"For me, creating art isn't optional."
It's 48 minutes into Stellazio Virtual Theatre's adaption of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella The Little Prince when Zaynava Everrest (real name Kira Merrill) appears on a raised platform behind a disappearing wall at the back of the stage. This entrance is just one of the dozens of tricks Stellazio have rigged their Final Fantasy XIV Online player house--now refashioned as a theatre, complete with stage and an audience of sitting, engrossed players--to pull off at the touch of a key.
By day, 28-year-old Merrill--from the Midwestern US--drives Uber for a living (at least under normal circumstances), which gives her the time and flexibility to direct Stellazio. As she makes her entrance now, though, she's neither in the driver's nor director's seat, but sat atop an ornate throne in flowing white and red garb, as she fulfills her adapted role as Queen to Saint-Exupéry's asteroid-perched King.
A humorous exchange follows between her and player Haru Yoshida in the titular role of the prince, during which the audience trigger a round of /clap and /laugh emotes to show their appreciation. The scene ends, the play continues, and we won't see Merrill again until the cast each takes the stage at the end to give their bows. The applause is rapturous and--much like the performance itself--transcends the supposed limits of FFXIV's emote selection.
To the cast and crew, this represents months of work. A stage is created from furniture in a player house and rigged with special effects. A script is written and music is composed. Players learn their lines to later appear in the chatbox when the performance takes place. Dozens upon dozens of macros are set up to trigger events and dialogue. Perhaps most stunningly, entire chains of emotes--the minor movements players use to communicate with each other in game--are strung together into a complex physical performance.
The macros are arranged ahead of time, but during the performance, it's all on the individual members of the troupe to remember their cues. If you're watching this on stream, or are lucky enough to be sitting in the audience at the time, however, you likely won't notice any of this. You'll just see a troupe of virtual actors, putting on a play, all inside the limits of FFXIV.
The Little Prince has been the culmination of months of rehearsals--up to five nights a week--and the efforts of 55 players. And now? A short break, and then, on to the next performance. The show, virtual or not, must go on.
"I couldn't be prouder of how far we've come because of the efforts of all the talented people that put their faith, time, and dedication into the project," Merrill told me over email.
Stellazio are, as Merril puts it, a pretty diverse group. Members range in age from early 20s to their 40s, and they count teachers, nurses, and an Air Force veteran among their numbers.
A few members have experience in acting and theatre production outside of the game. For most of them, though, the passion for theatre was sparked and flourished inside FFXIV itself.
At the core of Stellazio is a team of 10 that oversees the troupe's administration and creative process, but that's far from the whole picture. Merrill lists writers, actors, crew, ushers, a composer, a social media team, editors, artists, and a ‘bard specialist' among them, each with their own role in bringing ideas to life, and making sure performances run smoothly.
The start of each production involves the core team working with artists ‘ErgoSage' and ‘Doodlehead32,' and photographer Majorie Desmarais, to put together promotional materials. Then Merrill works with composer Cinnamon Roll to arrange the music for the eventual Twitch broadcast. While all this is happening, the script is also being worked on, often an adaptation of a classic tale, like Dickens' Starlight Carol.
"I've chosen stories that I think can translate well into the digital environment, and stories that have meant a lot to me," Merril said.
"I've chosen stories that I think can translate well into the digital environment, and stories that have meant a lot to me."
Merrill works with the troupe's writers, Nicola Andrews, Henry Smith, and Alma Emma, to adapt these tales. Once the script is finalized, the cast work on what Merrill calls "preliminary macros"--structuring the dialogue for the performance for quick playback.
"The assistant director (Levi Talstag for The Little Prince and A Christmas Carol, now Ash Karr for The Phantom of the Opera) and I then break down the script and create the blocking for each scene, which is the positioning of the actors on stage," she said.
This is also where any special effects are arranged: Merrill gives the examples of specific lighting, sound effects, and fireworks.
Building sets and arranging SFX is often a case of manipulating the regular state of the game as much as adding new elements. Ensuring the cast and crew name plates aren't visible to the audience, and making sure the stage is fit to accommodate each scene, are both important concerns. Alongside this, FFXIV puts a limit on the number of character models that can be displayed at any one time. After factoring in cast, crew, and ushers, Stellazio sets the guest count from the remaining allotment.
Even beyond props, there's the ambience of the venue to consider.
