Online theatre: All the web's a stage

Fancy a night in with the games console? Or is seeing a play a more appealing option? Rob Sharp reports on the theatre company that lets you do both – at the same time

As dusk falls over east London, I find myself standing in front of a dingy, seemingly deserted warehouse. Despite feeling nervous, I venture inside. Climbing a set of stairs, I find myself in a dark series of rooms. The reason I'm here isn't because I've taken up cat burglary, but because I've been invited to experience an exciting hybrid of art and hi-tech entertainment.

Theatre company Punchdrunk is renowned for pushing board-treading boundaries. Since its foundation in 2000, it has won praise from critics and audiences for shows in which participants are free to choose what they watch and where they go. Which is why I'm here. Today I'm going to get a sneak preview of Punchdrunk's first foray into video games, a show called Last Will, which is being shown to an exclusive audience for the first time.

Punchdrunk has teamed up with games company Hide & Seek, Hewlett-Packard research arm HP Labs and online design firm Seeper to create a "hybrid experience" between real and computer-generated worlds. And at first glance it seems very different to the average console adventure.

Last Will begins with two players walking into disconcerting darkness. Both are led through a series of "tunnels" hemmed in by drapes that hang either side of a dim, central corridor. The players then split up. My gaming partner for the evening, Ben, enters a "physical" realm – several interconnected rooms in the warehouse which have been made up to look like an elaborate theatre set. Meanwhile I enter a "virtual realm", which is a dark room in which sits – less glamorously – a computer workstation and headphones. Without wishing to give away details of the plot to would-be players, it's the story of an old man in trouble – whom both players have to help.

To do this, I must navigate through a computer-generated version of the physical space in which Ben is located. I'm charged with solving a number of puzzles, which involves clicking on various objects within a computer-generated room in sequence. I later discover that my actions within the virtual world are having effects in the physical world – such as unlocking doors.

"Clicking on a door in the 'computer game' triggers sound and lighting in the real world, and vice versa," explains Seeper's Evan Grant, who helped design the virtual world. "There is light-beam technology which the physical player has to block. This then triggers graphics to be displayed on the computer screen."

Back in my cubbyhole, I've completed my first puzzle. Although I'm elated, it all feels similar to an early level of point-and-click PC title Myst – a game I last played about 15 years ago. But what makes Last Will exciting is the correlation between the real and virtual world – anything I type into the computer is spoken aloud by a robotic voice, which my partner can hear. I can use this mechanism to help him complete a series of tasks with the props in front of him. When certain real objects are placed in the correct places – such as a pair of innocuous-looking slippers, say – sensors within the physical realm trigger responses within my computer screen. The graphics aren't mind-blowing, but it is easy to see how the concept could be used in, for example, a theme park, and could be extended to work across an entire building.

Punchdrunk is the brainchild of artistic director Felix Barrett. "We do everything we can to make people feel uneasy," he says of his work. "When you're on your toes, with adrenalin shooting around your body and all of your synapses firing, you're most receptive to the stimuli we give you."

The company's previous project was last year's The Masque of the Red Death, which The Independent described as "a certain type of site-specific theatre and starts a new experiment that leaves you trembling with anticipation. The performers hurl themselves into it with ferociously disciplined abandon." In it, audiences roamed free around the former Battersea Town Hall in south London, and were confronted with actors reinterpreting the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Last Will came about when theatre and television producer Alex Fleetwood contacted Barrett after seeing Punchdrunk's work. "Our ultimate aim with this was to prove how to extend site-specific theatre work into other media," says Fleetwood. "Our question was, 'How can you create something that is part game and part narrative, and make that into a theatrical atmospheric experience whether you are playing in real life or online?' To me, a Punchdrunk show is part theatre experience, part first-person shooter and part warehouse party. I like all of those things. It's a winning combo."

He's right. The idea is interesting and the experience reminds me of the old television programme Knightmare – for readers old enough to remember – but, mercifully, easier to play. Last Will is still a prototype but I look forward to seeing how Punchdrunk develops its latest weird and wonderful gaming experiment.

Virtual worlds: Where the internet and reality collide

Real-life Pac-man

In 2005, Singapore researchers developed a human version of Pac-Man, in which players wore a computer, headset and goggles and entered a real-world game space. The game merged technologies such as GPS, Bluetooth, virtual reality, Wi-Fi, infrared and sensing mechanisms.

Perplex City

Perplex City is an alternative-reality game (or ARG) organised by entertainment company Mind Candy. The game involved players searching online and in the real world for "The Cube", a "priceless" spiritual artefact, which was buried somewhere on Earth. The game offered a real-life £100,000 reward to the person who found it; participants were pointed in the right direction using clues on printed cards that they bought in shops.


StreetWars is a three-week-long water tournament that travels to cities around the world, in which protagonists attempt to shoot each other with water pistols. It is a version of a game that is already popular at colleges and universities across the globe. The founders of the game adapted what previously was used only on campuses to a city-wide playing area. The most recent StreetWar was held in New York earlier this year.