By Omar Elaasar
Sufficiently Human’s latest guest post comes to us from Chicago-based writer, artist, video producer, and Editor-in-Chief of clickbliss.net , Omar Elaasar. You can find him him on Twitter, Medium and YouTube as
@siegarettes. In this piece, Elaasar discusses the aesthetic and expressive potential of drawing from theater, particularly the set and stage, in videogames.
There is a trend both in creative and in critical circles of using cinematic language to describe what we see. Of course, videogames are a very different medium from film and oftentimes these differences result in a shallow or surface level imitation of the language of film. This extends to our understanding of film techniques as they apply to games as well.
One of the most important attributes of film is that it’s often used to visually represent what’s showing on-screen as literal. That is to say, what you see on-screen is meant to be taken at face value. Locations and sets are all physically representative and anything that is not or that breaks that illusion is removed from the frame. Cinema does employ a variety of illusory techniques but with careful framing, lighting and composition these techniques are obscured and brought into a sense of tangibility. (At least within the mainstream understanding of the medium, which is what is most emulated in games). In many ways, videogames ache to replicate this sense of believability. They use the language of cinema both to direct non-playable scenes and to frame playable ones. They aim to mimic the same sense of “realism”.
Videogames, however, require different kinds of abstraction. In order to accommodate the needs and inputs of the player, game designers choose what and what not to simulate. Videogames largely struggle to reconcile this need for abstraction with their desire for literal representation. This is where the language of cinema becomes limiting. Cinematic language largely works because of the amount of control that is allowed within the medium. It’s no wonder then that the games that most successfully imitate this language are the ones that are the most ludically restricted. (Think of the Uncharted series’ use of limited spaces and particular camera angles, or the aesthetics of basically any game directed by David Cage).
But this method, while impressive, requires a very limited space for both player and creator expression. The struggle between abstraction and representation often highlights games’ artificiality. It creates a split where we are supposed to be observing an event as it happens literally before us, but the events are obscured by systems of abstraction that mean characters pick up items without physically reaching for them, or have their success defined by numbers of a dice roll that are made explicit and visible within the world at the same time. Regardless, in order to achieve a greater understanding and ability for expression, it is necessary to look outside of the limited possibilities within the imitation of film.
It is here that looking towards theater can be helpful. Theater largely exists within the imagination of the audience, and their interaction with performers. Theater does have its own set of visual aids and artistic backdrops, but most of these exist to suggest rather than represent a scene. Sets are generally limited, costumes sparse, and visual effects limited to stage lighting and perhaps tricks like trap doors or wires in higher-budget productions. Theatre trusts the audience to fill in the blanks. This is how a few pieces of painted wood become an apartment. Nobody walks into a stageplay and expects a cross-section of the house to literally represent the place that the characters live in. The stage frames the interaction and the expectations of the audience. In many other ways theater also presents a better fit for videogames than film. Here, the actors are dynamic. Their performances are influenced by the reactions of the audience, and the audience is affected by the performance of the actors. While the audience generally cannot affect the outcome of the play, their presence and reactions are both a necessary part of the play. Theatre requires both audience and performer.
This abstracted, non-literal, non-“realistic” approach to building worlds and telling stories is something that games can learn a lot from. And there definitely are games that speak to this relationship.
The best example is the classical Japanese role-playing game. Because of long-standing traditions, even modern day games in the genre often present abstracted senses of space, combat and character interaction. Actors within towns do not represent real, fully-fleshed out people. They exist to populate a space and communicate mood. Worlds are linked by large abstracted maps which oversize characters travel across. Random encounters present a simplified idea of the various dangers present within the landscapes. Battles often take place in detached, turn-based spaces that only nominally represent the area that you fight in.
JRPGs have no pretensions towards realistic or literal representation. Instead, they wholeheartedly embrace the abstractions inherent within videogames and leave it to the audience to fill in the blanks. This approach does and can limit games immensely, and there’s a sense of stagnation within the genre that speaks to the difficulties of reconciling this with a modern approach to the medium. However, when the creator understands both the limits and strengths of this approach they can use it to tell a compelling narrative.
With this I would like to take a look at the opening of Final Fantasy 9. The game begins with a story about an acting troupe/band of thieves. Here, every physical conflict is framed by the battle system. Battles take place on a separate stage from the one the characters previously inhabit. Due to the needs of scale and tech limitations these stages are meant to generally evoke the previous environment rather than represent it. Each of these conflicts generally plays out the same way from the perspective of player input, but each becomes thematically reframed by the context of the current plot point. Using expected player knowledge of RPGs, the first battle presents a threat by forcing you into the battle system, a framing device generally reserved for dangerous situations. The “enemy” ends up being your troupe leader in costume, the reveal recontextualizing the battle and the reality of the threat. It works to subvert those expectations, retroactively imbuing that battle with a sense of playfulness and humor.
