As I watched Felicia Day interact with a video game version of herself, I was struck by the degree of existential weirdness that was going on in front of me. What must it be like to come face to face with a pre-recorded, interactive version of yourself? I tried to imagine having a branching, BioWare-style conversation with my own video game doppelgänger and couldn't quite make the leap. Would I be aggressive? Kind? Flirty? Would I push my on-screen likeness around just to see what happened?
I soon realised I was seeing something else as well — here was a talented writer, musician, and actor getting a substantial taste of the world of video game development, watching as her longstanding views on the power of interactive fantasy were spun into a new kind of reality. Gaming needs people with fresh artistic perspectives, people who bring a wealth of game and non-game influences to bear on their work, who can push the form in interesting new directions while still respecting the traditions that have led it to this point. In other words, gaming needs people like Felicia Day.
An actor, writer, musician and producer, Day is best known for her roles web-based TV works like Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and her own series The Guild, which is a lighthearted romp through the lives of six online gamers. The Guild was Day's creation, and in addition to writing and producing it, she plays the main character, a nervous, unconfident gamer named Cyd "Codex" Sherman.
Looking at Day's intimidating number of Twitter followers (as of this writing, she is at 1.86 million), it is tempting to call her "Internet famous." That is something of a loaded term, in that it implies that internet success is somehow less substantial than the "real" success of Hollywood. Day does have several television credits, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more recently Eureka, but even without them, her legions of devoted fans present a compelling argument that whatever its origins, her fame is anything but insubstantial. (For example, Day shared the story of a recent Comic-Con attendee who had her sign his calf, then used the autograph as a template for a permanent tattoo.)
I met up with Day last week in San Francisco at an Electronic Arts-sponsored press event. The meeting had been put together to promote two different products: a chunk of downloadable game content for EA's role-playing game Dragon Age II called Mark of the Assassin, and web series called Dragon Age: Redemption, which was written and produced by Day. Both the game and the series centre around a character named Tallis, who is played by Day.
Sitting in the hotel suite that EA had set up to show the game, Day certainly didn't look the part of a geek glamor girl or a hollywood actress. She was dressed casually, sporting jeans, glasses, and a t-shirt, and wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the game-strewn freeplay rooms at the Penny Arcade Expo.
Immediately after I arrived, she got right down to it, picking up the controller and working her way through the opening minutes of Mark of the Assassin. As she played, she regarded the game with a mellow, thoughtful intensity — this may have been a promotional event, but her enthusiasm was never less than genuine. At one point in the demo, Tallis (and therefore Day) had to emit a dragon's mating call — it was a hilarious bit of awful voice-acting, something between a goose and a dinosaur cry. Everyone in the room was laughing by the middle of the scene, and Day was laughing perhaps hardest of all.
I asked her about how EA approached her to write Redemption, and how the whole rest of the deal came together. "I have been reluctant to do other projects, but when I heard that I would be able to work with Dragon Age… I'm a huge fan. I played Baldur's Gate; I'm old-school. I played all six origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins, I was hardcore about it."
Gaming culture can be very suspicious of outsiders who glom onto geekdom in an effort to make a quick buck. Whenever an attractive, successful actor espouses his or her secret, nerdy childhood, we become rightly suspicious. But unlike Day, most celebrities didn't become well-known by telling stories about the goofy lives of a bunch of online gamers. "Sometimes I'm just 'talent'" she told me, "I'm just an actor. But for the things that I create from scratch — to me, that's more fulfilling."
Day said that when writing Redemption, she made a concerted effort to do her homework and build a story that was true to Dragon Age. "Whatever anybody says… I researched this," she said. "I read original forum posts, the grandfathered-in, old forum from before Dragon Age: Origins, was released. I read practically every single post that [BioWare writers]David [Gaider]or Mary [Kirby]did on the Qunari for research. I went into my first meetings with [Dragon Age II lead designer]Mike Laidlaw and the other BioWare people and I was like, 'Here are my questions,' which were very specific about the lore. I wanted to make sure that they knew that I was looking at their world as sacrosanct. I want to take the zeitgeist of what they did, and put it into the narrative of the web series. So when I looked at writing a scene, I said, 'would this be similar to a player character interacting with a non-player-character in the game?' Just so that spirit was alive, because it's been an iffy thing with adapting video games into a narrative [in the past] ."
