Eddie Kim has found a way to combine World of Warcraft and Shakespeare with his theater group, EK Theater. He’s a teacher with a background in traditional theater, and for the last 10 years, he’s been putting on performances featuring what he calls “video game puppetry” — live shows where classical theater pieces are enacted in a game world.
In 2007, Kim received an invite to put together a performance for the Tiny Theater Festival, an annual event at the 70-seater Brick Theater in New York. The piece had to be 10 minutes long and take place on a stage that was essentially a 6-foot cube.
“Trying to think of how to overcome that spatial limitation is how I first came up with the concept of what I now call video game puppetry,” said Kim on a phone call with GamesBeat. “Using video games to tell stories live. I realized that, in using a video game, I could present an entire world, even in a limited physical space. I took two of my students and we put together a retelling of a short Yeats play. We did it in World of Warcraft and we projected it on a screen.”
Kim’s always been a gamer (he describes himself as a Street Fighter II aficionado), and most of his students are gamers as well. His main goal, however, is to keep the classics alive by approaching it in a fresh way with technology.
“Every year, my mission has been to retell classic stories,” said Kim. “We’ve done Shakespeare. We’ve done Livy. We’ve done Japanese ghost stories. We did Edgar Allan Poe two years ago. May in Houston was Ovid.”
What’s happening backstage
Each performance is a technical feat, not just because of the challenge of translating those texts to video games. The process starts with the text. They figure out which scenes are crucial, and then begin looking at which games will help them convey the story.
“We just did the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Ovid,” said Kim. “OK, she gets bit on the ankle by a snake. What games can we do that in? A lot of times there’s not a game where you can control a snake and make it go bite someone on the ankle. Sometimes we have to be very creative.”
EK Theater has used games like LittleBigPlanet 3, Halo: Reach, and World of Warcraft for its performances. In 2011, it experimented with a Pokémon emulator, modding it so that the characters could say certain lines from the play. However, Kim decided he liked the constraints of using solely original, un-modded games. He views the video game characters as marionettes or puppets, tools that can be used to perform a wide array of actions by getting creative within restraints.
“You don’t have infinite control over a puppet,” said Kim. “Maybe its mouth can open. Maybe at one point its arm can fall off, because that happens in a story, just as an example. But it’s designed with a limited amount of movement, yet it has to express a character’s infinite emotions. I like to think of us using video games as they’re designed, so there are limitations.”
In addition to the challenge of finding the right games to use, Kim encounters technical challenges that most theater productions wouldn’t have to consider. Everything occurs in real-time: The performers act out the play within the game, read the lines into microphones, and trigger sound effects or cutscenes. Timing is crucial, especially when it comes to switching what viewpoint is currently projected for the audience.
“Sometimes there are issues like—if we only have two [PlayStation 4] consoles, like we have right now, we can’t switch to three separate PS4 sources in a row,” said Kim. “You have to have things queued and paused. I can switch from LittleBigPlanet 3 to The Last of Us, but then I’ll have to go to a laptop or Xbox so the other PS4 can switch to a queue monitor and be ready so that when we switch to that video source, it’s still happening in real time.”
Cost is also a big factor. Kim has had to stop using World of Warcraft, for instance, because the subscription is simply too expensive. Each 10-minute piece takes 30 hours to design and choreograph, then four to five weeks of rehearsal for what could be a team of five players. For Edgar Allen Poe, EK Theater did a collection of four stories, which took 120 hours to create. The fees add up — as does the cost of buying new hardware, traveling to conferences, and other equipment such as a video mixer, which Kim is currently raising funds to buy so he can look into livestreaming their performances.
School of video game puppetry
Though Kim is the first person to come up with this kind of theater performance, he says that he isn’t keeping his techniques a secret. He visits inner-city schools and holds workshops to teach kids how to put on performances of their own. All the proceeds from EK Theater’s professional productions in recent years have gone toward these visits.
“When we perform in professional theaters, sometimes people react like, ‘We don’t understand what we just saw,’ or ‘This just seems technically virtuosic,’” said Kim. “But when we go to schools, kids are like, ‘Hey, I think I can do that.’ That’s been something I’ve put a lot of effort toward.”
Kim works mainly with students, from middle school to college. He’s a theater teacher at a private school, and he’ll teach classes on video game puppetry. Often, these students go on to perform on stage with him, though it’s been challenging finding the right skill sets for performers.
For instance, Kim says, he often needs people who are good at playing first-person shooters. However, folks who are proficient at those games often pick up some “bad habits.” Someone who’s good at FPSes might move very quickly, but because they’re acting as the camera in the theater piece, they have to be re-trained to move slowly so that the audience can follow along.
“All of a sudden we have someone who’s good at games — because we need someone to pose a difficult shot to tell one part of the story — and now we’re asking you to move very…very…slow,” said Kim. “’Hey, can you spend however many hours with us playing a game, but not really playing the game? Oh, you like Call of Duty? We need you, but you need to move really slow on this set path.’”
Despite all the challenges, Kim says that it’s an accessible way to explore the classics and a new way of looking at video games.
“We’re all gamers,” said Kim. “We’re using the games to do different things. It’s a lot of fun. We get invited to lots of cool places and we get to meet lots of cool people doing this.”