"For The Little Prince, we wanted it to feel very warm, welcoming, and sunny, whereas for A Starlight Carol, we were going more for a cold, wintery, lonely look," Merrill said. "I also try to use elements from Stellazzio as well--deep blues and twinkling starry lighting, to cement our branding from the first moment you step into the lobby."
A Troupe Reborn
For long-time Final Fantasy fans, the image of a theatre stage lit up by fireworks should seem familiar. 2000's Final Fantasy IX is a bittersweet entry in the series for many. It paid homage to elements from the franchise's past, and was the final series entry long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu took a prominent role in scoring. If any game in the series can be said to have an air of finality about it, it's that one. For Merrill and Stellazio Virtual Theatre, however, FFIX is where it all began.
The name "Stellazio" comes from 13 collectible coins found around FFIX's world, each one corresponding to an ecliptic constellation.
"I also love starry motifs and the color blue, so the name naturally fits in with my vision for our look and feel," Merrill said.
There's another connection between Stellazio Virtual Theatre and FFIX, too: the fictional play I Want to Be Your Canary, performed by protagonist Zidane and the rest of the Tantalus Theatre Troupe in the opening hours of the game. FFIX was Merrill's first Final Fantasy, when she was just 10. Years later, Merrill would hear of another upcoming performance of Canary--this time performed by real actors, in digital garb, inside FFXIV itself. Not by Tantalus, but by the then-virtual theatre troupe, A Stage Reborn, which has since gone on to become a nonprofit group.
"As a huge fan of Final Fantasy IX, I jumped at the chance to audition and was cast as the leading lady, Princess Garnet. I fell in love with the collaborative creativity," Merrill said.
A Stage Reborn, director Steve Pederzani explained, was originally started as a way to encourage the FFXIV community to engage in the arts.
"[Our mission is] to make arts opportunities and experience more accessible," Pederzani said. "We utilize alternative means of engaging in visual and performing arts by transforming the traditional canvas or 'stage,' which we normally experience the arts on, thus quite literally creating A Stage Reborn!"
Inspired by seeing other groups arrange holiday events, they began to put on their own skit and costume competitions, using the game's extensive fashion customisation options, known as "glamouring."
The events were a hit, packing the in-game houses to capacity. The support of the community led to bigger things, like virtual Halloween tours, in houses decked out in haunted props, and the first performance of I Want to Be Your Canary.
Sitting at over 45,000 views on YouTube, the livestream of Canary is an absorbing early example of the creativity the FFXIV community are capable of, from the physicality expressed in dozens of emotes strung together, to the approximations of FFIX character costumes. It's glorious, but just like all the best art, it still contains some humanising errors, preserved in the 20-minute digital memento like faded fingerprints in amber.
As the lights go down and the firework effects begin, and before the first actor launches into their opening monologue, the chat box below chronicles two of the troupe hurriedly working out how to turn off the text descriptions for the emotes used in the play. It's a real "try this at home" moment, an unintentional but cogent reminder that for all the show's polish and grandeur, it's all held together by the practise and passion of the performers.
The community loved it, and the following year, the troupe put on their own adaptation of Final Fantasy VI's iconic opera scene, called The Story of Maria & Draco.
"Final Fantasy XIV became our prime example of how you can take individuals with professional visual and performing arts experience in a virtual medium and successfully mentor others with little to no experience in the arts," Pederzani said.
In 2017, after their first few theatrical productions, A Stage Reborn formally incorporated as a nonprofit, obtaining their 501(c)(3) charitable status. Aside from the performances, they also run acting and music workshops --both in-game and through Discord--as well as Extra Life streams and community contests. They're fully financially supported by the community, and in return, create and foster the performing arts in the community space.
Outside of A Stage Reborn, Pederzani is involved in numerous other creative works related to FFXIV, from role-playing communities using Discord bots to interactive webcomics.
"I can definitely say that my experience with A Stage Reborn is why I'm able to pursue these ideas," he said." The experiences, opportunities, and collective support of a driven team is a powerful teaching tool for everyone involved."
Part of this element of teaching, Pederzani said, is how the restrictions of working with a platform not necessarily designed for performances fosters creative solutions.
"There will always be players who will be creative out of necessity," he said. "These players find out all the tips and tricks and many share their knowledge to help others become creative."
