By Isaac Butler
Maybe it's that I haven't had my coffee yet, but I really do not understand what Fin Kennedy is talking about in this piece for the Guardian and as a fan of video games I'd like to. He stars out by talking about L.A. Noire, a video game I'm planning to skip due to Rockstar's long history of making turgid overlong pastiche of much better movies. But that's cool. To each his own, right?
Then Kennedy pivots, writing "It's been hard not to feel like it leaves my own art form [theatre] standing in the dust," due to the game's " fusion of real acting and gaming technology uses facial scanning of actors to produce the most emotionally textured, lifelike world modern consoles have yet seen."
This is my first moment of confusion.
Theatre, of course, is automatically pretty far ahead of video games on the emotionally textured faces part, along with the lifelike people. Because it's, you know, made with real humans. On an environmental/world creation level, I suppose video games in general win out simply because of the amount of visual detail they can pack it. I'd argue that the comparison doesn't totally work because the mediums are so different, but that's a small quibble.
Then we get these two paragraphs:
I've also been having stimulating chats with director Ellie Jones, a longtime collaborator, for whom the gaming/theatre fusion is a real passion. She directed The New World Order, a walkthrough site-specific version of Pinter recently finished at the Brighton festival, and we're developing a new play for next year's festival together, to be performed in a real hospital, where the audience get "cast" as either patients or medics.
True, some companies have been doing this for years. Many will be familiar with the usual list of Coney, Punchdrunk, dreamthinkspeak,Stan's Cafe and others who are pushing the theatrical form in this way. But more traditional, playwright-led theatremaking seems a little reticent in this respect – with one exception.
So LA Noire with its immersive environments and almost life-like faces leaves theater in the dust in some department (I'm still not sure which other than the obvious one of popularity). And then we pivot to talking about site-specific theater. Maybe it's the title "Can Video Games Help Theatre Reach The Next Level?" (which Kennedy probably didn't write) but I'm left wondering what these two paragraphs, and indeed the rest of the blog post, have to do with video games. Site specific theater way predates Pong.
From there we get a few paragraphs about:
a new scheme for playwrights I was starting up, in my role as associate artist at Tamasha. We recruited eight playwrights to come into Mulberry School for Girls in east London, take part in a series of structured workshops with the students, and write a short play in response. Part of the offer for our writers was to work with my colleague, film-maker Tanya Singh, on including a multimedia element to their play ideas. Many of the writers... enthusiastically [took] this up – and not just to augment their stories, but to shape the very concept. We've got plays set entirely within Facebook, or in Blade Runner-style dystopian futures, on live TV talk shows, or which feature a character which is a digital double, or show how innocent smartphone film clips of a dead friend can unhelpfully prolong the grieving process.
But I still don't understand what any of this has to do with video games. I actually- and keep in mind I'm a fan of both the medium and cross-medium influence in general- am really skeptical that video games have much to offer theatre. As they are not currently a primarily narrative-driven medium (although that's changing), they lag way behind theatre on both story structure and content. And their visual aesthetics are based on entirely different considerations from theatre's. Sure, there are a few plays here and there that might be able to use the concept of the video game to interesting effect. Apparently there was one at the Brick during the video game festival that used the old Sierra adventure game structure as a way of pondering Beckett-type questions about existence. But still.
I think what Kennedy might be trying to say with this piece is that we shouldn't dismiss things like video games and Facebook as possible material simply because the kids these days with their rap music and their nose pierces and their love of Twilight like them. And here, I'm in complete agreement.
Theatre, like all art forms, is going to find itself needing to respond (not necessarily directly!) to the world today's teens are growing up in, a world that's increasingly mediatized, on the internet, vocationally-driven, and always at war. A world those teenagers are about to find out doesn't want them, whose politicians don't even pretend to represent their interests, where there are no jobs, and when there are jobs, no careers. A world in which they carry a historic debt burden. A world that simultaneously has a popular culture (particularly in film) dedicated to infantalizing them.
Certainly, using the materials of our youth to critique the worlds of our youth can be very successful. Part of why MilkMilkLemonade works is the way it borrows from children's plays and television shows to tell a skewed nightmare of childhood. So if video games can help with this, I'm all for it, although I'm skeptical of how both the aesthetics and story elements translate.