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- Orthopedagogiek

Design for Virtual Theatre and Games - The ancient tradition of storytelling en route to new boundaries

Lecture given at the Indiana University, Bloomington, USA at May 11, 2001


The Design for Virtual Theatre and Games Program is one of the Art & Technology Programmes the Utrecht School of the Arts offers. These programmes are an answer to new developments in our (Western) society, and combine the artistic approach of Art with the new way of communication provided by technology. These programmes are divided among three of the five Faculties of the Utrecht School of the Arts: The Arts, Media and Technology Faculty, which has an experience of 7 years with this type of programmes, the Fine Arts and Design Faculty, and the Theatre Faculty.

In September 1999 the first group of students, a number of 18 in total, started with the program, facing a dynamic curriculum, with a lot of uncertainties. The program was new, the staff was new, the entire field is new. The program does on one hand educate students for an existing field of work, but on the other hand also aims at a new type of work, a field the program hopes to trigger and help to develop.

To understand the starting points and vision of this unique programme, it is necessary to look at the history and development of storytelling, and the influence each new media had on society and its development.

Nobody knows how language really developed, but we do know that it is one of the primary differences man has from animals. Modern research on primates partly focusses on the ability to communicate through sets of symbols and gestures. But this type of communication does not cross the tresh hold of daily needs. It does not have the ability to discuss and learn through this discussion. And more important, it is not complex enough to tell each other about experiences from others, stories about life.

Probably the first stories told were based on personal experiences, people telling each other what had happened during their primitive day of work, men hunting, women harvesting. They were told from their own perspective, with no other character than the storyteller himself, a first-person experience. Or about what others in their society had lived through, sharing experiences and thoughts.

The second type of stories were the divine stories, fairy tails from our modern point of view, but mythical explanations of unexplainable situations of life for the primitive society. The Sjaman as the first scientist, artist and medical specialist. This is where the roots of storytelling are, the dramatic world as a way to understand the real world, to explain the unexplained, and to feel safe and comfortable while listening to stories of other worlds, other lives, other people. Stories were used to teach, and relax, to understand and wonder. And of course soon the shadows cast through the fire were used to underline the story told, also using masks, costumes and statues as important materials to aid in the experience.

This type of communication developed in all types of stories: stories for amusement, for education, for trade and travel, for scientists, priests and craftsmen. In ancient Greek times not only the contents of a story was important, the way to tell it had also developed as an Art in itself, the Rhetorica as the Art of speech, Drama as the art of the story brought to life. The few plays left from those days show the worlds of Gods or people that were put to the test by the Gods. Storytelling had developed to an important level in society, and it was important to remember and learn stories by heart as this was the only way to remember and preserve them.

An important change came into Western society with the invention and development of writing, which started around 1000 B.C. The response to this new type of media was the same as with all major changes in storytelling: mistrust to the new way and protectionism to the old way of storytelling. In this case, the written word would be a loss for the training of the mind, people would get "sloppy" in remembering the words, and Rhetorica would be lost forever. And another reaction, which can be found throughout the centuries, was the belief that the old was better than the new: writing could never offer the same type of experience and profoundness as speech could. Writing would never be as cultivated as speech, would always stay a lesser form of storytelling.

Plato (424-347 B.C.) describes in his dialogue Phaidros dialogues between Socrates and Phaedrus. In one of these dialogues the power of the spoken word is discussed. And besides this subject, Socrates also discusses the disadvantages of the new media, the written word. Socrates reassures the people of his time: the written word will not be able to lead more than a marginal life in society, as it had numerous disadvantages compared to the spoken word: it would make people more passive, as they would no longer have to train their memories. Also writing is a non-interactive media, as it is based on a one-way direction communication. If you ask questions, a writing cannot answer them for you. Writing can only repeat itself, and is unable to defend itself for misinterpretation and misuse.

Of course we all know what happened with the alphabet and writing. The written text has played an important role in the rise and spread of Christianity. Without the written Bible it would have been much more difficult if not impossible to have a Western Christian society nowadays. Written text also became the vehicle of power, leaving the illiterate without the possibility to communicate over larger distances. It lasted untill the 20th century before it was possible, through both the mechanical reproduction, which had developed in Western society starting from the 15th century, and the compulsory education in reading and writing, for a larger audience to understand and use the written text.