Pederzani gave an example of how he and other members of the troupe have spent a lot of time learning how to "glitch" in FFXVI, allowing him to "float" objects to aid in set design.
"If you stack the right book objects on top of each other in Final Fantasy XIV housing and place a seat just right under it, you make a magical 'elevator' that, when you sit and jump, glitches your player up the stack," said Pederzani. "A Stage Reborn has used this to make getting up and down multi-floor sets easy, create catwalks, stage trap doors, and so on. If it wasn't for the restrictions of having no way to quickly move up and down floors, we wouldn't have the 'elevator' that has enabled us to do so much more creatively."
Designing sets in-game, said Pederzani, is often more challenging than real-life construction. The silver lining, as he sees it, is that this gives designers a great appreciation and knowledge of the game's programming architecture. He'd love to see this inspire careers in game development.
Speaking to Shinya Ichida, FFXIV's art team lead, it's clear that the efforts of groups like Stellazio and A Stage Reborn haven't gone unnoticed at Square Enix.
"The originality and ingenuity of the players' performances are spectacular, creating combinations of emotes that we couldn't even imagine." Ichida told me. "The development team was in awe of the high quality and level of passion, even making use of the facial expressions."
Watching the streams from Stellazio and A Stage Reborn, it becomes clear how well-utilised FFXIV's player-to-player communication tools are throughout the performances--in particular, the emotes. Often used simply to express joy at the end of a raid, or integrated as objectives into some story and side missions, these virtual theatre troupes string together evocative, complicated sequences of emotes to add physicality to their performances.
"From the very beginning stages, I choose the cast based on the emote set of each race," Merrill said. "For example, Miqo'te have a very energetic, flamboyant style to their emotes. Au'ra females are reserved and elegant, and the males are a bit more aggressive. Hyur are very flexible and can fill a wide variety of roles."
It's important, Merrill said, to choose cast members based not only on the characters' looks, but also the range of emotes they have access to. Stellazio has spent a lot of time and money, both real and virtual, ensuring the actors have access to all the emotes their role requires, she said.
Although Merrill hasn't played many other MMOs, she says that the tools available in FFXIV seem especially suited to Stellazio's needs.
"The more means of expressive movement you have, the easier it becomes to apply real-world acting technique."
"You can clip longer emotes to just be the first couple seconds and then transition into another emote smoothly," she explained. "There's a function to override the expression that the emote natively has with something else--totally changing the feel of it."
Commands like /facetarget and "Move to front door" allow the actors to cleanly navigate and exit the stage.
"FFXIV also offers a 'macro' system, by which you can program in text to display in chat, waiting periods, and emotes/expressions," she said. "That is what all of our work is dependent on."
Like Merrill, Pederzani agrees that the emotes available in FFXIV are a huge aid to successful performances.
"The more means of expressive movement you have, the easier it becomes to apply real-world acting technique," said Pederzani. "Often in A Stage Reborn rehearsals, we'll have moments where we read scenes out loud and ask players to stand up and actually emote out what feels natural to them in real life in that scene. Then, they return to their computers and spend maybe 5 or 10 minutes clicking through their emotes to find which one matches the closest."
Pederzani said the troupe utilises "Laban Efforts"--a system of choreography and movement analysis pioneered by the Hungarian dance artist Rudolf Von Laban--in their approach to the available emotes. Laban categorised human movement into shapes and forms--a security guard might stand uptight and closed, while a dancer is loose and flowing, for example--and his approaches are still widely drawn upon in dance and theatre.
"Depending on audience sightlines and character positioning, an emote that's supposed to be jolly can actually end up looking angry," he said.
Pederzani gave the example of an emote called "lali-ho"--a sideways gesture, arm outstretched--that A Stage Reborn used in their adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Positioning Oberon at a particular angle made the expression look a bit more heavy and 'pushing' than the light side-wave most expect of the emote," he said. "From the player's perspective, it still looked like lali-ho, but from the audience perspective it looked just menacing enough."
Poetry in Motion
So, what goes into the process of designing new emotes for an MMORPG like FFXIV?
"There are two main ways that an emote is created," Ichida said. "The first is when it is provided as a reward. Motions used in in-game content such as 'Sundrop Dance' and 'Lali-ho' are made into emotes."
