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Game Play Theater Festival: Brain Explode – Review

Open Mailbox.  Get Rope.  Examine Sword. If that sound familiar, you must be a fan of text adventure games.  These were all the rage in the 80’s, back when computers didn’t have the processing power for “Graphics”, but rather used words to tell their story, with players typing in simple phrases instead of using a controller.  Text gaming eventually fell out of fashion once computers that could display moving images became more common, but there’s still a small, loyal group of programmers and players who enjoy this sort of gaming, and it seems that playwrights Richard Lovejoy, Danny Bowes and Stephen Aubrey are among them, because they have created an interactive theatre experience called Brain Explode which mimics the gameplay of text adventures.

Brain Explode is set in the 1980's, and the audience meets Ray Pinter (Played by Stephen Heskett), a game designer who is about to unveil his latest text adventure game.  Through a plot twist, Ray gets sucked inside his own game (Perhaps a nod to Tron’s storyline) and a mysterious malefactor has implanted a chip in his head that will explode his brain in one hour!

He needs the audience's help to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape, and audience members who arrive early are given the chance to assist Ray in his adventure.   The “Players” are given a microphone, and each has a few minutes to ask Ray questions about his environment, give him instructions, or tell him what to say to NPC's (Played by Megan Melnyk and Jesse Wilson). 

Ray can be commanded to "Turn the crank", or "Examine the door" and such, but the puzzles he faces require more than just combining inventory items (Although he will have do that on occasion). Ray and the audience are on a psychological journey to resolve some of his emotional baggage; the players will have to explore Ray's past, and make him come to terms with it.   Several of the scenes have alternate endings depending on how well the audience helps out, and the show has four possible endings which are determined by the choices players make throughout the performance.

Brain Explode is more than just a game, there’s a proper story and it’s enjoyable to watch even for audience members who aren’t one of the players.  The performers stay in character, but find ways to help out if the audience appears to be stumped, and will play along if ordered to do something silly (At the performance I saw, one joker made Ray carry his mother's purse for a section of the game, something Ray did not forget in subsequent scenes).

Brain Explode is a tricky project, and while it isn’t grand drama, it is a very unusual piece of theater.  It might be a bit gimmicky, or too experimental for many theater-goers, but it is certainly of interest to people who enjoy seeing boundaries pushed.

Although interactive theater has been around for a while, this is the first project I've seen which uses the text adventure premise, and the show is a very clever blending of a game and a play.  Adventure game fans should definitely catch Brain Explode, and arrive early in order to play. 

It’s performing several more times during July as part of the Brick Theater’s Game Play Festival in Williamsburg Brooklyn.  More about Brain Explode can be found at the Brick’s website.


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