All the West's a Stage

With Rockstar’s latest addition to the Red Dead series, we return to the West in a sprawling open world of infinitely epic, and mundane, possibilities.
And the more I walk and ride the fictional plains of RDR2 the more I find comparisons
to something I previously had not considered—immersive theatre. The similarities to the popular television series Westworld; Wild West theme park populated with sinister robots, have already been popularly made and how, in the show, robotic hosts are designed to create narratives around visiting guests. It is in RDR2, however, that it is us, the player, that has the choice, instead of watching a character make a choice for us courtesy of HBO. In many games of certain reverence, the focus is on the small details that make the world feel real. Whether it’s as simple as footprints in the snow from Metal Gear Solid (1998), a short three word phrase in Bioshock (2007) or any time Joel or Ellie did or said anything in The Last of Us (2013). All these details compound to make the world a truly engaging experience. RDR2 takes this concept and amplifies it to encompass every facet of gameplay, but not without using techniques often found on the stage.

In 2013, theatre troupe, Punchdrunk, debuted an immersive experience called The Drowned Man. The show featured a warehouse of sets and actors that ran individual narratives simultaneously on several loops; the audience were given masks to wear at all times, instructions not to talk or touch the actors but given free reign to explore the warehouse however they saw fit. A story unfolds before your eyes and it is up to you who you choose to follow and interact with. It is with this freedom of storytelling that I make my comparisons to one of the most highly regarded video games of recent times.

The players, and the audience, control their own story and their own experience of the narrative presented to them. In both instances there are notions that you are missing something in another room, or just over that hill and in truth - you are. In The Drowned Man, multiple actors are entertaining and leading different audience members simultaneously, each giving them a different crumb of the larger story. Some they repeat on a loop so multiple groups can experience it and some are scenes only meant for one person all before a larger act begins and they find their new marks elsewhere. Similar to how, in Valentine, a poor fellow is thrown through the saloon window and a scuffle ensues in the street. I’ve seen this particular scene on my playthrough three times already. Make no mistake, this isn’t a criticism, we all understand this is a video game with certain limitations, though we can imagine that maybe the saloon has repaired multiple times and is the site of multiple window smashing scuffles. It is the West after all. Similarly, the times I have crested a hill on my steed too late to prevent a carriage driver being murdered by bandits, or in contrast to the times I have arrived in time reveal that it is possible for even the player to miss their marks. This is by no means a negative. This is very much a good thing, it reminds us that we will be too late, we will not be able to save everyone (nor will we want to when looting is concerned) but most importantly it reminds us that this world is inhabited whether we witness it or not.

In the same vein, this style very much overcomes the substance, from every shop being able to be navigated live, walking up to items on the shelf or through a catalogue, turning pages adorned with illustrations and ads of the period. While it would’ve been easier to include a pop up menu from every other game we’ve seen before, the style of the presentation is overriding the substance, and the gameplay dictates the experience. In the same way larger weapons must always be removed from your horse upon exiting or find yourself in a spot of trouble without a rifle. The game sells you on the world, but you have to operate within it correctly. Many of these design decisions have been made stylistically, with player immersion in mind, but not player convenience. It is not convenient to flip catalogue pages, or even to repeatedly draw our shotguns but it is immersive, and more realistic, than the bottomless pockets players have grown used to. Granted, you can see where Rockstar have pulled in the reigns in places, careful not to get carried away with the slow pace of gameplay. Trains exist as fast travel, hair grows in real time (or faster with a tonic) but the barber does not cut in real time. Arthur does not spend a cutscene removing his clothes and trying on new threads in the shop fitting room, they all appear automatically. In these respects the game is giving the player what they want in the right places. You want to flick through twenty different outfits, go right ahead, you want to get across the map though and you’re a horse ride to a station, a cutscene and five dollars out of pocket. You can see this in how he approaches skinning an animal, the small game are briskly stripped in a handful of seconds like an inside out sock and the larger beasts have occasional skips in their hide removal scenes to denote the passing of time.

