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Discovering the ‘object’ of the game, is the game

A few years ago, I attended a community theater performance of “The Fourth Wall” — a play by A.R. Gurney that gives this weekly space its name.

The meta concept is simple: A domestic situation slowly begins to unravel as one of the characters becomes obsessed with knowing why her home has an invisible “fourth wall” … literally, as per the definition, the “wall” separating the play from the audience.

It wasn’t a particularly successful production, so I spent much of the show holding an internal debate as to what would happen if a random member of the audience — and I’m as random as it gets — would leave his chair mid-performance, walk onto the stage and take a seat in the living room set.

The play hammers nails into the fourth wall repeatedly … so just what was it that keeps those in attendance from turning a static play into a truly interactive experience?

(I have little doubt, by the way, that someone at a random production somewhere had more guts than I and carried out such a scenario.)

“The Fourth Wall” came to mind this week as I thought about “Ready Player One,” the latest film by Steven Spielberg, which is adapted by the novel by Ernest Cline.

The movie, for those who don’t know, tells the story of players who are in a race to retrieve a valuable Easter egg planted inside a virtual reality experience by a recently deceased programming maestro.

There’s other stuff — like a saving-the-world subplot, and countless references to 1980s popular culture — but those are McGuffins compared to the notion that what you (the moviegoer) are doing is living vicariously through video gamers who create alter-egos of their own (avatars) and enter a virtual reality landscape to unlock secrets, solve puzzles and search for a singular object … as you sit there obediently, unable to play the game.

The novel was written in the same fashion, and included clues to real-world Easter eggs of its own for readers to decipher. This being the era in which so many of us get sucked into virtual worlds, the movie has a similar play-along aspect for obsessive-compulsives to uncover.

If all that seems like too much work, ask yourself this question: Would you rather spend an hour or so in one of those trendy escape rooms, play an escape room video game or watch episodes of “Race To Escape” — an actual television show that ran for one season on the Science Channel, where you’d follow along as others tried to find their way out of escape rooms?

It all depends on where you stand (or sit).

We allow ourselves to spend time to see others play games all the time. There’s no basic difference between watching “Jeopardy!” or your average NFL game … although much less money is spent betting on which contestant will win at “Jeopardy!”

There are even TV shows that pit teams of video gamers in action against each other, while we sit on our couches unable to work a controller or joystick ... if joysticks are actually still a thing. Look, I admit to not being one who’s interested in video games — thus the joystick question — but even I’d rather spend time, you know, actually playing a game than watching random teams of others do so.

This is not to say that the concept of watching someone else in the middle of a game can’t work.

The recent film “Game Night” laid it out at the start, having its protagonists unsure of whether they were actually in a game. It was a lighter treatment of perhaps the best of these efforts — “The Game,” the 1997 film directed by Ashland High School graduate David Fincher which sent Michael Douglas through the rabbit hole of a high-stakes adventure that left him wondering where the “game” ended and where reality began.

What made those examples work, though, was the ability to draw the audience into being co-conspirators — unlike the forced separation of something like the 1985 film of “Clue,” which took the participatory elements of the board game and created a relatively standard version of a murder mystery.

(Three versions, actually, since “Clue” had alternate endings which unmasked different killers … in a clever and-or crass attempt to get moviegoers to buy tickets to see the same film three times.)

Other times, we figuratively get out of our seats and break through those invisible fourth walls willingly. We engage in the art and the artifice.

We hope that Truman Burbank sails his way out of that massive television studio not just because we have grown to care for the character, but because we can’t imagine life as a laboratory rat for the amusement of an audience.

David and Jenny Wagner enter Pleasantville through their TV set and when one stays and the other leaves, it feels like the best decision for both – just as we know it’s for the best that film character Tom Baxter returns through the movie screen showing “The Purple Rose Of Cairo,” so that actor Gil Shepard can resume his life.

But there’s little need for such empathy when we willing sacrifice up our time to watch an avatar of a character on a screen playing a game that’s depicted on another screen or through a virtual reality simulator. That’s too many degrees of separation, even for Kevin Bacon.

Those hours of entertainment are enough for some, I suppose — although, for me, I’m left thinking about Cypher wrestling with his conscience (and consciousness) while trying to decide whether to believe in the truth, or The Matrix.

Meanwhile, if I ever were to see another performance of “The Fourth Wall,” Peggy and Roger better be prepared for unexpected company.

Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

The Fourth Wall
Actor Tye Sheridan plays a character named Wade Owen Watts who plays a virtual reality game as an avatar known as Parzival in the film “Ready Player One.” - Warner Bros.