At one point the metaphor of battle-as-stage becomes explicit, with the troupe stage itself becoming the battle area, complete with spell commands that perform stage magic. Here, your characters play parts as actors, while the player “acts” by performing the same ludic actions they did before. The new narrative context changes the meaning of these actions into something more playful.
Another, even more literal example of using theatre within games can be found in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Thousand Year Door also uses theatre as a visual framing device, reinforcing the metatext of games as performance art.The stage is further reinforced by visible curtains, stage lighting, speakers and fog machines, and the backdrop which sometimes can be rattled loose and fall upon the characters. Your performance draws in or pushes away a visible crowd, and performing flourishes draws cheers that give you energy to perform more spectacular feats. It presents an analog for the relationship between performer and audience, where the reactions of the audience can affect the performer and influence the performance itself.
Thousand Year Door is aware that the separation between the actors and audience is largely mental, emphasized by the offset of the stage, the framing of that performance. The thin physical barrier leaves a performer continually aware of the audience. In some ways this can act as a metacommentary on the relationship between the player and the game, in which the player becomes both actor and audience, the game left in a more directorial position. The events of the story, as well as its overall direction and tone have already been predefined by the game itself. The player’s relationship as actor and audience, however, creates individual wrinkles for them not unlike the variations between repeated performances of a particular theatrical show.
Theatre also presents opportunities to explore different aesthetics than those typically used in games. Black Knight Sword, a sidescroller by Grasshopper Manufacture, does exactly this. It is framed by a stage, with backdrops lifted in and out of the frame. Interludes directly invoke kamishibai (paper play) with static paintings, minimal movement, and contextualization that imitates the form in a virtual setting. Characters are animated in a way that evokes both Asian shadow puppet theatre and Monty Python animations. Aesthetics inform expectations, and here, if nothing else, Black Knight Sword‘s aesthetic confidence makes it believable while frequently dipping into the absurd.
How do we, however, express the elements of the theatrical outside a mode that directly references it? For that I’d like to present SEGA’s Outrun 2, an arcade racing game. While it initially may appear to bear no resemblance to either film or theatre, how it uses its limited resources provides an interesting analog to the use of sets and props in both film and theatre. There’s an interview on PC game site Rock, Paper, Shotgun with Sumo Digital, the team responsible for porting the game from the arcade. In it, members of the team describe the meticulous framework of the sets that make up the game, and how each prop is set up to be looked at from a specific angle in order to provide the illusion of an actual space. While the team specifically references film in regards to the specificity of the angles required to maintain the illusion, there’s a sense of surreality to these settings that grounds them in theatre. In Outrun 2, these props are not there to provide a literal representation of a setting, but to evoke them. These “cardboard fascias”, as they’re described, carry enough details and landmarks to provide the idea of a familiar setting without attempting to provide a representative or contiguous space. Locations range from west coast America to the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids of Giza to the site of a space shuttle launch with only small transitional roads to imply the travel between them.
This provides a different approach than one of say, Half-Life 2, which uses some similar construction techniques to the opposite effect. Those who’ve ever accidentally (or intentionally) clipped through a wall will find that many of Half-Life 2’s environments are built only to be viewed from particular angles, and objects and spaces outside those angles are left strictly unrendered. Here, however, its technique skews closer to the cinematic philosophy, creating a series of connected tunnels that provide the illusion of a larger, continuous space. Locations connect to each other in seemingly logical ways, and each set represents a cut-out of an area cordoned off to show you only what it wants you to see. Outrun’s approach may actually be more restrictive here, but it’s concerned not with literally representing its spaces, but evoking the feelings of driving through them.
A theatrical framework presents an alternative to the dominant modes of literal representation. Instead of climbing the infinite incline of real-life fidelity, embracing the aesthetics of theatre can create spaces with exaggerated performances and expressive flourishes. Spaces that realize a convincing image doesn’t necessarily have to be one that’s chained to a sense of verisimilitude. Theatre presents an opportunity to work more suggestively, deal in metaphor and symbolism. In holding themselves to the conventions of film, games often overlook this. But there are games that already do this, and furthermore, games that would benefit from being looked at through this lens. If all our world’s a stage, then why not the worlds we create?