Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*
Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?
On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk’s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.
I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.
What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.
Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.
As I paced the corridors, trying every door and looking in every cupboard with a real sense of exploration and fear, I thought to myself: this is just like being inside a graphical adventure game. Here I was, in a beautiful fictional environment, opening all the doors and sifting for clues in every conceivable place – I might as well have been playing The Longest Journey and clicking on every hotspot in sight. This was wonderful!
So strong was this feeling that I began, inexorably, to think that I must try to win this game, or at least, discover the solution – any solution – to what’s going on. I rifled through desks and sets of letters in rooms, looking for obvious clues or references to what was going on, and search around with a candle for hidden objects in the basement. Occasionally I would found interesting objects, but after searching all around and listening to the actors, I was stymied – there was no password to be found, no set of clues or puzzles that would unlock a mysterious door, no secret meaning behind the performances and conversations going on. Yes, there was a broad arc during the three hours, and there were clearly mini-stories between the characters, but all of the detail in the rooms, all the cryptic numbers and the strange animal skulls, it was just set dressing.
On coming to the end of the three hours, I decided that I expecting too much. I could see two good reasons for the lack of a unifying and satisfying story; the first was that Punchdrunk simply were not interesting in telling a story and preferred to concentrate on the feeling and sensation of being in this strange house; and the second was that creating a narrative that could be distributed throughout the rooms, and still remain engaging and coherent no matter where and when the audience moved, is an immensely difficult challenge. Not an impossible challenge, I think, but certainly a daunting one.
(I later discovered that Masque was about Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, which I had never read. I talked to a couple of people who had read the stories, and while they did appreciate things like the Black Cat, they were still disappointed about the lack of a unifying story)
One moment summarised my feelings. Loitering in an exquisitely-arranged sitting room, I picked up a newsletter lying on a table called The Companion and began reading it. Unlike many other fake newsletters which I’ve seen in my time as an ARG designer, it was very well typeset and laid-out, with around two thousand words of well-written articles and adverts. I was impressed, but the level of detail was at once too much to take in and read properly – and also too little, since the articles were too unfocused. They didn’t help me understand what was happening around me.
In graphical adventure games, designers have complete control over the user experience. They can force players on a certain path, and the characters in the game will always act in the same, mechanical manner. Only certain objects in the environment can be examined and interacted with; you might be standing in a library with a thousand books, but you can only read a few of them, and only a few pages of each, at that – the rest is simply blurred over, inaccessible. Gamers understand these limitations, and accept them; this is the price of playing an adventure game, and the barrier is not something they dwell upon.
The creators of Masque have to similarly control the actions of the audiences. The most important instruction the audience are given is simple: do not talk to the actors. Since the actors have to contend with not one but hundreds of audience members, they can’t start talking to anyone without inevitably having to talk to everyone, thus breaking character.
They cannot, however, control the audiences’ senses**. If a room has a corkboard with dozens of pages pinned onto it, those pages must all withstand scrutiny. Unlike a game, they can’t be an indistinguishable blur, they must all at least look real. And so some set designer has to sit down and write on every page, coming up with notes, numbers, sketches and codes, things that look real. The problem is, they look so real that when I see them, I think they must be important, and so I look even closer, trying to discern patterns and clues where there simply are none.***
It’s a curse that also affects ARG designers. Creating a convincing fictional world that is deep and consistent requires unbelievable amounts of content, but at least our labour is constrained by the fact that (usually) the world is accessed over the web, and the web is still lower fidelity than the real world. Masque has no such constraint; their upper bound of detail is unlimited.
This is not to excuse Punchdrunk. It would be possible to retain the excellent level of detail they had but also integrate it more into a unifying story by concentrating on a few specific themes and characters. I admit that this is more what I want from Masque and not what Punchdrunk want, but through the lens of a game designer, I see Masque as a game. Whether or not they realise or intend it, Masque has many game-like properties about it, and there is much to be learned from them – and much to benefit what is already a remarkable production.
*This tendency is often used as an argument against the notion of brain-as-computer, as if all of those past analogies were all equally wrong; personally, I feel that the analogies are actually getting progressively more accurate, but that’s another discussion.
**It’s possible to imagine some control over senses, I suppose, by means of goggles or a mask. More realistically, you would need something more high-tech, like augmented reality or virtual reality goggles – but then you’re entering the realm of videogames.
***In fact, there was an ARG run within Masque, called The Gold-Bug, but since its clues and puzzles were embedded in the noise of the realistic set dressing, I found it difficult to spot it (although when I did find the puzzles, they were pretty cool). There was also an issue with the fact that to get particular clues, you had to talk to the actors – an action that was supposedly forbidden. On the surface of it, it would appear that The Gold-Bug should serve as the deeper, unifying story beneath Masque, but it didn’t quite work that way, mainly because they didn’t seem integrated at all. Having said that, I don’t envy the designers of Masque or The Gold-Bug for their task, especially under the conditions and resources they had…