by Martin Denton · November 8, 2015
What makes a good video game? What does writing a play have in common with creating a game; and what are the key differences?
My favorite games are always those that make me feel like I’m a part of an epic story—that the choices I make and actions I perform shape the larger narrative world of the game. In a word, great games are about empowerment. Even if the narrative of a game is largely linear, it can still be a deeply engaging experience for me if the story makes me empathize with the protagonist and the other characters. Ultimately, I need to care enough to make the most important choice in a video game: to keep playing and find out what happens next.
On the surface, the empowerment element of gaming contrasts with a lot of theater, because plays rarely alter the course of their stories based on audience choices and interaction. Digging deeper, however, theater shares the core of empathy that powers a great video game. Even though audiences can’t drive the story of a stage play toward a desired conclusion, they can form an empathy with the play’s characters that makes the audience feel like they’re sharing the fears, hopes, and actions of the characters. What great theater and a great game have in common is that the narrative experience makes the audience care enough to engage in the story and find out what happens next.
This is why it was so important to me that the audience cared about the characters of EverScape, rather than just the idea of gaming portrayed on stage. My audience wouldn’t be able to decide the stories of Gil, Devo, Kirin, and Foster, but I wanted them to feel what these characters felt when they left behind the real world and signed on to an empowering fantasy world in the game.
You write for the theater and film in addition to working in the gaming and internet worlds. How did this career path evolve for you? Do you favor one of these forms over the others?
It’s rare these days to meet a writer who only works in one medium; I’m hard-pressed to think of a game writer who hasn’t also worked in film or comic books, or a playwright who’s never written a screenplay. For me, after I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a Masters focusing on new script development, I was incredibly lucky to turn my playwriting background into a game writing job at Icarus Studios. My theater background helped a ton, because it taught me how to really craft spoken dialogue to fit a character’s personality. This later led the game company to create a Voice Director position for me, putting me in charge of all the VO casting and dialog writing in the different games we developed.
While I love writing in all kinds of digital media, theater is easily my first love. Throughout my career, I keep writing stage plays because I’m drawn to theater’s living connection between performer and audience. No matter how well digital graphics and production values emulate real life, games and film have never been able to replace the power of live actors to engage the imagination of a live audience. EverScape represents my attempt to take the excitement and thrills of a virtual gaming world into the living, breathing reality of the theater.
Who taught you how to write plays (this could be a teacher, a playwright, or anyone in the world)?
I’ve had some really wonderful teachers and mentors over the years. The first name that comes to mind is John Clum, my first playwriting teacher at Duke. I’ve never met someone who knew as much as John does about the history and culture of theater while also keeping a sense of wonder and excitement about theater’s possibility. This made him a stellar teacher who taught me how to both pay attention to production requirements while also finding my own humor and voice.
My graduate advisor, Paul Ferguson, also deserves special praise. Beside teaching me the craft of narrative theater and all the possibilities of bare stage directing, I’ve never met anyone with a zeal for live performance like Paul. He taught me from example that while live theater is hard work, it’s one of the most fun and exhilarating art forms out there. We shared a ton of laughs and riveting conversation over our new scripts years after I graduated, and I still jump at the chance to work with him whenever he calls.
I’d also be remiss to not mention Joseph Megel, the dramaturge and director friend who heard the very first EverScape scene I wrote and told me I had to write this play. Considering Joseph has been developing new plays since I was in grade school, his coaching and encouragement were a huge help.
You have worked in North Carolina for a long while. What is the theater scene like in North Carolina? How does it compare with NYC?
NC’s Raleigh-Durham is a fantastic place to make theater. Between the artistic and cultural life of the universities here, an enthusiastic and daring audience, and the creativity and dedication of theaters like Manbitesdog and Burning Coal, I never lack opportunities to work with talented actors, directors, and designers on my new scripts. I’m proud to be part of the same community as brilliant, emerging writers like Howard Craft (whose recent play Freight just had a great run at HERE Arts Center in NYC) and Monica Byrne (the playwright behind the 2013 NYC Fringe’s What Every Girl Should Know and author of The Girl in the Road). While NC still can’t compete with the sheer volume of talent and prestige of NYC’s theater scene, I’m hoping EverScape will be one more step toward NC being recognized as one of the best theater communities in the country.
Who are your heroes? And who are your theatrical heroes (if different)?
The playwrights I admire most include Paula Vogel, Martin McDonagh, and David Ives. Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and The Baltimore Waltz taught me how theater didn't have to be literal or have a realistic set in order to be truthful—that you could create an entire narrative world on a bare stage. I also love how Vogel makes her plays about her characters’ emotional truth rather than what literally happened; you can see this influence in how EverScape blurs the excitement of the game world into the tedium of real life in an office chair, because these gamers emotionally straddle both worlds.
I love Martin McDonagh for his commitment to pushing boundaries of what’s possible onstage, and how he uses really cutting humor to make you laugh in dark situations. I can’t imagine a production of EverScape that didn’t push the boundaries of what audiences expected in its fight scenes, since the fights are so important to why the characters love escaping to the game world. Similarly, the cynical joking of Kirin and Gil make the audiences laugh their way into deeper empathy, even as the characters hit rock-bottom.
Besides inspiring me to be a funnier and smarter playwright, David Ives’s writing shows me the power of creative language to engage an audience. Gaming has a rich vocabulary all its own, but reading Ives helped me get a sense of when a term needed to be explained and when audiences could follow along until they just understood it like the characters would.
What inspired you to write EVERSCAPE? What reactions have you heard from audience members who have seen the play?
While I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, I’m consistently amazed with how game developers continue to refine the art of digital escapism. Whether we’re getting away from homework, a boring job, or even a dysfunctional and dangerous home life, video games always offer us a way out—and the way out is getting shinier and more engaging every year. The idea of addiction also drove me to this story. I didn’t want to write a play about why gaming addiction was bad, but rather how it could happen to four normal people. I wanted to write EverScape to ask WHY we all wanted to escape so badly. What do games offer us that real life lacks? Fairness? Fun? Empowerment? Community? And was it possible that gaming could give us a better reality—not just in a virtual setting, but in our living, breathing real world?
I was blown away by how much the play resonated with audiences. Countless gamers in the crowd raved about how well the script captured the language and world of video games. Nongamers remarked how surprised they were that they understood and related to the struggles and hopes of the characters. Perhaps my favorite reaction was a post-show conversation I had with an older woman whose brother had suffered a great deal from game addiction. With tears in her eyes, she thanked me for telling the story of that tragedy so truthfully. I’m proud of the laughter and good reviews for my show, but hearing that my script told the truth to someone in my audience is a compliment I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.