an audience member to become another actor, the audience member must have choice. In Sleep No More, the audience can choose to go whatever place they want, try to talk to whomever they want, and do whatever they want. Like the actors who are also making choices to play characters and do certain things on a “stage,” the audience unwittingly does the same thing and is forced to make purposeful choices on what to do and not to do. To relate this to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, interactive theater does not take place in it nor a lot of other videogames. The games inhibit player’s choices to conform to a linear track on which to progress. Black Flag is more like a movie than a play in a hotel. 

Finally, the medium Assassin’s Creed deserves

To be sure, the player does have freedom and can take action within the world. This is still a digital play space where players can fight anyone they want (except for citizens, which prompts a fail screen), can climb buildings (except for buildings that don’t have any obvious spots you can grab on to), and can spend digital money on whatever (no exceptions). Yet, the game does not offer a lot of freedom to the player, insisting on rigid paths and linear tasks to a linear storyline. After the opening scene of fighting pirate ships that all exploded, my character swam in the water and was essentially presented a path straight to a beach. However, I wanted to swim back to the ship’s wreckage and around the ocean because I could so why not? I swam to these places but nothing really happened until I got to the beach where I was “supposed” to be. So why does the game present options of swimming around pirate ships and climbing buildings but really only rewards players for swimming to the “right” spot where the cutscene kicks in or the “right” buildings that I somehow can climb versus all the other ones? I’m not saying that every choice should be rewarded, but if you have and market a game as being an expansive game world, shouldn’t this game world include more than one set of action for actors? Can’t we choose where we want to be in this world as players instead of being forced down one path of cutscene after cutscene? I might as well watch a movie, instead of being an offered an illusion of theatrical choice. Or I’ll go to a hotel where people are putting on Macbeth, where I can do more interesting fictional things. 

Works Cited:

Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Seven Stories, 2012.

Brown, Scott. “Theater Review: The Freakily Immersive Experience of Sleep No More.” Vulture, 15 Apr. 2011, http://www.vulture.com/2011/04/theater_review_the_freakily_im.html. Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.

Fletcher, Rosie and Hugh Armitage. “Assassin’s Creed movie: Everything you need to know about Michael Fassbender and the cast, spoilers and release date.” Digital Spy, 27 Oct. 2016, http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/feature/a672940/assassins-creed-movie-everything-you-need-to-know-about-michael-fassbender-and-the-cast-spoilers-and-release-date/. Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.

Pokemon aren’t really real (Ryan Rotella)

In theory, the concept of Pokemon seems dark and bloody. People roam and wander throughout the world to hunt and capture wild, cute creatures into storage devices (either portable spheres or files on a computer). These creatures are then used to fight other similar creatures against people who have nothing better to do and stand around all day looking to fight at anyone who walks through their gaze. It sounds pretty grim. Until you play the actual game, which has delightful graphics, a sunshine view of people and Pokemon in harmony, and fun. Pokemon’s really fun (a shocking take, I know). In my last post, I said that this game was essentially capturing and having animals fight for my personal glory; this game is still that but after further thinking, that doesn’t ruin the game. This is because Pokemon has no root in reality and never claims to simulate real life, only create a new world of Pokemon. 

Galloway states for a game to be founded in realism (as opposed to realisticness), it must have “a true congruence between the real political reality of the gamer and the ability of the game to mimic and extend that political reality” (Galloway 83). Pokemon (before Pokemon X and Y, which features a story centered on the ethical dilemma of Pokemon fighting) does not attempt to match any sort of genuine political reality of the gamer. Sure, the human characters look like cartoon people but still human people. I have to walk to a store to buy products, and I make money off of winning competitions I strategize and train over (yay capitalism). The argument can even be made to critique the flawed Silicon Valley ideal implicit in being “the best like no one ever was” (Pokemon Theme Song lyrics). But that kind of theorizing comes off of as kind of ridiculous. No player ever goes into Pokemon with the expectation that it is depicting the “real world” or any circumstances relevant to the player. If anything, Pokemon, especially the remake Pokemon: Alpha Sapphire, is escapist entertainment, promising a clear fantasy world that gives the player more control than they do in real-life. In military simulators like America’s Army and Under Ash, these games are designed to be realistic simulations and stories of war and modern armed conflict. Both act as sites where player can take the roles of marginalized people in these conflicts (more convolutedly in America’s Army) and experience similar actions in the digital world that a player might experience in their real social reality. This is why Galloway examines military games in that chapter (“Social Realism”) of his book (Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture). Transplanting social realism to fantasy games is ineffective because these games have no reality rooted in the actions within the game world.

For this reason, the game PETA released to protest the animal fighting, Pokemon: Black and Blue, has gotten mainly negative responses (apparent in any comments on any review or mention of it) (Schreier). PETA tries to argue that the combat system that uses Pokemon in the whole Pokemon series is akin to real-life animal fighting. These games, therefore, numb people to real-life animal fighting and normalizes it. PETA, in its parody game, places players in the roles of Pokemon who try to liberate other Pokemon from their cruel and abusive human trainers. I will admit this concept would have been very poignant if it were applied to any real-world context, not Pokemon. PETA ruins their aim for a socially realistic game by attacking fantasy, satirizing a world that everyone recognizes as not tied to reality in any way other than the digital world. There has not been an increase of kids trying to capture wild animals and have them fight for sport to the death. Even 8 year olds know that Pokemon is not real. However, if their game placed players in a more realistic rooster about to fight for a group of digital people in a realistically-looking barn in rural Alabama, PETA would have an effective game. But Pokemon isn’t the grim bloody reality that is real animal-fighting. And we shouldn’t pretend it is when we talk about it. Don’t get me wrong. Using pocket monsters, some of which are based on real animals, to fight for sport is still weird and a little unsettling. Then again, there are three Pokemon based off of ice cream and one that is based on a chandelier. So, let’s not treat the former card game (turned digital game) as a pure work but let’s also not treat as the most insidious cultural artifact. I would rather focus on saving endangered turtles by the Great Barrier Reef (which is close to dying) than make sure my Blastoise is safe. 

