Asynchrony: Monash University Student Theatre Charms with an Immersive Online Production

By Sophia Zikic

 If you are under the age of sixty and have had access to the internet at any point in the past decade, you will be familiar with the phenomenon that is Minecraft (2009). Minecraft is not a game which has story per se. There are goals you can achieve, and a vague endgame (after which the game does not end, though the credits roll), but the beauty of Minecraft is that there are no restrictions. Beyond revolutionizing video games as a medium, Minecraft has been used to recreate King’s Landing (of the Game of Thrones franchise), to build a working computer, and house a digital library for the dissemination of censored journalism.  To make a narrative within the world of Minecraft is not a new phenomenon – there are endless ‘mods’ that introduce a plot, and game studio Telltale has released Minecraft: Story Mode in conjunction with Mojang (the development team behind Minecraft).

It is difficult to draw a direct comparison between Freya Solnordal and Gemma Livingstone’s online experience to anything else. Like immersive theatre, the participant is present on “stage”, but the type of narrative driven game in which the character walks through a set to discover the story is more akin to a simulation. While the mode of presentation is certainly a new one, it cannot be denied that the combination of multi-player video game and scripted theatricals is exciting and enjoyable.

Asynchrony is a performance in which the audience, 200 years in the future, signs up for a tour of an ancient Minecraft server.  Tour guides Lee (Emma Batty) and Xan (Spencer Tripodi) encourage participants to explore within a designated safe area, beneath an enormous dome. Things then begin to go very wrong. The plot is straightforward – and better because of it. The audience plays an active role in the narrative, and participation is strongly encouraged. Therefore, the audience must focus on navigating the world, and not on the intricacies of a plot. Unfortunately, since the show also splits the audience up into different groups at times, the development of the relationships of other characters occasionally feels sudden and orchestrated. However, this never interferes with the plot in any significant way. It is always clear what the stakes are, what the character’s motivations are, and what the destination is.

Asynchrony raises questions of time and memory, how our lives as we know them will be forever preserved online, and the impact of Capitalism on climate change. However, one shouldn’t come to Asynchrony with the expectation of profound meditations on death and technology, or specific critique of Government policy. More than anything, this production is a guided romp through handcrafted sets. Asynchrony emphasizes spectacle and plot in equal measure. Particularly striking is the manipulation of the sense of scale, which transforms the experience into an adventure. The set pieces are all impressive, and when things happen in the environment, these changes are perfectly executed. It is unusual to be able to commend a student theatre group for a show being presented so professionally, but MUST has never brought anything like this to the table before. Neither can it be denied that there is little precedent beyond Monash University for this kind of theatre experience.

Despite the seamless visuals, the dialogue is a little stilted at times, and there are some heavy-handed attempts to encourage participation as the audience works their way around the set to discover the way forward. Some actors are more adept at this than others; however, the performances of the cast are overwhelmingly triumphant. Particularly impressive is their embodied acting, using the very limited movement set (such as head turning, crouching, jumping, and punching) of the Minecraft characters to act as if they were in person. It is charming to see two little boxy players in their custom skins (the digital costumes of the character) stiffly waving, leaning in together in a secretive discussion and looking around at the world.

The production is equipped with excellent sound design. Even for the most experienced player it may be difficult to ascertain where the natural soundscape of Minecraft ends, and the sound design, created by Callum Cheah and Daniel Parr, begins. It is impressively seamless, particularly in areas where the ambient noise of our movement ceased.

Asynchrony is a theatre-gaming fusion experience worth having, especially when accompanied by a group of friends who are interested in either of these art forms. While the plot is entertaining, much of the pleasure comes from a shared participation in the adventure – despite the story proving to be not particularly intricate. The cast and crew have created a performance that deserves to be experienced. It is also recommend to opt for the highest level of participation – which has proven to be well worth it.

Asynchrony requires you to download Minecraft and Discord (a digital communication platform, over which the dialogue is performed).