Bringing Text Adventure Games to the Stage
Seth Kriebel is an Artist and Producer who creates performance-games based on the text adventure games of the early 1980s. Samuel Fry met with him after the performance of his new show, “A House Repeated”.
Sat in the New Committee Room of the Battersea Arts Centre on Thursday 8 October I met with the producer, Seth Kriebel, shortly after the second performance of his new show “A House Repeated”. The interview below is an extract of our conversation…
Samuel Fry: Could you introduce what the play is about?
Seth Kriebel: It’s interesting that you call it a play. It is something between a game and a performance. It’s not a game because you cannot win. The upside of that is that you also cannot lose. But it feels like a game and the audience is very participatory.
Again, it feels like a game in that everyone is working together. The audience is not sitting back in the dark listening to actors delivering their lines. No audience is ever entirely passive because there are laughs and gasps; you feel the energy in the room. But in this they really are actively participating. We really can’t do it alone.
The show is based on a smaller show that I have been doing for around 5 years called “The Unbuilt Room”. That is the first two thirds of the show that you experienced tonight. The sort of game part. That comes directly from “The Unbuilt Room”. That is all based on the old text based computer games from the late 1970s and early 1980s, where I describe a place and then I ask the audience what do you want to do? That audience member will say “Go North”, “Get Torch” and that sort of thing. Then I will move to the next person and describe the consequences of that action. So then the audience explores an imaginary world.
The whole time, as you saw, you are just sitting in your seats. You are never getting up or going anywhere. There are no props. There are no lighting changes or sound effects. It’s just, we tell you the environment and you interact with that.
On the differences between “A House Repeated” and “The Unbuilt Room”
So, that game was just for six people at a time and 20 minutes long. This show, “A House Repeated” came out of a series of experiments to expand “The Unbuilt Room” to a larger audience. To expand that interactivity to a bigger group.
Tonight we had around 50 people in here. It is divided into two teams now and there is another performer. I have my team and she has her team. The two teams are looking at each other. You are each, in turn, moving through an imaginary world. Sometimes those imaginary worlds are the same and intersect. Sometimes they are different. That is all still based on the old interactive fiction, text adventure computer games.
How do you find that works in a larger group, where each team has twenty-five people? Compared to that smaller group of six?
That’s not so different. I am sure that there is a limit to how big that number can get to. In the small show, where there are just six, you just sort of go around the circle. One person to the next to the next. In the larger group we instruct the audience to hand around a baton themselves and it is up to them to hand it around. There we just address the people who are holding the bat.
So, if you want to speak you say “give me one, give me one!” If you are the kind of person that does not like public speaking then that is absolutely fine. You can just pass it along and sit there and watch and enjoy it that way. So, there must be an upper limit to the number – the audience number. After which point the audience simply cannot get as involved as they would like. There are too many people. But for us, as performers, there is not a whole lot of difference.
I think that there is a social contract in the group as well. People will talk a bit but I guess that there is a limit. I am sure that everyone got to speak.
Everyone spoke that wanted to. There were people who then didn’t want to speak again. There is always someone that hangs on to that thing [the batton] because they want to talk. And that is fine.
The original production – or game – was you on your own. How do you find it working alongside Zoe?
I have performed the small version with Zoe before and she has performed the small version alone. So she is very practiced in Unbuilt Room, as am I and we like working together. So, her doing her side and me doing her side feels very natural. It feels just like what we have been doing for five years.
I have tried writing one of these before and it was the most difficult thing. How do you go about the process of writing a story like this?
Have you come across “Twine” before? It is a super simple text editor which allows you to highlight phrases or words and link them to statements such as “go in the cave”. When someone reads it they just click on that and it links them to the next bit of text. You see it all laid out as squares with lines between them, so you can see your whole map. So you no longer need pieces of paper on the floor anymore, you just do it in Twine.
There is a thriving community of people who write Twines and there is an interactive fiction competition, I think. There are probably several. I like that stuff but I don’t get super involved. I don’t usually write them for fun. This game just came out of this one idea of “What if you took one of those old text adventure games, the more open ended ones, and made it live? How would that work?”
Usually stories like this are pitched towards children. While you are asking the first few questions, the audience asks themselves “How do you imagine this?” and “How do you explore?” They are not necessarily traits that adults have in their day-to-day experiences. How do you find that as a dynamic?
They come along very quickly once you give them permission. Once you let them know that over the next 20 minutes, in the small show, or over the next hour, in the longer show, we are going to be doing this and it is fine. Nobody is watching and nobody is making fun of you. That’s what we are going to do and we are going to have some fun. You don’t throw them in the deep end. You don’t just throw a puzzle at them and then say, “Now what?” You very gently walk them in. By the end they are fully engaged and they have imagined this world.
I love having chats with them afterwards. In one version of “The Unbuilt Room” there is a door and I never say what colour the door is, but at the end when I am chatting with them in the bar I’ll ask “What colour is that door?” and everyone tells me exactly what colour the door was. They are working to bring that world to life with you.
I think that it is closer to literature than cinema. Cinema is great at showing you a highly detailed vision. You get an incredible depth of worlds. If you think of Blade Runner or something like that. Wow, it’s all shown to you wonderfully. In literature the detail, the writing can be just as deep, but you have to fill it in with your brain. It’s not just being fed to your eyes. So it is just like that and it is even more engaging if you leave your audience just a little bit of room to fill it in.
Director, Create Hub
Samuel is a Business Consultant at IBM, working in their Interactive Experience team. He is also currently the Director of Create Hub. Samuel has a history of working with creative, innovative and entrepreneurial companies such as the creative-business incubator Cockpit Arts, in the Creative Economy team at Nesta, with entrepreneur network Virgin Media Pioneers and as the Enterprise Consultant at University of Bristol. All thoughts shared on this site are his own.