I went to see Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City the other night. In the bar on the way in, I confidently said to my partner, “immersive theatre is video games”.
If you’ve not heard of Punchdrunk I urge you to go and find out (and ideally buy a ticket if you’re in London). They’re the foremost purveyors of high-budget immersive theatre and I’d wanted to see one of their shows for years.
The Burnt City is a reinterpretation-slash-remix of Agamemnon and Hecuba. It takes place in a giant warehouse that’s been converted into a city, and the story unfolds in real time in several places at once. As a spectator you can follow a character of your choosing, stay in one place to observe what happens there, or just go exploring - I did a bit of all three.
Spectators are given white masks to wear and are forbidden from speaking, so it’s clear who’s involved and who isn’t, and those same spectators end up forming a backdrop that makes the city feel even more alive on the eve of its destruction. The story takes place over a one-hour-ish loop, so you have the opportunity to catch a couple of different perspectives. It’s breathtaking in its scope and ambition and it’s brilliant.
On the face of it, so far so video games, or so was my assumption. As I moved around the space, though, I was struck by how unlike anything I’ve played it is. The answer’s probably obvious - games, even those sometimes unfairly derided as “walking simulators”, give the participants agency in a way that would utterly break this kind of production. The whole point is that the spectator is a ghost - they can observe events, but they cannot change them, and the events will continue happening regardless of whether the spectator is even there.
This gets played with by Punchdrunk in lots of different ways. Characters will sometimes appear aware of the spectators and sometimes will not. A character you’re following might suddenly take off at a run, leading to an eerily silent stampede as they’re tailed by a mob of phantoms. They might even push past you or scream in your face - but crucially there’s nothing a participant can do, at least if they’re behaving themselves, that can upset this loop.
I’ve been wondering whether this kind of interaction, or lack thereof, could work in a game. My gut feeling is that the inability for players to influence events in any way, even as a collective, would kill it. There are a couple of games, on reflection, that come close to the feeling Punchdrunk provides, but they’re not what I expected.
The game I’ve always had in my head as being the most immersive-theatre-y is Fullbright’s Tacoma, a game set on a seemingly derelict space station where what you’re mostly doing is rewatching conversations to try and piece together what happened. It’s fairly passive as these things go, but even then as a player you’re still making decisions - what order to watch things in, rewinding and pausing, gathering clues from recordings to unlock doors. The game is entirely centred around the player; there’s no sense that things would continue to unfold if you closed it.
I think IO Interactive’s Hitman series hews far closer to what Punchdrunk are doing, at least up to a point. Each level is a real-time simulation, with events that will play out regardless of whether you’re watching them. You can - and I frequently do - play through a level without doing anything, just watching, making notes. Who talks to who? Where do they go?
Unfortunately, playing the game like this will result in a fail state. Hitman is absolutely designed to be played this way, but there still by necessity has to come a point where you stick a very large bald spanner in the works in exactly the right place and watch the whole delicate structure collapse around you. It’s exhilarating. It also ceases to be immersive theatre.
Outer Wilds is one of the best video games ever made, and it’s another example of the player’s agency being used in an interesting way. In Outer Wilds, the sun explodes every twenty minutes, and nothing you do in those twenty minutes has any impact beyond that timeframe. You spend most of your time in the game exploring, gaining knowledge of this delightful clockwork solar system, learning how it all fits together. This lack of agency is broken in only two places, which I won’t spoil. You should play Outer Wilds.
I am not going to talk about BioShock here, but if that’s in your head, good for you.
I’d be interested to see a game studio make something that works in the way a Punchdrunk play does. I’m aware Punchdrunk have done a small amount of work in the space, and they’re doing something with Niantic, so I’ll keep an eye on that. In the meantime, if you know of anything I ought to look at, holler.