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'Build' playwright Michael Golamco on the games people play

People need to compete and sometimes go to great lengths to do it. A new play imagines a game developer who's in deep.

October 30, 2012|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times
  • Playwright Michael Golamco on the set of "Build" at the Geffen Playhouse.
Playwright Michael Golamco on the set of "Build" at the Geffen… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

A conversation with Michael Golamco, whose new play "Build" is currently making its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, veers from the Greek myth of Pygmalion to the just-released video game "Borderlands 2." His play, "Build," falls somewhere in the middle of these ancient and modern texts.

In a single-level ranch-style house in the Bay Area, Thomas Sadoski's Kip, a genius game designer, has become a shut-in, and his onetime friend Will (Peter Katona) has swapped late computer nights for Silicon Valley riches. Laura Heisler plays the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), a digital creation who forces Will and Kip to confront their pasts.

Golamco talked to Culture Monster about "Build," which runs through Nov. 18, and the increasing complexity of game narratives.

Aside from being a gamer and having had some tech jobs, what attracted you, from a theatrical drama standpoint, to write about new media?

I think that all of us are becoming like Kip, a character obsessed with creating something inside of a screen. There's a growing virtual world. A lot of us spend a lot of time staring into screens. We carry screens in our pockets. We have screens in our bags. We go to work, we stare at screens. We come home, we stare at screens. What are we giving up?

As isolated as these characters are, they do learn quite a bit about themselves via technology.

I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. It's part of our evolution. It connects us and we're exposed to so many different ideas that it's pretty remarkable. But the question is: How is that changing us and what do we see in there that's so captivating?

Kip is very much the stereotypical "loner gamer." He walks around in a bathrobe, there are pizza boxes and soda cans strewn about his apartment. He even eats a Pop-Tart.

In order to accomplish great things, you have to go off into your own cave and do the work. That's how it has been since the dawn of time. Great literature has been written by people who are literally in their attics at times. They're literally hidden away. That's part of the deal.

There is a moment in the play when it's briefly unclear if one of the characters is real or another A.I. creation. Were you asking whether it was possible to have an emotional connection to a piece of technology?

The A.I. is, theoretically, completely not real, but we have an emotional reaction to it. … It all circles back to the Pygmalion thing. A guy carves a statue that comes to life just because of sheer emotion. That's really fun to play with.

As a playwright, what do you make of the increasingly open-ended narrative structure of games? A game like "Dishonored," for instance, presents a plot but allows it to be explored as an action game, a thriller or even a spy game.

That's why I'm super excited about "Dishonored." It allows you to try so many things. It just kind of unleashes you. The way to justify the cost of the game — $60 is a lot of money — is by making these huge open-world games.

In addition to video games, the characters in "Build" create a potential board or card game on the spot. Why are games important?

We have to play them. People have to have them. There's an intrinsic competitive spirit in human nature. Part of that is competing against each other and competing against the system. It's part of our nature to play these games in which we kill each other, outdo each other, cooperate and communicate. It's human longing. Kids in the middle of nowhere will invent games. That's just life.

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