Recently I went to a piece of musical theatre. While I watched a crowd of gorgeous, barely-dressed dancers whisper “Jazz!” repeatedly while contorting in unison, I briefly thought, “What in God’s name am I supposed to be feeling at this exact moment?” And I was, for a second, transported back in time to my grandfather playing Mario Kart years earlier, the only video game he would ever play, while he laughed bemusedly and asked “Wait, which one am I?”
Sitting through a sincere, bona fide stage musical if you aren’t normally a big fan of this type of thing is an experience that must be akin to what a person who’s never played video games before feels as they watch someone play Gears of War. It’s bewildering, alien, impressive and ludicrous in equal measures. There are big portions of time where you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be looking at, but it’s all pretty amazing. The emotions on display feel odd and overblown, the plot isn’t always as profound or well-crafted as in a movie, novel or straight play, but then again you can’t really look away. It’s both compelling and bizarre to the newcomer, and is as likely to draw them into its world as it is to put them off from the medium entirely.
Both video games and musicals straddle the border between niché audience and mainstream appeal. There are certain tropes that both forms rely on heavily, and that contribute to the stereotypes that define them in the public consciousness. Video games were long thought of as the province of pock-marked loner males who like pretending to kill things and musicals the domain of women or gay guys who love the sentimentality and the overblown spectacle. Despite the simple inaccuracy of such branding, to some extent common knowledge remains that this is true.
I was thinking as I walked home from the theatre, what would happen if these two very distinct art forms were combined? What weirder thing could there be than a video game musical? And what more potentially interesting crossover of markets?
One reason I think video games sometimes seem stagnant is that developers feel they are making games for a set demographic. If you don’t have new people becoming consumers, then you have a pretty good grasp on a risk-free proposition if you’re making a new game. It’s titled Call of Battle 6: Gunshooter and you can guess what gameplay is like. But what if the very different demographic that regularly goes to musicals was exposed to video game stories, and began to take interest in video games? It’s not that war games would disappear, but there would be an influx of feedback representing a whole new set of interests that might open video games up in an exciting way.
Imagine, for instance, the opening night of Final Fantasy IV: The Musical on Broadway (which, incidentally, is not an entirely original idea). The crowd is a mix of Broadway regulars, an older sort in evening wear, browsing through their programs for some hint of what’s to come, and younger people chatting about whether Mandy Patinkin was a good choice to play the important role of Tellah. Once the curtain goes up, revealing a spectacularly-crafted gigantic airship – a real whopper of a set-piece – and the score (worked on by Nobuo Uematsu and several professional musical theatre lyricists) bursts to life with a brass-filled rendition of “Red Wings, Black Hearts,” the diverse audience is united in their fascination.
It would kind of work, I think. Musicals require grand presentation, extreme and often ridiculous camp, beautiful people doing improbable things and emotions that are too large to fit on even a whole array of human faces, and so they must be bellowed at the audience instead. All of these elements are present in Final Fantasy games, especially Final Fantasy IV. From the terrible razing of The Village of Mist to the climax on the lunar surface, everything that happens is dramatic, gigantic and unreasonable. To fit the time constraints of a night at the theatre, obviously some material will need to be cut (goodbye, Palom and Porom!), but overall the betrayals and twists of fate are perfectly suited to a Les Mis-style dramatic romp.
Don’t get me wrong — backing a video game stage adaptation is just about the dumbest thing you could do with a pile of money, and I’m under no illusion about that. If Hollywood can’t get a Halo movie made because they’re not sure the audience exists for it, producing a Halo musical is outright lunacy. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but subscriber bases for most theatres consist disproportionately of older patrons, and video games generally target the opposite age demographic. From a marketing standpoint, it’d be like trying to sell Hannah Montana-themed golf equipment.
However that’s exactly why I’d pay Broadway prices to see this bizarre intersection. I’ve always been interested in the latent tendencies of video games brought out in musicals, and alternatively the themes of musical theatre would make video games open to an entirely different area of human experience. There are moments in Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar that flirt with being supremely badass — a man absorbed with revenge staring at his weapons, an obsessed policeman praying to find an escaped convict, Judas making a very convincing plea to stop Jesus from igniting a revolution. All of these moments tap into that aura that video games cultivate at all times — that aura of intensity, epicness, personal drive — but only briefly.
Likewise, video games sometimes get a little melodramatic, and it’s absolutely fascinating to wonder what would happen if they were forced to succumb to this temptation entirely. Imagine if every major cutscene in Metal Gear Solid was a full-blown song. It would be hilarious at first (especially hearing Solid Snake slip out of his habitual growl into any kind of singing voice), but once that initial hilarity had worn off, it’d feel kind of… natural. Solid and Liquid on top of the burned-out Metal Gear husk, singing an angry duet about brotherhood and heritage — seems kind of appropriate, doesn’t it? The emotions and plotlines of MGS are already that huge, why not put them to sweeping music.
Video games are not often successful movies for a number of reasons — chief among them, that the people involved often seem to lack even the faintest idea of what made the source material cool. However, I think there’s another reason this type of adaptation often fails — I think the forms are too similar. String together a bunch of cutscenes, and you’ve got a movie. There’s undue emphasis placed of effects / graphics in both. Really, any modern game with a linear plot could be turned into a film; some very good screenwriting would be needed in most cases to replace the element of player involvement with a more passive empathetic involvement concerning the characters involved, but it’s not too much of a reach. And that’s why I think the movie adaptations of games we see are hugely bastardized: they have to justify their existence, and in doing so they change more than they need to.
A video game musical would have no such problem. The idea is so outlandish, and the forms are so different, that even the most linear musical adaptation of a video game would be wild and idiotic and completely new. That’s the appeal for me. And I think even the old-guard theatergoers who bought tickets without knowing what the hell Final Fantasy is would be just as bewildered and possibly delighted as the people cosplaying as Cecil / Rosa a few rows behind them.
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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