Everscape is a play that dives into the world of an online fantasy game, where four gamers regularly play to escape their own bleak realities. Written by Allan Maule, the play is an action-packed dramedy that delves into the addiction of online gaming as a part of the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival (Fringe Fest for short), with five performances between August 18-29.
The story takes a turn for these characters when they are offered chances to win jobs as game developers, simply by continuing to play the game and beating the other would-be developers to the final goal. The play starts to blend the lines of reality and game for each character, as epic fights ensue in the midst of real world pressure and duties until winning becomes the only option.
Indie Game Magazine: So what’s your first love? Video games or plays?
Allan Maule: If I had my way, I would still be writing both of them. I worked in the gaming industry right after I got out of school getting a degree in playwriting. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of people that get out of college, want to be creative writers and have no idea how to make a living out of it. So I got insanely lucky with a writing internship with Icarus Studios back when they were developing Fallen Earth, this MMORPG they launched back in 2009, so this would have been 2006. This was back when Warcraft was exploding, and everyone was trying to make an MMO. So I got into it then, and they needed people that could write dialogue, that could work with characters, and could create really interesting interactive worlds for players to mess around with.
IGM: Was that what you were aiming for when you first got out of college?
Maule: I was open-minded, but I also knew enough about the theater business to know that it’s a tough world to get into. So of course, I thought video games would be a lot easier. I was really grateful that I got the opportunity to do that, since I had been playing games since I was kid. I mean I had an NES when I was like 6, and on from that I had SNES and played games all through high school and college.
IGM: What inspired you to write a play about online video games?
Maule: Well I worked with MMOs, and it’s a game genre that really wants to get players hooked on it. And it’s part of the reason why personally I didn’t get into them as much; I really prefer a concrete story that starts someplace and ends somewhere else. But part of what inspired me to write Everscape is this sense that, I didn’t want to write a play about why gaming addiction was bad. Because there’s no need to tell a story about that, the results are kind of self-evident. We see our friends dissolve into puddles of acne and Cheetos, they don’t really see the sun anymore, and that I just found a little depressing.
But what I wanted to figure out was, how do normal, more or less functional, happy people end up getting lost in game worlds? Because with everything from Starcraft, to Warcraft, to all kinds of other games out there, everyone has a story of a roommate, or a neighbor, or friend who flunked out of their classes or started missing work because they were using the game as a substitute for real life. And playing around with that concept with my education in playwriting and theatre, it felt natural to try and combine the game writing I loved doing with play writing.
IGM: Is there something you hope your audience will take away from Everscape?
Maule: It’s two-fold. I hope that we really get gamers and people interested in games to come to the theater and see that this is an actual art form that’s worth enjoying, even if they’re used to digital stuff. The other side of it is, I want people that normally have fear, apprehension, or weirdness about video games to recognize themselves in these characters. One of the things that I have going on, that keeps showing up in the play, is that games are still kind of considered something that not everybody does, but the same people that make fun of others for playing games on their Xbox for hours will also be addicted to their smart phones and will never be able to stop playing whatever mobile game they have.
Candy Crush gets a shout out in my play. I mean, I love that my parents aren’t interested in video games at all, at least they’ve never said they are, but they can’t stop playing Candy Crush when they’re just watching TV or waiting for something to happen. And even those who don’t play on their phones are simply addicted to that technology. They’re using it as a way to constantly punch out from the world around them. I guess what the play really asks is, is that really that much different from getting lost in a video game?
IGM: Is this something that you were drawing from yourself? Or do you know someone with a similar experience that kind of calls to this?
Maule: I don’t know if I knew anyone who honest-to-god had an addiction problem and needed counseling to deal with it. I more drew from my own struggles of not always enjoying my job, especially when I left game writing. I’m in a marketing copywriting position, and I love my job but I miss the fun of being in the gaming industry. I transitioned out of it because my company laid off a ton of their people back in 2010, so we went from about 110 to 28 suddenly.
