“Play well or play badly, but play truly.” No, this doesn’t come from a cringy video game ad or some guru gamer trying to sell their experience to you. Those words were written by Konstantin Stanislavski, one of the most important actors and directors of the last century, and the creator of the system which years later would be developed into “Method Acting.“ The phrase speaks to the central theme of Stanislavki’s method: the actor’s credibility and true belief in their performance. But what if I told you that this line could also be applied to games?
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When I was eighteen years old, I started taking acting classes in a new theatre school. The main objective of these lessons was to learn how to improvise. If you haven’t acted before, It may sound like an easy activity which doesn’t require a deep knowledge of the art — no lines to memorize, no characters to live up to, you just let your mind and body speak freely and everything will happen “naturally.” I assure you: this task is possibly one of the most arduous skills an actor has to develop. There is a series of concepts and tools that you have to work out first before being able to improvise an scene.
What does this have to do with gaming, you may ask? Some titles remind me of the importance of improvisation and everything I learned from acting every time I play them. Take last year’s Dead Cells, for example. A 2D roguelike in which you don’t lose everything you gain in your walkthrough; there are specific upgrades that stay with you forever. Like any roguelike, you will see the “Game Over” screen dozens of times — and this will teach us the first lesson of acting.
Step 1: Frustration
I felt frustrated with Dead Cells. Having spent hours without even reaching the final boss and starting all over again was infuriating, and reminded me of all the pain and suffering I experienced in some of my early acting classes. Every time I “failed” in an exercise, it felt like a heavy bag was suddenly put in my shoulders and I couldn’t stand it. Sometimes, I even broke down like a newborn. Actors are called “walking frustrations” — at least in my country — for a reason. I haven’t cried playing Dead Cells (yet) but I learnt how to deal with this frustration and improve my ways of playing.
An important part of improvisation and acting in general is learning how to deal with repetition and failure. We need to strengthen our ability to keep our concentration and focus, something that can be developed through a series of exercises and lots of practice. When you fail in keeping your concentration, it’s said that you are “blocked.” This is what we must avoid, because it not only makes us fail, but feel miserable about our failure.
We need to realize that more often than not, no activity or goal we set is a one way road ending in “failure” or “success”: It’s a tricky and unclear road full of both. We need to be conscious of our emotions, and try to keep unhealthy reactions, like getting violent with others or depressed with ourselves, out of the way if possible. This can be done with a trained focus. When I started playing Dead Cells more patiently and less angrily, I progressed further each time, until I finally slayed the final boss.
Step 2: Break the Lines
I’m currently on my third playthrough of Devil May Cry 5. In case you aren’t familiar with the series, every time you beat the game you unlock a new difficulty mode, for a total of six modes. The last one will make you sweat like few things in life. “Hell & Hell” throws you against enemies that have four times more health and who can kill you in just one hit. You only get three revives, and there are no checkpoints. Have you come all the way to the end of the level avoiding any damage but you received three kicks in the ass by the boss? Sorry mate, go back to the beginning, git gud and try again.
Besides its harsh difficulty, the core of DMC’s combat is the “Stylish Rank System”. Perform a combo and a grade, usually “D,” will appear onscreen. You need to create variations in your attacks while avoiding receiving damage to get a better grade. Needless to say, this is a task which becomes harder and harder in higher difficulties. Whenever you are trying to finish the mission with an “S” or just willing it to be finished, improvisation is key.
I can’t play on “Dante Must Die” mode in the same way I’ve been playing since the beginning. More and deadlier enemies on screen can’t be taken with the same exact attacks of my pistols and my sword. I need to integrate other weapons and special abilities to create new combos and stop repeating the ones I know.
In any kind of activity, we tend to repeat what we do and create schemes of actions. This is helpful when we have routines, for example. On the other hand, when a new task is troublesome, new actions are demanded. Disrupting our established patterns, and creating new ones is mandatory. Stanislavski’s method encourages you to break from the exact lines and actions of the script, in order to act and react as genuinely as possible.
When playing as Dante, I used to hate “Cavaliere,” the chainsaw motorbike. It’s slower, it feels heavier than the other weapons, and I couldn’t get much damage from it. However, I gave it another try during my third walkthrough and I discovered its incredible crowd control power and combo finisher potential.
Step 3: Hear
As individuals, we often think that acting (or playing) is only about what we think in a specific moment, the decisions we choose or what actions we make. Of course, what we do with our body and mind while acting is crucial. However, we shouldn’t forget that, unless we are doing a monologue and we don’t need to see or feel the audience, there is always an Other in scene. An Other who isn’t just standing there: it’s someone who has feelings, desires and their own thoughts. This is why another key for a good improvisation is “hearing.” When you act, hearing your partner is an extremely important part.
This may sound obvious: if you are having a dialogue with someone, you are supposed to hear your partner’s lines so you know when to say yours. Nevertheless, this isn’t exactly what “hearing” means in this case. It’s about paying attention to what they are saying and how they are doing it: shouting, with tears in their eyes, calmly, with sexual intentions, etc. When you take all these precious details into consideration, a whole new world of understanding, acting and reacting opens up.
Now imagine that your “partners in scene” are actually your enemies in Devil May Cry. Of course, they aren’t real people with desires or inner thoughts, and they have a — sometimes disastrous — AI which makes them look like demonic robots. But DMC 5 does a great job at communicating what your enemies are about to do if you pay special attention to them. Look how that limb is glowing red, the direction its head is moving to or which sound it’s making. Grab all the information that you can and you will start improving your play. “Hear” those ugly bastards. They are probably saying much more than what is apparent.
Last Step: Play Truly
Stop playing automatically and give improvisation a chance. When you improvise, you create a new environment — an environment where anything could happen. I think of my combat possibilities as a part of this environment. There’s much more I can achieve when I fully realize the tools available, practice with them, and let my fingers flow in other directions every now and then.
I don’t tell you this because I want to tell you how to play or how to enjoy anything you are into. I’m doing so because what I have learned about acting has helped me to improve my daily life in many ways: having multiple points of views about an event or a fact, being able to look deeper into myself and what others are trying to say and, possibly most important of all, being genuine and feeling freer to express my thoughts and feelings.
I used to be a shy and full of self-loathing person. While there are still remains of those feelings, I strongly believe I’m a different person now. Some years of therapy did wonders, but also acting and that lovely school helped me with everything I learnt about being focused, playing truly and not doing what you are expected to do, among other things.
Being “blocked” and the illusive limitations in which we restrain ourselves prevent us from having fun and experimenting — not only when it comes to acting, but at any activity you want to do. Like playing video games, for example. And this world is already too disgusting a place to not fully enjoy play.