Wanderer Sabaku met me at the foot of his mansion's grand double stairway on the Diabolos server of Final Fantasy 14. He was nearly twice my size and towered in a purple floor-length coat. A crown sat on his blue-grey head. He welcomed me from behind a partition and led me down some winding stairs into the basement, which opened onto a theatre. It was his theatre, where, on December 31 and January 1, he will direct a full-scale, in-game production of "I Want to Be Your Canary", a play from Final Fantasy 9.
Moving past some cushioned benches, he perched on the edge of the stage. Lights, stage doors, a VIP balcony and all the trappings of a modern-day drama hall surrounded us. "It's what I believe in," he told me. "The fact that a video game, something people sometimes see as a waste of time, can be used for something that the community can truly benefit from."
Wanderer Sabaku, whose real name is Steve Pederzani, is a full-time law student in Seattle. He spends his spare time directing, coordinating, stage designing and acting for his FF14 theatre collective, A Stage Reborn. It's a play on FF14's tagline, "A Realm Reborn". "I Want to Be Your Canary" is his first magnum opus as a director in FF14. It's about the drama that unfolds around a princess and her peasant lover.
Over a dozen players act in it, and even for rehearsals, strangers travel across servers with level one accounts to witness some live, in-game theatre. Over 50 players can fit into the space. After being invited to a rehearsal, I can say that it is, by far, the most mirthful player project I have seen in an MMO.
Pederzani's theatre background stretches back as far as primary school, when he was the lead in a play about a farmer and his obstinate animals. Through undergraduate, he pursued acting, eventually majoring in it. But over time, acting took a backseat to something more abstract: The way theatregoers collected around drama. What would a projector add to the mood? How do people feel on their way out of an absurdist play? After Pederzani graduated from university, he pursued theatre professionally. But he found that the focus was more about peddling tickets than providing an experience.
"All of my greatest memories and moments were when I wasn't paid," he told me from his seat on A Stage Reborn's set. "Paid contracts were very, very different. Some nights I only got 2 hours of sleep because of the workload."
A Stage Reborn
All the while, Pederzani was playing the first Final Fantasy MMO, FF11. The game's plot is level one armour thin. But the NPCs' cutscenes, to him, felt immersive, like a non-interactive drama. That inspired him to write little scripts -- creative explanations for FF11's plot lapses. For example, according to FF11 lore, the servants of Altana, the Dawn Goddess, are FF11's Game Masters (GMs), real-life players who role-played as the game's guiding angels and punishing lords. But lore never really elaborated on where they came from. There, Pederzani saw an opportunity.
"I figured, wouldn't it be fun if one of those servants went rogue? It'd give us a reason to pry into the lore of 'what is a GM?'" Pederzani told me. And further, if the GMs were actors of sorts, completely integrated into the game, what could he do with a whole cast of MMO actors?
A Stage Reborn
A Stage Reborn hosts skits, costume contests and, in October, a fully-functioning haunted house. Players on the Diabolos server were led through a decrepit mansion set where a mystery plot unravelled. Actors would jump out from corners and through doors, impersonating ghosts or monsters. Actors, ushers and fans of A Stage Reborn told me they heard about it when Pederzani did a 10 million gold giveaway.
It's not role-playing, Pederzani insists. It's acting. "A lot of players, when they see that we do in-game shows and that we take what we do seriously, come in thinking we're a role-playing troupe," he said. "Those are two common misconceptions -- we consider ourselves a community organisation free and open to all to enjoy, and we're not role-players." Acting in "I Want to Be Your Canary" is in a theatrical context, he says. It isn't simple self-expression. It's art.
A Stage Reborn
Last week, Pederzani invited me to a dress rehearsal for "I Want to Be Your Canary". I arrived at 11:30PM PST (6:30PM AEDT). Dino Dexee, a cat woman in a dapper red suit, was waiting by the mansion's grand stairway before she led me down into the theatre. "If you have any questions, please let me or any of the ushers in red know," she said. When I entered the theatre, it was full of a dozen humanoid felines, elfs, humans and little munchkin beasts. I followed Dexee as she wordlessly guided me through a small red door at the back of the theatre and up some stairs, where there was a red curtain. "Just type /sit at the red curtain where you'd like to have your character sitting, it will automatically pull your character onto the spot," Pederzani explained from below. The command glitched me into an ivy-trimmed VIP box. Someone had left an idle, hefty female avatar there.
"I deeply apologise for the delay," Pederzani said. A character who played a larger role was running late. After some anxious waiting, Pederzani volunteered to read his lines. "Everyone to places," he said in a commanding yellow font. After a moment, the lights dimmed and a rousing string track played. Fireworks went off on stage and from behind a window at its back. Finally, King Leo, played by Pederzani, entered. The avatar was an alternate -- Pederzani's "Wanderer Sabaku" was still stationed in the audience. The word "<<ACTOR>>" hung above King Leo's head. He bowed and we applauded. Then he sent a series of messages to general chat:
King Leo: Ladies and Gentlemen!
King Leo: Tonight's performance is a story that takes place long, long ago.
King Leo: Our heroine, Princess Cornelia, is torn from her lover, Marcus.
King Leo: She attempts to flee the castle, only to be captured by her father, King Leo.
King Leo: Tonight's story begins when Marcus, having heard of this, crosses swords with the king.
A fight scene broke out. The actors drew their weapons while King Leo cast colourful spells on aggressors. As actors scurried around the stage, in a kind of Yakkety Sax runaround, King Leo grasped at them, looking around with an urgency that broke through FF14's rigid emote system. Bombs flew. The dead /lied down. After the fight was over, the lights dimmed and casualties got up and walked off stage.
A Stage Reborn
King Leo wasn't typing every line live, in-time with the action. But he was hitting emote macros and moving around the stage with mouse and keyboard. His timing was a measure of perfect only reached after weeks of rehearsal. He was performing, and doing a damn good job. More impressive was the stage tech. Garrett Melton, who plays a lead in "I Want to Be Your Canary", told me that FF14 has severe limitations when it comes to acting. In a safe zone like the A Stage Reborn theatre, players can't actually be killed, because they're not formally in combat. And there isn't a great emote for faking death unless you're near a bed. On a wood stage, a few spare beds could look a little unprofessional.
"You face interesting limitations," Melton said. "To address this, we hid beds at the appropriate spots beneath the stage. When someone dies, they're actually just using the /doze emote directly above one of the hidden beds, which allows them to lie down on the stage and fall asleep at that spot." Melton thinks video games are, in his words, a "creative medium". To get a lead, he auditioned for Pederzani with Andrew Ryan's introductory speech to Bioshock's City of Rapture.
A Stage Reborn
To put the set together, Pederzani meticulously studied cutscenes in FF9. He drew sketches. He made lists of must-haves, like the balcony and entrances from stage left, right and upstage centre, as well as a below-stage entrance. "We couldn't mimic the set entirely since housing just doesn't allow that in-game, but we were able to make a close derivative that worked for the show," Pederzani told me.
At the end of rehearsal, the actors strode out on stage in small groups, Merrill and Melton among the last. They all bowed together several times. We in the audience /cheered and /clapped. Then, they all started dancing.
"A lot of folks are surprised when they come to our server or [mansion] and find out that we're just a bunch of normal players doing a show," Pederzani told me. "Think of us like you think of your local or regional community theatre. Just inside a video game instead. We're all normal players that, outside of events, still play the game the same as everyone else."
"I Want to Be Your Canary" will be performed on December 31 and January 1 at 12:00PM AEDT on FF14's Diabolos server. The stage is located at the Lavender Beds, 8th Ward, Plot 28.