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The Play’s the Thing: What Stage Plays Can Teach Game Designers

While the mediums of film and television undoubtedly have much to inspire today’s game designers, a medium which is almost never mentioned - and which actually bears more in common with video games than one might think - is that of the stage play.

Adam Volk, Blogger

April 16, 2009

10 Min Read

The Play’s the Thing: What Stage Plays Can Teach Game Designers

There’s been a great deal made in the press about the increasing number of film and television professionals who seem to be flocking to the video game industry, with countless artists, animators, directors, producers and writers bringing their expertise and experience to game development. Yet while the mediums of film and television undoubtedly have much to inspire today’s game designers, a medium which is almost never mentioned - and which actually bears more in common with video games than one might think - is that of the stage play. 

As one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human civilization, stage plays are a dramatic art form with the capability to reach audiences in ways in which other mediums simply can’t. What’s more, the structure of a play, the unique aspect of live performance, and the nature of the medium itself, all present a variety of concepts which can be directly applied to game development to create games which have great player interaction, dramatic storytelling and compelling gameplay.

What Video Games and Stage Plays Have in Common

Perhaps the most common characteristic between video games and theatre is simply the fact that both mediums present the audience with an entirely live experience. Unlike a film or television show, a stage play takes place in real-time and as a result the stakes are much higher. If an actor flubs a line, breaks a prop, or misses an entrance, the audience is instantly aware of the mistake. Playing a video game presents a similar live experience, with the real-time decisions players make having a direct impact on gameplay. True, a player can always load a saved game or start over again at a checkpoint, but once again they will be forced to make decisions and react to the game world in real-time. In essence, the player becomes both the audience and the actor in a game’s performance.  This is particularly true of online multiplayer games - be they MMOs or first person shooters – where players essentially behave as an ensemble of actors, creating a compelling live performance with gameplay decisions taking place in real-time and adding greater dramatic weight to the experience. Whether an audience watches an actor deliver a monologue in a live stage play or a player engages in four player co-op over Xbox LIVE, the fact that both events are occurring in real-time (where potentially anything can happen) only adds to the experience, creating a greater sense of drama and a stronger reaction from the audience.

A theatre stage, by its very definition, is a finite space where characters, sets and props exist and where events and actions take place to propel the story forward.  Replace the word “stage” with “level” and you could very well have a description pulled straight from the pages of a game design document.  The fact is that a theatre stage is remarkably similar to a video game level: both are rigidly defined areas and both are presented in ways to make the audience believe they are actually seeing a much larger world.  A live performance such as “Evil Dead: The Musical” for example, has a set which is designed to convince the audience that they are watching a cabin the middle of the woods.  Similarly, the recent zombie shooter “Left 4 Dead” convinces audiences they are wandering through the burned out remains of a backwater town.  Both “Evil Dead” and “Left 4 Dead” however, are merely clever illusions, using finite resources and spaces to convince the audience they are experiencing something greater than the sum of their parts. The end result is that a good stage director – much like a good level designer – knows how to use every inch of a stage to create a world that is compelling and believable to the audience. 

Evil Dead: The Musical

Evil Dead: The Musical

The rigid confines of both a stage and a game level also require clever use when it comes to props and sets. After all, even the most lavish Broadway production has only so many actors, props and backdrops to use. In game design terms, sets are simply rendered environments while the actors and props are modelled 3D assets. Both clever stage designers and game designers reuse environments and assets in creative ways, allowing the familiar to come across as being fresh and innovative. Take “Fable II” for example, a world populated seemingly by thousands of unique characters. Of course, these characters are in fact pulled from a finite number of 3D models, not unlike the Broadway production of “Wicked”, in which the supporting cast is often required to play multiple roles. In essence, both “Fable II” and “Wicked” are working within the confines of both a stage and a level, using and reusing the available resources to convince the audience they are seeing and experiencing a much larger world.