The first reactions to the written text as described by Plato are the same throughout history with the introduction of new media or with major changes in existing media. A pattern can be recognised looking at the introduction and development of new media, a pattern which has been desribed by Hans van Driel (KUB, Netherlands) as the ARIA-pattern. It consists of four different phases:
1. Amazement. In the beginning people are amazed by the new media, or even admire it. This happens with a small group of people. The larger group will find itself almost immediately in the second phase, resistance.
2. Resistance. Often new media are considered dangerous, a threat to the existing society, or just plain useless. Therefor resistance to this new media is big, people are reluctant to see and benefit from new possibillities.
3. Imitation. At first new media can only imitate the older, existing media. It copies what other media already do or have done. This can also be clearly seen in the Ancient Greek period: the first written texts were written speeches and stories, which were read out loud by the few that were capable of handling the new media of written text.
4. Acceptance. Only after a while, when the strength of the new media is big enough, the new media is slowly and gradually being accepted. In order to become strong enough, the new media should develop its own specifications which clearly distinguish it from the other media. It is clear to all of us that there is a big difference between spoken and written text, we use different types of language settings for them.

When we look at theatre it is interesting to see its development in relation to other media. It was less a new media than others, as it gradually evolved as a specialised way of speaking and telling, often connected to the religious belief of the existing culture. Theatre and drama were used to celebrate and educate the religious culture and habits, and were therefor anchored in society in a special way. Aristotle writes in his Poetica (335-323 B.C.) that tragedy developed out of improvisations by the leaders of the Dithyrambs, hymns sung and danced in honor of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and fertility.

It is interesting to see that theatre declined with the rise of a new religion, Christianity. From about 300 A.D. on, the churches tried to prevent people from going to theatre, leading in 398 A.D. for the Council of Carthage to decreed excommunication for all Christians that went to theatre instead of church on holy days. There were different reasons for the Christians to have theatre as an important target: first, it was associated with the celebration of pagan rituals and gods. Second, the moral sense of the church leaders was offended by the type of texts and actions that were often found in theatre at that time, as for instance with the Dionysos celebrations. And thirdly, Christian practices as baptism and the sacrement of bread and wine were often ridiculed by theatre at that time.

This meant for theatre in later times that it had to find its way into society again through acceptance by the (Church) leaders as a media which could be used to educate and communicate. Through religious plays in medieval times theatre could re-connect to existing laymen practices and celebrations. One could say that theatre has suffered in those days from an ARIA-development in another field, namely religion.

The ARIA-pattern can not only be found at the introduction of new media, but also with important changes in existing media: During the first half of the 17th century there was a strong difference between the more classical drama, which was focussed on the listener, and the romantical drama, which was focussed on te viewer. Although it did not question theatre itself, it was an important change in the way theatre was treated and approached.

More recent, we can find the same reactions with the introduction of film and later, television. From the first commercial presentation of the Lumière short films on December 28, 1895 on, the general reaction to this new media was dual. To begin with, there was the amazement with the moving images. Although it is hard to believe for us, being used to the projected image, the believe in the shown images was big enough to cause panic amongst the late 19th century audiences looking at a train entering a station.

On the other had there was the disinterest for this new media, or later the resistance to the new media as a type of communication equal to the existing forms. Even in 1933 Rudolf Arnheim feels it is necessary to defend film as a new media, 35 years after its first introduction. Interesting to see is that Arnheim at first defended the silent film as a new media, while later being reluctant to the new shape of this media when sound was introduced. Film nowadays is of course fully accepted as a media for both amusement and Art.

Of course film started the development of its own vocabulary and idiom by imitating from literature and theatre. Espescially theatre formed an important source for the early dramatic films, or moving pictures as they were called those days. Scenes were filmed with one camera, that did not change its position, and the style of acting did not differ from the way it was done in theatre. Later, with the editing experiments of Russian cinematographers as Kuleshov and Eisenstein, it became clear that the flow and order of the images shown was able to show and tell emotions, and that it did not have to be the actor to bear all emotions shown in the film. Their experiments clearly showed the strength of the vocabulary and idiom of film.

The introduction of television suffered form the same problems. In The Netherlands, Philips started with experimental broadcastings in 1948, and had to hand out hundreds of television sets for free in the surroundings to make a first real television broadcast possible. Nobody was interested, not the government, not the existing radio broadcast companies, not the public.

The first television broadcast in The Netherlands was Octobre, 2nd 1951, and consisted of four different programmes: two short films, a theatre play specially written for this occasion and called "The Magic Mirror", and the opening words by a governmental official. This official started the broadcast with pointing out to the dangers of technology as a threat to the existing culture.

