It’s all about immersion – that’s the received wisdom. The chatter surrounding the interface of video games and theatre orbits questions of freedom, movement and participation. Like Myst, Punchdrunk allow us to point at and to click an item of interest; like Half Life, Grid Iron take us on a journey into a technological futurescape; as Thomas MacMullan put it:
“Games are growing, breaching into other spaces to define their own territory. Theatre is doing the same, snatching at its neighbours, testing its barriers. They make spaces of their own but the overlap is quietly growing. Standing in a room, whether in a game or a performance, you still search for story. You have the same desire to explore.”
It’s a persuasive argument, but it’s also one that necessitates ignoring many of the key features of both the theatrical creations it discusses and, perhaps just as crucially, video games. Belt Up may have taken some of their inspiration from the explorative nature of video games, but it’s more likely they took it from the explorative nature of exploration, real or imagined, which is a cornerstone of the learning process.
The Roof takes a very different approach – created by David Rosenberg and his Electric Hotel collaborator Frauke Requardt, it is theatre about video games designed by people who know little or nothing about video games. It’s a work that probes at the oddities, profundities and banalities of video game convention as viewed by an outsider, producing not an immersive experience which simulates ‘freedom’, but a satire on the captivity, control and cruelty which are hard-wired into the structures of video games themselves.
It’s billed as a sorta Parkour show, which luckily it isn’t because Parkour is bullshit, but any expectations of gravity-defying Assassins Creed-style derring-doo are scotched early, with the action taking place on a panoramic roof-top set which surrounds the huddled audience. It has the appearance of a 360o wrap-around of a Streets of Rage level – all skylights, lead-piping and day-glo arrows. There’s a scoreboard on the wall indicating the current level, player number and lives remaining, and when the action begins a jump-suited avatar – Player 611 – emerges like a Krypton Factor reject and promptly loses two lives to an inconveniently positioned insta-death-pit.
We’re all wired up to headphones, Rosenberg making superb use of the lessons learned during the impressive but obscure Ring, and they work in perfect, jolty sync with Requardt’s choreography to create a pantomime of video game awkwardness. Player 611 controls like Chris Redfield in Resident Evil, taking steps at a palm-clawing trudge, performing off-the-peg, repetitive animations for every jump, slide or duck. It’s a reminder that for all their power to feign liberation, video games function in a strict relationship of master and slave, button press and pre-planned action.
The story Rosenberg and Requardt tell is as thin as PaRappa the Rapper, Player 611 (like his 610 predecessors before him) must rescue a ‘princess from a castle’, while working through several levels, collecting power-ups and weaponry, and blasting goons in a flash of strobe lighting and a .WAV file. There’s a side-plot involving the badly wounded Player 1 re-enters the game and battles for the heart of Princess Peach, a beleaguered and bloodied Luigi perhaps, and a series of strange, elusive interludes inside a widescreen light-box, as rabbits jerk and thrust across the stage like a demented Duracell commercial.
There are video-game in-jokes (the Pyramid Head monsters are a particularly nice touch), but the barrier for entry is pretty low, because The Roof is more concerned with the strangeness of video games as objects within culture than it is with any game or genre of games in particular. Conventions such as castles and shops are parodied through a Perspex-walled booth, which transforms from radio station to pharmacy to gun store as the level count ticks up. Each contains the trapped, unobtainable female, the digital Rapunzel, who the players (who are male, obviously) pursue. Blue-faced construction workers place health packs, ammunition boxes and useful equipment like visible extrusions of invisible code. Best of all, when bad guys are exterminated, rather than flashing out of existence, they are removed by a ‘clean-up crew’, a woman with fag drooping from her mouth and hair set in curlers, who bundles them off the stage.
It’s all very funny, and very neat, even if the conventions it references are rather hoary. But it’s also strangely unnerving, it resonates with attitudes and issues surrounding casual slaughter and the gamification of warfare and sexual relationships which belies the bouncy presentation. Sudden depths emerge from the apparently impossibly shallow, as in a moving scene between 611 and the princess as they approximate affection, or a swing into Cronenberg territory with a suggestion of biological interfaces that is pure eXistenZ. As in The Architects, Rosenberg is unconcerned with requiring some serious work from his audiences to tease out meaning, but here at least the surface level is consistently entertaining.
Set and costume from Jon Bauser and Hannah Clark respectively hit the perfect note, with everything Laser Quest shabby or Crystal Maze futuristic. Dave Price’s music is a constant joy, and the integration of binaural effects is generally impressive. Attempts to simulate the heckling interactions of a crowd are a little chuckle-some, a little too Babel for their own good, but elsewhere it provides further proof of the potential of the technology to manipulate perspectives while retaining the illusion of freedom and exploration within a theatrical space.
You won’t find many answers up on The Roof, but this onstage platformer is another product of the erstwhile Shunt-ers that hides its harrowing undercurrents in a kaleidoscope of strangeness and theatrical bravura