Over the past week, teenage survivors of a mass shooting, perpetrated by a former classmate, were attacked online by self-proclaimed patriots; Russian twitter-bots were purged by the thousands; and social media pile-ons continued to rule the public discourse — all scenarios foreshadowed by the roiling 2014 controversy that was Gamergate.
Ostensibly a movement decrying “access journalism” between video-game developers and video-game reporters, Gamergate first focused on one female developer, Zoë Quinn, whose relationship with a journalist fueled suspicion that she’d gained favorable coverage for her games during the course of said relationship (a claim which later proved to be untrue). But it quickly spiraled outward, far beyond the gaming community, becoming an object lesson in both the act of online trolling and in the combating of same.
That’s an awful lot of baggage for one play to unpack, particularly a play written before the election of our Troller-in-Chief, so if Walt McGough’s San Francisco Playhouse premiere Non-Player Character doesn’t quite empty the suitcase, it doesn’t feel like a deliberate omission. At its core, Non-Player Character is just one of many possible stories that might illuminate the unintended consequences of revenge gone viral.
Upon entering the theater, the audience encounters a simple yet effective stage designed by Jacquelyn Scott, reminiscent of an old Atari game console: a glowing perspective grid delineates the floorspace, stretching into a flat where a single portal gapes; ambient 8-bit music blooping softly in the background.
From the first moment of the play, under the direction of Lauren English, we’re immersed in the world of Katja (Emily Radosevich), an aspiring video-game developer. She draws with a stylus into thin air, and on the “computer” screen behind her (projections and sound both superbly designed by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), a digital tree grows — the first of many iterations she’ll work on during the course of the play.
She breaks her design session to spend virtual time with an old high school buddy, Trent (Devin O’Brien). They haven’t really hung out in person in years, but they make regular dates to play role-playing computer games online. The playfulness of their relationship is further enhanced by their Ren Faire-worthy “quest” attire (courtesy of Leandra Watson) and their mock battle moves, as they sashay across the stage taking out virtual enemies by the dozens.
You don’t have to be a video-game aficionado to pick up on the basics: they’re good at this game, and equally good at the game of banter. They thrust and parry with their words, letting drop bits about their personal lives — hers in Seattle, his “stuck” in Lancaster, PA — then nimbly deflecting the other’s attempts to dig deeper. It’s an awkwardly familiar dance for anyone who’s ever outgrown a childhood friend, and both Radosevich and O’Brien play it with nuanced believability.
Much less nuanced are the other characters populating this mostly virtual world, in particular a blustering barbarian named Feldrick (Tyler McKenna), who is by turns sexist, violent, and willfully obtuse, and seemingly without any redeeming characteristics. In game-speak, a non-player character is a character written into the game and not controlled by any player, but rather by the programming; in theatrical parlance, it's a character written solely to advance the storyline.
In McGough’s play, the non-player character is definitely Feldrick, whose misogynistic jargon and childish impatience fuels Trent’s sudden transformation from an introvert with an unrequited crush to a remorseless cyberbully who sets out to humiliate Katja, and sabotage her reputation with her new game-industry connections, accusing her via video feed, in possibly the most unintentionally hilarious line of the play, of being a “serial careerist.”
This sets a Gamergate-style situation into motion, in which Katja is stalked, doxxed, and threatened by a relentless mob of anonymous harassers. This wasn't Trent's intention, as he struggles to explain in subsequent videos. He only wanted things to be “fair,” but it’s too late to take it all back.
Even more frustrating for Katja is that from the moment Trent turns on her, she’s never given a chance to confront him, or even her now-complicated memories of him, and when she’s at last given an outraged speech of her own, she delivers it to the one character whose actions are merely pathetic rather than outright contemptible, sapping it of much of its impact. To those who followed the 4chan-fueled death threats made to feminist commentators like Anita Sarkeesian during Gamergate's zenith, this will all seem too familiar.
Fortunately the play ends on a more transformative note, but it’s not transformative enough to entirely make up for the script’s reliance on a support system of two-dimensional characters without backstories, who undermine the creatively multi-layered world-building that dominates the first half of the piece.
As a part of SF Playhouse’s Sandbox series, a program designed to give new works an extra development push, Non-Player Character displays a lot of potential. But the best plays, like the best video games, can take a number of iterations to get just right, and McGough’s feels like it could use a bit more beta-testing before it breaks out.
'Non-Player Character' runs through Saturday, March 3, at the Creativity Theater in San Francisco. Details here.