Although radio had a strong influence on television in the early days, also recognisable by the term "radio pictures" which was often used in the beginning, theatre has been an important source for television programmes. Espescially plays and series were strongly based on theatre practices, instead of film experiences. Partly this was because film studios were in the beginning not willing to cooperate with their rival, but also partly because of the fact that the immediality of the new media resembled theatre more than it did film: in the beginning of television it was difficult and expensive to record programmes, therefor a lot of them were broadcast directly, so actors had to be able to perform over a longer lasting period of time.

Television did develop its own vocabulary and idiom, but at its start it used most of the techniques of film. Television combined the structure of film with the contents of theatre. It took television until the late seventies to fully develop its own style and structure, with series and serials, gameshows and newsreports. From that point on it was able to further develop itself, offering room for new developments as music television.

With the latest form of new media, the digital media, it is no different story. Again we can recognise a relatively small group of enthousiasts in the beginning, and a larger group of people being reluctant to the influence of this media, and warning for the decay of society and the loss of human intellectualism because we would all become to much dependend of computers and machines. In relation to the World Wide Web often people warn for the overload of information. It would be to much information with to little depth, and therefor one would be unable to gain knowledge and wisdom from this information. The imitation of existing media can be recognised with the Worl Wide Web by the written content and (lineair) structure it had in its beginning. Nowadays image, sound and non-lineairity have become more and more typical structures of the Web.

Computer- or videogames can be seen as the latest media in the field of storytelling. Although the Think-a-tron can be recognised as the first game in 1960, soon followed by Spacewar in 1962, the real start of video- or computergames can be found with the introduction of Pong in 1972. This game opened up the possibillities of this new media for the audience, and started the immense development, both technically and content wise for this new media.

And of course we can again recognise the ARIA-response to the computergames: a small group of people was mainly amazed by the possibillities of this type of computer use, and saw a large potential for it. But a larger group of people warned against the dangers of the media, similar to the responses television had received already: it would turn children into aggressive, empty headed and anti-social living beings. The computergames were the real-life modern version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In the past thirty years a lot of things have happened: computer games adopted a lot of techniques from the filmindustry, as television did in its early days. Content wise it has adapted a lot from literature, espescially the Science Fiction and Fantasy type of literature. Slowly we can begin to recognise traces of an unique vocabulary and idiom, but games are still mainly in their imitation phase. An important reason for this "hold" in development can be found in the fact that the industry has been focussed more on the technical development of graphics and the speed of gameplay, rather than the attention for content and its own uniqueness.

The development of the games industry shows large resemblances with the development of the Hollywood film industry. Comparing the two, one could state that the games industry nowadays is at a similar point as the Hollywood film industry was at the early twenties, just before the realisation of the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer. Sound directly related to the image was one of the most important developments in film, and had a large impact on the development and final outline of this media. After the introduction of sound not much has changed in film: color was added, the aspect ratio changed for some types of film, but they did not have such a large influence as sound did. 3D never made it in film, some early experiments in the fifties, followed by some revivals in the seventies and eighties, could not realise this change in the use of the film, it was bound to stay a two dimensional media.

Games are developing technically speaking rapidly in the direction of photo-realistic real-time rendering. Probably this level of development will be reached and available for a larger audience within five to ten years. This will offer the games audience the possibillity to move around freely in a virtual space which can hardly be distinguished from what we recognise as our real world. After this development has reached its final stage, not much can change in a technical sense. Of course there will still be improvements in outlooks, feedback and sound, but it will not have such a large impact as the rendering improvement will do.

Film had developed already a number of genres before sound was introduced, but it was only after sound had been introduced that they received their final outlines. Also the types of stories and the way they had to be told changed. Film is nowadays still mainly a media of the image, but with the necessity of the spoken word. Television can be seen as the "visualised spoken word", depending much more on what is said than what is shown, when compared to film. But the image needs the dialogues to tell the story, or the deliberate absence of dialogue can be seen as a statement about the film and its contents.

Games also have developed a number of genres, but they are not clearly defined yet. Some still exist, as the platform game, while they more or less are a technical specification rather than a differentiation for a genre. The technical developments are culminating towards a provisional end, finally offering room towards the aspects of contents and gameplay. The latter should not be seen as a separate element of a game, rather, the gameplay is the contents, is the unique way a game expresses its story.

