New Leaf Players First Show Retrospective

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I’ve been interested in looking into what games and theatre can learn from each other for awhile. Performing a play inside a video game seemed to be a logical extension of that.

Animal Crossing A New Leaf was chosen for several reason. For one, it had built in set and costume-design features. It also had online capabilities, allowing us to reach an audience worldwide. There were problems to surmount of course, some less apparent than others. The most obvious problem being that only four people could play online at a time, significantly limiting the size of the cast and the audience. Less obvious at first was that you can’t adjust sets when the town gates are open. The original idea was that we would be a travelling troupe, taking our act to other towns and setting up in whatever empty space we were provided. But guests are not allowed to add or move furniture to a room in New Leaf, and what is more even the host is not able to rearrange things when guests are visiting. This meant not only that we would have to put on the show in our own town, but that we couldn’t have any moving props. We’d have to use a static set.

The other limitation was of text space and movement. In New Leaf, your character can learn a number of “jokes” that allow them to perform different emotional reactions (ie anger, sadness, depression, happiness). However, you can only learn a maximum of one per day. Our characters could only act through whatever emotions we had unlocked. This limitation was built into the idea of performing theatre within New Leaf. I was essentially trying to direct a puppet play using digital puppet. Movements were limited, but through skillful manipulation we could create the illusion of more. The text problem meant that dialogue had to follow a certain rhythm.

Hills Like White Elephants was chosen because it allowed us to work within a number of these limitations. It features only two characters, much of the dialogue is short or could be broken into a rhythm, there are many emotional beats, and the set and costumes could easily be recreated. There were several other plays or short stories being considered as well including Here We Are by Dorothy Parker.

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During rehearsal, a few additional limitations became clear. For one thing, typing fast on a DS screen is HARD. I was lucky to have a 3DSXL, and even then my hand cramped up after a performance. Poor Kira was stuck using a regular size 3DS. The touchscreen wasn’t really designed for fast, precision typing. It takes a lot of practice to get to the level we did, and even then typos and missed letters are going to happen. We quickly learned that it was better for the pace of the show to ignore them as long as it was at least readable. It was also nearly impossible to switch between text and emotions quickly. We had to carefully build a rhythm that allowed each other time to perform reactions during each others’ lines as well as give each other time to begin typing.

There were also some quirks to New Leaf that ended up working in our favor. The way the game handles text bubbles when characters are next to each other ended up working great for the moments in Hills Like White Elephants were the characters talk over or talk past each other. I think the vacant, smiling expressions on our “puppets” between reactions also suited our interpretation of the play. By far the most amazing benefit of performing in New Leaf was revealed once I began fiddling with the camera during the performance. If I swung the camera around behind us, it gave the impression of performing on an actual stage, and I could see the audience. Then I began seeing the audience react.

The audience was controlling a puppet as well. The only way you can watch this performance is to perform in it. I was amazed at how often an audience member would use the same in-game reactions we were using to convey how they were perceiving the story and our performance (in-game reactions were all positive or appropriate, although I have to admit it would have been fascinating to see what an in-game heckler would look like). This, to me, is hugely important. One of the central ideas of Agusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (which obviously I take my blog title from) is that the audience is capable of acting as well, even if they do not realize it. Boal’s work was designed to empower the audience to realize it could act and create. I can’t speak for our audience, but they must have realized they were performing as well when they selected emotions. We were all, together, creating a play within a game of a play.

I received a lot of positive feedback about this project, and most of it was from people who sadly couldn’t participate. A 3DS and a game are expensive, as is reliable wifi. Choosing to perform in such a venue limited our potential audience and cast. Even people who love the idea and own tons of other consoles and games can’t be expected to drop 300 bucks just to watch a performance. From what I’ve researched, nearly every previous performance within a video game was done within a MMORPG on a PC, which is generally a cheaper barrier of entry (even when a computer is more expensive than a console, it is easier to get access to one). I’m interested in thinking about other, accessible games that could be performed effectively in as well, especially ones that force the audience to actively perform as an audience like New Leaf.

Had I the time and funding, I would love to develop a game just for performing. A game that used an interface similar to New Leaf, but allowed for a wider range of set, costume design and movement, as well as a larger audience and cast. With the focus on performance, it could ignore everything else and make changing hair, faces and emotions much quicker. This seems like something the Wii U would be uniquely suited for, as the game tablet would make typing and moving and selecting reactions easier. It would also integrate very easily into the Miiverse, allowing players performing as actors or directors to discuss and advertise their shows as well as allowing players performing as audience members to offer reviews or support “in character”. Of course, a Wii U is just as much an economic barrier as the 3DS, but if such a program existed it would be easy to set up schools, theaters and other organizations with a system that could be used by the community for productions.

Of course, developing such a game is beyond my limited abilities and funding now. But still, it is fun to think about how to use what we learned in this production to empower future productions.

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special thanks to Pauli Kohberger (aka madamluna) for providing the screenshots of our first show! It is really hard to take screenshots while performing so any other audience members, please feel free to send me any you took.

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