‘Hello. How are you? Hope you’re well. Hope You’re keeping Safe. Welcome to our game. In this game, you decide the rules.’ – How To Win
I’m a fan of games, and I’m also a fan of theatre. And I come to each of those genres with a different understanding of the rules; the manner in which the creator expects me to interact with their work, and to what extent they’ve given me the ability to control my own experience. Maybe you’ve seen a powerful enough piece of acting that you watched a character on stage and thought ‘I can really feel what they’re going through’. That feeling’s a rare wonder in a theatregoing experience, but in gaming it’s the bare minimum. I start a game with an inbuilt level of empathy for the protagonist because the creators have shown me a character and said, that’s you. I know that depending on my skill and my choices, my characters’ story can go any number of ways, and if I’m not a good enough player maybe I won’t get to see the story end the way I’d like. When I’m part of an audience, I don’t have that responsibility. When Hamlet dies at the end of the story it isn’t because the audience didn’t get enough points to unlock the King of Denmark achievement.
Gaming theatre company Hidden Track has responded to the pandemic by putting out two online projects this year – the episodic choose-your-own-adventure story How To Win and the psychological horror-comedy SHUT IN – that seem like companion pieces aimed at different demographics. Both are concerned with processing our collective and individual reactions to the traumatic events of the year, but they differ in how they anticipate how their specific audience is likely to respond to them, either as theatre or game.
Produced in association with Harrogate theatre and HOME as part of their Homemaker’s Live series, How To Win feels perfectly pitched for theatregoing families to watch together. It’s told using storybook-style animation by artist Cael O’Sullivan, and written by Hidden Track’s artistic director Elliot Hughes in response to audience suggestions, which were voted on between each chapter. It’s a style of storytelling that gives the whole thing a pantomime spirit – albeit the cleverly subversive alternative pantomime with jokes about the drudgery of capitalism and a villainous property-hoarding dragon of gentrification.
As the instalments go on, the world of How To Win opens up. The first chapter gives the player a choice between two objectives, slaying a dragon or trying to make the most money. Both options take video game conventions and twist them into wry parables on the nature of victory. Beating the boss or getting the most points might be satisfying at first, but ultimately the game ends and nothing’s changed. At this point, the audience is given free rein to decide what to do next, reconsidering the individual happy ending and trying to come to a conclusion where everybody can win. Its spirit reminded me of Hidden Track’s last pre-pandemic show Drawing The Line, a live interactive experience that explored the construction of nationhood by dividing participants into two rival communities separated by a line of tape on the ground. After creating their new national identities, the groups competed in games to expand their territory. Like Drawing The Line, How To Win becomes an exercise in building community, and it does so by training the audience to think of themselves not just as observers, but as a mass of players with agency and some skin in the game.
‘Come on then. Get up. Or you could always stay in bed, I suppose. If that’s what you really want.’ – SHUT IN
Where How To Win was originally available to play on Harrogate Theatre and HOME’s websites, SHUT IN is an 8-bit video game that’s been released directly on indie game marketplaces like Steam and Itch.io, so it’s likely to reach an audience predominantly of people who already play video games. Created by Cael O’Sullivan and set within the confines of a dilapidated home during lockdown, you take on the role of a housebound depressive with the menial tasks of getting out of bed, dressing, brushing your hair, and feeding yourself. With every minor achievement, a sardonic narrator reminds you that actually, none of this matters, and you could just go back to bed.
Mental health and the mundanity of everyday life are popular themes in indie gaming. There are titles like Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, released in 2013, or the puzzle-driven relationship story Florence released by Annapurna in 2018. Games which, rather than letting players slay dragons and collect treasure, simulate the sincere little victories they chase in real life. SHUT IN is an especially sharp entry to the genre for the way it toys with the player.
Taking cues from point and click games and the particularly popular escape room genre, the game has you explore your own house and pick up items which you use on other items to make things happen, opening doors and turning on switches. But in playing the game I frequently found that my choices didn’t really matter, or that just because I was able to pick up an item didn’t necessarily mean I would have any use for it. When I clicked an option like making my bed I would sometimes see my avatar start to perform the task and then give up part way through. ‘Why bother’, they would say.
SHUT IN isn’t a game where you start out depressed and then defeat that depression by doing all the tasks on your to-do list, and nor is it a mindfulness app that gamifies your anxieties by letting you tend a virtual garden. Just as How To Win takes the passive theatregoer and trains them to exercise power over the narrative, SHUT IN has the active game player confront the limits of their agency, confronting the anxiety of powerlessness. At the core of both stories is the adage of learning to change what you can, accept what you can’t, and recognise the difference between the two.
I’d encourage anyone with an interest in games or in theatre to play through both SHUT IN and How To Win, especially those who fall into only one category and have yet to explore the other. Together, the two games are a timely artefact of the way many of us tried to navigate the crisis of the pandemic and the social upheaval that accompanied it. As we retreated into the uncertainty of lockdown and monotonous isolation of SHUT IN, many of us migrated online to build new communities and question the structural flaws of the old ones. In blurring the distinctions between theatre and game, we challenge the way we see our own role, whether as a passive observer or as an active part of the game.
For more on How To Win and SHUT IN, visit Hidden Track’s website.