For many years, the general public has had a misconception about the nature of Shakespeare, regarding his collective works as the pass-time of the upper-class and intellectual elite on par with opera. With funny accents and fancier words that are seemingly incomprehensible to a more modern audience accustomed to the casual pulp noir tone of radio plays and the action-packed police procedural that followed later with the advent television, the performance arts gradually fell out of favor.
The truth is, as many know, that Shakespeare’s plays were actually an extremely mundane form of entertainment in their time, on par with our perception of media in the vein of going to the movies or seeing a musical. His productions often tackled humorous or tragic concepts that everyone could relate to- love, daily life, sex, rivalries, and conflict, presenting them in a way that was engaging for the general populace and at times absurd. After all, community theater is just one step in a long lineage of narrative tradition, itself having supplanted wise elders at the campfire ingratiating their families with some nighttime storytelling.
So… what’s this got to do with Half-Life?
The biggest distinction between performance arts and roleplaying is that the prior takes place on a stage with an audience, whereas the latter is for the entertainment of the actors themselves or at best idle voyeurs, themselves enthusiasts of the act. Over time, the venues in which roleplaying has taken place have drastically changed, from within the confines of a tabletop game, to text based forms in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, a primitive form of MMORPG), MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations, an MMO designed specifically for roleplaying generally free of mechanical intervention) and just about any form of online chat room.
Over time this hobby of acting out narratives in real-time intimate settings made the jump into the 3D digital world, taking home in classical MMORPGs and the Metaverse, further eroding distinctions between roleplaying and theatre. Stranger still was the unusual application of this pass-time within First Person Shooters as well as the RTS genre where many early server-based multiplayer titles offered plenty of downtime in-between skirmishes to be filled with the vibrant interpretation of in-universe lore from the imaginations of bored youths everywhere.
It’s hard to trace the precise origins of this phenomenon in the supplemental multiplayer game space, but it’s easy to find first-hand accounts of it in games games like Warcraft, Jedi Knight/Outcast, Half-Life and many others. The veritable Cambrian explosion of modding communities online also continued to offer these player-actors as many means of self-expression as MMORPGs and the Metaverse did. With violent props, fantastical environments, and stockpiles of worldbuilding at their disposal, there was no limit to the kinds of stories waiting to unfold in the wee hours of the morning during school holidays in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Garry’s mod would drastically change the scene, enabling any person who could afford the hosting fees and had the scripting know-how to assemble dynamic rulesets enforced by new gameplay mechanics to foster the act of immersive storytelling. Many of our readers likely have fond memories of late-night absurdly hysterical antics found in user-made roleplaying addons for Valve’s games, with these memorable emergent performances now finding a new home in comedic Youtube compilations.
On top of this, recorded performances done for the sake of machinima have taken off in popularity, a notable example being the giggle-inducing longplay of Half-Life, Freeman’s Mind by Ross Scott. With the arrival of charismatic twitch streamers who sometimes themselves don in-character personas, the inevitable convergence of these concepts has now come full circle, culminating in Wayneradiotv‘s exceptionally hilarious Half-Life VR but the AI is Self-Aware. Wayne takes on the mantle of the lovable silent anti-hero, Gordon Freeman, now apparently widely interpreted as a neurotic panicked narcissist thanks to Ross Scott, joined by a mysterious cast of ‘Self-Aware’ NPCs acted out with uncannily accurate impressions of the original voice talent.
Wayne‘s Freeman tromps through the halls of Black Mesa with his cavalcade of fools, turning the entire self-serious narrative of Half-Life on its head. Once regarded as an apex horror experience with few peers, Valve’s shooter masterpiece has now become a vehicle for the wackiest memes and sublime comedic timing, taking the place of entertaining sitcoms in the hearts of many.
As more people find themselves working from home and turning to digital media for their leisure time, it’s a predictable outcome that the performance arts would yet again find a way to adapt to the times like so many forms before. Like our forebears before us, as they stepped away from the auditorium in favor of the in-home entertainment experiences offered by television and DVDs, we are now ushering in a new age of actors and playwrights largely unaware of their trade’s institutional baggage, free to break the rules they were never familiar with for better or worse.
Where once we stood in awe of charismatic personalities on the stage, we now quietly become transfixed by our screens, cackling at unscripted jokes and reoccurring improv gags. It’s a golden age for those who grew up adoring such television shows as Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” as this trend continues to take off and usurp it’s predecessors.
So take a seat, send in the clowns, and laugh your troubles away, I hear it’s the best medicine.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice