This is a talk from Beta Public Presents (2016) on Perspective in performance and games!
The term perspective will be a familiar term to anyone who plays games. It’s the position from which we experience the game – famous examples include first-person (through the eyes), third-person (over the shoulder), top-down or strategic, isometric, side-scrolling. There are many more. Perspective in games serves to communicate mechanics – suggesting how to play – inform aesthetics, and filter the content with which we’re able to engage.
Audience perspective plays much the same role in theatre. It’s easy to make the assumption that all theatre is ‘first-person’ because, well, the audience are experiencing it in ‘first-person.’ But it’s not so simple.
Watching the recent National Theatre production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, my perspective was quite different from the majority audience, who watched it strictly end-on. I sat on a balcony, to the side, quite close to the stage. The end-on audience saw an exquisitely framed, almost painterly production. I got to see that too, but also, just offstage, I watched three stocking-headed dudes lining up with wheelchairs full of soon-to-be torture victims, politely holding the doors open for exiting actors. And I found it, frankly, hilarious. The production still read, but everything was recontextualised, maybe as third-person, through this slight angle I had on it.
A truly ‘first-person’ theatre experience might be You Me Bum Bum Train, in which a variety of two-minute scenes are performed with you as the sole ‘audience member,’ and protagonist of each. While going through this experience, though I’m blown away by the detail and the enthusiasm of the world, I’m conscious that there’s nothing I’m missing. Like playing a corridor shooter, everything is funnelled into my path.
I’d rather think about the space around me, and what I’m doing in it. First-person games are a good study: seemingly the most simple of perspectives, more often than not they can completely overturn our concept of space and position. In games like Halo, when you die the camera snaps out of your avatar’s head to a floating perspective over your corpse, and you can then follow other players around, or see through their eyes. Wallhacks in games like Counter-Strike alter the game to reveal the position of other players. The classic id cheat code ‘noclip’ removes collision from the game entirely – basically you can ‘fly’ and move both through walls and outside the level boundaries.
The Wooster Group’s use of screens to project live and recorded footage futzes similarly with our perspective on space and time. We might be looking at an actor facing us, at a live feed of the side of their face, and of a video of them three weeks ago performing the same text. When our sense of perspective is challenged, we pay close attention – knowing that things happen outside of our vision makes us better, more curious audiences.
I couldn’t give four talks on games and performance and not mention Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress is a game with three modes, each built around a different perspective. There’s adventure mode, in which your view is anchored on top of a single character – you explore a world, take on quests, and fight monsters. Then there’s fortress mode, in which you indirectly control a group of dwarfs in building a prosperous fort – the perspective is top down again, but you can zoom up and down vertically, and use the ‘look’ button to examine objects. Objects and characters are incredibly complex, so examining a crown might reveal the images inscribed, the artist who created it, and what event prompted that creation; examining a character would list every piece of clothing they wear, as well as the condition of the skin and fat of their upper arm.
And then there’s legends mode – legends mode is an encyclopedic account of everything that has ever happened, including gods and the myths that surround them, books written by characters about other characters, towns being founded and destroyed and rebuilt… The important thing to realise here is that all of this happens in the same world. So your adventurer’s actions, which you control at the micro level, would affect the conditions of building a fortress – they might even join your fortress as a migrant. And the fame of your fortress, the objects it creates and the armies it fends off, all find their way into legends mode, this massively zoomed out perspective.
It’s a bit of a stretch to relate this to performance, but maybe thinking about how we read a revival of a Shakespeare is helpful? The plays of Shakespeare exist as this zoomed out canon – every production of those plays is informed by and in turn informs that canon – and every performance within it is informed by the larger, general perception of that character, the previous performances of that character by other actors, and the shape of the current production itself. Which then all goes back into legends mode!
And you can engage productively with this through whichever perspective you like!
Twitch, e-sports and Let’s Plays provide similarly exciting perspectives on gaming – at once you are watching somebody physically play a game, watching the game itself being played by teams or personalities, and considering the game, if it’s competitive, in that zoomed out ‘legends mode’. Critically, you’re also imagining the plays you would make. Playing along in your head is just what happens in, say, a really good play – everyone in the audience should be making up the next line in their head, anticipating the results of the action.
And I think if this whole line of thinking sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same perspective enjoyed by football fans the world over.
The games of Adrian de Joongh – Bounden, Fingle etc, stretch our perspective out of our heads and through our bodies. JS Joust and Megabastard do the same, and when games engage our bodies they also provide space for outside perspectives. This physical and mental engagement feels a lot like dancing at a gig – we’re watching something, we are reacting to it with out bodies, we are imagining how we look moving our bodies, and we’re aware of other bodies experiencing the same thing. It’s brilliant. I think this is why drag and club night performances, like Duckie, are becoming increasingly popular – they’re one of the few disciplines to successfully meld that ‘theatre feeling’ with that ‘gig feeling,’ without breaking the mechanics of either. Whether games can do this on a larger scale remains to be seen.
I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I’d like to conclude with a game that I think really nails perspective, performance and theatre: Papers, Please. Papers, Please casts you as a border guard. It asks you to check people’s documents, and decide on whether they should be allowed to enter your country.
As you can see, the perspective of the game mirrors entirely the physical experience of playing it. Here we have the desk, or keyboard area – lots of mechanical action in opening and comparing passports and permits; to the right we have the stamp which mirrors the position of the mouse – stamping is the most dramatic action of the game, so it feels correct that it mirrors our most used peripheral; and in the centre we have the waiting room. The waiting room functions as a screen through which we receive the game’s visual information, and as both a connection to and a barrier between our self and other people – but it also functions as a stage, on which I can observe the migrants’ reactions to my decisions.
I am very much aware of being both actor and audience, of being sat at my desk, and being sat at that desk. This mirroring of perspective elides my physical action with the game’s action – and the closer the two are, the keener I feel the consequences.