Top Photo Credit: Evan Bergstra
On Thursday, I was kidnapped.
The incident took place during Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 launch event in Toronto. For the most part a conventional press event – food, drinks, interviews, stations to play the game – it had a slightly different tenor thanks to the actors patrolling the room with fake guns and fatigues. When I was unable to produce a passport later in the evening, a burlap sack was placed over my head and I was marched into the catacombs of the building to prove my loyalty to the fictional nation of Kyrat.
Fortunately for me, the tests were not terribly difficult. First I was quizzed on some basic trivia about the game. Then I played some paintball. Then I pedaled a motorized bike cab around an obstacle course in the parking lot before returning to the party. My ordeal is in no way comparable to an actual kidnapping.
Before going any further, I should stress that I was complicit in these actions. The original invitation had warned me that something of that nature might occur, and I was given ample opportunity to opt out of the fake kidnapping. I was able to see through the sack on my head. None of the actors were overly rough or aggressive. At no point did I feel as if I was in actual danger.
I bring it up because the experience was strangely evocative despite the corporate setting and the many nods towards safety. I’ve always been fascinated with the combination of gaming and live performance. That’s why I was curious about the event in the first place, and though it was probably unintentional, Thursday’s press gala aptly demonstrated the appeal.
Video games are often praised for being the most interactive medium, but even at its best the drama is still filtered through a screen. Theatre, meanwhile, has the benefit of physicality. No matter how contrived, doing something in the real world is far more involving than an avatar. I’ve written about other projects – most notably Zed.TO in Toronto – that attempted to bridge the gap, and while the results have been mixed, it remains a concept with incredible potential.
In truth, my history with such projects is the reason I felt so safe on Thursday. I’ve done enough site-specific theatre to know that there are limits to what you can ask of the audience. Ubisoft’s legal department wouldn’t have signed off on the event had the organizers planned anything even remotely questionable.
But someone without my specific background might find the proceedings more troubling due to the uncertainty. You learn something about yourself when someone places a bag over your head and you discover that it’s easier to go along with it than it is to fight back. What if the scenario had been real? Would I actually let someone march me to my own demise?
I doubt that the event was supposed to trigger those kinds of thoughts, as fleeting as they were. I’ll further admit that I’m predisposed to that kind of thinking. It’s usually tougher to persuade the audience to buy into the experience, especially since it’s easy (and perhaps preferable) to remain cynically distant during a promotional kidnapping designed to be diverting rather than artistic.
I’m also not sure what any of it has to do with Far Cry 4. Sure, it’s fun, but paintball is hardly a prerequisite for an interview (ours wrapped before the kidnapping), nor does it have any thematic relevance to the game itself. The event is a staged bit of marketing designed to promote a video game and it’s important to remain aware of that divide, if only so you don’t forget that you’re being sold a product.
The fact that I felt anything at all is merely testament to the latent power of the format. Allowing your entire body to become part of the performance – letting yourself be led like a prisoner – is an incredibly powerful artistic tool that yields enormous results with little effort. When done deliberately, the effect can be even more profound.
That’s really what these ramblings are about. What if game developers made it a point to incorporate theatrical elements at the beginning of the design process rather than as a promotional afterthought? What could we expect if video games had live-and-in-person components to go along with traditional gameplay? I don’t necessarily know what that would look like, but I would love to find out.
Of course, live performance on any grand scale is often prohibitively expensive, so I’m not expecting triple-A publishers to colonize Broadway. I just wish there were more attempts to blend gaming and theatre. There’s so much that gaming could be doing as an art form, and it shouldn’t take a one-off promotional event to get a glimpse of that potential.