Where Theatre Meets Gaming: Block Stop

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Block Stop: interaction in theatre

By the End of Us 3What if you could tell a character in a play what choices to make? Like you were writing the story with them, or directing them like a character in a video game. What if you could make life or death decisions for them? Block Stop makes these games with actors instead of CGI. Is this ‘theatre’?

When I was studying drama at university, I did a course called Boundaries of Performance. The essential question was: “What kinds of activity count as a performance?” The answer? You’ll never guess. Everything. After much debate and consternation, all we managed to agree was that everything is some kind of performance. At the time, I found this nugget of information less that revelatory. But the longer I work in theatre, the more I see why people ask where the boundaries of performance lie.

Conjure an image for a second. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘theatre’? For a lot of people (perhaps even most people), it’s a darkened auditorium where the audience sits facing a stage area, upon which the actors conjure a story. A lot of theatre is like this. But there is a universe of other theatrical forms. It may be easy to classify everything as performance, but what are the boundaries of theatre?

Immersive theatre (also called promenade theatre) is one of the many non-traditional forms theatre-makers are offering today. Broadly speaking, you might think of this as theatre with audience participation. No no, not like the pantomime where you yell “he’s behind you”, or where the dame might have a cheeky chat with you if you’re in the front row.

Immersive theatre a much more visceral experience. Audiences are part of the story, and they tend to have an impact on the outcome. Punchdrunk is one of the most famous companies working in this area. I experienced their production of The Drowned Man. The audience put on masks and wondered round a massive recreation of a Hollywood film set. If you were lucky, an actor might take you away and do a little private performance. As the audience you could choose where to go, you could interact with the world and the actors. I’d never experienced anything like it. In fact, I almost felt like I had too much choice. I didn’t always know where to find the actors.

There are other companies doing their own kind of immersive theatre. Each does something a little hard to classify. A couple companies to look out for are Secret Theatre and Blast Theory. You’ll have to take my word for it. Part of the charm is in not knowing exactly what you’ll get if you see one of their shows, but I do suggest you give it a go. It’ll be like nothing else you’ve done.

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This article is about one emerging immersive company in particular. Block Stop creates what they call ‘live video games’. I sat down to have a chat with Daniel Thompson from their team.

I have been fascinated with their work since they started out a few years ago, so I began by asking Daniel what kind of work Block Stop makes. Basically, they are interested in the space where theatre meets gaming. All of the team have a background in theatre, but they also curious about why we enjoy computer games. They coined the term ‘safe danger’ to describe this. You can run around in a shooter game and have a taste of the experience of being in danger, but actually, nothing really bad will happen to you. So your character dies? Respawn and try again.

This flirtation with danger has hard limits when your decisions are limited by computer code. Game designers have spent a lot of time and energy trying to conceal this by creating the feeling of free choice. Anyone who’s played Fallout 4 (or any of the predecessors in the Fallout series) knows what it’s like to wonder round a world where you can go almost anywhere. I myself never had the patience for that kind of malarkey. But in a limited sense, you are free to do what you want.

The problem is that no matter how free the game designers can make you feel, you’re still limited by a set of forced choices. This in itself is not a problem, but since the behavior of the characters is guided by arcane algorithms, and the characters are just pixels on a screen, there limits to the danger you can feel. Yeah yeah, suspension of disbelief and all that. Play Doom in the middle of the night with high quality headphones and the lights off, and you’ll probably need periodic changes of underwear. I agree.

But what if it was a real person, instead of a set of pixels? Wouldn’t that change the stakes for you? You’re still suspending your disbelief because it’s an actor, but does the fact that it’s a tangible person make a difference? Daniel explains that this is precisely what fascinates block stop. I have played (‘watched’ is the wrong word) a couple of their shows. Certainly for me, knowing that I was dealing with actual people rather than pixels on a screen made a big difference to me. I’m not entirely sure why, though.

I am consciously trying to avoid describing too much of the actual experience of one of their live video games. As with most immersive theatre, the description falls so short of the actual event. Suffice it to say that what you do as an audience member will change how the show progresses. In their new show, By The End of Us, there are two kinds of audience experience: single player and multiplayer. Unfortunately, the single player option is currently sold out, but I recommend trying this new kind of theatre / game / event / unclassifiable occurrence.

Returning to the idea of the boundaries of performance, it occurs to me that immersive theatre has a lot in common with performance art. Block stop deals in safe danger, but the (in)famous performance Marina Abramović has dealt in real danger. In one of her most famous performances, she placed a set of objects (including a gun and a knife) on a table and let the audience do what they wanted to her with these objects. I wonder what the audience experienced when she put herself at their mercy? She could really have died. Is that a step too far? Do we always want to know that safety is actually there?

I leave you with this zinger. If she had been killed in the show, would that have been a performance or a murder? And could you prosecute the perpetrator? She did consent to it after all.

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By The End of Us is showing at the Southwark Playhouse from 7 – 11 June.

“What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘theatre’? It’s a darkened auditorium where the audience sits facing a stage area, upon which the actors conjure a story. A lot of theatre is like this. But there is a universe of other theatrical forms.
It may be easy to classify everything as performance, but what are the boundaries of theatre?”

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