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Brendan Bradley talks about Non-Player Character: A Virtual Reality Musical

Non-Player Character: A Virtual Reality Musical is boundary pushing fusion of immersive, improvised theatre and video games where no two performances are the same; this virtual reality musical invites the audience to influence the narrative through on stage and spectator participation. It began in 2020 during lockdown and in 2021, a 3-song version of the show won Best in VR Interactive Immersive Experience, The Queensland XR Festival and a Finalist for Best Location Based Experience, The VR Award.

 

We spoke with creator and performer Brendan Bradley about creating this interactive experience between audience and performer ahead of the full show’s world premiere at Edinburgh Festival Fringe.


A Virtual Reality Musical

Were there any difficulties with blending theatre and virtual reality?

While there are challenges to any new production, in our case we approach the technology using devised theatre techniques to let the interactions influence and inform the storytelling. The greatest limitation is that our production requires stable WIFI which guided our venue selection, ultimately discovering a stunning, non-traditional space in the Imaginex 360 screening room at YOTEL Edinburgh. In many ways, one might think of theatre as the original virtual reality, creating imaginary worlds to transport audiences with design, light, space and bodies. Technologists are always looking for the “killer app” and in the case of virtual reality, I think the ritual of sharing space to experience a collective catharsis is the ideal application of this technology - bringing us together in support of our playhouses’ sustainability and accessibility pledges. 

 

What inspired you to bring the musical elements into the show?

Often in virtual or digital theatre, the performer serves as both an actor and a “guide,” instructing the audience on how to navigate the experience, similar to immersive theatre. I wanted to invert this relationship by portraying a character without any agency who relies on the audience to guide them through the open-world style gameplay. The performance is constantly “handing off” control between myself and both audiences (on-stage and seated) which allows us to consider the control and connection we each possess in our daily lives - especially when navigating new and difficult experiences, like grief or loss. However, I needed a way to regain control and subtly steer the narrative. Like the cut scenes of a video game, the songs “pause” the gameplay and focus on the internal emotional arc of my character through moments of spectacle and performance. I actually wrote the Finale first, as so many interactive experiences focus on onboarding users into the game world, but do not off-board them, to take them out of the experience. I created a sung meditation where I slowly instructed the on-stage “players” to remove their virtual reality headsets and reunite with the seated audience as part of the narrative storytelling. 

 

What is your favourite reference or nod to video games in the show?

The show is littered with references to both nostalgic video games and musical theatre moments. The entire opening number takes the audience through the menu screen and tutorial of a fake video game, including parodies of RENT and the Mario theme. But perhaps the most personal reference is the fact that I have built my career working in video game franchises (Resident Evil, Assassin’s Creed, MARVEL’s Midnight Suns, Video Game Reunion), but I am not a very good “gamer” and actually prefer to watch others play games on Twitch - which inspired the entire relationship of the seated audience to more passively watch, vote, comment, assist and sing-a-long with the on-stage “players.” And that means anyone can get a digital ticket to watch the show’s livestream from anywhere in the world, as if watching a streamer play a video game. Non-Player Character is a love letter to both the theatre and gaming communities, inviting them to challenge their definition of “play.” 

 

Can you give some insight into the audience experience of this show?

Designing an interactive experience means allowing for different types of interaction - including passivity. First and foremost, Non-Player Character is a live stage musical so the audience sees me on-stage, performing multiple characters, accompanied by live music - just like they would at a traditional musical. I wear a virtual reality headset to puppet the virtual characters and the entire game world is projected onto a big screen for the audience to watch me in both realities. The seated audience has a phone app that prompts them to vote on key decisions and spawn objects in the world to assist my journey. They can also shout out suggestions and sing-a-long. So it’s a lot like screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show where actors perform in front of the projection and the audience participates in the antics. But my co-stars are actually other audience “Players” who join me on-stage, also wearing virtual reality headsets and improvise with me as if I’m a video game character talking back to them. Finally, we can livestream a few cameras and the virtual game world to allow anyone to attend remotely and access the same interactive app on their mobile device. This offers three very different audience experience that meets the audience wherever they are in the technology journey. 

 

Non-Player Character: A Virtual Reality Musical is at Imaginex at YOTEL Edinburgh, 2 - 26 Aug, 21:00 (22:00). For tickets go to http://go.npcmusical.com/fringe (in-person tickets) http://watch.npcmusical.live  (digital tickets)

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