Tuesday, August 02, 2011

THEATER: Brain Explode!

Photos/Kimberly Craven
"Ray Pinter has a problem," reads the mocked-up Infocom-esque box art to the live interactive-fiction hybrid Brain Explode! "In sixty minutes, his brain is going to explode." His problem is our present, for the show -- written by Stephen Aubrey, Danny Bowes, and Richard Lovejoy -- is a lovingly (and painstakingly) crafted homage to both games and theater, a genuinely immersive experience that's leagues ahead of Sneaky Snake's previous foray into this field. (In geek theater parlance, Brain Explode! is to Adventure Quest as the Wii is to the Nintendo Entertainment System. The original one.)

The "gimmick" -- though one hesitates to call it that, justified and critical as it is to the story -- is that after a Tron-like accident at a life-changing game-design conference, Ray (Stephen Heskett), finds himself trapped within his own game, and it's up to the audience to guide him to the exit . . . before the chip implanted in his head causes his brain to explode. But this isn't simple problem-solving: Ray's goal was to design a truly interactive work of fiction, in which you could ask the computer to do anything, without ever being limited by the phrase "I don't know what you mean" or "I can't do that."

The result, then, allows six volunteers to fool around with Ray's life as much as they'd like. For example, the evening I attended the show, the audience had spent nearly thirty minutes encouraging Ray to perform with greater than usual charisma, providing him with basic psychoanalysis, and referring to him as "Storm King," before finally figuring out how to open the locked door. Did they then instruct him to walk through said door? No, they did not. Instead, they threw object after object through the open door, much to Ray's increasingly snarky (and incredibly well ad-libbed) disapproval. (Most impressive is the way Heskett spent much of this scene with a blanket wrapped around his fist and a purse clutched in one arm -- because the audience had never countermanded their instructions for him to do so in the first place.) Such was the genius of the show, for while it had a clear structure -- and a literal countdown clock -- it refused to be bound simply to the scripted scenarios: it might point, push, and eventually prod the players in the right direction, but it wouldn't force anything to occur. Whatever happened, happened: Will Wright would be proud; there are even alternate endings (four in all) depending on the audience's progress (and morality).

The show skews toward comedy (as most semi-improvisational shows do), and in a nod to the necessities of plot, each of the three interactive scenes (represented as "puzzle rooms" from which our hero is attempting to escape) provides the audience with less and less freedom. (Ray begins in an open room, spends some time on a closed boat, and is then chained to a table.) And yet, the creativity of these three writers, and the confidence of their director, Paige Blansfield, is such that you'd never notice it in the moment: the two hours of Brain Explode! (there are some untimed scenes) fly by faster than a marathon session of, say, Plants vs. Zombies. The difference here, of course, is that Brain Explode! does more than distract you as it introduces new elements of "gameplay" (theaterplay?): it aims to teach us, through Ray, about ourselves: Jesse Wilson shows up as all the male figures in Ray's life (distant father, deceased brother, former best friend) and Megan Melnyk plays Ray's hyperactive mother and steadfast yet steely girlfriend. (To say nothing of the puppets and robots designed by Jim Hammer and Marc Borders.) Winning involves more than solving puzzles; it requires empathy.

Special above-and-beyond credit also goes to Sneaky Snake for their dramaturgic commitment: the program's worth saving, from the retro design to the five-page "excerpt" from an 1987 Computing World article about Pinter, a gem that discusses both the failed interactive fiction adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses and provides an example of Pinter's successful first game, Perilton, which was known for its elaborate death sequences: "You are stabbed by the bear and the samurai. Repeatedly. They seem to be intentionally avoiding vital organs...," begins one, before relating the long chain of events in which your near-dead body is possessed by a ghost which flings you onto sharp rocks in the ocean from which a shark devours you before being caught up in a hurricane and being subsequently used as target practice by a fireball-casting wizard. If that fails to convince you of the incredible love put into Brain Explode!, then you might as well shut down your heart right now; as for me, I'll be standing in a room with exits to the north, south, and southwest, waiting patiently, desperately, for this show to be remounted.

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