Both video games and stage plays are also mediums which are told entirely through action. Physicality plays a vital role in live theatre just as it does in terms of video games. If we continue the analogy of the stage as a level, stage directions are almost uncannily similar to the countless Event Triggers and GAS actions found throughout a game. A specific line from a character triggers the arrival of another character from offstage, while the closing of an act and set change is not unlike the loading of a new level or game area.  Just as in a well-designed game level, a play’s exits, entrances, events and special effects are all timed to deliver maximum impact to the audience. In this sense, good level design, much like good stage direction, is all about creating a simulated reality and driving the experience forward through the continuous and creative use of action.

What Stage Plays Can Teach Game Designers

1.) Economy: Perhaps the greatest lesson game designers can take from the stage play is the notion of economy. A stage play has a small space to work within, in addition to having a limited number of actors, props and sets. Similarly, even the largest open-ended sandbox game has only a finite number of character models, levels, environments and assets to work with. By studying the innovative ways in which live theatre utilizes multiple assets to create a larger dramatic world, game designers can learn to better reuse resources to create games that are compelling, dramatic and satisfying to the player.

2.) Working Within the Medium: A play is defined by its three act structure and its unique live nature. A good playwright or stage director works within that medium, rather than attempting to move beyond it. Indeed, as anyone who has ever seen the Broadway production of the “The Lion King” can attest to, players take full advantage of the stage, the audience and the theatre environment to create a visually engaging experience. This concept can also be applied to game development. Indeed, in the initial planning stages of game production, many designers often try overextend themselves, wanting to design games that often work against the medium rather than with it. A designer for example, might want to model thousands of unique characters and 3D assets in addition to creating hundreds of environments and levels. Yet in all likelihood a game’s development budget, technical specifications and size requirements will require creatively reusing assets rather than using them as one-offs. Much like a stage play, game designers must work within a medium that is in many ways defined by its limitations as well as its capabilities. Take Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear” series for example, games with an almost theatrical use of cut scenes and characters and which seem innovative and fresh despite often reusing the same assets and levels. For game development, this means taking a page out of the stage director’s handbook, creating and using assets, levels and gameplay that work with the medium rather than against it. 



3.) The Audience: A film or television show can often take its time, directing the audience’s eye towards specific scenes, characters or objects of interest. Video games and stage plays however, don’t have that luxury. In a game it is the player who often controls the camera or at the very least moves their character wherever they wish in a specific level, while in a stage play the audience’s view is focused entirely on the stage. Oftentimes game designers take for granted that a player will not behave in a way in which they wish and must constantly be aware of the player’s expectations and potential actions. Game designers can learn from stage plays which are constantly aware of the audience in terms of the set layout, performances, lighting and even audio levels – all of which are used to maximum effect. If game designers take into consideration the notion of how players will respond in a real-time setting then the end result will likely be games which immerse the player in the world rather than working against them in unexpected ways.

4.) Stage Direction as Level Design: Stand backstage at any live theatrical production and you’ll witness a level of coordination, skill and logistical juggling that almost has to be seen to be believed. From costume designers frantically tugging on outfits onto actors, to lighting directors setting up for the next scene, to stagehands preparing for the next set change. All of it however, takes place behind the stage with the audience never aware of the seamless transition from scene to scene. The result is not unlike a video game, in which the curtain of gameplay masks the 3D assets, rendering and level design hidden deep within a game’s code. In a live theatrical production, if something goes wrong the audience will likely know, just as how in terms of game development the always dreaded bugs, hacks and exploits can threaten to snap the player out of the game world and back into reality. Game designers can learn from a stage director’s experience in terms of seamlessly managing multiple assets, creating engaging levels and developing compelling gameplay, all without the player ever seeing the technology and design taking place behind the scenes.

The famous early 20th century American actress Minnie Fiske once said that a “play is like a black forest, something you can enter, something you can walk about in. There you can lose yourself. And once inside, you find such wonderful glades, such beautiful, sunlit places.”  Her description sounds not unlike a well-rendered video game level, presenting players with an incredible world to explore and interact with. Game designers owe it to themselves – and to players – to think outside the box and draw from various mediums; whether it be film, television, novels or stage plays. In the end of course, entertaining, thoughtful and compelling experiences will always keep audiences coming back for more, whether that audience is in their seat watching as the curtain rises or clutching their controller in front of a console.

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