Last weekend, I sat in an extremely dark Fresno theater with a bunch of strangers watching people get eaten by sharks, rob banks and cook pizza.
That sounds like a really confusing movie, but it was actually a live broadcast of a one-of-a-kind stage show going on 3,000 miles away. The cavaliers over at Rooster Teeth, one of the first YouTube channels dedicated to video games, attempted to bring their brand of improvisational game-related humor to thousands of people in more than 240 movies theaters across the United States.
And it worked in a big way.
I didn’t know what to expect walking into Edwards theater. I figured the event would be empty, because tickets were like $18 and only super nerds like me would be interested. So I showed up late.
That was a mistake, as the crowd of about 10 sweaty nerds I expected to join me was actually a crowd of about 60. I had to sit on those stupid side seats where the handrails obstruct the screen.
Members of Rooster Teeth’s Achievement Hunter, probably the channel’s flagship franchise, were playing a “Grand Theft Auto Online” heist. Rooster Teeth co-founder Geoff Ramsey was the only person on stage I recognized. I interviewed Ramsey a few weeks ago, and by some divine miracle I managed not to fan boy out on him. “Red vs. Blue” was must-watch for my crew in high school.
The three-plus hour marathon performance alternated between the game-related stuff and traditional stage performances – skits, physical challenges, and audience participation.
The gaming stuff was top-notch and mirrored the company’s Let’s Play videos – an impressive feat considering those are pared down from hours and hours of studio footage. If you have never seen a Let’s Play, it is essentially a group of people in one room playing some sort of multiplayer game and riffing off of what happens. Maybe someone jumped off a cliff like an idiot, so his buddies must now mercilessly heckle him.
Two things surprised me about the Let’s Play portions: Knowing or understanding whatever game they played was irrelevant, and the reactions they created in people in my theater.
I had never seen most of the titles used in Let’s Play Live. Please don’t tell my boss. They have a special room on the Bee building’s third floor (which is haunted, ask anyone) where they keep columnists whose knowledge falls behind.
But that really didn’t matter. After a few minutes, you can tell what the point of the game is and if things are going well or not by both the performers’ and your fellow audience members’ reactions. It was far more interesting watching the real people on stage react to video games – often in angry, hilarious ways I can relate to – than looking at whatever gameplay was flickering in the background.
Not all Rooster Teeth members pulled it off, though.
The Cow Chop guys were absolutely hilarious. They played the role of stereotypical Russian bad guys perfectly – cheating, riling up the crowd, protesting the victories of their American counterparts beautifully. One of them, Aleks Marchant, is actually from Russia, but they all pulled it off.
The Achievement Hunter crew was also pretty good. They are probably the most skilled gamers of the bunch – as that channel focuses on walk-throughs and unlocking difficult challenges in story-based games.
I did not care for the Funhaus team. Their video-game banter wasn’t quite there. They came off more as a group of actors trying to play video games, while the others were much more natural and loose.
One particular cringeworthy Funhaus moment nearly derailed the whole event for me. They played a game in which Lawrence Sonntag was disarming a bomb. He had to describe the bomb to his team, who had a bunch of informational printouts. They would then relay which wire to cut or button to press.
Sonntag basically kept sabotaging the team’s efforts by ignoring them, refusing to give them the clues they needed or cutting whatever wire he felt like. It felt fake, wasn’t funny and went on for far too long. The experience was similar to watching a high school play bomb in that it started out OK and then slowly started to turn south. You want to show support, but everyone knows it’s bad.
A lot of the skits performed while the technical teams set up the video games also fell flat. Those that worked typically did so only through Achievement Hunter’s Michael Jones’ loud, hilarious personality. He was by far the funniest person out there and shall forever be my spirit animal.
On-stage performance miscues are to be expected, though. The video games are why those people are up there, and I appreciated the effort put forth to entertain us while the game stations were set up.
I’m sure each of the 240+ theaters involved reacted to Let’s Play Live differently, but Fresno’s response tells me this type of performance has a major future. We laughed hard and often. We yelled at the screen when someone wasn’t playing the game right. I didn’t know any of the Rooster Teeth people by name, save for Ramsey, but those sitting around me did. And they screamed things at the players as if they could hear them.
Let’s Play Live was fun and engaging in a way I did not expect. I look forward to what Rooster Teeth and any other enterprising group does with the medium in the future.