That’s the question currently challenging Kris Siddiqi (bottom right, above), Second City alumnus and the co-creator of The Video Game Show at Toronto’s Comedy Bar. The Bad Dog Theatre Company’s improv/gaming hybrid seeks to bridge the worlds of digital media and live comedy, so selecting a game that provides an enjoyable spectator experience is crucial to the production.
Fortunately, Siddiqi thinks he’s figured out the formula. That’s why the cast will be playing Contra during Wednesday’s 8 p.m. performance.
“Retro games are more fun to watch,” said Siddiqi, who also co-hosts the Who’s Gaming podcast with fellow comedian Andy Hull. “As amazingly tough as it is, [a game like] Battletoads is silly. There are three toads and their names are Zitz, Pimple, and Rash. That is a friggin’ gold mine of comedy.”
The concept for The Video Game Show is relatively straightforward. One of the performers plays a video game onstage. Whenever the player dies or clears a level, the rest of the troupe comes on to improvise a scene based on everything that transpired. The first performance skewered the aforementioned and infamously goofy Battletoads, while later targets include the NES versions of Bad Dudes and Ninja Turtles.
There was also that time they played Metal Gear with special guest star (and longtime Metal Gear Solid voice actor) David Hayter.
“He’s just as much of a nerd as we are,” said Siddiqi. “He knows all the references. He got up and held his own.”
Of course, the original Metal Gear is ridiculous even if you’re David Hayter, but the confusion of watching Solid Snake play against type is precisely what makes it fun. A quality stage game needs to appeal to gamers and non-gamers (including those in the cast), and for that, it needs a mix of the comprehensible and the absurd.
For instance, Battletoads works well because it has a surprising amount of visual variety.
“The first level is a sidescroller. The second level is falling. The third level is on bikes,” explained Siddiqi. The diversity makes the screening more dynamic for an audience that may or may not be familiar with gaming.
Ninja Turtles, meanwhile, proved to be an unexpected dud. The early stages are spent in a dreary stretch of sewer, and the audience’s collective familiarity with the Ninja Turtles mythology makes it difficult to unearth fresh jokes from the material.
“The story is already there,” said Siddiqi. “They have so much background it doesn’t leave much for the improvisers. With Battletoads, why are they fighting huge rats wearing ’80s punk glasses? We can take liberties.”
Similar concerns have derailed attempts to incorporate modern games into The Video Game Show. Siddiqi considered Fallout 3 before deciding that the world is too complex and the pace ill-suited for a rapid-fire comedy setting.
“We’d have to play specific points to make it interesting to watch,” he said.
That’s why the troupe has decided to focus on the past, taking special care to incorporate single-player video games into an interactive live performance. The audience doesn’t get to play – “They know their place,” said Siddiqi, but when the cast chooses its players, “we make sure they’re not that great at the games so there is frustration.”
If you’ve ever watched a friend struggle with a video game you’ve already beaten, you should be familiar with the sensation. “The gamer inside you wants to reach over and grab the controller out of their hand and do it for them. That’s every single audience member watching the show.”
And as any dramatist knows, failure is often just as engaging as success.
“An audience member loves to yell at us for doing a bad job,” said Siddiqi, citing Battletoads as a game that encourages backseat driving. “We didn’t get past that stupid bike part with all the jumps. You can’t get past that.”
Siddiqi admits that it’s essentially an old theatre trick – tragedy is still one of the best sources of comedy – but it does invite people to become active participants. Even if the audience behaves like a sentient game FAQ, the vocal responses indicate that people are paying attention.
“After the first show, we realized we can’t shut the audience up. They want to yell, so let them. It’s less heckling and more like cheering,” said Siddiqi.
That participatory feedback distinguishes The Video Game Show from other forms of comedic theatre. While improv may incorporate audience suggestion, it typically stops short of full participation.
“If you go to an improv show or stand-up show, the audience has to be passive because you’re doing your material. But the world of video games is very inclusive. ‘Come play with me.’”
That desire for community runs contrary to gaming as a solitary activity, and that’s why Siddiqi believes the show will only continue to expand. It’s a much-needed outlet for those seeking to take a shared passion for video games – and making fun of them – beyond the confines of the living room.
So what’s next for The Video Game Show?
Siddiqi hopes to get more celebrity guests for future performances. (Mass Effect voice actor Mark Meer and Ubisoft Toronto boss Jade Raymond currently top his wish list.) He’d also like to find a way to combine the show with the podcast, possibly for TV.
Until then, The Video Game Show will live on as live performance. When Siddiqi fires up Contra, you’re more than welcome to tell him exactly what he’s doing wrong.
The current season of the Video Game Show debuts at the Comedy Bar (945 Bloor St. West) on February 26th. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students.