Why I Think Video Games Mirror Theatre More so than Film:
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
I think a lot about what draws me to videogames. And whilst writing a cover letter for a job application I still have yet to hear back from, it dawned on me. What I love so much about Video Games (and subsequently why I’ve chosen them as my career) is that they share many things with my first love: Theatre. The theater was the place of my adolescence. Endless stories both new and classic to be learned, to be lived, to be performed. It’s all very romantic looking back on it. It’s romantic looking forward as well to my career as a narrative designer (and one day, producer). I find theatre and games have a lot in common and I’ll let you know why! Theatre and video games are different every time. Both cannot be passively enjoyed and exist in a multitude of forms. Lastly, to me, there’s something tangible about the settings created in theatre in video games.
No two performances of either artforms are ever the exact same. And actors on the stage and the actors in the voice booths and the mo-cap suits alike must account for every outcome. For host/occasional-comedian/actor Joe Rogan, his experience as described on his popular podcast voice-acting for the UFC video game was lengthy as you could imagine. That bald-eagle-of-a-man had to enthusiastically vocalize every possible move just as he would when he’s commentating during real UFC fights. In the case of well respected actor Sir Patrick Stewart, his days on the stage (as described by him during a sit-down with Henry Cavill) required agility and readiness for anything to happen ESPECIALLY during choreographed fight scenes. Though both instances seem far from being similar, they serve as examples of being prepared for anything which is necessary in both artforms.
Video games need to account for and build reactions that support the choices the player makes. Meanwhile, theatre is live and truly anything can happen. They differ from simply having a static script that is shot and edited in a manner then does not change. No matter how many times I watch Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, Kenneth Branaugh’s character will always ask John David Washington’s character how he would like to die to which the latter will always reply “Old”. It’s a fantastic scene and will always remain fantastic. Part of that is because it will always look and sound as it does now. With theatre and videogames, the performance is breathing and has a more reactionary element that is integral to the nature of both.
Something else that is integral to theatre and gaming is the way they are consumed. You cannot passively enjoy video games; you cannot passively enjoy theatre. They make you turn your phone off when you’ve sat in your seat and the lights have dimmed to half. While a video game makes you take time making active decisions and reacting especially in QTEs (Quick Time Events) and combat. People believe that movies they make will be watched by consciously enthralled audiences which differs from reality. We all know what reality looks like, the movie exists somewhere in the background while we do something (anything) else. The push for home cinema is only aiding this on. Some (maybe most) movies are meant to be watched passively and when you’re done, what kind of experience sinks into your skin more? For me, it is the video game I invest many hours into or the live performance I plan my evening around.
Among other things there are aspects that Video games and theatre share. The two most mentionable things are that both theatre & videogames can exist in multiple forms and their environments have a sort of tangibility. We all know of the proscenium-style show but were you aware of such things as Theatre-in-the-Round? No? Well it’s theatre that’s performed on a (round) stage in the middle of the venue and the audience surrounds the stage. A more ‘deconstructed’ form of theatre you may have heard of is the Haunted House (remember those???). For video games, it seems as though having multiple forms is their defining characteristic (for now). You can play through the AAA game like Halo, and while it loads you can pull your phone out and play classic mobile games like Doodle Jump. Maybe later on you get tired and put Halo down and pull out your laptop to play through a visual novel. These are a few examples of what forms video games take (and would you believe there’s even more?!)
Now back to talking about Halo (don’t worry, I won’t divulge my thoughts on Master Chief). When you pick up the controller and begin moving your avatar around you can feel this tangibility in the environment the designers have built. You can often pick things up within the environment and use them too. In the theater, part of the spectacle is the set by which the actors move about in and the props they use. Both mediums provide real environments that we can move within. These environments immerse the audience into the world that the company is establishing. Think my comparisons don’t check out? Well you probably weren’t aware of the amount of Level Designers who actually get their start by working lighting and sound for the stage!
Films are great. However, Theatre and Video Games tend to share much more in common. Is there a similarity you see between the two that I hadn’t pointed out? Are there any arguments that have been made that you disagree with? Let me know because I really want to hear what you think.