Take That, Monica! Kapow, Chandler!
March 3, 2003

From the New York Times

On a coming episode of the television show "Friends," here's what might happen. Ross arrives and starts to whine. Suddenly an armor-clad warrior rushes in and with a blast from a space-age weapon reduces Ross to a pile of twitching viscera. But the show must go on, so Ross pulls himself together and rises to complete his sniveling soliloquy. Just as he finishes, he is slaughtered again. Call this episode "The One Where Ross Is Repeatedly Annihilated by a Plasma Rifle."

Except that this full-combat "Friends" takeoff will be seen on the Internet, not on television. And rather than a cozy New York cafe built on a Hollywood sound stage, the show's setting will be the futuristic digital scenery of "Quake III Arena," the ultraviolent computer game.

This marriage of carnage and comedy is the creation of Joseph DeLappe, an artist and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. On Saturday Mr. DeLappe and five fellow players will convene in cyberspace to perform "Quake/Friends." The actors will appear on the computer screen as typical "Quake" gladiators, but each will have assumed the role and identity of a "Friends" character. Then, using the game's instant-message system, they will re-enact the real show's 1994 pilot episode in the "Quake" space by typing and transmitting dialogue to other players' screens.

So far, so dull. But online performance is, in a way, a form of street theater, and audience participation is expected to enliven the action. While the "Quake/Friends" actors won't fire their weapons, unsuspecting "Quake" players will notice that a game is under way and will be able to enter the show with their own guns blazing. In a game whose sole goal is to kill as many as possible, Monica will be mowed down and Chandler chopped in half. Happily, actors who die can, at the click of a button, return to the virtual stage and continue delivering their lines, a concept any actor would cheer.

"Friends" was recently renewed for a 10th and final season. Anyone puzzled by its sustained success should greatly enjoy the notion of its congenially witless characters being dispatched in such gruesome fashion. At the same time, by executing the six beloved "Friends" characters instead of anonymous warriors, "Quake/Friends" effectively exposes the shameful violence at the heart of many computer games.

The "Quake/Friends" project is another instance of using a computer game as a medium for creative expression and cultural criticism. While the first examples were mostly commentaries on the games themselves, the latest projects have grander ambitions.

Mr. DeLappe said he was motivated to combine the brutal "Quake" and the genteel "Friends" because both are pop-culture creations that "present a fantasy, a simplistic view" of the world. He said the "Friends" characters' happy life in New York is "this perfect existence, and it's totally fake." To him the "Quake" violence is equally phony. "You're killed but you're instantly O.K.," he said. "There's no real consequences to it."

There are other similarities as well. Both "Quake" and "Friends" take place within tightly defined universes. The action on "Friends," such as it is, rarely occurs outside the characters' apartments or the Central Perk cafe, while "Quake" shoot-outs are confined to their computer-generated environments.

Nor is it obvious whether it is "Quake" or "Friends" that can claim to have the most three-dimensional characters. Both function on a set of predetermined rules. So just as we can predict that an opponent will need to reload at a certain point, we also know that Joey won't get the joke. As for character development, neither Phoebe nor the gun-toting skeleton has matured much since we first met them.

But Mr. DeLappe is less interested in cultural criticism than in establishing the Internet as a new kind of theater. Computer interaction is not usually considered to be a form of performance, but it can be. We adopt roles. We communicate in real time. We speak publicly. It is something of a cliché to say all the World Wide Web's a stage, but there is some truth in it, too.

No one wants to watch Shakespeare on a computer screen, but to determine what will work theatrically on the Internet, it makes sense to experiment with a classic text from another medium. In 2001 Mr. DeLappe started "reading" antiwar poems into computer games like "Medal of Honor," a game that simulates World War II, in an attempt to provoke a reaction from other players. He held a private "Quake/Friends" performance last fall.

With this "Quake/Friends," Mr. DeLappe, 39, has upped the ante. It will be staged in the campus art gallery with six large screens displaying what each actor sees as he delivers his lines. A Webcam will allow online viewers to observe from afar. (The performance, which is expected to last two to three hours, is scheduled to start at 10 p.m. Eastern time, and will be accessible online at delappe.ws.)

Rachel Greene is the author of the forthcoming "Internet Art" (Thames & Hudson, 2004). In a telephone conversation she compared "Quake/Friends" to the conceptual-art "happenings" of the 60's. Like those performances, she said, Mr. DeLappe's project does work from a script. "But in other ways it's very much not scripted," she added. "And it is in this very particular environment."

Mr. DeLappe is not the first to conduct such experiments with Internet theater. In 1998 computer scientists performed a version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in a crudely rendered 3-D environment. It was not for the faint of heart or slow of modem. In 1997 Desktop Theater, an experimental online group, staged a reading of "Waiting for Godot" within an Internet chat room. The play's main characters were represented by lime-green circles that talked. The performance was derailed when a muscleman who claimed to be Godot arrived and declared the wait to be over.

Adriene Jenik, a co-founder of Desktop Theater, said that if the Internet was to be used in a theatrical way, "you have to push against the boundaries to see what's possible."

Still, efforts like Mr. DeLappe's make sense to Robert Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University. When characters become as culturally ingrained as those from "Friends," he said, "They become part of this repertory theater that can be re-interpreted by other performers."

After all, isn't "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" just a slightly more psychological version of Pong?


©2003 The New York Times Company