The Interactive Theater of Video Games: The Gamer as Playwright, Director, and Actor


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In storytelling, films, and novels, the audience is traditionally an observer, and by necessity a passive observer. In these media artists can often be seen as telling rather than sharing stories. To be sure, the author provides space for a reader’s imaginative input, but you cannot change the words. Both the theater and, more recently, video games have been experimenting with, twisting, and turning on its head this traditional view of narrative. Unless you’re Roger Ebert and believe that video games cannot and will never be art, video game designers, writers, and directors are starting to blur the lines between interactive theater and games.1 In the recently released video game Gone Home, for example, the player is a young college student who returns home from Europe to find her parents missing and a note from her younger sister taped to the front door. Reviewing the game in The New York Times, Chris Suellentrop comments on the work’s “gripping fiction,” its closeness to “literary realism.” One of the designers, Steve Gaynor, influenced by the current hit Sleep No More, an interactive theater production to be examined later in this essay, observes that in Gone Home the “audience…occupies the same three-dimensional space as the fictional inhabitants” and that “inside that space, players, like theatergoers, can choose where to focus their attention.” Lucy Pebbles writing in The Observer speaks of the game as if it were a video equivalent to the audience’s experience with Sleep No More: “You piece together a sense of who everyone is and what happened through seemingly disconnected items and evidence hidden around the house. And those connections are intentionally weak. It allows the plot and conclusions to take place in the mind of the player and not in the action of the game.” For her, Gone Home “takes the gaming element away from the screen, and into your head,” making “room for the player/audience directly…because they are alive to flexibility of choice and narrative.”2


1 Roger Ebert, “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” Chicago Sun Times, April 16, 2010, http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html. But see also Henry Jenkins, “Eight Myths about Video Games Debunked,” The Video Game Revolution, accessed July 31, 2012, www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html; and Andy Field, “Videogames Can Take Theatre to the Next Level,” Theatreblog (blog), The Guardian, March 10, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2009/mar/10/video-games-theatre.

2 Chris Suellentrop, “In Gone Home, A Family Mystery Unfolds,” New York Times, August 18, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/19/arts/video-games/in-gone-home-a-family-mystery-unfolds.html?_r=2&; Lucy Prebble, “Gone Home: A Mysterious Journey Where Action Plays Second Fiddle to Emotion,” The Observer, September 14, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/sep/15/lucy-prebble-games-gone-home. See also Suellentrop’s “Why Bioshock Infinite’s Creator Won’t Settle For Success,” Wired, accessed December 28, 2012, http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/12/ff_bioshock/all/.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.