The characters in the play actually go through something similar, and one of them ends up losing his job. And I think I struggled with that sense of “what’s my purpose now?”, and I spent a lot of time interviewing, trying to figure out the next step, playing Red Dead Redemption or whatever else I was playing, because it was an easy way to just escape for a minute. And I never had to seek professional help for it, but there were some times when I found myself saying, “I really wish I was writing creatively.” And it ended up turning into another night with me in front of the TV and losing myself to whatever game I had.
IGM: What’s been the most fun part of creating Everscape?
Maule: I think it’s taking the draft that I’d worked on over and over again and handing it off to a bunch of actors that I really respect and trust. They also understand the world of the script, they have a great sense of humor, and watching them play with it has been really wonderful. I’m super pumped at seeing how a lot of these fight scenes come to life. We played around and did some stage readings when I was working on the play here where I live in North Carolina, but my director, Ashley, basically cast a bunch of actors who were also dancers and really agile people who were used to doing fight choreography. So these battles that I’d written on the page to be intentionally a bit over the top, I start watching the videos of the rehearsals and think; man, this is better than what I’d envisioned when I wrote it. It’s the difference between a normal person who plays games and then they swing the sword like so, and watching someone who’s taken years of dance classes flip in the air with a dagger. It makes me excited to see it even when I’m the one who wrote the story.
IGM: So once you’ve finished writing and given the script to someone, it’s basically been a hands-off process?
Maule: Yeah, well honestly when it comes to playwriting it’s how I prefer to work. I’ve dabbled in directing my own process, but here I spent time doing the script and enough time reading it with actors that when I handed it to Ashley, I felt really confident the script was in the place I wanted it to be. Ashley was great about asking me questions and getting to see what my vision was for the whole thing. We’ve been incommunicado throughout the actual process, but it’s been cool to see what they’ve come up with on their own. The fun of theater is that it’s really collaborative. You get really smart, funny, interesting people in there and just like making a good video game, it all comes together with everyone’s expertise.
IGM: What’s been the biggest challenge that you had to contend with while writing for Everscape?
Maule: I think with writing for games you have many different options for how you can set the mood. You get lighting, sound effects, voice over from great actors, and you can design an interactive world to let the player do what they want to. Trying to translate that type of story to the stage, you still get the actors and the lighting, but you can’t make the audience just look at one thing. They can stare at whatever they want. It’s more about the question, how do you tell the story about an interactive medium using theater? Something that in this case doesn’t involve the audience to be part of the story. What I’m hoping to do is make emotional realities that the players are going through feel similar enough for people who play and don’t play video games. They can find that emotional connection with the characters, even though they are watching the world itself rather than participating.
Finding a way to honestly tell a story about video games using a theatrical style has been pretty challenging, because there have been plays about video games, but they are very rarely written by people who play or make them. And I can think of a couple examples of people I know, but I’m not in the majority here at all. I’m rather interested in both the world of games and plays. There was one based around people in this suburban neighborhood getting trapped in a left-for-dead zombie survival game, having parallels that went into the real world. One of my buddies, who is a serious gamer and actor, didn’t get the sense that this playwright really spent any time playing video games. The terms didn’t quite sound right and everything, and that’s what I’m hoping we’ll dodge with Everscape, because I’ve spent time on both ends of the screen making and playing games.
IGM: Video game-centric story-telling has cropped up in entertainment before; such as Ready Player One, or The Guild. Have these been an inspiration for Everscape?
Maule: Well I knew of The Guild while I wrote the script, and I deliberately stayed away from watching too much of the show, even though I’m a fan of Felicia Day. I like her work, but I didn’t want to run the risk of accidentally stealing ideas. And you find common ground even though The Guild is more of a straight up comedy, whereas Everscape is a dark comedy. In Everscape, one of the main characters is so focused on playing the game that he even plays it at work, and he’s got his telemarketing headset on while he’s killing players in PVP.
I didn’t discover Ready Player One until I’d already written several drafts of the play. Someone I know also asked me if I’d read Ready Player One, because one of the accidental commonalities is that both of them have a contest within the world of the game. In Everscape, the four players are in the guild together, but the turn of the plot is when the company making the game releases a level that no one has ever beaten before. If they beat it, the winning players would get jobs as developers in the game company. So all these people used to using the game as a diversion get excited at the idea of going to a better place with the game by making it their living rather than something they play in their free time.