by Everett Goldner · August 19, 2015
Geek culture is pretty mainstream in 2015; we’ve got the Marvel Cinematic Universe on one hand and an almost universally loathed (and underrated) reboot of Superman on the other. The granddaddy Dungeons and Dragons is itself getting a new big-budget film within the next few years, and if we’re all very lucky, maybe this one will not even suck. One of the most hotly anticipated properties from this realm, the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, will be released as a film in 2017, Steven Spielberg directing. (The novel grinds 1980s pop culture like it’s going out of style, so references to Spielberg are an idee fixe, and now they can be meta references; cue fanboy squeals and fanboy hate.) Ready Player One is a very savvy piece of work at meshing together 80s paraphernalia and video game culture, but its depictions of the human beings pushing the buttons is essentially limited. And the biggest reason for that is that depth of character costs more than a quarter.
Everscape, now playing at FringeNYC, spends a good deal more than a quarter, and the return that the audience gets is substantial. It shows us four gamers deeply invested in their MMO (that’s massive multiplayer online game to noobs) and just going through the motions required to keep body and soul intact… ish.
Foster, the archmage and de facto group leader, is trying to recover from an unsuccessful career as an app developer, which makes him the only one of the quartet who isn’t dead broke (a moment when he spends actual money to buy digital weapons for the team is delightful). Gil, the front-line warrior, is an uber-loudmouth who spits invective like a Cards Against Humanity slot machine; he works a factory-line IT job with his buddy Devo, the group’s Cleric, who traverses the length of the show trying to be a healer in more ways than one. Kirin, the rogue, doesn’t even know computers like the boys do; she punches the clock at a detested coffeehouse job and wants to go to design school. It’s just a game played for all the reasons gamers really play: to escape, to trash-talk, to kick ass in a world where the colors are brighter and so everyone seems interesting. (Fun fact: after the release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, there were a run of suicides by people who couldn’t accept the drabness of our own world after seeing the story of a paraplegic who gets to actually leave his body behind to live as a ten-foot tall blue-skinned tribal warrior.)
The script nicely raises the stakes on our gang of four when Everscape, the company that makes their MMO, releases their deadliest tower yet and announces that the first group to beat it will win real jobs as real game designers in southern California. (“If you consider southern California part of the real world…”)
Each of the four wants this for different reasons, but they do all want it, and one of the greatest pleasures Everscape offers is watching them prep for the tower as they toe the waters of what it really means to work together, and where “real life” really is. The production endlessly blends dialogue and character arcs with (very nicely executed) stage combat, both within Everscape itself and in the offline but much more dangerous territory of the characters’ own heads. When Foster insists to Devo that his offline activities are NOT his life, the gigantic arcane staff he swings has the oomph to back him up; when Kirin knows she should be working on her design portfolio, Everscape’s NPCs taunt her toward procrastination until she succumbs and takes up her bow to blow them away. The balance between work and fun is a tricky one in any world, and playwright Allan Maule has calibrated it to the edge on which the obsession with an imaginary land where people beat up demons can spill over into the real world with darkly emotive, soulful or tragic results.
While comic book companies like Marvel have worked out how to sell their product in a way people enjoy, most video game movies to date have managed to be forgettable, bad, intensely bad or ridiculously, fascinatingly horrible. (The thought of Raul Julia as M. Bison still makes me wince twenty years later.) This is because few or none of them are made by people who play video games, so there’s a severe lack of emotional investment. (This is the only video game/stage show I’ve seen, but I’m told that most of them are no better.) Everscape breaks that trend easily and with style; the show deeply inhabits the layered verbal tics and lingo these people really throw around, and is also aware of what a pickily particular subculture these people are. (As Gil says, “no one outside Everscape knows what any of that shit even means!”) After the show I watched one guy rapturously telling his parents that it was the most authentic portrayal of gamer culture he’d ever seen. “They got all the terms right! Hotkeys, PvP, griefing!!” The older generation smiled and nodded with bemused blankness, but they were happy to see that their kids had such a good time.