A Gaming Warrior's New Mission: Save the Shuttered Theater!
It makes perfect sense that Peter Panic!, a mashup of gaming and musical theater, was born at NYU
Peter Panic! doesn’t have the dystopian sets, military motifs, dark underworlds, or gory action that often keeps many gamers glued to their devices. What it does offer is an entirely fresh concept: a combo of an old-school “let’s-put-on-a-show” spirit of musical theater with the individual engagement of a video game. Peter Panic! originated as James Marion’s (TSOA, ’15) thesis project for Tisch’s Department of Game Design. It went on to blow players’ minds when Adult Swim Games released it in May 2016. In Marion’s game, when Peter returns to his depressed hometown from college, hoping to break into show business, he finds the local theater shuttered. Through rapid-fire mini-games, interspersed with musical numbers, he attempts to earn enough points to revitalize the playhouse.
The music and lyrics are the contribution of Ben Bonnema— who earned his Tisch MFA in musical theater writing in 2012—and lending their voices to the narrative are NYU alum Gideon Glick (Spring Awakening), Tony- and Grammy-nominated Emily Skeggs (Fun Home), as well as a hilarious cameo appearance by Game Center Department Chair Frank Lantz. So, what could have possibly prompted this unexpected—but totally welcome—alliance of Broadway and thumb culture? We talked separately with Marion by phone from his newly-adopted city of San Francisco, and with Bonnema from London, where he is working with award-winning composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman on the Disney sequel to Mary Poppins.
NYU: James, what were you doing before going for your MFA at the Game Center?
James Marion: I worked in theater for about eight years before I started making games. Mostly as a stage manager, set designer, all that fun stuff. I switched over because I wasn’t super happy and the NYU program was really appealing to me.
NYU: Did Peter Panic! always have a musical theater theme?
JM: It started as just about theater. I was halfway through the program and realized I hadn’t been to any musicals or plays in a year. Then Austin Wintory, who wrote the score for a video game called Journey, came [to the class] and talked to us about how music should be informed by their games and vice versa and it struck me that Peter Panic! really needed to be a musical. He was a real inspiration.
NYU: Did you have a tech background before coming to NYU?
JM: Not much of one, actually. My high school offered a class in 3-D modeling and I took it because it seemed kind of cool. And all through college I kind of messed around with 3-D modeling, just making little sculptures and stuff. That’s what I used to apply to NYU and what got me into the program. My intention was just to do that for the entirety of grad school, but it turned out I liked making games way better.
NYU: How did the collaboration between composer and self-described nerd Ben Bonnema and game designer James Marion come about?
JM: I contacted Tisch and asked them who had graduated from their musical theater program in the last couple of years and they, for whatever reason, knew we would be a great fit. As soon as I explained the game to him he was on board.
Ben Bonnema: I got an email from [associate chair] Fred Carl. He said someone from the game department was interested in collaborating with a musical theater writer and he thought of me. I thought it was at least worth a meeting to see what it was all about. James and I first met at the NYU campus in Brooklyn and he told me his idea and I thought it was really cool and fun. I’d been a gamer to some extent for most of my life. I’m a relatively fast writer who also does his own lyrics. Not all the composers in the graduate musical theater program do both. And he probably knew I was a big nerd.
NYU: Ben, what about Peter Panic! appealed to you?
BB: I never expected to be able to write a musical as I was writing video game music, so it seemed like a great way to combine my current passion with a fun hobby. In college, I was the only one of my friends to be like, “This [game] music is really cool and cinematic. I wonder who the composer is and I wonder how I can get into that.” It was like a childhood dream.
NYU: Talk about the musicals that influenced you.
BB: My dad was really into Jesus Christ Superstar and my mom was really into Phantom of the Opera. I’m not an Andrew Lloyd Webber guy anymore, but it’s a good gateway into musical theater. Before I knew who Sondheim or Adam Guettel were, I was listening to Phantom.
NYU: Did you attend a lot of musicals while developing the game?
JM: Oh gosh, yes. That was the best part of making Peter Panic! I got back into the theater world in a big way. I started seeing shows constantly which is actually how I met a lot of the cast members, which was great.
NYU: Ben, did you approach Act 2 of Peter Panic! differently from Act 1?
BB: The one change we made was that we allowed ourselves to go longer, to push things further, so we had the first proper three-minute song, called “Not Every Boy.” It’s on iTunes. Before then, they were all little songlets. We gave ourselves the space to take more time and to write longer material. It felt freeing.
NYU: How did you nab such established performers?
BB: It was mostly people I knew that ended up in the game. Nikko Benson, the factory guy from the first level, was my roommate at the time and a good friend and colleague. The second level has our good friend Amanda Savon. I had known Gideon Glick from other projects and Emily Skaggs was a friend of Remy [Germinario, a.k.a. Peter] who’s been in a bunch of shows of mine, so Remy reached out to her. It was kind of great the way it worked out. We got really lucky.
NYU: Jim, what was the initial response from your teachers and fellow students?
JM: In the first half of the year or so, before any of the music made the game unique, people were really skeptical of the idea. As soon as we had the first song in there and it was clear what was going on, people seemed to love it.
NYU: Do musical theater aficionados have an advantage when playing?
JM: [Laughs] No, not a technical advantage, fortunately.
NYU: Did you try it out on a lot of people?
JM: Yeah, there’s a strong playtesting community at NYU that made it really easy. I showed it pretty much constantly.
NYU: [NYU Department Chair] Frank Lantz pops up in Peter Panic! in both scripted and ad libbed roles? Is there a story there?
BB: We were trying to put him in wherever we could. I think for like five minutes straight he and [Game Center professor] Bennett Foddy are talking about the game itself in a meta way and the two of them are so funny and Frank is such a strong improviser. We were like yes, we’ll put the entire thing in because we love him so much.
NYU: You recently released Act 2. Is that it for Peter? What’s next?
JM: Nothing to announce right now but we’re talking to a couple of different hardware manufacturers about the new technology. If I’m going to make another musical game it would not have the same characters or settings. Peter Panic! is a like old theater, a big British mega-musical. I’d really like to do more modern musical theater, like Next to Normal, or Fun Home or The Last Five Years. Those really tell their stories through their songs.
NYU: Ever thought about expanding it into a full-fledged musical?
JM: It has come up. I think if that were to happen, I’d leave it to Ben.
NYU: Does every person who interviews you bring up Hamilton at some point?
JM: [Laughs] I don’t let them. No, I love Hamilton. It’s really great. And I think it achieves a similar thing as Peter Panic! which is to expose new people to theater.
NYU: Did that play’s success have any effect on the popularity of your game?
JM: Only insofar as it’s made more people open to the idea of musical theater.