What I’ve Learned from Being a Live-Action Video Game

Video gaming's too bloody easy, so I became a part of the Indiest Indie Game of All Time, 'The Dark Room'.

May 11 2015, 1:56pm

There are 400 people screaming, "YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE!" It's entirely your fault. And to make matters worse, directly in front of you, a poorly lit Australian man is laughing.

Hello, I'm John Robertson. I'm a live-action video game. Which I will now explain but, if your attitude to long reads is a quick skip to the comments to post "tl:dr", well, I hope that when you die someone says the very same thing about your life.

Anyway, over the last couple of years I've realised just how many popular video games mollycoddle their players by handing out charity where challenge should be. A great many AAA titles simply follow the same routine: pop-up text boxes tell you what to do, even when you're fairly certain you've got the hang of everything; whole stretches of gameplay are reduced to on-screen button prompts (the dreaded quick-time events); and, if you're doing badly, the game may even ask if you want to skip a section entirely.

That last one is horrible. L.A. Noire will let you skip a car chase if you don't appear to be doing well. Who skips a car chase? The new Mortal Kombat lets you buy fatalities, which nobody should be able to do without a lot of money and good connections with the Russian mob.

Watching big-budget games take shortcuts with the player really sickens me. If you've the money, skill and team to model, say, a colossal interactive city, don't you have the ability to make the player learn by doing? Pop-up notifications reduce otherwise great games to "press A to win". Achievements give you nothing but the satisfaction of ticking things off a list. If that's what you enjoy, try cleaning your room. (On topic, does anyone care about pointless collectibles?)

What happens to young gamers who've never known anything but this strange mixture of cheap encouragement and self-playing games? Do they know they're being spoon-fed crap? Is crap delicious?

My response was to become a game. Being a "live-action video game" isn't some depressing bullshit about the futility of existence; it's literally what I do for a job. (And if you really think life's a game, I'd suggest it's Grand Theft Auto, only the police are slightly less likely to murder you for breathing in their personal space.)

I worry I've made The Indiest Indie Game of All Time. My distribution strategy is, 'Look, I've turned up.' My graphics are the worst, because they're just my face.

Since 2012, I've been performing a live show called The Dark Room. It's a multiplayer text adventure starring a floating head that wants to destroy you. It's a choose-your-own-adventure that breaks your brain. Options are projected onto a screen, and The Floating Head is me, holding a light and screaming abuse into your dumb, little face.

Players try to escape, but I stop them through a combination of logic and the kind of insults my high school PE teacher used to mistake for encouragement. Succeed and you'll win £1,000. Fail, and YOU DIE.

It's hard, unforgiving, funny and you can only play it in theatres where I'm performing. It's a video game you can only play if I'm there and you want to play it. I worry that this means I've made The Indiest Indie Game of All Time. I must have. My distribution strategy is, "Look, I've turned up." I'm so retro, I'm alive! My graphics are the worst, because they're just my face! I'm the greatest AI in history, because there's no "A" involved!

(Just quickly, on graphics: why are all these indie games so blocky? There seems to be a weird idea that 8bit visuals automatically denote character and charm – but they don't, because sometimes they just turn your screen into a convincing simulation of glaucoma. Many times I've asked myself, "Are these the graphics, or has cataracts finally arrived?")

And what this weird little show of mine does to the brains of modern gamers is fascinating. Some rise to the occasion, while some just start begging.

Last year, I streamed The Dark Room over Twitch for about 250,000 people. (I appreciate that a live-action Skyrim was tried on Twitch recently, but a bunch of disembodied voices telling a man with cardboard weapons what to do isn't a video game, it's someone having a psychotic episode at a LARP.) They laughed, wailed, wept and voted on what paths to take. Some tried to insult me back, but couldn't, as I only accept criticism in the following way: you write me a letter, I respond, we meet for a cup of tea, you give me your opinion, I fling my tea into your groin, and through this we learn that, one, tea is very hot and two, shut up.

Some folks found the game exceptionally hard, and didn't understand why it, or any game, should be that way. Why shouldn't they be able to win immediately? Where were the achievements? How can anyone know they're doing well unless a notification appears, like a spam email offering to enlarge your ego? (God, that makes me angry. Why should a game congratulate you for playing it? Shouldn't it be well designed enough that if you're playing well, you feel good?)

Still, other players banded together in a huge group and started mapping their way through The Dark Room – and they got scarily close to winning. The game they'd chosen to play was difficult and a mystery, and they loved that.

This interested me. I'd conceived The Dark Room as a parody of 1980s text adventures, but it's become something else. If you fuse primitive games and stand-up, it turns out you get to go on a fun journey. Well, it's either that, or my players have Stockholm syndrome. (Hell, if it worked for Christian Grey, it can work for me.) Steadily, I've come to realise that my show illustrates that gaming tropes we assumed were standard have all but disappeared from the mainstream.

The author presenting 'Videogame Nation'

The Dark Room has a timer, through which I learned that there is a generation of gamers who've never played in a public space, where screen time is limited. Arcades, kids! Remember those? Ask your parents. Some players attempt to wait out the time limit, mistaking this as a kind of victory. Don't they understand that other people are queuing up to play Street Fighter II? Nope. Also, what's Street Fighter II?

Death is virtually gone from gaming, outside of select series. We may not be able to find a cure for cancer, but every game protagonist is immortal and respawns in a convenient place. I did one show where a little boy was told: "You awake to find yourself in a dark room." Four options appeared on the screen: "WHY?", "FIND LIGHT SWITCH", "SLEEP" and "GO NORTH". I asked the kid, "What do you want?" "Context," he said.

God bless that kid. The game's set in a dark room, there were four options on the screen relating to that – and he made his own fun. We're an inventive bunch, sometimes.

The author in the playable-online version of 'The Dark Room', still via YouTube

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My life as a live-action video game, mixed with sadomasochism and disguised as comedy, has resulted in some memorable discoveries, which I think all of gaming can learn from. For one thing, you definitely don't need a well-known IP behind your title, or fantastic graphics, to entertain a huge bunch of gamers. Also, players can function beautifully without having a game act like their nanny, and those who can't will one day learn there's nothing so impotent as someone who types "RAGEQUIT" into a chat box. And then there's cunning – large groups of people can get together to do this really well, even if they do sometimes pick the wrong option and die, and something-something-UK-general-election-something. You get what I'm saying.

But this one kid, he definitely didn't. By the time he'd reached his turn in The Dark Room, I'd already heard him use the word "swag" in conversation. The Floating Head addressed him, as he does all comers: "WHAT WILL YOU DO?"

"FIND LIGHT SWITCH," replied the kid, to be met with: "HOW WILL YOU FIND THE LIGHT SWITCH? YOU'RE IN A DARK ROOM." He made some of those noises teenagers make when their brains are loading. Five minutes later, he was dead – in the game, of course. He was grumpy. The whole room was chanting: "YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE!"

"Bullshit!" he shouted. "I respawn! I get another go." "No," said The Floating Head. "YOLO." Then he got it.

John Robertson is a stand-up comic and host of Challenge's Videogame Nation. The Dark Room is being performed as part of the Udderbelly Festival, at London's Southbank Centre, on the 15th of May – details here.


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