Games and Theater


I’ve been slowly plodding through the available parts of Kentucky Route Zero and its interludes (while beginning to think that it’s one of the best games ever made but I digress), and it’s sent me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out the relationship between games and theater.

Unfortunately, I’m not knowledgeable in live performance at all, so it’s been kind of hard for me to research or consider a lot of the parallels, but KRZ is so obviously inspired by theatricality that I want to really learn more.

So, I guess I’m wondering: Are there any writings/videos about this relationship? Are there other examples that I’m missing because I’m only well-versed in one of these two things?


Not specifically about theatre, but the series of articles that starts with this one:

are worth a look if you’re into KRZ

edit: also the work of Punchdrunk (in particular Sleep No More) is an influence for Fullbright (Gone Home, Tacoma) so that’s a direction to look into maybe


Thanks for the articles!

I definitely noticed a similarity of site-specific theater and Fullbright/Valve-styled first-person games. Tacoma is a pretty strong extension of that style, especially since the main mechanic allows you to explore the scene in a way that is uniquely video game.

I think I kind of noticed it when I was playing Wolfenstein II, weirdly enough. The way some scenes are blocked in the U-Boat made me first think about this topic (Sleep No More is like one of three contemporary, not-high-school-lesson plays that I’m familiar with).


I’ve long thought that videogame thought is overly reliant on film as a comparison medium. My personal academic background is in film theory and film studies and the deeper I got into that, the less of videogames I recognize in the medium. So I’ve gone down the academic theatre and videogame rabbit hole a couple of times and come away with couple of takeaways. I’m no theatre academic so I don’t claim that I perfectly understood some of the texts I read, but I get the sense that there is something there. It’s certainly an idea that has had some thought and work put into it.

The main parallel that stuck with me is theatre and videogames both share an aspect of collaborative authorship. A playwright can write a play, but different theatre companies can portray it differently. It could be as small as two actors enunciating the same line of dialogue in different ways or as dramatic as changing a Shakespere play to be set in modern day complete with a gender-swapped cast. The exact words of a script could be identical in two performances while the resulting works can have dramatically different meanings.

Games can be looked at in a similar light. Take a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example. One player can play stealthy, while another can play brazenly. Even a game not explicitly designed for this still applies. A Call of Duty campaign can be played carefully or gung-ho. That malleability on the part of the player is still there. Like a stage performance there is a negotiation and settlement happening between the text of the playwright/game dev and the output created performer/player.

But I’m not an expert, maybe one will turn up here and tell me I’m way off base. Regardless here is Dr. Katherine Lynne Whitlock’s 200 page PHD thesis on the subject. I have no idea if this is an important text in the field or not. But it got her a PHD, so I doubt it’s worthless. It’s something I found while digging around a couple years ago on this subject. I found it interesting yet far more approachable than some of the other writings I found on the matter at the time. Maybe it’ll be of some interest to you.


That’s a great point. It should’ve hit me way sooner that the anxious feeling I get when thinking about how players engage with mechanics is almost definitely similar to how playwrights consider actors and directors. And that’s not even considering that there are a lot of plays with prompts and holes that encourage the cast and crew to bring themselves into the work. Truly the immersive sims of the stage. :thinking:

Thanks a whole bunch for that thesis. I will definitely look more into what Dr. Whitlock has to say on the matter, if only it means that I get some frame of reference from someone who’s prepared to make the comparison.


Pathologic, that mid-aughts Russian survival art game about three healers coming to a small town in the great grass steppe to try and mostly fail to stop a plague, presents theater as a central thematic through-line, and was the first (only?) game I ever remember playing that drew a specific parallel between playing a role in a game as one might play a role in a theatrical production. This is embodied in the choice of three different playable characters each with their own unique role in addressing the crisis at hand - forcing you to play a role in a different sense than is usually understood in RPGs - and in the fact that the literal and figurative heart of the town is its theater, wherein you can watch reproductions of each prior day’s events every morning as a way of recapping and commenting upon the narrative. It goes a bit further than that, though, because Pathologic is a game about games, too, and the creators of the game have (knowingly and consciously) made a play/game for you, the player, to take special part in, to see how you might shape the role you’ve chosen and what choices you’d make along the way.

It’s really quite a different take on the topic than the also-excellent and transcendent Kentucky Route Zero, but a brilliant and layered one, nonetheless. Certainly the first game that ever got me thinking about this connection.


As someone who played about 2 hours of Pathologic (I, uh, lost on the first day), I figured that it might flesh out what’s shown in that intro. I’m glad to hear it does! It’s still a game very comfortably on my to-do list, though, so thanks for reminding me about it!


Can’t help but notice the two ways we use the word “play”. :slight_smile:

Regarding the etymology of “play”, the connection comes from the concept of movement (“plegian” is a Greek root for “to exercise, move briskly”). Plays were performances in which actors moved around, and games are experiences in which players can express their agency. The connection, here, then, might be that of movement and agency. (Historians, please school my ass if this is wrong)

I think it’s also worth noting that we talk about “play” sometimes as the act of parody but without simulation. As in, “playing House” or “playing Cops and Robbers” or “play-fighting”. In these things, we are doing things which represent and mimic their subject, but without the same consequences. We are pretending; we are acting. Games also abstract actions and turn them into representations of their real life counterparts. I mean, watching drama is basically watching a lot of people pretend on stage. But within those dramas, frequently there is the express purpose of attempting to more closely represent reality, which is something we also see in games. Art isn’t only mimesis, by any means, but here’s my point: both theater and games put their respective players in a space that has a framework distinct from reality’s normal consequences. (See: the magic circle.)

I want to mention improv theater, also. I know improv is kind of a cliche about college students and failing actors, but hear me out. Improv is essentially structured around actor’s agency, and often invites the audience to exert their agency to influence the performance (e.g. audience suggestions). Often improv is broken down to into “games” which structure those actions. Watching improv is a lot like watching people play a game; you are quite literally watching a “play”!


This article helped me make sense of a lot of things I noticed when getting into smaller games and when appreciating how silly some of the bigger ones can be when you hit their invisible walls.