Sunday, 14 July 2013

Open world video games and The Drowned Man

Last weekend I went to see The Drowned Man, the latest show by Punchdrunk - the bleeding-edge UK-based theatre company. They have become the leaders for a kind of theatre-in-the-round variously termed "immersive" and "site-specific". In practical terms this means audiences are issued identical masks and then allowed to wonder at will through a series of intricately detailed rooms while actors (sans masks) perform amongst them. Inspired by the famously unfinished play Woyzeck by Georg B├╝chner The Drowned Man is a tale of betrayal, murder, paranoia and power set in a distinctly Lynch-ian Hollywood film studio in 1962.

I had seen Punchdrunk's 2007 Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre and it was one of the most moving and seminal experiences I've had. Drowned therefore had a lot to live up to, but I am pleased to say it was an equally amazing night. I don't want to talk too much about the specifics of the piece here as it'll spoil the surprise for anyone who is yet to see it. However, I want to explore the production's relationship to open-world video gaming within the context of worldbuilding.

I heard a story (alas, un-verifiaible) that the designers of Half Life 2 posed  the question, "What happened here an hour ago, a day ago and a year ago?" when designing the locations for the game. Something quite similar to this has been used by Punchdrunk when constructing their sets. Their approach is the opposite to the broad-brush impressionism that has been the staple of theatre for centuries. Because audience members can, quite literally, crawl through their sets Punchdrunk load spaces with rich detail. In the case of Drowned genuine vintage 60s memorabilia is heaped along with lovingly re-created replica ephemera. This is very much in keeping with the current trend of open-world games which seek to create vivid and believable worlds in which their games are set. I have been playing Dishonored a lot recently and have been enjoying all the incidental diaries, textbooks, religious treatises and broadcasts as much as the missions themselves. Indeed, Punchdrunk have also adopted the use of the Easter Egg. I found graffiti on the backs of the film-set flats. It was lists of High School conquests scrawled by the supposed set builders during their work.

The world of Drowned is a perpetual twilight of a warm Californian night. All the film sets, costume rooms and offices that feature in the narrative(s) give the impression that they have been closed for the evening by staff who have just left. These murky spaces are peppered with tea lights or low wattage bulbs which cleverly serve to direct or draw attention to details, much in the same way as open world games. Not only does shadow provide an unsettling ambiance, it also reduces the work placed on the set designers (be they theatre or digital) by hiding large portions of space.

I think that the work of Punchdrunk and the open-world games which they (perhaps unintentionally) resemble articulates the growing importance of worldbuilding in entertainment. This is due to a complex set of reasons, two of which are predominant. Publishers are now increasingly aware of the value implicit in worlds that can sustain multiple stories and therefore multiple products. The dominance of The Sequel at the box office and in video game charts is testament to this, along with all the web-media, comic and animation spin-offs we increasingly see. Secondly (and more relevant to Punchdrunk), as technology continues to develop apace and we approach something resembling virtual reality with all its glorious detail, we need sufficiently detailed worlds in which to set these products. The endlessly repeating walls of Doom are a generation behind us now and audiences expect to move from one distinct, believable, space to the next.

A shot of the set dressing from Punchdrunk's 2007/8 production of The Masque of the Red Death. This one small desk was littered with exquisite props both vintage and re-created. This is typical of the level of detail found throughout their productions, and was a tiny fraction of what was used in Masque.

1 comment:

  1. great post , environment scene setting in video games- set design cinematography - all fascinating stuff. i recently watched a documentary about king ludgwig the second . He recreated many of Wagners sets in his palaces , not for the public or performance just so he could indulge his own other world fantasies ..
    not seen any punchdrunk shows but they sound fun.