Baldur’s #GamerGate: ‘Non-Player Character’ world premiere by SF Playhouse

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“Well, excuuuuuuse me, Princess!”
– Link (as written by Bob Forward), The Legend of Zelda TV Series (1989)

It’s the headline that still kills me.

Late last year, as the world was feeling the full blast of “the Weinstein Effect,” Matt Damon – who owes a significant amount of his success to Weinstein – was inevitably asked his thoughts on the matter. He was more or less as shocked as we were (okay, fine), but he kept insisting that men who hadn’t harassed, assaulted, or otherwise-made-life-miserable-for-women be congratulated. Yes, really. His logic was that a dude who didn’t pull a Louis CK should, what, get a prize or something? These are the words that came from the mouth of an Academy Award-winning screenwriter.

After the public, ex-girlfriend Minnie Driver, and (reportedly) those closest to him failed to get that point across to him, Men’s Health chimed in. Their headline was as simple as it was true: “Dear Matt Damon, You Need to Sit This One Out, Champ”. No matter how many times I read that line, it still makes me chuckle – it’s like something out of Anchorman.

Y’see, good ol’ Matty fell victim to that classic Rape Culture characteristic that attempts to justify horrible actions: Nice Guy Syndrome. On the surface, it may not be as bad as explicit harassment or assault, but it’s a piece of the same puzzle. The idea that you’re owed something for not being terrible is problematic in and of itself, but the idea that a woman owes you sex as a reward for you not raping her is both stupid and dangerous. Being genuinely nice is respecting the autonomy of another human being. If the only reason you treat a woman with respect is because you expect consensual sexual favors in return, then you’re a conman. Another human being isn’t a prize you find at the bottom of a cereal box, on a treasure map, or in a “claw” machine.

Or a video game.

It was in 2014 when Adam Baldwin – yeah, the racist from Full Metal Jacket and the abusive stepdad from Radio Flyer – decided he just had to put his two cents in on a brewing video game controversy. Said controversy being how game developer Zoë Quinn’s critically-acclaimed title Depression Quest just couldn’t have been acclaimed on its own merits. Rather, all those separate critics must have given those reviews because (as revealed by a jealous ex of Quinn’s) she had a relationship with a journalist at one particular game site. It was Baldwin who officially dubbed the controversy “GamerGate”. It set off a firestorm harassment – some of which still continues to this day – towards Quinn, female developers in general, and critics of cultural misogyny. Though the #MeToo Movement was officially kicked off by the Weinstein revelations, the #GamerGate controversy perfectly illustrated what the #MeToos are pushing back against.

 

As with all things, it’s only a matter of time before the art world steps in to give its spin. Though #GamerGate has only been addressed fleetingly – most notably in a very shitty episode of Law & Order: SVU – playwright Walt McGough barely bothered to hide his influences in his (very) thinly-veiled roman à clef, Non-Player Character. It’s easy to argue that if McGough wanted to capture the zeitgeist he’s four years too late. But if you believe that, then you haven’t been recent headlines, have you?

It still isn’t finished. Katja’s been developing her own world-builder game for some time now. But no matter how many impressive tweaks she makes, the perfectionist in her won’t allow her to think it’s finished, let alone ready to show to her fellow developers. Fortunately for this aspiring dev/full-time barista, she’s able to let loose when she plays MMORPGs with her childhood friend Trent.

As they make their way through Spearlight Chronicles 3: The Player’s Bond, Trent suggests adding to their group Feldrick, another player he met through chatting on 10click. Feldrick isn’t eager to play with a woman like Katja (or any woman, for that matter), and it’s only a matter of time before he makes his feelings plain. But it’s when Trent does the same with his feelings that a line is crossed with Katja – a line that has real-world repercussions.

Before anyone knows it, Katja’s friendship, career, and very life are changed in ways from which she may never recover.

There’s a reason I started this review with the whole Matt Damon/Nice Guy thing. The key turning point of McGough’s play comes when Trent confesses to having long carried a torch for Katja. He does this soon after defending her from the openly misogynistic Feldrick. Trent is shocked to learn that she only thinks of him as a friend, something she’s needed since moving from Lancaster (they never say which one) to Seattle. But he doesn’t process his feelings like an adult (unless you think of the guy currently in the White House, who barely qualifies) because he thinks he’s owed something. Like a weary Mario who killed a dozen Bowsers only to find Toad inside each castle, Trent believes he’s owed his princess. All she has to do is tell him one word – “No” – and he immediately posts his private chats with her online, with the help of Feldrick.

