BMDQ&A: ASSASSIN’S CREED Performance Director Simon Peacock On Shakespeare, Improv, And Gender

Would you go to see something called HAMLET: THE VIDEO GAME: THE STAGE SHOW?

I’ve been a bit absent from BMD over the past couple weeks, largely because my life was taken over by a partially-improvised theatre show and video game parody called Hamlet: The Video Game: The Stage Show, for which I created over a hundred video cues. It was directed by Simon Peacock, voice and mo-cap director for games like Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex, and a former member of New Zealand improv company The Court Jesters (to which I belong). I sat down with Simon and his wife Jennifer Seguin (also a video games director and actor) to chat about directing craft, the role of drama in games, and ruining Shakespeare with game tropes. Part one of this interview can be found here.

Birth.Movies.Death.: Let’s talk about Hamlet: The Video Game: The Stage Show. What was the genesis of the show?

Simon Peacock: Craig [Cooper, director of the Christchurch Arts Festival] called me up and said, “I think it’d be great if you did a show about video games. You can write it, you can direct it, you can do whatever you want.” I was initially reluctant, because I didn’t have an idea. But then one day I thought: what if we presented a famous work as if it had been made into a video game? Then you can make something that has merit for people who don’t know video games - they won’t come and be completely lost. By using Hamlet, they can spot [the video game tropes] by the difference from the Hamlet they know. It makes it an easy way of accessing it. And for gamers, you have the other advantage, where you can bring some gamers who maybe haven’t been to the theatre a lot - like what we’ve seen from this season - and introduce them to the world of live theatre and Shakespeare as well. Which is where a lot of video game plots and characters have really come from!

Shakespeare is the secret backbone of so many stories.

He’s gotta be the most plagiarised writer in history. But a lot of his plots, let’s be honest, he was doing the same thing, taking from the classics, and from history.

Each sequence in the play pokes fun at a different aspect of video games. What was the process of figuring out what to parody?

It was a bit of a mish-mash. There’s a bunch of stuff that I’d always thought was ridiculous about video games, that I’d kept my own mental list of. Then it was a matter of going through the script to Hamlet and deciding which scenes to keep. Then once we’d pick one, it was like, is there a natural fit for something from video games that I want to make fun of? The obvious one is, you know - graveyard, zombies. That’s pretty easy. 

In the original Hamlet, there are a couple of references to the fact the Norwegians are about to invade, but they don’t actually invade until the very end of the show. To make it more like a video game, obviously, we need that action, we need conflict, we need fights. So they’re invading right from the get-go. There’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty far removed from the plot of Hamlet. But you have to take those liberties, right?

I sat down with Mary DeMarle, the narrative designer for the Deus Ex games, and we went through the script of Hamlet together and went, “alright - this would work as a cutscene, which means we need gameplay after it, so what do we go to here?” Like the scene where Polonius gets killed in the bedroom - it’s probably going to be handled as a cinematic, because it’s just one death. And then we’ve had the player listening to three minutes of dialogue, so we have to give them gameplay. So then Gertrude goes into a Mortal Kombat fight. That’s followed by a chase sequence straight after, because we’re heading towards the big finale. And then it becomes about structure as well - realising which sequences are gonna give the most momentum to it. Get that build towards the end so the finale is kicking ass. And I also tied my own hands when I had to write the publicity before I’d written the script. “Who knew Gertrude could kick ass?” Then after the second or third draft, I’m like, “she doesn’t...kick ass at all. Shit. Mortal Kombat! Here we go!”

What motivated the decision to put improv into the show?

It was about trying to make it as much like a game as you can. You can’t have the audience just sitting back watching. There has to be some way that they’re involved, some interactivity. So that’s a logical fit. The audience is changing the way things are going, or - as we’ve talked about a few times - are they? Just like video games, how much control do you really have? Even in games that have a dozen different endings, that’s still not a lot when there’s an infinite number of ways you can get through the game.

How much input does the audience actually have?

There are two or three things early on that remain throughout the show that do impact on everything. But at the same time, it’s the plot of Hamlet, so we know that everyone dies at the end. That’s locked in. But we change how we get there, and a lot of the decisions that are made throughout the show until that point. We have our final boss fight that’s gonna happen no matter what. You gotta kill Claudius. There’s so many levels. You get the payoff of killing the bad guy, you have to have that for the Shakespearean plot we’re trying to make fun of. You’ve got to have a boss fight anyway, because it’s a video game.

