A scene from the workshop of Heroes Must Die, where audience members respond to prompts to determine the outcome of an action scene. Photo by Rick Stemm.
A scene from the workshop of Heroes Must Die, where audience members respond to prompts to determine the outcome of an action scene. Photo by Rick Stemm.

Everything is interactive.

That is my second maxim as an entertainer. The first is “don’t be boring.”

The main reason I became a storyteller is to avoid boredom. Even with all the video games in the word at my disposal there are still those irritating times when I am, say, on the toilet or in a meeting – then it’s up to my brain to do the entertaining. So I think of a story – sometimes I write it down. Because of this, I have a lot of practice keeping myself amused and therefore I can generally amuse others.

However, it’s getting harder to distinguish my work in the first way – adding interactivity. Is there a single form of media in your life that you no longer have control over? Unless you are part of a meet-cute in a bad romantic comedy, you don’t shop for records/tapes/CDs anymore – you turn on Pandora or Spotify, queue up a custom playlist or yell at your Xbox to bring up the music app. Your news probably comes from a variety of blogs like this one rather than a paper. And unless you are a super scientist time traveling back to see the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters (the presumed first use for anyone who devoted their life to time travel), you are going to watch what’s available for streaming instead of television.

I think this is fantastic. More choices, more media, more personalization, more agency. Audience agency in particular is where I have tried to hone my craft over many years. To me, the absolute best part of a story is when it becomes your story. And that’s tough. Creating meaningful interactivity is an art and a science. I have worked in the online education industry for about ten years, and it takes a deep understanding of how people learn and what motivates them to create a learning experience that engages someone and keeps their attention.

An interactive, branching, learning dialogue from the unreleased educational science game Lost in Limbo from Twist Education, a former San Antonio startup.
An interactive, branching, learning dialogue from the unreleased educational science game “Lost in Limbo,” from Twist Education, a former San Antonio startup.

This is also what drew me to video games at a young age. Contrary to popular belief, games do more than kill time or serve as a convenient scapegoat for troubling violence. They are the first and best form of entertainment where the audience is an active participant in the story. A whole new form of media was invented in our lifetimes, and then became the most popular and lucrative form of media in the world! (Though the time-killing part is still important too, for when I am in meetings and bathrooms.)

The intrinsic engagement of making choices is also what drove me to bring it to theater. Theater already puts you face-to-face with the audience – sometimes literally stepping over them – so why not get them involved? Sure people have seen improv and sung along to musicals, but I though to myself, why can’t they change the story themselves?

So when a friend and I set out to put the Great Detective through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure routine where the audience chose what clues to follow and thus what each next scene would be, it was a huge hit.

With 24 possible combinations of scenes, it was not only worth coming back every night, but in each moment, you got to pick what part of the story interested you the most and then make it go there.

The Narrator seeks choices from the audience against the protests of the Detective in You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! Photo by Rick Stemm.
The Narrator seeks choices from the audience against the protests of the Detective in “You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!” Photo by Rick Stemm.

I’ve been creating highly-interactive live theater pieces ever since and never looked back. Whether it was light audience play in my musical “Open Sesame! at the Overtime Theatre or a sprawling story told across the entire park of Luminaria 2013, I want the audience to be able to choose, change, and play with my show in some form.

So here we are with the brains of humans wired to engage with their world, with agency being key to sustained attention, with video games growing and theater struggling and with every asset of modern life to include some form of interactivity. So here I am with a life devoted to media that puts the audience in the metaphorical driver’s seat. I find myself at my current project: Heroes Must Die.

Heroes Must Die is perhaps the world’s first fully integrated combination of video games and theater, a transmedia project that brings these two forms together meaningfully. It will be released at the end of this year as a choice-driven roleplaying game, where players follow a branching story with many different paths and endings.

We will be able to track what decisions players make. Remember that part. The game’s sequel will be a live theater show performed next spring with Northwest Vista College at the Palmetto Center for the Arts.

The show will bring video games to life through massive props and puppets and will let the audience participate in game-like interactions that can change the story.

The story outlines for the game and play version of Heroes Must Die.
The story outlines for the game and play version of Heroes Must Die.

Where it gets truly insane is the connection.

We will look at decisions players make in the game before each show, and that will determine the story for the show that night. Different stories for the show will be written to match the different paths of the game, so game players’ decisions will affect the live show’s story each night.

The show will be streamed to players of the game during performances, and those owning the game lucky enough to attend the show will unlock new content in the game at the show. While each will stand alone and be enjoyable to someone only experience one or the other, seeing both will create a much deeper experience.

The evolution of the protagonist, from sketches to finished art to game objects to the actor portraying him.
The evolution of the protagonist, from sketches to finished art to game objects to the actor portraying him. Photo by Rick Stemm.

Both halves will be fantasy adventure stories, heavy on action and comedy. Both look at the evolving nature of heroes in modern times and modern media. The game follows the story of a would-be hero shanghaied into the villain’s army, and forced to fight against the kind of characters that usually make for video game heroes.

The play picks up when the world is no longer threatened by an outside force, but from within – when the inhabitants of the world (“players”) are allowed to fight against each other, chaos ensues. While this gives me a chance to look at the cosmogonic cycle and hero’s journey, the image of heroes today – gaming culture and its potential and toxicity – it’s mostly about bringing the action and comedy, so don’t worry.

While it is my hope to get cities across the country (the game will be available nationally, after all), San Antonio will be the hub of this epic experiment. I and some members of the Heroes Must Die team live here. By coordinating with Northwest Vista College‘s drama, game development, and digital video programs we’ll give students a chance to create something amazing. As a member of Geekdom – a collaborative working space – I am able to collaborate with other artists and entrepreneurs to bring in new ideas and technology, such as the possibility of an augmented reality component to the show.

A scene from the workshop of Heroes Must Die, where audience members respond to prompts to determine the outcome of an action scene. Photo by Rick Stemm.
A scene from the workshop of Heroes Must Die, where audience members respond to prompts to determine the outcome of an action scene. Photo by Rick Stemm.

This project means the world to me as an entertainer and citizen of San Antonio. I want to engage students and artists in something exciting. I want this city to be the home of something entirely new. I want people who have never set foot in a theater in their lives to see how incredible it can be. I want people dismissive of video games to see the joy in controlling your own story. I want people to engage with media in ways they never thought possible.

Our production is scheduled, a test scene of the play ran last year, and our game development is heavily underway. This project is rocketing forward. I hope to bring together as many artists and audience members as possible to create a project that redefines interactivity. If nothing else, it won’t be boring.

You can follow the progress of Heroes Must Die at our website, www.hmd-game.com, or find it on Twitter and Facebook, and Google+. Rick can be reached at rick@hmd-game.com, found at Geekdom or at any of the city’s better beer-dispensing facilities.

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Rick Stemm

Rick Stemm is a game designer, playwright, educator, and community leader in San Antonio. He teaches at Say Si, works with various San Antonio theaters, and helps run pretty much every game development...