Works Cited:

“Chandelure.” Bulbapediahttp://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Chandelure_(Pok%C3%A9mon).

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Jon D. B. “25 of the Most Useless Pokemon in the History of the Franchise.” Image #21 from  Playbuzz, 23 Nov. 2014, http://www.playbuzz.com/jonb10/25-of-the-most-useless-pokemon-in-the-history-of-the-franchise.

“Pokemon Alpha Sapphire for Nintendo 3DS.” Toys R Ushttp://www.toysrus.com/buy/kids-family/pokemon-alpha-sapphire-for-nintendo-3ds-ctrpecle-41442386

Pokemon X. “Pokemon Theme Lyrics.” Metro Lyricshttp://www.metrolyrics.com/pokemon-theme-lyrics-pokemon.html.

Schreier, Jason. “Humans Are the Enemy In This Ridiculous PETA Pokémon Parody.” Kotaku, 8 Oct. 2012, http://kotaku.com/5949895/humans-are-the-enemy-in-this-ridiculous-peta-pokemon-parody

A Hardcore Casual (Ryan Rotella)

In my last game log, I analyzed how the designers of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U reward longtime, dedicated gamers by packing their game full of intertextual references to so many different kinds of games for the 50+ characters in Smash. Super Smash Bros. seemed designed to be intertextual, bringing many characters (Nintendo and non-Nintendo) under a fighting competition. In this light, Super Smash Bros. sounds like a typical fighting game for dedicated, “hardcore” gamers. The fact that there is a community of professional (paid) and extremely dedicated Smash players seems to support Super Smash Bros’s hardcore-ness (a topic for another game log). However, Super Smash Bros. doesn’t fit neatly into the binary of casual v. hardcore games. In fact, the game is extremely popular, as the Wii U iteration 4.9 million copies so in its lifespan (and the 3DS version of the game sold 8.23 million copies as well) (Nintendo Sales). Super Smash Bros. caters to all kinds of people and balances between casual and hardcore gaming effectively.

In his book A Casual Revolution, Jesper Juul outlines five components that make up his definition of a casual game: a positively-charged fiction, accessible usability, interruptibility, a tiered difficulty and lenient punishment, juiciness, which is “excessive positive feedback for every successful action the player performs” (Juul 50). Does Smash fit in this casual framework? Not really, but there are some casual components that Smash is built on. First, most Smash characters—save Solid Snake, Samus Aran, Ganondorf, and a few others—come from positive game worlds like the Mushroom Kingdom, Kirby’s Dreamworld, or Pikmin, even if these positive fictions mask a lot of cartoon violence. Second, Smash is very much a game of controlled short bursts of playing with the multiplayer mode being designed as a series of short matches that can have time limits. Turning off Smash only means leaving a single match that can easily be re-created later (unless you’re in single player mode, which, again, is a series of matches that are easily reproducible). There’s no story or large time investment Smash requires up front (unless you’re playing the Subspace Emissary in Super Smash Bros. Brawl). The units of play are quick morsels of action, not a full course RPG meal. Third, Smash has a tiered difficulty system in terms of its overall controls, where players can learn more and more advanced moves (wave-dashing and such) if they wish, or keep spamming down+B with Pikachu. However, these controls aren’t necessarily “easy to learn, hard to master” (Juul 41). With a GameCube controller, there are about 7 buttons along with the move stick that controls a player’s actions, as well as directional variants for each button; for a Wii remote held horizontally, there are 3 (4, if you like taunting) and a directional pad, which simplifies the control schemes a bit. However, Smash’s controls aren’t easy to pick up and play right away. In order for someone to learn Smash, it takes a lot of lectures from other players and playing the game over and over again. Then, after someone learns the basics, competitive mastery (wave dashing, timing tilts, etc.) is lightyears away. I do mean that in terms of time commitment and physical impossibility (for me, at least). The game further contradicts casual standards by not rewarding players for every single action (juiciness). Smash doesn’t hold the player’s hand nor reward every action. So, Smash scores a 2.5 (somewhat positive fiction, interruptibility, tiered difficulty) out of 5 on Juul’s Casual scale. 

Smash is an interesting example of how blurry the distinction between casual and hardcore games really is. Smash appeals to many and doesn’t exclude based on its cartoonish atmosphere; however, Smash can offer dedicated gamers an arena of competitive mastery and genuine challenge. In this way, Smash toes the line between casual and hardcore to large financial and critical success. 

Works Cited:

Juul, Jesper. “Ch.2: What is Casual?” A Casual Revolution. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. Web PDF. 

“Top Selling Software Sales Units.” Nintendo: IR Information. Nintendo, 30 June 2016. Web. Date accessed: 3 Oct 2016. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/software/3ds.html