Secret Cinema is another example of this immersive, character-led experience. In 2017, they debuted Blade Runner at a warehouse in East London. Guests were given an identity and a place within the narrative, and scaling ticket prices denoted different, often more action-packed, experiences. Arriving at the specific venue, only released on the day of the performance, crowds of fancy-dressed individuals descended on the previously undisclosed location and for several hours before the showing of the film interacted with specific actors in an open world area of sets ranging from slums to police precincts, operating fast food joints to bespoke clubs, all surrounding a large town square where rain fell from the darkened ceiling above. It was entirely convincing at capturing the atmosphere of the movie.
How this relates to RDR2 is that, in both instances, we are given the name of a character we are to become, a job they do and certain people that both do and do not think of you favourably. It is then up to us, the player or guest, to operate in this open world where the edges are always firmly visible though are distracted from with the content within. In RDR2 I can interact, to some degree, with absolutely anybody I can see, either greeting or antagonising them depending on my playstyle or how I perceive Arthur’s mood. I can defuse or enrage certain situations and, as was customary in the West, at any time I can settle a dispute with one of a number of firearms strapped to my person.

In The Drowned Man, I was able to follow specific actors on their route or chop and change when another caught my attentions, I could stay in my group or go off on my own investigating clues buried in the sets. On odd occasions actors would pick out guests, breaking the fourth wall to speak and involve them in the narrative in a way that made every guests experience entirely individual and unique. Eventually all the acts brought everyone together in one large room where the final set piece was delivered with all the actors on stage. At Secret Cinema, after a brief introduction to the world we separated as a smaller group and were soon approached by an actor feeding us a clue of somewhere to go and someone to see. It was entirely up to us at that point if we wanted to proceed or simply grab a hotdog and a beer and wait for the movie. Following those clues lead us to participate in a scene with other actors and given another crumb to follow, a person to hunt out and secret phrases to use in conversation.  

The process was not wholly dissimilar to picking up one of many optional quests that scatter the wilds. Where often a seemingly random person on the street asks for your assistance, a point of intervention you could wholly ignore or miss completely as you gallop through town. Even after engaging in conversation you have a choice to accept or reject but seeing as nothing is ever time critical, you can continue safe in the knowledge the quest will not properly start until you arrive at a certain point on the map. The narrative waits for you to arrive, to put your lip to the cup and drink the whole thing in, rarely ever missing a drop.

Tying these examples together is choice, specifically player, or participant, choice. What separates this from film is narrative distance. In film we, the audience, are watching someone else perform actions based on their moral standing and traits specific to their character. Indeed, a convincing character is one where we are shown their compass and examples of them aligned to it, or the challenge of staying the course. Video games often reduce this distance because you, the player, are making the decisions. You are pulling the trigger, you are hunting the deer and it is you that chooses to rob that carriage and sell the trinkets for camp resources, or not. In other narrative-choice based game, like Mass Effect for example, you have full control over the type of response your version of Commander Shepard uses in conversation within the bounds of Paragon, very good, or Renegade, very bad. A mechanic similar to RDR2’s Honor meter, increasing your moral standing by helping those in need and decreasing with wanton murder and theft.

The thread that runs through all of these finer points is that of immersion and how that succeeds at telling emotional and engaging stories. We can find this in a lot of different mediums; books, tv shows and traditional theatre, where, as mentioned, we are watching, as audience members, stories happen to other people. It is more often found in media that is interactive; video games, immersive theatre, that we are both the audience member and an active participant in the story. So often in video games there are faceless, even speechless, protagonists for which we are to project onto and fill up from the inside. Whether this is more effective than being sold a story with a specific hero (or antihero) in mind, ala RDR2, The Last of Us, God of War, is up to you and how much you do or don’t relate to the character at hand.

Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale summer 2019. You can stay up to date with Punchdrunk at their mailing list.