Arts Comedy Interview Preview Singapore

Performing Video Games: An Interview with award-winning ‘The Dark Room’ creator John Robertson

What if you could play a video game in real life, making decisions that have actual consequences on how you progress, and even stand to win an attractive reward at the end? That’s kind of what John Robertson does with his award-winning show The Dark Room.

Originating as a YouTube series with over 4 million views and counting, and spawning a videogame, 250,000 viewer Twitch livestream, and thousands of audience members in the theatre at comedy and gaming festivals around the world, The Dark Room is the sleeper hit you never knew you needed, and as it comes to Singapore next week (produced by Bowtie Productions), now you get a chance to crawl your way out!

Touted as the world’s only live-action, text-based choose-you-own-adventure game, The Dark Room traps you in a retro videogame with a sadistic end-of-level boss. Choose your options, survive the abuse simulator that is the improv comedy overlord John Robertson, and escape to win £1,000 – or, be brutally murdered by the rest of the crowd…

Can you survive? Find out when it comes to The Projector X: Picturehouse next weekend. For now though, read our interview with creator and performer John Robertson in full, and find out more as he shares his thoughts on gaming, streaming, and the incredible success of his show:

Bakchormeeboy: As much as artists and creators hope for a degree of success, nobody ever expects a cult hit to become a cult hit. How did you feel when The Dark Room became as popular as it did? What makes you think that it garnered the popularity that it did? 

John: It’s a very nice surprise! I think people enjoy a show they can get involved in – after all, the comedian onstage can see you, too – so if you feel like it, why not play a game together? And if that comedian happens to be jumping around dressed in spiked armour like an end-of-level videogame boss, the game he wants to play might be pretty good.

Bakchormeeboy: The Dark Room originated in 2012 as a series of videos on YouTube, but has since been adapted for live staging, an online show and even an actual game. Does the medium of the show completely change one’s experience of it, e.g. experiencing it live in a theatre compared to a Twitch stream? Is it important to maintain a certain sameness of mechanics across mediums? 

John: Oh yeah. When we do it in a theatre, there’s a huge amount of audience chanting, everybody makes a great noise. On Twitch, there’s more technical stuff we can do, and you watch the text in the chat go wild. And you can fit more people in a Twitch stream. Biggest crowd I’ve done The Dark Room to live was about 2000 people. On stream? 250,000. We change the story of the game across mediums, but aside from that – you’re in a dark room, I’m going to kill you, there’s four options on the screen to pick – and a pineapple is always called a Flamboyant Potato.

Bakchormeeboy: We live in a golden age of streaming and content creation. Whether online or in real life, do you ever feel that with the degree of accessibility and how anyone can become a streamer and put their art out there, the ones that do find success are the ones that ‘deserve’ it? Is there ever a fear of there being too much competition or viewers being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content available to them, or does everyone find their niche somehow?

John: I’d say success is finding an audience that appreciates what you do. To me, if you’re making a living, or having fun, you’re a success. And worrying about competition all the time will drive you mad. There’s something for everyone out there, I’m just always happy if the thing people decide is for them happens to be me. (twitch.tv/robbotron)

Bakchormeeboy: To date, you continue to run your own community and series of shows on Twitch as well – do you feel you put on a specific and intentional ‘streamer’ personality when coming out on stage or on an online show? Does being ‘genuine’ matter in the world of performing arts / streaming? 

John: Oh, yeah. The guy you see when I stream or do stand-up is absolutely me, usually just a bit excited and having fun and being a bit of a jerk. And then off-camera, I’m still like that, but hopefully not a jerk! I appreciate my audience a lot. There’s no point faking that – without them, the show is just me alone at home, doing voices and trying on outfits. And I did enough of that when I was 8.

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve done versions of The Dark Room specifically for children. Do you change the show massively between a child-friendly and adult version? Should there be a limit on what children can/should be exposed to in a theatre space based on their age? 

John: I don’t change it at all! Kids love funny violence, so I just don’t swear as much. But they also like swearing, so I only cut down on that so the parents feel better. I think the limits on what you can show kids are pretty easy to understand – they don’t need to know about sex, for example. But otherwise, kids are robust and have great imaginations – if you’re doing a show and it treats everyone equally, that’s pretty good. And then you tear someone’s head off and give them a terrible prize and all the 7 year-olds laugh.

Bakchormeeboy: As much as games are awarded and recognised in their own category, they aren’t often considered an art form, or on the same level as other art forms. Do you think it’s important to change that perception? Or should these new hybrid, live forms of gaming continue to occupy their own, weird and undefined lack of categorisation that doesn’t shove them in with other more traditional performing art forms? 

John: I think it’s foolish not to recognise games as an art form, especially when they’re the art form that makes the most money! And live shows like mine are definitely part of theatre – I’m happy not to be categorised, because I know what I’m doing is a big old fusion of stand-up, improv, gaming, multimedia, Artaud, Brecht and postmodernism, but once you get through all that – it’s also just a really good excuse to put on a costume and yell at hundreds of people.

Bakchormeeboy: Will you be localising The Dark Room in any way for your upcoming show in Singapore? How do you hope to welcome new ‘psychopaths’ from Singapore into the cult of The Dark Room?  

John: Oh, always. The show changes everywhere we go. And no psychopaths, please – I’m the only psychopath at my shows. YOU AWAKE TO FIND YOURSELF IN A DARK ROOM, lah!

The Dark Room plays from 13th to 14th January 2023 at The Projector X: Picturehouse. Tickets and more information available here

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