Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Life on the Big Screen

The idea of life as a performance is both reaffirmed and challenged in the multi-player video game of Best Before, an interactive game show that requires the active participation of live audience members and their gaming avatars. A video game programmer, video game tester, flagger, politician and guitarist make up the panel of staged actors who regulate the game. The programmer functions like a god, giving and granting choices to audiences throughout the game. The flagger indicates time with an LED traffic light and constantly tracks the age of the audience’s gaming avatars.

Equipped with a video game controller in hand, audience members are essentially given a second chance to "live life" as they please through the lives of their individually assigned videogame avatars, which in this case, are identically shaped and sized jellybeans visually differentiated by color. Pre-established choices set by the programmer limit what you can do with your avatar; the challenge merely lies in how adventurous you want to be. You can have intercourse at age fifteen, become a pothead at age twenty, and undergo a sex change at age thirty, all with a simple push of a button. The game even gives you the option of investing in the stock market and buying a house.

Some choices evoke moments of laughter while others evoke shock or even horror. Whether to have an abortion is one such choice posed that caused awkward laughter followed by a moment of silence and shock in the audience. Suspense and laughter ensues as pregnant avatars indecisively jump from one side of the screen to the other as the flagger counts down the time remaining.
As soon as you are given a choice, you have five seconds to navigate your avatar and make up your mind. Time constraint plays a big factor in the show's connection between real and imaginary life. Some moments will compel you to stop and wonder, but time bars you from thinking too long to simply enjoy the game.

An avatar’s elimination is inconsequential to the lives of the other avatars and hence there are no real winners or losers in the game. In the real world, it takes more than a repeated set of choices to dictate the course of our lives. We also add meaning to our choices. Best Before’s videogame executes this theme by explicitly de-emphasizing it in the choices we make to our avatars’ lives. This irony is played out perfectly in the so-called election of Bestland’s “leader,” which is as relevant and meaningful as all the other choices we make in the game (hint, it isn't the least bit relevant). The elected leader does not have any more control over themselves or the game than any other avatar. In my particular session, the leader dies prematurely from an unexpected gun raid, but society continues on as normal. So what is the point of a game that has no winners or losers? Perhaps that is the question the actors want the audience to take home.

As a whole, Best Before was delightfully entertaining during, and thought-provoking in retrospect. Energy spent on constantly trying to locate my avatar on screen and being pushed around by other avatars definitely tested my patience but did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the show. The panel of actors occasionaly paused the game to share their personal stories and add depth to the show's theme. However, it was my personal interaction with the game and my entertaining adventure as a blue and red jellybean that made the experience for me. I went into the theatre not knowing what to expect but I walked out with a smile.

1 comment:

  1. A very intelligent review, Helen. My only complaint about the show was that I kept losing my avatar!