Jennifer Seguin: It wasn’t the easiest decision to do this show. Very challenging.

You’ve got a background in improv as well. That would’ve helped.

SP: Yeah, because you know where the opportunities are, and you know the mechanisms of improv. I’ve been in semi-improvised, semi-scripted shows before, so I know the tricky part is often the transition. How do you get from one end to the other without it looking too clunky? 

We frame the whole show in a games testing environment. The audience are the game testers. That means we can have a mechanism where someone can come out and get those interactive things, without suddenly having Hamlet talking to a roomful of game testers but also being the character in the game. You build the structure to make sure the plot does still happen - there’s the danger of improv where it goes completely off the rails and the plot goes out the window. It’s about building restrictions for the improvisers so they’re trapped - in a video game term, they’re on rails. You get to certain points where you get a little open world exploration, then they’re back on rails again. Back to the walk-and-talk while we load the screen behind them.

With the circular adaptation concept of the show, how have you brought video game performance back into yet another different medium?

It is and it isn’t different. That’s the thing about motion capture acting - a lot of the actors who are best at it are actually theatre actors, not film actors, because it does have that slightly exaggerated feel to it. You need that in theatre. People forty or fifty rows back still need to be able to see what’s going on physically and in your face. Theatre actors have that advantage already in video games, so it’s not a huge difference. Obviously there’s things that do get pulled back in video games, though. You’re not going to be projecting, trying to hit the back row; we’re micing you really close so you can have a way more dynamic vocal performance than in theatre. But at the core, it’s pretty similar - that exaggerated energy and size. We talked about that a lot during the rehearsal process. 

Then all the physical things that happen in games - we talked about loop cycles and breaking. Like, “your character at this point is basically idle.” Here’s a classic Assassin’s Creed loop breaker where your character goes from idle back into player control. The assassin always stands like that: head down, one foot forward, ready to go, so everything else can just blend seamlessly into it. Whether or not that gets picked up by anybody in the audience, I don’t know. I’m sure there are a couple people out there who noticed it.

It seemed like Dan [Bain, who played Hamlet] had a lot of fun with even just standing like a video game character. Which is not how people stand!

No! Nobody stands still while slowly rotating.

Really self-consciously shifting their weight.

To show you that they’re animated, and not a still frame. “Oh, he is alive!” Dan and Kathleen [Burns, who played Gertrude, Ophelia and others] in particular are both gamers, so they know that world. They’ve already seen and understand that stuff.

Hamlet’s had a pretty successful run here, but most of our readers obviously don’t live in Christchurch. What are your hopes for the show after this run?

Maybe we’ll put it on in Montreal, if the stars align. Being such a big gaming hub, there’s an audience that’s going to come into it with an even deeper collective knowledge. You’re going to have a lot of people who work in the industry. There’s 3500 people just at Ubisoft in Montreal, so there’s a huge collection of people who love what they do and would probably want to see it made fun of.

JS: There are also three universities full of students who play games.

SP: After that, it’s things like Comic-Cons. I think it’s a natural fit. I know plenty of performers from video games now, and I know there’s a big group of them who are improvisers as well. So I’d put together a group of four really good improvisers who already have “names” and already go and do Comic-Cons. We’d have to pare the show down somewhat to make it as tourable as possible, make it easier to get from place to place. Right from the start of writing it, it always felt like a natural place for it to be. Maybe we’ll start a Kickstarter fund for it. “Bring Hamlet: The Video Game: The Stage Show to your Comic-Con.”

It’s weird that there aren’t more live performances at Comic-Cons.

Yeah. How would you like to see your favourite actor actually acting? In a show where you get to yell out and contribute? Can you imagine the frenzy that show the night before last [a particularly good audience full of gamers] would have been at a Comic-Con, with hardcore freaked-out fanboys at it? That show would have been rocking! I mean, it was a great show, and they were going crazy anyway, but you then put in that higher degree of obsessiveness within the crowd…

It makes sense.

We’ll probably abbreviate it a bit, cut it down. Get it down to 80 minutes, with laughter.

As opposed to 80 minutes plus 20 minutes of laughter and riffing.

It’s hard to complain about, having 20 minutes of laughter in the show, but hey. 20 minutes longer than it was in rehearsal, that’s a sign the show’s doing alright. It’d be worse if it was 82 minutes without laughter, then we put it on and it was 82 minutes. That’d be more of a worry. “Oh. We didn’t have to stop and wait for laughter anywhere. Crap!”