First, the planning and motion teams get together to discuss the specifics of the emote, taking into account any special effects, or whether the character model will be holding anything in their hands. The next step is a collaborative process between the motion capture teams and actors, exchanging ideas to develop the movements. Motion capture, Ichida said, is "tremendously faster" to use, especially given the game's regular update cycle. Parallel to this, the lore team work on the emotes' description in game.
When a new race is added to the game, like the bunny-eared Viera that came with the latest expansion, Shadowbringers, each current emote has to be custom-tailored to the physicality of the new character designs. The lore and motion teams work together closely to design the new addition's characteristics, based on their physical appearance and historical background.
"The thing that we're most careful about when designing an emote is to make sure that the emote doesn't give a negative impression to the person receiving it," Ichida said. "For example, even if an emote involves hitting the other person, it's not done with an angry facial expression but with a positive, encouraging facial expression and movement instead."
Creating a fun atmosphere is always the main priority, he explained, as is ensuring as little miscommunication as possible. Just as a picture speaks a thousand words, Ichida and the art team appreciate the power of physical communication just as much as the theatre troupes--as well as emotes' ability to transcend language barriers.
"While emotes are not mainline content, I believe that they play a vital role in joining players together," he said. "It allows interaction without the use of words, so it should let players express themselves in the world of FFXIV and communicatie, regardless of what country people are from or where they are."
When emotes were being designed for the original FFXIV--even as far back as before the Realm Reborn update--movements were checked with the localisation team to ensure they could be understood internationally before being finalized.
It's here that Michael-Christopher Koji Fox--FFXIV's translation and English language localisation director--sat in on the motion capture process. "To make sure that they look natural from all points of view," Ichida explained.
"For example, putting your hand on the back of your head when you're embarrassed is a uniquely Japanese gesture, so we have avoided such gestures that cannot be understood worldwide."
Designing the sort of versatility and range that allow for advanced roleplay, as well as performances like those of Stellazio Virtual Theatre, are also a priority.
"Of course, the versatility for players has been taken into account when designing emotes," Ichida said. "From watching the videos, we predicted that a larger variety of dialogue motions would be appreciated, so we even added many more patterns for this reason."
FFXIV's developers are "fully supportive" of projects like Stellazio, he noted.
"As the modelling in FFXIV is on the realistic side, small control mistakes directly affect the quality of live theatrical performances. Taking that into account, we've been amazed at the amount of effort that has been taken in these performances. We look forward to seeing more of such brilliant creations, and we will continue striving to develop emotes that spark the players' imagination."
Labor of Love
From design documents at Square Enix, to players across the world, the tools that allow for performances like Stellazio's and A Stage Reborn begin to resemble a universal language: simple, powerful tools for socialising, self-expression, and creativity. For Merrill, one of the most important things about virtual theatre is how it enables and empowers others to take part in performing arts.
"We have some people on our team that have disabilities that would make acting on a real stage difficult, if not impossible," she said. "Some people live in the middle of nowhere and don't have access to anything like that near them. Some folks just plain never thought they'd enjoy something like this, but video games can bridge that gap."
Merrill said that this feedback, as well as that from the audience after a show, constantly inspires her, and affirms that Stellazio Virtual Theatre makes a difference.
"One woman told me her 10-year-old son with ADHD and who is on the autism spectrum has been unable to go out to enjoy theater--live or cinema, because of the noise, crowds, and having to sit still," she said. "However, at our show, he was enthralled and couldn't wait to see the next one."
"The biggest thing that I believe sets us apart is the passion and love that all of the members put into the project."
Merrill said she believes these opportunities, both for the troupe and the audience, are incredibly important.
"My greatest dream is to continue to showcase the legitimacy of virtual theatre as an art form and eventually have there be a way for virtual troupes like us to negotiate with licensing companies to put on real, authentic, modern plays," she said.
She mentioned how heartening it is to receive positive comments from audience members surprised and captivated that what Stellazio does is even possible within FFXIV.
"The biggest thing that I believe sets us apart is the passion and love that all of the members put into the project," Merrill said. "For all of us, this is something we truly believe in. We're a family. We put months of work into each project from beginning to end, and it's a labor of love. The hard times and the happy times, the excitement leading up to the show, the joy and relief of the performance--we all share it together, and we share the sadness of the production eventually coming to a close. But that just means we get to begin working on another show--always striving for it to be bigger and better than the last."
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