Features Guest ColumnPerformance Published 22 September 2012

Three Short Plays About Video Games: PRESS START

A cross-media mash-up.

Gareth Martin

Three Short Plays About Video Games is an experiment; an attempt to match gaming to theatre, starting with their most fundamental of shared words: play.

PRESS START starts at the beginning, among the option screens, tutorials and cutscenes that introduce most modern games. These particular artefacts are among the most functional aspects of gaming, yet they have developed their own aesthetic. Can this help define the artistic language of video games?

This is a transplant operation, taking the vital organs of a video game, and depositing them into the chest cavity of a theatrical text.

PRESS START

The stage plays host to a series of images performed by our characters (NON-PLAYER CHARACTER ONE and NON-PLAYER CHARACTER TWO):

A soldier scrambles from one side to the other, shedding handfuls of desert dust.
A flashing blade passes through an ornate suit of armour.
A swarm of lens flares cloud the lighting rig.
A set of tiny human figures are arranged, re-arranged, arranged, to some unknown pattern.
A low resolution sun sets, to be replaced by a droning, pulsing, flickering moon.

These scenes repeat on a loop. After the end of each loop the words PRESS START are projected onto the stage.

This rudimentary demonstration, this attract mode, runs until the play is ready to begin.

The stage is dark.

VOICE-OVER plays.

VOICE-OVER: It begins… like buying a smartphone or ordering a Chinese take-away, with a list of options.

The lights come on.

ONE: Voice-over (sighs) I love it! It’s like a portal directly into the characters’ mind, establishing motivations, creating a language, explaining context…

TWO: It’s lazy exposition.

ONE: (ignoring TWO)Just imagine it: a black screen, perhaps some nice particle effects, dust motes, smoke textures, that sort of thing… and then, out of the darkness: (imitates VOICE-OVER) it Begins…

TWO: Terrible. Cliched.

ONE: What do you suggest then?

TWO: Dialogue, it should begin with dialogue.

ONE: What dialogue?

TWO: I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

ONE: Hurry up (gestures towards audience) they’re waiting.

TWO: Fine. How about this: Black… then… fade-in on…

ONE: On what?

TWO: A stage. Two men stand side by side, discussing…

ONE: Discussing what?

TWO: How to begin.

ONE: Ah… and then the voiceover?

TWO: NO VOICEOVER! Just two men talking.

ONE: Two men? Shouldn’t we let the player pick the characters gender?

TWO:

ONE: And name?

TWO: Fine.

ONE: And profession.

TWO: OK, so…

ONE: And primary weapon.

TWO: Are you done?

ONE: I believe in player freedom.

TWO: Great, so the two… characters, are talking about how to begin….

ONE: What are the dialogue options?

TWO: What?

ONE: The dialogue options. The player needs a choice, a chance to express their character. We should have three: One good, one evil and one neutral.

TWO: What the hell would they be?

ONE: Well… neutral could be (long pause) “I don’t mind how we begin”

TWO: …

ONE: Evil could be…

TWO: Go fuck yourself.

ONE: Perfect! And the good option could be: “lets begin with Voice-over!”

TWO:

ONE: So the two characters are discussing how to begin, and then a dialogue wheel appears. The options on the wheel are:

Neutral: “I don’t mind how we begin”
Good: “let’s begin with voice-over”
and Evil…

TWO: Go fuck yourself.

ONE: Exactly!

TWO: No. I mean… Go. Fuck. Yourself.

ONE: …

TWO: No dialogue options, no player choice and definitely no voice-over. We’re trying to tell a story here! Where’s the authorship?

ONE: The player has authorship.

TWO: Who is the player?

ONE: Anyone.

TWO: So… you’re going to give anyone authorship? Absolutely anyone?

ONE: Well…

TWO: Exactly. So we’ll do it with a cutscene, all video, no gameplay.

ONE: But they’ll get bored!

TWO: So?

ONE: And switch off!

TWO: And… what’s your solution?

ONE: A skip button.

TWO: A skip button?

ONE: “Press A to skip”, something like that.