It was an enjoyable challenge coming up with party members for the web-series who were worthy of BioWare's high standards. "The companion characters in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and all BioWare games, that's the appealing thing, you're creating a family. So when I was sitting down and constructing those character relationships, and how they would play off each other, and how they would compliment each other in a narrative way, that was the most fun and challenging part of it. Making sure that if there was somebody who might be a love interest, that they would qualify in a BioWare way. If I was playing the game, this is someone I'd want as a companion. That was sort of my baseline."
Another challenge was the task of recreating the vibe of the Dragon Age universe on a web-series budget. "It was a challenge being able to scale it appropriately so that I did service to the Dragon Age world, which is a huge, epic fantasy world. But you know, [in a web series]we can't build the whole city of Kirkwall!"
One of my own favourite moments in The Guild comes at the end of Season 3. In an all-or-nothing Player-vs.-Player showdown with an evil rival guild, Day's character Cyd winds up her team's last woman standing. She completely panics, and in doing so blacks out and awakens in a parallel reality, face-to-face with her in-game character, a mage named "Codex."
"Stop moving me like a total spaz," Codex admonishers Cyd. "Stop playing me like I'm you."
"I am you!" Cyd protests, confused.
"You wish," Codex replies. "I'm who you are in-game. Who you want to be. Confident, in-charge, naturally wavy hair… You're playing me like I'm Cyd! Twitchy, self-conscious… just relax and be me for a minute. Reality is kicking your arse right now."
Of course, immediately after hearing this, Cyd snaps out of it and wins the day. It's a wonderful bit of commentary on one of the things that games allow us to do — we build versions of ourselves that exist only in our imaginations, and sometimes, our lives would be improved simply by acting more like our digital counterparts.
I was reminded of that scene while watching Day interact with an digital version of herself in the real world, so I asked her about it. "I think that different people approach gaming in different ways," she said, "but I think that especially if you come from a role-playing game background, to me, as a gamer, the highlight of my gaming world is creating my avatar. Because I am projecting myself into that world. In that world I can be all-powerful, I can behave the way I want."
"When I created The Guild," she continued, "I wanted to celebrate what we were. We celebrate all aspects of gaming, not just things that a person on the street might see as 'A Gamer.' Somebody who doesn't know anything about gaming sees The Guild and says, 'All those different kinds of people play? I had no idea.' But a gamer watches and says "Oh my gosh I know a Vork!' or, 'That's such a cliché, that whole Clara character.' So it is a fine line to peel back the curtain and show the world that gaming is universal, gaming is enjoyed by so many different kinds of people and also engage hardcore gamers, to show that familiarity."
Like so many effective creative people, Day operates largely in terms of collaboration and teamwork. She wasn't always an actor — in college, she double-majored in mathematics and classical Violin — and her musical training carries over to how she approaches her creative work today. "The thing I love more than anything is chamber music, kind of doing trios and quartets, being able to be a part of a whole and produce something together. And I think that infuses everything that I do. Filmmaking is the same thing. You're getting a bunch of people who have disparate talents, and bringing them together to make a whole. That's filmmaking, that's an orchestra, that's making a video game." She sees playing a game in much the same way. "The dynamic when you put four people together into a party [in a game] , each of them brings a different quality and they create a whole. If you have four sassy characters or four shy characters, it's not going to be a fun party."
Now that she has dipped her toe into video game production, it's hard not to wonder what she'll get up to next. As the video game industry continues to grow and diversify, we need fresh perspectives and new energy to help it along. Whatever the end result of her partnership with Dragon Age, Day's move towards the creative side of video games is heartening. She is a thinker and a doer — at 32 she has written and produced two different web series, performed in television dramas and musicals, and regularly demonstrated her rare grasp of the wonderful weirdness at the heart of video games.
Career pressures and financial considerations may dictate a move towards more film and television work, but it's hard not to hope to see Day's name in the credits for a few more games, as well. We've got our Spectors and our Miyamotos, our Levines and our Hockings, but there's always room for new voices. Video games could use a little bit more Felicia Day.