But what is gameplay, what is this new way of storytelling? Is it the search for instant satisfaction delivered by the pushing of a few (or a lot of) buttons? Or is it something else, is it a form of communication, where game developers wish to enable gamers to experience certain emotions and learn new insights? Although it certainly has elements of the first in it, the most interesting developments can be expected from the second.

And in relation to the second, the new media which consists of games, or rather: digital presentations, should start to formulate its own vocabulary and idiom contents-wise. In a technical and formal sense we are able to distinguish some unique features with games, looking at the contents games are still in the middle of their imitation phase.

At the Utrecht School of the Arts we believe that games should turn to theatre as a starting point for the development of their own contents and structure. Theatre has worked with the knowledge of virtual spaces, of dramatic spaces for centuries now. A big similarity between theatre and games is that they both have to work with the unity of time and space during a scene or situation. Where film and television can stretch or compress time and space within a scene, this is impossible for games. The fact that the game-player is responsible for the flow of action, connects the flow of time and space of the game to the actual time and spatial setting of the player. Within a scene or situation it is impossible to change the time or space, only between scenes, situations or levels it is possible to make larger steps, or move forward or backward in time and space.

A second important feature which theatre and games have in common is the 3-dimensional space. No other media works with an actual 3-dimensional space, film and television show the 2-dimensional projection of a 3-dimensional space, and even use this distortion for special effects and tricks. Although a game is accessed through the window of a monitor, the fact that it is possible to move around in a space more or less "freely", makes it clearly 3-dimensional. Of course the meaning and experience of a shown and used space is different in theatre than games, as in the latter the player has to move around in this space, where in theatre the spectator stays an onlooker.

This opinion has resulted in the choice for the Design for Virtual Theatre and Games program to be located at the Theatre Faculty. In this faculty we have an acting program, a theatre design program, a (drama) writing program and a program on theatre and education. In this setting the new program can learn and use experience from the other theatre related programmes, and students can work and learn in an environment where the theatrical communication forms the central and connecting theme.

Also this opninion has resulted in the long name for this program: in our opinion there is not a big difference between games and what we call virtual theatre. The latter is still something new and very much in development. Known concepts which in our opinion could be seen as virtual theatre are interactive storytelling, but also a "game" as Tender Loving Care, which was called an interactive movie. Partly this is true as it works with movie scenes, but at the moments where the player has to act again, it is clear that the unity of time and space has to exist again. In The Netherlands we have had a television program which was called Tattletoons. Children could, through internet, decide during the week what the development would be in next Sunday's episode.

In our view games and virtual theatre are two extremities of one and the same structure. When a user has very limited moments in a virtual presentation for decision or influence on the story, we speak of virtual theatre, and where the user is obliged to perform a lot of action during the virtual presentation in order for the story to continue, we call it a game. This is a sliding structure, which we can already recognise in a lot of digital products: a lot of games work with cutscenes in between two levels, offering the story a chance to develop more quickly than what would have been possible if it would have been dependend on the action of the user solely. Choices that can be made in a virtual theatre situation are decisions in a key scene, or the choice for the point-of-view of one of the characters.

This means that in our opinion, what is called "gameplay" is nothing more (or less) than a new form of storytelling. Until now stories were told in a lineair way: there is an introduction to the subject and plot, followed by an exposé, the development towards a climax, and the solution of the problem and story. As the writer or storyteller holds all the choices and possibillities in his hand, he is the one responsible for the final outcome of the story. This can also be clearly seen in theatre, where the written text of the playwright is adapted by the director and the artistical team into a new story told. But in the end, it is again a story which is told from the beginning to the end, without the possibillity of changes or choices for the viewer.

Games change all this. The story still needs its introduction, and might also know a path of development (key-moments) towards a climax and solution, but there is not just one story which can be "read" or "heared". The storyteller can only setup a frame of a story, without the ultimate control over the flow of the story, as this control is given to the player. Throughout history there are not much examples of a similar situation known. There are a few, as the traditional storyteller that asks his audience for the next thing to happen. Or with "theatre sports" where an audience can decide which characters in what situation have to be shown by the actors in the next five minutes or so.

A story can not longer be told. A story has to be developed, has to be there in its layout or design, but has to be picked up by the user and brought further to its development and ending. As a theatre performance can only exist because of the presence of an audience, a game can only exist through the efforts of the gamer. In a way a gamer tells his own story to himself, within the boundaries and possibilities as they have been set by the game developers. But it is and stays the players' story, never seen or experienced by anybody else, but you …



Ronald Kox
May 2001