At it’s best, McGough’s script is a good illustration of how easy it is to fall into the trap of toxic masculinity because of the herd mentality. There are few things as ingrained into our culture as sexism (except for racism) and it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to point the finger at a woman when things don’t go your way. When you have a good 20 min. to spare, I strongly recommend watching the following video by Lindsay Ellis regarding the Twilight phenomenon from a few years back. She hasn’t changed her opinion that the books and movies are terrible, but she still makes note of how we’re hard-wired to abhor anything directly marketed to women and girls.

Having said that, McGough’s script occasionally missteps by being both too on-the-nose and lacking a satisfying conclusion. Although some of the on-the-nose bits work (Katja receives images of her bruised face, the way Anita Sarkeesian did), the 4chan stand-in “10click” and the Warcraft would-be Spearlight don’t land as well. And I don’t specifically know how he could have ended his script better, short of ending sexism worldwide, but the ending struck me as more McGough saying “I’m aware of this conversation,” not “I’m contributing to this conversation.”

I liked how it ended with a decision made by Katja, just as I enjoyed the way she chastised Grant, an online supporter who tracks her down at Starbucks. “Don’t come and find me and make me say you’re a good guy,” she tells him. “It’s not an achievement!” The heart of this play is clearly there. There are just a few pieces that jam into the puzzle awkwardly.

Fortunately for McGough, his script fell into the creative hands of Lauren English and SF Playhouse. Incidentally, the last “Sandbox Series” piece I saw from the Playhouse starred English, also featured Charisse Loriaux, and was quite possibly the best show I saw last year. Now, English – one of the Bay Area’s best actors – steps into the role of director, putting her role as the Playhouse’s Casting Director to good use. Essentially working with a black box space, English keeps the action well-spaced and easy-to-follow as her cast spend a great deal of time waving their arms at nothing. It’d be easy to forget when and where everyone is, what with the set being so spartan, but that’s not a problem here.

Even better, English directs her cast to be naturalistic (when not in the game), which goes a long way to deflecting the inevitable “straw man” arguments a piece like this will inevitably receive. All the characters wind up in the MMORPG at one point – with Loriaux playing an in-game NPC and Annemaria Rajala playing a “sexy” avatar – but their real-world presence has what I’d politely call a natural banality. Hey, life isn’t as excited outside of pixels, what’re ya gonna do?

In the center of it all is Emily Radosevich’s Katja, often tightly-wound from work and the game, then falling apart as the harassment piles on. Radosevich handles all of these well under English’s guidance, with the best choice being a stammer that comes and goes. In the real world, we don’t all have perfectly prepared speeches for every encounter, so we’re always looking for the right words. This helps keep Katja human, rather than scripted mouthpiece. It’s this same quality that makes Devin O’Brien’s Trent almost irritatingly tragic. No matter how much Katja is harassed due to his posting, he’s unable to find himself accountable. This is best show via O’Brien’s screen-projected puppy-dog eyes, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s 100% wrong. It’s the fact that he can’t see it that makes you want to both hug and slap him.

 

Said projections are the work of Bay Area theatre designer Theodore Hulsker, whose name I see pop up a lot these days. Here Hulsker uses the upstage doorway/wall for the in-progress terrain of Katja’s game, the vast countryside of the MMORPG, and even a Starbucks (which has no logo, just the word “Starbucks” above the doorway in a simple font). The screen also projects Trent and Feldrick’s vlogs, as well as the vitriolic comments Katja receives. Also serving as the production’s sound designer, the vitriol is less human voice and more cacophonous stream of verbal hatred meant to drive someone mad. As much as I liked all of that, I’m a bit torn by Hulsker’s would-be in-game Easter eggs: namely the Metal Gear!” sound effect and Howard Shore’s score from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I love both, but kept wondering how the copyright for those would work in a non-LOTR/-MG game like this?

Of course, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Jacquelyn Scott’s set design. Using only tape stretching out from the upstage wall, Scott’s set suggests a Tron-like grid that reminded me of the old NES game 3-D World Runner. The outer edges of the grid have strings of lights. This, combined with Wolfgang Wachlovsky’s blue overhead lights, gives the game a “cold” feeling. I’m torn on Leandra Watson’s costumes: the real-world ones are fine, as are most of the in-game suits, but Trent’s patchwork armor just wasn’t working for me.

There have been women playing video games for as long as video games have existed. Hell, if you read books about the early companies like Atari, women programmers and developers have been there just as long. This, of course, falls in stark contrast to an industry that promotes 50 Master Chiefs and Marios for every one Samus Aran. Walt McGough’s script does well in nailing down the hypocrisy faced by female game-lovers for merely existing. Although I don’t think he ends the conversation well (or at all), perhaps that’s due to the fact that the real conversation isn’t over yet?

But seriously, after you read the below, scroll up and watch the Lindsay Ellis video.

GRADE: B-

The world premiere of Non-Player Character is scheduled to run until the 3rd of March in the Children’s Creativity Museum of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 35 min. with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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