Narrative video games are starting to take over our media landscape, and their impact is ever expanding with a multitude of adaptations and spin offs coming to our screens. Director of CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER, Amy Crighton, thinks about how we can take inspiration from these stories' original formats, to create a new kind of theatre that leans into the bias of always fighting for one person.
It’s March 2020 and I’ve just been put on furlough from my bookshop job. I haven’t touched a video game in a little over 3 years thanks to my university degree (read: ignoring my coursework to do student theatre instead) eating up all of my time, but I’ve still been following the gaming news from a distance courtesy of some of my school friends who are both still very into the hobby.
I’m taking my 4th stress bath of the day when I find a Playstation 4 console going for cheap online. I buy it, and 3 months later I’m awake at 3am, crying over the ending of The Last Of Us: Part 2.
Now you might think this isn’t very shocking. TLOU2 is an emotional game! Of course, it was making me feel! But the thing is, that so far my pandemic experience had been characterised by a consistent ennui towards TV and Film and inability to engage fully with any of the stories being broadcast by theatres across the world. I’d stopped finding stories compelling and I couldn’t work out why.
So, when I was so totally captured by the narratives of the video games I was playing I felt an urge to delve into why. Cue a few internet deep dives, and a little while later I’d come across the phrase “player/character alignment” more than a few times. I decided that was my starting point.
The idea of player/character alignment is that, because in a video game you’re literally controlling the main character and often spend hours and hours with them, keeping them alive and seeing the world through their eyes, you naturally begin to align yourself with their actions and start to justify everything they do. Even if in another context it might be morally abhorrent to you.
This form of extreme narrative bias was what was making these games so potent to me. But it was only when, in TLOU2 (SPOILERS) the game suddenly switches the character you’re playing half way through, and makes you retrace your steps throughout the whole story as the character previously painted as the villain, I noticed it happening.
TLOU2 making me play as Abby drew the most visceral reaction out of me that any game ever had (I genuinely had to go on a stress walk round the block in my village in order to calm myself down). In making me play as the game’s “villain”, Naughty Dog (the game’s developers) were challenging my alignment with main character Ellie (who we’d also played as in the previous game in the series, and would have gained a strong attachment to). Showing me the result of all the violent and vengeful things she’d done all in the name of so called “justice”.
In a particularly potent moment playing as Abby, I walked through a hospital that was occupied by a bunch of Abby’s friends, making chatter and greeting people. As I moved around, I heard chatter over a radio about disturbances in a nearby area. I genuinely went cold, because that disturbance was me, or more accurately Ellie approaching the hospital, and as Abby left to carry on her mission I realised in horror that I, as Ellie, was about to come to that hospital and slaughter all of Abby’s friends.
When playing as Ellie you think it’s justified! These people are hunting you and they’ve hurt your family. But sitting there as Abby knowing what was about to happen, I understood just how much the game had its hooks in me from the start.
The impact this gaming experience, and the realisation of how gaming prioritises individual narratives, has had on my creative work is huge. I’m now always thinking primarily about bridging that gap between an audience member and a performer. Finding moments for actors to make eye contact with people on the front row, or even a conspiratorial wink here and there, as well as new ways to explore the natural biases we find in the world. With the advancement of new forms of theatre such as VR theatre and the extensions of immersive practices, it makes a lot of sense that we start listening acutely to the way that technology engages us in stories and how we can use that to our advantage in our shows.
Theatre is so often talked about as a communal experience but I think there’s huge value in creating individual connections and stories. We talk about standing in someone else’s shoes a lot in theatre and what better way to do it than by seeing everything through their eyes.
This extreme alignment is what we’re trying to achieve with CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER. Since this research period into games and game narratives, I’ve been trying to find a way to emulate the same feeling in theatre. So when Katrina (writer for Votive Theatre) came to me and said she wanted to write a piece on polyamory, I pitched that we made it a multi-strand narrative that aligns audience members with different characters in the relationship. Luckily, she agreed.
By making audience members don headphones that restrict whose dialogue and story they’re able to hear, we hope that different people have completely unique journeys through our play, and come out of it ready to fight for their person.
Whilst we might not be enforcing a dramatic switch halfway through, we hope that audiences will leave the theatre with a strong connection to a particular character in the story, but maybe in the bar afterwards or on the way home, might find someone who definitely thinks their character was actually the villain all along.
By Amy Crighton, Director of CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER and Co-Artistic Director of Votive Theatre
Tue 9 - Sat 13 May at 7.15pm
Tickets £8 - £15