What I learned playing a video game live in a concert hall
The Usher Hall in Edinburgh is vast, filled for an hour with the wind of the outer Hebrides. There is the sound of violins, the sweep of a cello and the voice of a man speaking about a car crash. Underneath it all is a regular pat of footsteps, moving inch by inch across an island.
Dear Esther is a video game, but tonight it is being played out for a live audience. The 2012 game has already been adapted for performance in London’s Barbican, bringing musicians and a voice actor to a playthrough of The Chinese Room’s seminal “walking simulator”. I was invited to take the role of player for a UK tour of the show, responsible for what the audience sees projected above their heads, and what cues are given to the company as I make my way through the game’s world.
If it’s hard to picture, imagine this: voice and music are sitting still on stage. I am there too, behind a computer, holding a controller. As I move the game’s invisible, first-person protagonist across the island, I make choices about where I go and where I look. Like invisible trip-wires, I cross points that trigger passages of script or score, flashed in front of the actor, singer, conductor and musicians.
Part cinematographer, part puppeteer, my job is to sit with a controller in hand and walk as my character would walk. When I was first asked to do this, I went walking on the Cornish coast, noting the way I’d turn my head to the sea, or leave it level as I climbed a set of stairs. There are different routes I can take in the game and, while the general course I make is the same each night, different paths, glances and semi-randomised objects strewn about the island mean each performance is different from the last.
(Credit: The Chinese Room)
“For me, what I find most interesting about games in general is less hard-edge binaries and mechanics and more those subtle relationships between player and system,” says Dan Pinchbeck, co-founder of The Chinese Room and writer of Dear Esther. “How you respond emotionally, how that translates in camera movements, avatar movements, a million micro-choices each time you play that shape this unique expressive experience.”
“And we wanted to capture that, to understand that playing a game is like playing an amazing, powerful, adaptable instrument.”
I was interested to learn that an attempt to frame Dear Esther as performance had already been made. Mona Bowdog’s 2016 Inchcolm Project involved actually mapping elements from Dear Esther onto a real Scottish island, situating musicians and actors in the environment as part of a promenade performance.
It would have been interesting to see how the game’s score translated in this context. The music in Dear Esther is lush and expressive, swelling around long moments of nothing but wind and rustle. The opening minutes are scattered and melancholy, while the section in the island’s psychedelic cave system is all ethereal ecstasies, giving way to a driving piano-led hike to the eventual climax.
“The demands of interactivity often force game composers into writing this blanket, bland wallpaper,” says Jessica Curry, co-founder of The Chinese Room and composer for Dear Esther. “I’d rather have less interactivity and more memorable music.”
(Producer Laura Ducceschi and musician Tom Pigott-Smith rehearsing in Sage Gateshead. Credit: Thomas McMullan)
The Inchcolm Project may perhaps be placed more easily as a piece of theatre, while Dear Esther Live is arguably closer to a concert-hall musical performance, but both are experiments in an overlap of art forms. Could the approach taken up by our tour also work for another game? Certainly there have been requests each night for a similar version of The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; a richer, grander exploration than Dear Esther, but also one that runs to five or six hours of play.
Taken in the context of a 40-hour video game, that’s minuscule. But taken in the context of a two-hour piece of theatre or music, it’s an endurance piece.
“There is a power that comes from [sharing an experience of a performance] and it’s always fascinated me – laughing with people in the movie theatre at a comedy, stifling sobs at a great drama – it’s different to being in your living room either by yourself or with people you love,” says Curry. “Players have had such a strong emotional experience to Dear Esther over the years and I wanted that to be experienced collectively, which I think adds another deep, sometimes profound layer of immersion and emotion, especially when the game is so concerned with isolation and solitude.
“I would love to do [The Chinese Room’s latest project] So Let Us Melt, where the actress and musicians are live and every audience member has a VR headset,” she adds. “So many people have also asked when Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is going to be given the same treatment as Dear Esther Live, but I have to say that I instinctively reach for a gin and tonic as soon as I even start to think of it.”
There’s also the question of whether plonking an interactive medium on stage actually results in an interesting piece of work. Dear Esther becomes something very different when it is watched on a big screen than when it is played, and I tried to incorporate that into how I puppeteered the camera. Backtracking to search for secret nooks and crannies is a lot of fun when exploring for yourself, but it is simply not interesting to watch as an audience member. The game’s minimalist approach to interactivity makes it relatively easy to pivot this focus towards flow and forward momentum, but it may not be so easy with something that involves more in the way of puzzles, combat and fail states.
(Musician Richard George ahead of a performance at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange. Credit: Thomas McMullan)
Does a game say something interesting enough to justify it being played to an audience in a theatre?
Then again, the popularity of watching playthroughs on Twitch may suggest otherwise, and there could indeed be a pleasure to watching an expert twiddler pull off balletic stunts in a game like Dark Souls. But even so, it feels like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Watching someone else play a game might work as a visual backdrop for chatty streamers, but does a game say something interesting enough to justify it being played to an audience in a theatre, sans controllers in hands?
It’s an unfair question, because games can do brilliant things with narrative and atmosphere, but they do it in a different way to a play, a film or a piece of orchestration. The oft-cited Papers, Please is a blistering exploitation of the systemic reasons for institutional corruption, but it would be dull as dishwater to watch on stage. The detailed environments of a game like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided are a joy to explore over the course of days, but likely to elicit more than a few yawns from those sat in an auditorium. My involvement in Dear Esther Live means it’s not for me to say whether the show succeeds, but I suspect that, if it does, it’s because it manages to eschew its game-ness and become a trance-like drift through an impressionistic ghost story.
(Tom Pigott-Smith, Jessica Curry and Chris Worsey rehearsing. Credit: Thomas McMullan)
But art would be boring if we didn’t mix paint from different pots. Theatre companies such as Punchdrunk have long been mining the design philosophy of video games, so it’s fascinating to now see digital worlds squeezing their expansive, weightless bodies into concert halls. I’ve very much enjoyed being part of Dear Esther Live, and after a handful of shows I already have the island’s geography etched into my mind.
“There’s this amazing, awful quote by Michael Fried: ‘Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre’,” says Pinchbeck. “That always seemed to me like the best reason to work in theatre.
“I think you could switch out theatre for games, and you’d sum up the attitude towards games that still is so prevalent out there – and the weird inverse snobbery within some parts of game culture about defending the sanctity of games as a form.
“Screw that. I’m proud to be a degenerate.”