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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

In Extremis: Didacticism in Interactive Theatre

I have noticed many interactive theatre makers do not wish to lecture their audiences.

This is an impulse I often share.

However, in the interests of preventing this sliding into something less than a rant, I wish to highlight that there are many ways a show might lecture its audience, and separate them into three core strands.

In-Show Didacticism

The audience can experience a world, and how it responds to them is a form of didacticism.

For example, let us say that the audience decide to hurt someone. Perhaps they wish to punish them, find out what happens, or live in the mistaken belief that torture is an effective means of getting information.

Do we see the person being hurt? This already changes where the weight is given - to the people making the decision, or the being experiencing the results.

Assuming we do not, how does the world respond? Does someone grimly put a hand on the decider’s shoulder and say “tough decision well made, bloody good chap”? Perhaps a mix of that response with others’ slight discomfort? Or perhaps the characters respond with universal disgust?

Is the aftermath of that event limited? Or does the world offer ongoing reports of other people copying your behaviour, causing harm without due process or your sanction? Does the world offer punishment for those who decided to inflict pain on others, or let it slip by?

Evidently, all of these choices about how to present the same moment are ways of subtly lecturing the audience through the drama of the show.

The example comes from comparing my own Come Bargain With Uncanny Things (in which one audience did decide to hurt the titular Uncanny Thing as a form of research, watched it suffering, felt the distaste of the characters, and several of them started crying) to a number of shows I have seen where I am permitted, or even encouraged, to ruggedly commit torture.

But only in extremis, of course.

Mechanical Didacticism

The audience usually engage with a show through its mechanics, which also offer a form of didacticism.

For example, let us say the audience must make decisions about how to run their community. In many worlds, a possibility is authoritarianism. I have already written about this in passing here.

What are the mechanical implications of that? Does it unlock new powers that are very useful to you? Does their community (a country, a village, a world) become less happy but more productive? Does information flow less freely, as people lie to protect themselves?

Are there narrative consequences to that choice? How does the show model the fear, mistrust, and moral degradation of a life where those in power must repeatedly deny the humanity of certain people? Or does it choose not to?

Does the game element of the show work equally well within authoritarianism as mainstream political ideology? Does it work equally well were the audience to decide to construct an anarchist society? If not, why is authoritarianism modelled as practical and efficient while anarchism is not?

Once again, I choose examples of how the mechanics structuring a common ‘moral’ choice in games carry lecturing implications.

The choice once again comes from seeing many shows where this kind of decision is presented as a mere matter of pragmatism, with limited or no moral quality. Despite the absurdity of presenting authoritarianism as a way to increase efficiency. Despite the fact that inefficiency is not the reason why authoritarianism, denying the innate humanity and free will of others, should be opposed.

To be absolutely clear: I do not believe many of those shows were made by people who would defend authoritarianism. That’s rather my point: why pretend to be neutral, to the extent that you end up making the argument for something you’d disagree with?

Admittedly, some of those makers do have authoritarian tastes.

In Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, the mechanical structure was designed in contrast to many of these shows. Some audience members did try to pursue more authoritarian, my-way-goes, methods, denying others their freedom. But the option was not presented by default, and while it could just about work, the mechanical system made it quite hard, compared to its communal, collaborative default. The mechanics were a way of modelling a view of the world.

Even in extremis.

Worldbuilding Didacticism

The most important didacticism in many shows comes from their worldbuilding. What parts are important, and what parts are centred?

For example, a show where the cast know the ins and outs of every individual politician in the past twenty years, but nothing about the pop music and urban legends, imagines a very different world to one where politicians don’t matter, but urban legends and pop music do.

One believes Great Men are the vital part. The other believes that culture is. Both feasible, but very different.

This clearly influences, and is influenced by, where a show is placed within the world. The former version is far more interested in those making the big decisions. The latter in small communities. Going back to harm-to-others and authoritarianism, those who do, and those who are done to.

This is merely a sketch, but I hope gives some sense of why I raise an eyebrow when I hear someone present worldbuilding as neutral, for it “just makes sense”.

In Extremis

For many of these shows I have seen offering me moral choices as some great boon try to justify the extremity of the moral choice by placing me in extremis.

That is to say, at the outer limit of what is endurable, where conventions and morality are potentially suspended.

To save the town/country/world, we audience must consider abandoning our fancy principles and get back to the real world.

Why do I generally object to this?

First: the ‘extreme’ circumstances presented are often melodrama, to say the least.

I am growing rather bored of asking people why a decision ‘in extremis’ was between rule of law and summary violence/execution, when the existence of the first option rather suggests that it is not, in fact, in extremis, despite the melodramatic music and acting around it.

Likewise, the imaginings of total annihilation and absolute evil often respond poorly when poked. Do you, the maker, sincerely wish to teach that in such circumstances it is reasonable to suspend conventional morality, and all such beings should face torture or dictatorial treatment? Or is it merely a convention of melodramas in your genre?

Second: the moral ‘puzzles’ are often rather tedious when viewed in the hard light of day.

The Geneva Conventions were not written by people who did not understand that war was hard. Many of these imagined existential threats are fantasies, written by people who might benefit a great deal from reading the testimony, ethics, and philosophies of those who actually endured such circumstances and threats, rather than the heroic fantasies of Hollywood.

There, they might learn two things. First, that under far more extreme circumstances, people still decided to hold to their rules, and felt that the point of extremis had not been reached.

Second, that there is rather more to such circumstances than the kind of melodrama accompanied by an ominous rumbling in the trombone section.

Most shows are not convincing enough simulations to even begin to pretend that the audience believe themselves to be in extremis.

Finally: I do not believe that many of these creators actually believe in the option presented.

Do you believe that authoritarianism is viable? Rational? Moral?

If not, why are you presenting the moral problem within authoritarian terms in which it is? Why are you glossing over the inevitable crimes and suffering, and magnifying the fantasies of power and glory?

Why is that the jackboot option is dirty but effective and kinda glamorous, but the kind, communal one inefficient and wet?

And why is it that you are more interested in being the person commanding the jackboot than the one surviving under it?

These are uncomfortable questions (some of which can be well-answered). Yet I do not think they are unreasonable ones to ask a number of shows and games I have seen.


Sometimes, I get the impression that these options are there to create the chance for excitement; a little bit of authoritarian pepper on a dish.

Often, this is rooted in a more interesting problem: that in their desire to not lecture, the creator has pretended they are not teaching through the decisions they make when constructing a world.

Which means they have been avoiding a central question for any creator:

What Do You Believe?

A picture of me literally lecturing an audience.


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