Interactive, synchronous theater

There was a time when the ultimate computer-based entertainment was pretty much confined to CD-based computer gaming. That was back in the stone ages, when the web was the exclusive stomping grounds of scientists and academics, and bulletin boards were the only way to experience the asynchronous power of email and forums. Asynchrony is what makes email the original “killer app.” It telescopes time, allowing us to communicate on our terms, when and where we want.

CD-ROMs are themselves asynchronous. By that I mean that they allow you to pop a game in at your convenience and stop and save your place when you are rousted away from your computer by the need for nutrition, or by the beckonings of other carbon-based life forms. (I’m using a little of my dear friend Marty’s terminology. I was never into gaming, but Marty made up for it by playing and mastering computer games the way other people read novels. Once again I merely stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Online games with multiple players can be synchronous, or asynchronous, or a little of both. An online chess game can be played over the course of a year, if the players want it to take that long. Whereas EverQuest, one Marty’s more recent passions, has real-time cooperation among its players. Although breaks in the action are inevitable, when playing resumes there is a synchronizing clock maintained by Sony’s servers behind the proceedings.

A “synchronizing clock” maintains the action of another type of entertainment: live theater. That clock is held by the stage manager. Although plays telescope time with scenes and intermissions, one or more actors on stage at any given time sets up all that is needed for a real-time event, one that must be played out on its carefully scripted schedule.

I bring up theater because way back in the stone ages, I wondered how CD-ROMs could conceivably improve standard modes of storytelling. I thought about live theater. It occurred to me then that a computer could allow a scripted performance to be filmed from many angles. That’s interesting. Instead of a play having three walls (or less), it could have all four. But isn’t that just a film, except you choose the angles and not the film editor and the director?

Then I thought about how the cameras could themselves be point of view shots (POV), and “players” could occupy the bodies of characters as the dialog unfolds. The POV could in fact jump from one character to the next as desired by the player.

That’s interesting, but also creepy and pointless. Plays were written to have audience members participate as “flies on the wall,” not as mics and cameras hidden on one or more of the characters’ bodies. Also, significant action often takes place while one or more characters isn’t looking. What then for plot developments based on hidden letters or stolen glances?

Then I remembered a wish I once had (and still do!) to see performed all three plays of the wonderful The Norman Conquests trilogy. This set of stage comedy/dramas, by the brilliant British playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, takes place over a weekend, and is set in three locales of the same home: the living room, the dining room and the garden. Each full-length play is set in only one of those locales. In other words, one whole evening’s performance is set in the living room (that one is called Living Together). Another, Round And Round the Garden, is exclusively set … guess where? Likewise with the third, called Table Manners.

Ayckbourn is something of a magician, in two ways. First, he really understands the folly and drama of human relationships. And secondly, he is a stage-craftsman of the highest degree. He actually managed to pull off three consecutive nights of entertainment, all telling the same story about the same weekend and each being uniquely enthralling.

What’s more, when one character storms off stage in one play, she enters the next night’s performance of the next play, still peeved and cursing the person she left in the last room, one whole play ago. Magic, huh?

Assuming I ever get a chance to see these performed live, on three consecutive nights, and assuming I’ve got the bank account, and the posterior, suitable for that level theater-going, I’m sure I’ll love the experience.

But wait! Why not pop a DVD into my computer and watch the performances all in one interactive experience? What’s more, what if I could be a fly on the wall that literally buzzes along – tracking, say, that actress who just stormed out of the room, to follow her and see her performance in the next room?

I would still need approximately five hours to hear every single line of the plays (I’m guessing each is one-and-two-thirds hours long). But just like a CD-ROM based game, you would be able to pause at any time and pick up where you left off. Perhaps there would even be a pie chart in the corner of the screen, to show you how much of the action was left unwatched. In other words, how much that happened in the adjoining scenes did I miss by being in this one, and which wall does this fly have to light upon in order to take in that fresh action?

The closest I’ve seen to this in cinema is a film called Timecode, which shows the action of the same 97 minutes in real time, across a movie screen broken into quadrants, with each showing a different, related scene. It was a good experiment by director Mike Figgis, but not a total success as a work of art. The Norman Conquests is, by contrast, a triple-success, and I think the trilogy would be greatly improved — in fact, transformed — by the ability to view it in an interactive way.

Has a multiple, synchronous theatrical experience ever been presented as an interactive entertainment / game? Does it succeed, and actually improve on its parts? I’d love to find out.

This blog entry is a message in a bottle to all innovative video game developers / playwrights / filmmakers to get cracking. I, for one, have been awaiting this type of experience for a long, long time.

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