Videogames and Puppetry: Why Not?

I recently had the opportunity to attend a couple of academic panels on the topic of puppetry. The panels covered an impressive range of puppet-related topics, but the one that really caught my eye was videogames as a medium for puppetry. People make puppetry from videogames! A born-and-raised nerd with the kind of attention span for flashing-lights-on-a-TV-screen that can really only be engendered by a single-child suburban upbringing, this immediately struck me as an awesome idea. It also really surprised me that it had never occurred to me before, since it seems so obvious now that I’ve heard it. The same basic concepts of a puppet can easily be adapted to a videogame – (basically) one or more figurative objects interacting within an environment under the control of an external operator in such a way that an audience can observe them.

During the panel, the discussion of puppetry in videogames (presented by this just way-too-cool professor from LA whose name has completely escaped me) was accompanied by some clips from a short piece made using Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The clips felt very much like an experimental film (the GTA protagonist running through wispy trees and interfacing somberly with a giant, rotating bundle of flowers), but now that the concept has been pointed out I know I’ve seen this before. Remember the Red vs. Blue videos that were just, everywhere on the internet about five years ago? Those were videogame puppetry too!

Now that I think of it, videogames could be a very friendly medium for an aspiring puppeteer. They’re cheap and ubiquitous, they lend themselves to being captured on video for distribution (although they can also be used for live performances), and they have a built-in control mechanism I’d wager is orders of magnitude easier to get the hang of than a marionette’s wooden cross. Plus, videogames naturally minimize that classic antagonist of puppets – the uncanny valley. Since videogame environments are already simulacra of reality (albeit a generally cooler and more physically lenient reality), the not-quite-human faces of videogame characters don’t show up in striking contrast to the realism of their environment in a way that triggers discomfort in the human psyche.

This has me wondering a bit at where to draw the line, puppetry-wise. Many a time I’ve been playing Fallout 3 or something similarly engrossing and found my companions in the room at least as drawn into the action as I am(sometimes to the point of protests when I’ve decided I’m done playing). It’s not really a puppet show for me, since I’m the one controlling the game, but it’s not inconceivable that it is for them. I think, though, this wouldn’t hold true if I were just playing through the game in a linear story mode. The thing about a host of videogames that have gotten popular of late is that they’re open ended (examples coming to mind include Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the recent GTA titles), so a lot of the time players aren’t doing something pre-scripted or specifically dictated by the game’s designers. Instead, players are encouraged to explore a virtual world, use their imaginations. This type of ‘sandbox gaming’ seems particularly conducive to creating stories and interesting interactions that are completely unrelated to the game itself. So I might not be a puppeteer when I’m running around post-apocalyptic Washington DC looking for lawn gnomes to add to my (rather prodigious) collection, but mix in an overdubbed narration about my character’s breakdown into obsessive-compulsive gnome collecting as a means of dysfunctionally coping with the massive psychic trauma and survivor’s guilt of making it through the apocalypse alive, and suddenly it’s looking a lot like puppet theater, XBox 360 style.

July 25, 2011

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