An Interview about Video Game Puppetry with Eddie Kim of EK Theater

Credit: Eddie Kim
Still from “The Tell Tale Heart” performed live at the Brick Theater, July 2015. (Credit: Eddie Kim)

 

How did you get started producing work like this? How did you envision the video game characters as puppets? 

In 2007, I took part in the Tiny Theater Festival at the Brick Theater. All pieces had to take place in a six-foot cube made out of PVC. I wanted to present a larger world within this restricted space so I projected World of Warcraft on a screen that I hung at the back of the cube. Video game avatars played the characters, and the gamers spoke their lines.

We didn’t always refer to our work as “video game puppetry.” We used to call it “live machinima theater.” 

Our work has much in common with traditional puppetry. Video game characters, like puppets, have limited actions, and performers speak lines for both. The ultimate goal is the same too–to convey the story to the audience.

The set-up of your work reminds me in some respects of the Wooster Group. Do the puppeteers regard themselves as performers as well? How do you direct them to comport themselves? 

The puppeteers are performers. Every action, including the cueing of games, the switching of consoles, the triggering of sound effects, is carefully choreographed and rehearsed. Lines are spoken live into microphones during performances, and, just as in any theater piece, the performers react to each other and the audience.

As the director, I remind my performers that our job is to tell the story. This affects all of our choices including how fast the performers deliver their lines and how quickly we have to switch to the next game sources.

2015-07-10 14.58.52Still from “The Tell Tale Heart” performed live at the Brick Theater, July 2015. (Credit: Eddie Kim)

Do you view the performers in line with, say, shadow puppeteers?

The two disciplines have much in common. In fact, for the past two years, I have been experimenting with shadow puppetry using techniques that I’ve developed through video game puppetry. 

I’d love to hear more about that. 

In both shadow puppetry and video game puppetry, we make decisions about the visual elements based on how effectively they convey the story and the characters. We also have to think about how the piece incorporates the voice parts and how it will transition between the different visuals.
Last year, one of my (more traditional?) theater classes at the Pierrepont School created a shadow puppetry performance of Banquo’s death scene (Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 3.) This year, I had a group of students perform “The Story of Niobe” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in silhouette.

 

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Still from “The Story of Niobe” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Credit: Eddie Kim

 

What has the response been like from the gaming community to your work? 

The response from gamers has been quite favorable. We can always tell when gamers are in the audience. They’ll laugh at our game choices and how we work around limitations programmed into games. Kotaku is a fan! And this year, we’ve been invited to perform in five cities with Minefaire, a Minecraft Fan Experience. We’re excited as Minefaire holds the Guinness World Record for largest convention organized around a single video game.

The Poe piece seems to me like a particularly brilliant use of Garry’s Mod because that game is so open-ended. What other games are you looking at for pairings with literature? Or literature with games?

Game choice is a large part of what we do. Our Instagram (@ektheater) shows some of the games we are experimenting with right now like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dishonored, Life is Strange.

As for literature, our current projects include: A collection of Korean folk tales based on Im Bang and Yi Ryuk’s Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts, and FairiesGawain and the Green Knight; “Saladin” from Boccaccio’s Decameron; Norse myths; and some Ovid stories.
 

Are you a performer or have you had background in theater?
I have performed before but I do not consider myself a performer. I studied theater at Amherst College. I used to be a sound designer. Michael Birtwistle got me into directing, and Connie Congdon got me into writing plays.
 

What can games and theater learn from each other?
Right now, video games have great influence on theater. Look at the recent popularity of immersive theater performances, where the audience takes an active role in experiencing stories.

And theater has influenced gaming too. There is a whole genre of games called “walking sims,” that didn’t exist when I was a kid, that focuses on exploration over action. Often the goal of these games is to discover the narrative and, along the way, empathize with the character. Sounds kind of like a theater performance right?
 
Where/when can we see your work next?

We’ll be performing at Minefaire (http://minefaire.com/) at the NRG Center in Houston, May 20 – 21. All our upcoming performances can be found on our website, www.ektheater.com.

 
-Interview by Amy Fusselman