TWO: But they’ll miss vital information, motivations! Plot-lines! Dense character drama!

ONE: All they want to do is play anyway. Everything else is just window dressing, just ornamentation.

TWO: They need that information! They need to know what world they are in, where the conflict lies, who the enemy is!

ONE: Don’t worry, we’ll cover that in the tutorial… or with waypoints.

TWO: You can’t do character drama with waypoints.

ONE: Sure you can. “Move Here…. Feel Sad.”

TWO: Are you serious?

ONE: Fine… (thinks) Objective: Feel Sad.

TWO: Look, I still think that if they have a skip button, they’ll miss out on vital context that will help them understand what happens next.

ONE: But…

TWO: Skipping doesn’t solve anything. It just leaves the player in the…

The stage goes dark.

A spotlight comes on, lighting a large silver coin spinning at the centre of the stage. Once it comes to a complete standstill, the play can continue.

The stage goes dark.

The lights come up on an empty stage. The ambient sound of woodlands can be heard. Text appears on the back wall, one line at a time:

WELCOME

MOVE YOUR NECK TO LOOK UP AND DOWN

YOU CAN INVERT THIS SETTING IN THE OPTIONS

THE LEGS CONTROL YOUR MOVEMENT

TO INTERACT

USE YOUR HANDS

TO ATTACK

WILDLY FLAIL

FOLLOW THE WAYPOINT TO CONTINUE

A bright circle appears at the centre of the stage. Below it, the words MOVE HERE are clearly displayed.

A single line of text is projected onto the stage.

OBJECTIVE: FEEL SAD

The letters AD are deleted from the end of the line, in their place the letters SOMETHING are typed. The line reads:

OBJECTIVE: FEEL SOMETHING

The word FEEL is deleted from the middle of the line. In its place the word DO is typed. The line reads:

OBJECTIVE: DO SOMETHING

The word DO is deleted from the middle of the line. In its place the word FEEL is typed. The line reads:

OBJECTIVE: FEEL SOMETHING

The line is changed:

OBJECTIVE: DO SOMETHING

The line is changed:

OBJECTIVE: FEEL SOMETHING

The line is changed:

OBJECTIVE: DO SOMETHING

The stage goes dark.

VOICE-OVER: Do you feel something?

Pause, and then the lights snap up on ONE and TWO, already arguing.

TWO: Enough with the voice-over.

ONE: (exasperated) Why?

TWO: You are just adding more layers, mystifying things!

ONE: That’s the idea, complex experiences!

TWO: Look. It’s like archaeology; if we do things your way, then the good stuff is buried below layers and layers of rubbish and meaningless dirt. Dirt that you have to tunnel through, that you have to shift out of your way, shovel by shovel. Strata after strata of clumsy, in-elegant interfaces, bland lifeless storytelling and one patronising tutorial after the other.

ONE: Like buying a Smartphone… like ordering a Chinese take-away!

TWO: Like archaeology.

ONE: Like ordering a Smartphone… from the underground ruins… of a Chinese restaurant?

TWO: (ignoring ONE) What you want is ridiculously complicated, needlessly complicated. It’s steeped in neologisms, slang, and established iconography. It follows rules that are under-explained, and requires behaviour that is learned by trial and error. It undermines itself visually, thematically and conceptually. It is broken…

ONE: But that is what defines it.

TWO: …

ONE: What would archaeology be without the dirt?

TWO: Treasure hunting?

ONE: Antique shopping.

TWO: …

ONE: Every layer of complication, every specialist term, every self-betraying piece of design is a defining aspect: Noisy by nature, deep by design, totally and utterly committed to nothing-in-particular. And the best thing, the worst thing?

ONE: Tutorials. Quicktime events. Sexism.

TWO: No. The moment…

ONE: (Interupts) Cliched storylines. Terrible design choices. Generic aesthetics…

TWO: (Turns to the audience) The moment something meaningful begins to take shape, something stupid happens, like…

The stage goes dark.

A spotlight comes on, lighting a large silver coin spinning at the centre of the stage. Once it comes to a complete standstill, the play can continue.

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