An adventure game come alive on stage: machina eX’s “15.000 Gray”

Discrepancies in art and play
Theatre and gaming seem to be two different parts which usually won’t fit. General opinion would like you to believe that the former is non-interactive, the latter interactive, the one monologic, the other dialogic. An audience not being involved in the action and story, a player performing the actions required to progress in the story.

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But as recent gaming trends show, genres mix and media merge together to create something original, something creative, something new. Cinema and gaming were always considered to be separate parts too. Now with Heavy Rain or the recent The Walking Dead it’s possible to have interactive movie experiences (which again are based on another format, the comic). There were some experiments in the cinema business to make the audience more involved, but most attempts fell flat, even though the choose-your-own-path “gameplay” of the niche horror-splatter genre proved fun with examples like Final Destination 3 or Return to House on Haunted Hill.

Artsy-fartsy, where dost thou go with thy audience?
The debate if games can be art has become rather tiring, and even if movie “experts” like Roger Ebert deny them their right, it’s clear that it’s one of the most defining media in a long time. And now it’s taken over the old-fashioned theatre. Or is it really that old fashioned?

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It’s been quite some time since I went to the theatre. Of course not taking into account those awful school trips to the countless interpretations of old “classics” of which Germany is so rife with (most pupils and adults don’t really care about anymore), there were performances I saw while attending English literature seminars. I still remember seeing Waiting For Godot in Bochum, which was quite an interesting example how theatre could be interactive as there were parts when the characters spoke to the audience.

Call the audience by their names
But again this could not really be called interactive. It was more like in entertainment shows where some jokes were made with, about, against some spectators, and that was it. No influence on the outcome of the show, nothing involving ALL of the audience.

What makes most theatre pieces even more difficult to watch is how long some are and how actors present themselves. Yes, there is something different about how people say and move on the stage, and for me I always found it a bit ridiculous how they scream at each other and be so overdramatic… but then again it’s “drama” we’re talking about. So what about comedy? A different matter and maybe discussed another time, or maybe not. What about Monkey Island? Let’s talk about adventure games for a change, where characters usually do a lot what’s happening on stage: talk and do weird things.

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Back to SCUMM Island
Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion were prime examples in the LucasArts heyday of classic point-and-click adventures in how the player was thrown into a world he had to learn the rules of, talk to people and solve puzzles at his own pace. Of course there was typically only one correct answer to a riddle but still freedom in which order to tackle the problems. The story could of course not be changed as well, but by choosing different lines of conversation it felt as if the player was involved in it anyway.

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Gaming has grown up
Some 20 years later, storytelling has come quite far. Some may still argue we are stuck in the same clichés when Doom came out, and that gaming has been too much inspired by cinema, both in presentation and content. But the truth is: games have changed and offer so many diverse experiences it’s hard not to be a gamer these days. What’s especially interesting is in how the player’s choices change gameplay and story. Titles like Mass Effect or Baldur’s Gate II delivered a lot of content different for each player, although the frame story was the same. Even action-games, typically linear affairs, offer alternating paths or dialogue options (who’d have thought back in the old days of shooters one could actually be given the ability to TALK before shooting people?).

Now adventure games being the most linear affairs when it comes to storytelling and puzzle solving, have struggled for years to be relevant in today’s market. Granted, some offered alternative endings or more ways of solving a puzzle, but usually the gaming experience didn’t change: Go through the story the author has given you, go from A to D, maybe stop at C before B, but that was basically it. The adventure genre simply refused to change, or rather its community refused to go with times. Discussions are still going strong about Ragnar Tornquist’s Dreamfall not being a proper sequel as it introduced too many action-stealth elements and got rid of the puzzles. Same with Charles Cecil’s Broken Sword 3.

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I’m so ronery…in this god-forsaken place they call adventure game
Another point besides the linear structure of story and puzzle design: adventure games were and are simply lonely affairs, at least in theory, what most people think when they hear the word and probably have to look it up on Wikipedia. There’s no multiplayer, no players rushing to solve puzzles, or collaborating.

