2 weeks ago, on 14th October, Playcraft Live was performed for the first time in Londonderry, Ireland at the Playhouse Theatre. Described as the ‘world’s first play performed live inside Minecraft’, it mixed a staged piece of theatre along with real-time machinima to tell a story of a group of teenagers who travel back in time to save history. The resulting performance was live-streamed and posted on YouTube, and you can watch it here:
The performance was designed to entice the younger demographic of Minecraft into the world of theatre. The story may not have much to do with Minecraft, but the mere mention of the game does have at least some appeal with younger players (who knew?). Perhaps because of this appeal, the piece even gained national and international media coverage, from BBC, CNET and Mental Floss.
But for all the theatre and the media’s claims of ‘innovation’ by combining videogames and theatre, the relationship between theatre and videogames is a relatively old one. In fact, it goes back to 1994 with the creation of the Plaintext Players by artist Antionette Lafarge.
In an interview with Mathias Jansson, Lafarge describes how she was interested in MOO’s back in the early 90’s. MOO stands for Multi-user Dungeons: Object-Orientated, and was essentially a text-based online chat forum in which users could generate a virtual world through which they could go on adventures. They worked similarly to other text-based adventure games such as Zork, but more importantly, MOO’s (and their predecessor, MUD’s) can be seen as the direct precursors to MMO’s. They were some of the first virtual worlds in which players could get together, work cooperatively and complete tasks.
It was in one of these MOO’s that Lafarge and some other players formed the Plaintext Players, and created potentially one of the first ever public pieces of virtual theatre, titled Christmas. Christmas was a scenario built by Lafarge, which told the story of Big Man, Little Man and Bloody Zelda, a trio of characters, all performed by different members on the MOO, as they acted out their adventures through a courtroom, stuck in Hell and being lost in a desert.
These performances were only watched (read?) by a dozen or so audience members, according to Lafarge, as they were restricted by a much more inaccessible internet back then. However it wasn’t long before the Plaintext Players would make the leap from the virtual into the physical.
In 1996, Lafarge debuted Still Lies Quiet Truth, a stage piece that livestreamed a MOO projected in the background, with a narrator commenting on the action happening on stage. Much like the more recent Playcraft Live, this piece combined a physical and a virtual universe into one, with each environment reflecting events in the other. In Playcraft Live, Minecraft was used to represent when the characters travelled through time, with a prehistoric Minecraft map being purpose built for the show (the developers even created moving Woolly Mammoths – previously unseen in Minecraft itself).
Conversely, in Still Lie Quiet Truth, a virtual narrator would comment on the events on stage. Importantly, this narrator’s comments could never be scripted, as Still Lies Quiet Truth was a different show every time it was performed.
Lafarge never forgot the videogame roots of the format that she adopted in these performances, and as such they would always contain some element of gameplay. The performances were often only very loosely structured, and relied upon improvisation by the actors controlling their avatars. In this sense, these now decades-old performances embodied a spirit of creativity and invention (so typically attributed to Minecraft itself) more so that Playcraft Live has.
So whilst Playcraft Live has effectively brought the two cultural worlds of Minecraft and the Theatre together, I feel disappointed that it doesn’t have anything new to say. Instead, this marketing ploy serves only to superficially use the videogames success to gain coverage for their show that otherwise would have perhaps been relatively uneventful. That being said, I do hope that Playcraft Live may inspire some younger players to create their own theatre within their games.
With the upcoming Minecraft movie scheduled to be released in 2019, I suspect that we will be seeing much more of the game outside of its blocky virtuality.
Follow Cleon on Twitter where he’ll perform for you if you ask him to.