Videogames are art. I’m sure you’ve seen this phrase before, but have you ever heard of games being used as a means to create art? This is exactly what kind of endeavor the production team ‘A Stage Reborn’ is trying to undertake; to perform Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” entirely within the virtual MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV. After personally attending a showing of the play last Sunday, I became quickly enamored by the efforts on display.

The entire thing is a fascinating display of the extent and dedication of the Final Fantasy XIV community, and how a Virtual Environment can be an extension of the traditional arts. After all, Massively Multiplayer games like these are a unique form of social gathering for many players; people can make new friends, create social groups, and on the case of Final Fantasy XIV, they can even get married. When you take this into account, it is no surprise that players would also try to express themselves artistically through this virtual medium.

Regarding the play

The ushers wore matching uniforms and performed emotes to communicate to the players

I was invited to the play by my friends, who are very involved in the community of the game. We tried to get admissions for several days, but we would always arrive too late to be allowed to go inside. When I finally arrived on Sunday, I had to wait in line very early on to secure a seat for the limited showing. I waited for about two hours, admiring the carefully placed scenery in the waiting line. Certain players would act as ushers, giving instructions to other players on the rules of the event. If people went out of line, an usher would be there to tell them to be courteous to the rest.

Once it finally came time to enter, I saw the small, yet impressively crafted theater. Final Fantasy XIV has a system that allows players to own and decorate their own in-game houses and thanks to this feature, players have been able to create very unique gathering places. This theater in particular used a variety of housing items stacked together to give the impression of a theater and the scenery of the play. When moving the camera around, I could see certain passages backstage that allowed the actors to easily move around the environment.

I waited for the show to start, and after a few words from the director, the lights dimmed and music started playing. The show had a wonderfully charming quality; it was humbling to see how the team used their very limited resources to make something true to the material. For instance, an in-game jukebox played music from the game’s soundtrack to playfully set the scene of the story. Players would step into the scene reciting the dialogue of different characters from the play using the game’s chatbox, using different in-game emotes to portray the character’s emotions and actions.

Certain in-game spells or attacks would be used to portray the character’s actions.

More impressive than that however were the special effects and trickery used to display the magical elements of the play. Sometimes, characters would appear or disappear in puffs of smoke that came as a result of certain in-game spells or items. So far as I know, the coordination of these was flawless and there weren’t any moments where I noticed them go awry. Despite the limitations of the game, the team was able to create a strong atmosphere and a playful rendition of the classic play.

 

Going Behind the Scenes

The inspiration to create virtual art

After attending the play with my friends, I knew I had to learn more about how it was conceived, so I got in touch with A Stage Reborn’s Director Steve Pederzani. In our discussion, we spoke of many different subjects. Worth noting is how his experience with theater inspired him to bring that art form over to the world of Final Fantasy XIV.

A Stage Reborn’s early years adapting “I Want to Be Your Canary”

It is fascinating to see how one can translate one’s real-life experiences and passions into a virtual MMORPG. The production of A Stage Reborn has been doing gatherings like these since 2016. Their first projects included smaller theater performances inspired by other Final Fantasy games, like their stage adaptation of Final Fantasy IX’s “I Want to Be Your Canary”; which is a play that appears as a part of that game’s story. Later on, they challenged themselves to push the limits of what could be done with this kind of production, such as their 2017 adaptation of “The Worker” by Walter Wykes. Now, in 2019, the team finally took the challenge of adapting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from one of the greatest dramaturges of all-time: William Shakespeare. This was no easy feat, but the team carried on with their decision.

The difficulties of adapting to a unique medium

The namazu are a beloved race of fish critters

Adapting Shakespeare’s play into the virtual environment of Final Fantasy XIV was no easy feat. The director explained that the biggest difficulty was trimming the length of the play down to a two hour performance. There was a group of script editors put in a lot of effort suggesting edits that would help shorten the length of the play in a comprehensible way. Their different perspectives were key in deciding what was needed and what wasn’t when deciding what was truly necessary to retain the essence of the original text.

The team also made other interesting changes to the script to appeal to the player-base of Final Fantasy XIV. I noticed while watching the play that sometimes real world locations and terms used in Shakespeare’s play were replaced by “equivalents” from the Final Fantasy XIV universe. The director described this as a “partial localization” done at the last minute to make sure that the play would be much more easier to relate to for the XIV community. This way, the team could be sure the audience would easily follow along with the story regardless of their familiarity with Shakespeare’s language.

Other changes the team made simply to make the text work better within the limitations of Final Fantasy XIV’s engine.