Of course that’s only half of the truth. Because actually even in the days without internet (yes, I grew up with LucasArts graphic adventures) people were discussing these games, they were talking about the solutions at school, work, mouth-to-mouth, over the phone. No matter what tools of communication they used, they played TOGETHER, helped each other to progress in the story (as rudimentary as it sometimes was in comic adventures). And even today I’d say adventure games can be quite social when people want to find out how to overcome obstacles. It’s true most want to work it out alone, but a nudge in the right direction is just as justified as plainly asking for a solution.

The story in 15.000 Gray
Now after all this talk about genres and media, how does Machina eX’s project 15.000 Gray fit in? It’s interactive theatre, it’s a live “media-theatrical point-and-click adventure”. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a unique experience which can only be achieved by an audience of not more than 10 people. But it cannot be done by one person. People have to work together, find solutions to problems. Without taking anything away from what the specific tasks are: There’s a bomb which has to be defused. 30 minutes playtime. Not a lot, but enough to find clues and do things, together.

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Co-op in 15.000 Gray
The emphasis lies on cooperation, it is the key to success. Sure there can be instances when someone simply tries to do it on his own, but usually people would stop him doing something silly. And that’s the most interesting thing: human interaction. It’s a game which is played by people who usually don’t know each other. Of course it’s a bit different when there are members of a specific group or couples who’ve been together for some time. Still cooperation and organization are necessary to successfully complete the game.

Like in adventure games, there are scripted events, and some have to be triggered by doing certain things. Gameplay is actually very similar and can be just as intriguing as it can be frustrating, culminating in something which makes many people avoid the genre: getting stuck.

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Hotspot key-less in 15.000 Gray
There is no walkthrough available, no one to call. It’s one room with people trying to reach a goal in a limited amount of time. The latter being something most traditional adventure gamers wouldn’t like: being on a time schedule. No helping comments when one scrutinizes objects, no hotspot key (although there is something to make sure people are only looking in specific places). But the characters or actors can help. They frequently do, give hints, but these can be quite obscure and it takes some time before they are provided.

Art and gameplay in 15.000 Gray
It’s quite interesting that what would look and feel unnatural on the stage works in the “gaming environment”: characters repeating their lines again and again, like a broken record, stuck in a time-loop. Not a lot of story (only presented in fragments), no real character development, not the most interesting dialogues or memorable lines of conversations. So is it actually more light entertainment than art? It surely can’t compete with traditional drama, but it doesn’t need to. It’s more about what people make for themselves, how they bring themselves into the storytelling and puzzle design.

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What’s also quite unique is how the game design works: Unlike the aforementioned forced participation in shows and theatre where the audience is directly addressed and can also refuse to answer a question or participate in an action, here it’s more organic in how the player is involved. Like in games, there are certain rules which have to be learned, understood, certain solutions which have to be found, applied. The most fun part of it is the way there, not knowing where to go, but trying anyway. It’s for the player to find his way through the game. There are some helping hands in the form of the actors, but in general it’s all about the interaction between the group members and their environment.

The good and bad in 15.000 Gray
With so much praise, is there anything which can be criticized? Probably the length and linearity, two things which most people would complain about in the adventure genre. As there is only one room and certain tasks have to be performed or puzzles solved before the story continues, it can be quite frustrating to be stuck, especially with a limited time frame. But this also creates suspense, as unlike in adventure games, one doesn’t have all the time in the world to look at and try out everything. Doing that could actually lead to some unexpected and dangerous results…

Another concern which goes hand in hand with the linearity is how some scenes (let’s call them cutscenes) are played out. These can be rather lengthy, and of course with time ticking away, the player’s patience runs low. As most of the dialogue isn’t that funny or interesting to listen to, it can become quite a drag to wait for the interactive part, something the genre has been struggling for years, finding the right amount of text to deliver a story or characterization of NPCs.

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Final verdict…NOT
Of course it’s also a personal question: Do I want to pay up to 15 Euros to have a 30 minutes gaming-theatre experience? Maybe the answer can be helped with by reading about the event itself, how it was organized and what else was on offer (not to mention some interesting interviews and other cool stuff) at the FFT (Forum Freies Theater in Düsseldorf.
To be continued… soon.

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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