machina eX

machinaEx, Copyright: Philip Steimel
machinaEx, Copyright: Philip Steimel

The theatre group machina eX was founded in 2010 at the Institute for Media, Theatre and Popular Culture at the University of Hildesheim. It creates interactive theatrical shows in the style of adventure computer games. machina eX celebrated its breakthrough in 2011 with “15,000 Gray” at the 100° fringe festival in Berlin, where it won the Jury Prize. In 2012, the group was invited to present this work as part of the accompanying programme for the Impulse fringe theatre festival in North Rhine-Westphalia. Together with the independent production company fft Düsseldorf, machina eX conceived the two-year Game on Stage project, which has been awarded funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Doppelpass Fund from 2012 to 2014.

machina eX are: performers Anna Sina Fries, Yves Regenass and Laura Naumann (who is also a dramatist), production managers Jan Philip Steimel and Laura Alisa Schäffer, and Mathias Prinz, Robin Krause, Nele Katharina Lenz and Lasse Marburg.

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machina eX: Portrait

It is not a rarity for theatre shows to begin with a prelude in the foyer. Less often, however, does it happen that the audience is not even let out of the foyer into the auditorium until they put in some pretty smart lateral thinking. This is exactly what takes place in machina eX’s science fiction adventure game “15.000 Gray” (“15,000 Gray”): After team member and organiser Nele Katharina Lenz has explained a few basic rules for the forthcoming game at the outset, she leaves the visitors behind with the words: “We start at 9 o’clock.” And nothing happens. Until the players have realised there is a clock above the entrance that reads 8 o’clock. Only once this clock has been moved by hand to 9 o’clock does the door open. The adventure can now begin.

Puzzles of this sort are among the easier tasks for people familiar with playing “adventure” games on their computers. But how many theatregoers are so knowledgeable about the world of gaming? Affirmative references to computer games are still fairly unusual in the theatre, although it has always incorporated foreign media such as film, photography, painting and music into its output. For a long time, the new medium was referred to primarily in youth theatre performances, which depicted it as a highly problematic phenomenon. The discussion concentrated above all on “first-person shooters”, their potential for addiction and the aggression they were believed to encourage. This consensus is currently being transformed on a broad social front. In 2009, the German Cultural Council defined computer games as “part of our cultural heritage”; in 2012, Germany’s leading weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” and most influential current affairs magazine “Der Spiegel” almost simultaneously proclaimed the computer game to be the “defining medium of the 21st century” and the “new defining culture”. At the level of national politics, video games were mentioned for the first time as cultural products worthy of public support in the coalition agreement concluded by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) when they formed the current federal government in 2013.

The new “game theatre” has to be seen in the context of this rise in gaming’s status. Since 2010, its protagonists have included machina eX, which was founded at the University of Hildesheim, and celebrated its breakthrough in 2011 with “15,000 Gray” during the 100° fringe festival at the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theatre in Berlin. With their live “adventures”, machina eX draw on a video game genre that, from an international perspective, enjoyed its heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s (it is still more than averagely popular in Germany). “Adventures” are games like the legendary “Secret of Monkey Island” from LucasArts (1990) that rely on a refined combination of brain teasers and humorous dialogues to involve the player in an adventurous story.

machina eX design adventures of this kind for groups of 10 to 15 players. Short dramatic scenes (usually performed by Anna Sina Fries, Yves Regenass and Laura Naumann) are used to present puzzles such as “What is the access code to the computer”, which the group then have to solve for the characters in order to drive ahead the action. Sometimes, the participants are also asked to take decisions that determine which of several directions the story will develop in. While the players rack their brains, the actors get stuck in absurd routines like animated figures on a PC screen, mechanically repeating a sequence of movements and sentences such as “I should look in the card index” as hints to the solution. With details like this, machina eX’s theatre emphasises aesthetically its origins in the world of computer gaming, and they give it much of its affectionate, “retro” charm.

Frequently, the technology for the interactive sequences provides the “peg” for a play before its plot has even been developed, as Philip Steimel, one of the group’s production managers, has said in an interview. With regard to their subject matter, machina eX started out telling rather simplistic stories that borrowed from the clichés of pop culture. In the science fiction journey “15,000 Gray”, the group of players discovered a scientist with a bomb strapped to him and had to work out the story that led up to this critical situation in order to defuse the bomb (or then again, maybe not) at the end. “Wir aber erwachen… Aus Jahren der Kälte in einen jungen strahlenden Tag” (“But we awaken… From years of cold into a fresh, radiant day”) (HAU, 2012) continued this narrative as a journey into a post-apocalyptic future.

One of their recent pieces, the financial speculation drama “Hedge Knights”, has seen the group’s work move on to deal with topics of greater complexity. In a painstakingly modelled office, the players find themselves immersed in the wheeling and dealing of a hedge fund, and reach decisions about the protagonists’ fictitious activities on the stock exchange. Simultaneously, the production also reveals the limitations to which game theatre is still subject at this early stage in its development. The time pressure under which the game unfolds (“Hedge Knights” lasts about 90 minutes), stands in the way of the acquisition of knowledge. What would have to be learned about futures or credit default swaps during the play in order to develop meaningful options for action easily gets neglected in the heat of battle.

However, meaningful solutions are not necessarily an essential ingredient of game theatre. Participants also like looking for the deliberately playful and extreme elements in any story: “Lets just see what happens if the bomb explodes” – and the games can certainly be approached in this way. Some groups simply strive to complete the assault course of puzzles in record time. Others allow themselves to be distracted by intra-group conflicts. To this extent, machina eX’s interactive art is a space full of opportunities to learn about group dynamics.

Christian Rakow