How would Hamlet be adapted into a triple-A video game if it had to be?

I think some of the things we’ve done for the stage show would actually hold in a video game. It would basically become a mix between a first-person shooter and a fighting game. I think that’s the logical way for it to go. You’ve got the invading Norwegians, you’ve gotta fight them off. And then at the same time, you have the smaller-scale conflict with Hamlet and Claudius as well, so there’s some fights that could be happening in there.

JS: I’d make the women’s armour a lot bigger.

It’s cool that what gets the biggest response every night is Gertrude’s speech about sexualised video-game armour. It gets multiple applause breaks!

SP: [Kathleen] delivers it so well, too. She’s really worked out the pacing for it, where to stop and give them that moment. It’s great hearing all the women in the audience drowning out the guys.

JS: There’s kind of a feminist feeling to the whole show.

I like that the show’s kind of a critique of video games while also being an homage.

Yeah, there’s a couple moments of commentary. As there needs to be. And I mean, when you work in the industry, and you work with these incredibly talented women, and you see the kind of shit they go through, it’s just insane. The whole GamerGate thing is ridiculous. I’d say the best writers I’ve worked with have been women in games. There’s this weird thing of “oh, they don’t play games” - of course they play games!

JS: It’s changing.

SP: The latest stats are what, 53% of gamers now are women? And of course the counter-argument is “yeah, well, a lot of that is just casual gaming,” but so what?

Yeah. Who are you to define what a game is?

Casual games count! It’s still gaming. And then that can be the gateway gaming, right? Play this game, then get into deeper games. And of course women don’t play as many of the AAA titles, because they don’t see anything in there that reflects their reality. And just the amount of abuse they get. You see it on a daily basis, women trying to work in this ridiculously male-skewed environment.

There’s one woman we work with, a writer, who’s got this great story. She was working in an office in Eastern Europe. She went up to the boss of this particular development company and was like, “there’s so few women in this game. Why don’t we just make this character a woman? It doesn’t change anything to make her a woman!” And his response was, [in eastern European accent] “Look around. Thees ees reality.” Because in the office, there were like 700 men and maybe twenty women. And that’s part of what skews them, right? Because that is the reality for some people in the game development world. They’re like, “oh, but that’s what the world looks like. It’s mainly men, and very few women.” This guy couldn’t wrap his head around it.

But it’s changing. When I first used to go into Ubisoft, you knew when you were in marketing or human resources, because there were women again. And you’d go into the programming areas and it’d just be all men. But it’s certainly changing. There are a lot more women getting involved. And Ubisoft’s being really proactive about it now - they’re actively going out and trying to hire women in positions they haven’t traditionally filled, which is great.

That’s the ironic true achievement of GamerGate - it’s made the industry so much more aware of its diversity problems.

That’s what extremism often does, right? It wakes up the non-extremists to what’s going on. It’s like, “hang on, no, this is horrible. You’re destroying what we love, and trying to take it to a place we don’t want to go, so we’re actually going to have to do something now.” And you know, it got it into the media. It was sort of a dirty little secret in the industry. And then it starts making mainstream media, and people start going, “we should boycott.” That’s when the financial incentive is there as well to actually improve. And It’s made the industry react! It’s brought people together who wouldn’t have been otherwise, and they’re getting stuff done. Maybe it’s the kick in the pants the industry needed.

I’m gonna wrap up with a dumbass question: what did you learn doing Hamlet: The Video Game: The Stage Show?

Oh, God, I don’t know.

If you give a shit answer, I won’t print it.

I’m better at video game directing than stage directing? I’m more in tune with that. The speed of that, I like. There’s a luxury in that you just have to get the one good take. You don’t have to make sure it’s going to be that same good take every night. I don’t know if that’s a learning or not. It’s been interesting. It’ll change the way I direct video games slightly.

JS: Really?

SP: Yeah, I think so. All that stuff about making sure each character has a thrust in the scene, and has a motivation or objective. Even some of those AI characters, you know. They may not be written with an objective in mind, but I think when you’re directing them, you have to create the objective for them, so you get something out of them, as opposed to just a homogenised series of words. “Do you want your horse shoed, sir?” “You can smell the river from here.” There’s an objective to that line! You want affirmation from somebody else that they, too, can smell the river, and that they don’t think you’re crazy.

Awesome. Thank you for your time!