Features Published 2 July 2015

App Theatre

Rafaella Marcus chooses her own adventures.
Rafaella Marcus

I’ll level with you: this was supposed to be a review of Punchdrunk’s app Silverpoint, only I never finished the game. I’ll level with you again: puzzle-based adventure games with pretty graphics are my jam. I was really excited about reviewing Silverpoint. I was. It just wasn’t very good.

Silverpoint is a co-production between Punchdrunk and Absolut Vodka, teaming up to celebrate a new line of booze inspired by Andy Warhol’s Silverpoint sketches. A “digital R&D experiment”, at the time of its release, it provided access to secret locations for those reaching the final few levels (as far as I can tell, a bar where you could get a free promotional drink), and a live Punchdrunk event for those who managed to play the game to the end entirely. The website declares, “The Silverpoint live experience has now ended but you can still play the iPhone game.” If, like me, you are a completist, then don’t do it. Possibly in order to thin out the number of attendees, the app requires literally whole days of repetitive gameplay in order for you to garner the requisite number of points to finish the game.

This is shame because I think Punchdrunk are onto something potentially very exciting. Silverpoint tells the story of Chloe, a unusual little girl with a mark on her hand in the shape of a constellation who has disappeared, leaving nothing but a rose and her phone behind. From this promisingly mysterious beginning, I was expecting something like the beautiful games of Simogo, a Swedish company that creates narratives that are revealed in fragments (sometimes non-chronologically) depending on your actions within the game. Alas, Silverpoint‘s transactions with its player are far more straightforward and weirdly capitalist: put in x number of hours, get x number of points, get paid with another sentence of the story. It feels strangely linear for a company that specialises in creating experiences in which the theatre-goer investigates many narratives happening simultaneously.

Simogo, amongst others, are at the forefront of this drive to combine gameplay with narrative in a way that isn’t entirely either. Device 6, in particular, is described as a blend of puzzle and novella, playing with the spatial dimensions of text; it’s a completely surreal discussion of free will and feels like a cross between 1984 and The Prisoner. Without giving too much away, it is also one of the creepiest pieces of metatheatre I’ve ever experienced. There’s a gesture towards this in Silverpoint – an acknowledgement of both the physical act of holding the phone in your hand, playing the game, and of how long it takes, but it’s not enough to offset the repetitiveness of the single form of gameplay, in which you combine planetary symbols in a grid to make bigger planetary symbols, like a cross between Threes and 2048. (The ultimate version of 2048, by the way, is this one here where you combine pictures of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki to make more Marvel Cinematic Universe Lokis. You’re very welcome.) Silverpoint isn’t driven by its narrative or even linked to it, beyond a shared aesthetic motif.

Silverpoint gameplay.

Silverpoint gameplay.

It’s a shame because we are already seeing that there is huge potential for crossover between theatre and the digital world. There is much to be mined from treating our now ubiquitous smartphones and tablets as a narrative tool, the meeting point between the real world and the fictional universe we are invited to participate in. The key component of both this genre of game and interactive theatre is choice: we are always being offered the illusion, at least, of being able to influence the outcome. But there are more points of contact: like interactive theatre, digital games have areas into which you may not venture, where you run up against the limits of the created universe, and like interactive theatre you are usually being asked to play a strange half-version of yourself, transplanted into another world. A few years ago, I remember reading that the notion of virtual reality had been supplemented by ‘augmented reality’ – a digitised version of the world around you in which online shopping icons flashed over real buildings, and Google Maps superimposed itself onto real life street view. This might be where digital theatre is heading: portable technology that reveals a second, hidden world mapping itself onto the ordinary and everyday to create a performed experience – or revealing hidden performances taking place – in which you play a part.

And I honestly think much of this sort of experimentation is already happening in the App Store (and for some of these games, the Google Play Store).  Simogo’s The Sailor’s Dream goes even further: a lovely little Möbius strip of a game, which yields pieces of the story depending on time and place, and requires some real time patience in order for you to untangle the threads of sea-shanties, arson and imprisonment. It’s not even really a game, though it has some old-fashioned point-and-click elements to it; it’s much more like a dream, as the title suggests, and uses dream logic rather than story logic.  There’s also Year Walk, which I confess I found too terrifying to play much of, based on a 19th century Scandinavian tradition of vision quests by way of Blair Witch-esque horror (two words: ghost babies), and which uses a purposefully difficult movement control, giving you the nightmare sensation of needing to run and not being able to.

Even companies whose output falls much more obviously into the Game category are wising up to the lure of narrative as more than a framing device – the superlative The Room nominally revolves around a series of intricate puzzle-boxes and escape mechanisms but is held together by the tantalising discovery of letters from an unknown source to the game-player at regular intervals. In this sense, Simogo et al are taking advantage of the ease with which gaming makes the player the protagonist – something theatre that has more than a single audience member at a time has considerably more trouble with.  One solution to this might be found in Inkle Studio’s Frankenstein and 80 Days: riffing on interactive fiction, third person narratives are used, in which the player/reader – making choices for the protagonist – becomes their confidante, conscience and consciousness. Frankenstein expands Mary Shelley’s text in beautifully rendered 19th century style in order to offer the reader choices for the eponymous scientist, while 80 Days gloriously re-imagines Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as a romp through a steam punk world on the brink of war with seemingly infinite story variations.

I’m excited about the future of smartphone storytelling; it seems like the logical next step if the way we make theatre is to keep pace with the way we live. Live digital streaming into cinemas is now par for the course (and clearly still has much further to go), but the same technology is becoming part of smaller, more intimate theatrical experiences too: this week Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare is being live-streamed to anywhere with an internet connection, and last year Elastic Future created a play via Google Hangout, simultaneously performed live from Lagos, Nigeria, Barcelona, Spain and England in three parts over three weeks. Without opening up a whole discussion of what constitutes a “play”, Anna Anthropy’s superb Queers in Love at the End of the World, which packs more emotion into 10 seconds than some whole productions, is certainly a great piece of drama, conducted via Twine.

In some ways, these are examples of technology making theatre smaller, more private. App Theatre also contains within it the potential for the opposite: theatre’s natural instinct towards community writ large. Silverpoint misses the mark – it crucially fails to offer you the choice you get in an actual Punchdrunk show – but the fact that companies like Punchdrunk are waking up to the possibilities of technology and the natural empathy between interactive theatre and gameplay is exciting enough in itself. Just like any good Twine, there are many places to go from here.

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