The experience of creating a virtual theater

The most impressive feat of this production is its ability to create something new within the confines of an RPG. Final Fantasy XIV may offer a robust set of social communication tools, but it is still ultimately an action RPG. Expressing yourself in this medium professionally while using only what the developers have provided is a very impressive display of independent theater and despite all odds, the staff was able to succeed in this endeavor.

Titania’s costume in the play

Using Final Fantasy XIV’s extensive glamour system, the team made costumes to represent each character from the play. At times, the staff had to grind dungeons and raids for specific pieces of armor to help performers obtain the costumes they needed; though they were all enthusiastic and willing to help each other out with such time-consuming tasks in order to organize the performance.

One of the members of the team I got in contact with was Ash Karr, who played the part of Hermia in the play. I wanted to hear how each actor was able to conduct complex routines using their in-game avatars. What Ash explained was that performers set up certain “macros”, which are customizable subroutines used in-game for multiple purposes, that included a set of instructions for the avatar to follow that would closely match the emotions of the character in the play. In other words, with the press of a button one of the performers could have their character speak each line and act out one emotion at a time.

When I asked Co-Director and Performer Emi Koch about the experience of “acting” inside Final Fantasy XIV, she explained it in the following way:

Organizing a large event

Organizing and preparing for the event was not an easy feat, however it was far simpler than it appears at the outset. When interviewing members of the staff, they described the process to be similar to working on theater. The crew built the sets, created costumes, trained the staff, and so on. Besides the conflicting schedules of the cast, the process of rehearsing for the play was rather simple; and thanks to the aid of Discord voice calling and screen-sharing the team was able to easily communicate to one another during rehearsals.

Despite the limitations of Final Fantasy XIV’s player emotes, the performers were able to express themselves fully through their avatars. The specific emotions they had their characters perform on stage contributed to an experience that was more calculated than in real life, but still equally as engaging.

The work of the ushers in organizing the event was also fascinating. They would lead people into the building and ensure that guests weren’t breaking any rules. However, in a virtual world you cannot physically interact with people or tell them what to do, so that made the task more difficult. Because of that, ushers had to send out messages to the audience and use specific emotes to tell them what to do. The whole event was very well organized and took lots of coordination from the team to make it a reality.

Social Interactions in the Virtual World

One of the most fascinating aspects of Final Fantasy XIV is the inherently social experience that comes with it. The game may have its own Main Quest with powerful heroes and plenty of twists and turns, but at the end of the day the true story of the game is the one that the community makes for themselves. Each player is its own character in the greater story that the community tells on their own.

Each player is its own character in the greater story that the community tells on their own.

This form of expression is not unique to Final Fantasy XIV of course, since there are plenty of examples from other MMO players that show similar behaviors. In fact, this isn’t the first time that the Final Fantasy XIV community has done an event like this. But it never ceases to be interesting how the community has pushed the limitations of the game to its absolute limits to accomplish this. Players are able to express themselves socially and artistically through their avatars, to the extent of putting in the effort of organizing large scale events for no reward other than the satisfaction it brings.

There’s a certain charm to this theater going experience because it is totally unique. It is the purest form of expression imaginable. Knowing that someone went through the effort of spreading their love of art and theater to people in this virtual reality is a testament to how dedicated the community of this game is.

As far as theater goes, A Stage Reborn’s portrayal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t “ideal” in a traditional sense. The story is more difficult to follow along when you can’t listen to the inflections of the actors and its even more difficult to keep up with the constantly flowing lines of text from the characters. However, none of that really matters. A Stage Reborn isn’t a traditional stage play, it is a homage to a game and a community that people love as well as an art medium that plenty of people are passionate about. It is an opportunity for players who are unfamiliar or incapable of attending theater to experience this for themselves through their in-game avatars.

For someone like me who holds many long-distance friendships, it is pleasant to be able to share time with others through this game. Thanks to Final Fantasy XIV, I can spend time with my friends, and attend these interesting social gatherings. I am not a dedicated player that grinds all the content in the game, however, I can still appreciate its ability to create wonderfully unique experiences like A Stage Reborn. Regardless of how you feel about it in the end, this is something that has to be celebrated in one way or another.

If you’re interested in A Stage Reborn, make sure to check out their website for the latest news and information about their next Final Fantasy XIV project: “A Stage Reborn Sings!”. If you want to watch their live performances, you can check out their Twitch page. Their Youtube Channel has also archived all their previous performances as well as Trailers and other Cinematics from the team. A Stage Reborn is also available on most social media platforms like Twitter, Discord and Facebook.

If you would like to donate to keep this project afloat, you can donate at their website or pledge to their Patreon page.

Finally, I want to thank all members of A Stage Reborn for their insights  as well as their wonderful act. Give them all the love and support that you can.

Thank you all!