‘asses.masses’: one FOLDA-goer’s Assessment
The theatre is dark. A single video game controller sits under a spotlight in front of a projector screen. With no rules, and in no established order, audience members take turns leaving their seats and approaching the stage. One at a time, these brave players take control of asses.masses. Over several hours, a story of revolution, carnage, reincarnation, and collective care unfolds.
Presented by the Festival of Live Digital Arts (FOLDA) at the Isabel Bader Centre’s studio theatre, Patrick Blenkarn and Milton Lim’s asses.masses is a ten-episode video game designed to be played in a single 7+ hour session by a live audience. Last Thursday, I joined the masses and witnessed this epic, funny, and brutally sad tale of disenfranchised donkeys fighting for their lives in a rapidly industrializing world. With intermissions every two episodes, a catered dinner, and a plentiful supply of snacks, asses.masses was a group bonding experience like no other.
Asses.masses shifts between two primary settings: the 2D world of the living and the 3D astral plane where the donkeys’ spirits—their Ass Souls—ascend for reassignment after death. While the worldbuilding is primarily pun-driven (I counted four in that last sentence), I was delighted by how quickly the game went from feeling like a vehicle for wordplay to a genuinely engrossing story. The implicit suspension of disbelief in video games is perfect for this story’s wacky premise, which I suspect would be harder to pull off if it were performed as a play—assuming that talking donkeys going to a spiritual realm is a little too Cats-like for most theatregoers.
Amid dark humour, fascinating worldbuilding, and multiple minigames (featuring homages to popular games like Pokémon and Metal Gear), asses.masses brings up compelling moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions. Strong character writing paired with well-timed sound effects and music cues carry the emotional side of the story. While the audience initially plays as Trusty Ass, the game shifts points of view between members of the herd as the story progresses. With names and corresponding characteristics like Smart Ass, Kick Ass, and Bad Ass, these could be your typical two-dimensional donkeys, but distinctive personalities and relationships quickly emerge. Maybe it’s because I dragged my own chronic-pain-having, video-game-avoiding, motion-sickness-prone ass to the theatre that night, but I felt especially connected to Slow Ass, who tries to keep up with the herd and is limited by his arthritis and his cohort’s impatience.
Thankfully, my own herd of gamers was mostly patient and gentle with each other. FOLDA’s audience ranged in experience from players who didn’t know where the x button was to those who could triple-jump their way through Mario-style sequences in their sleep. Sitting together in the dimly lit theatre, we bonded by laughing, shrieking, chanting “Ass power!” and shouting out suggestions to the player at the controller. I felt comfortable voicing my input, which sometimes meant hollering “Slow down!” when a player was moving through the dialogue too fast. Negotiating our goals and preferences—do we want to move through the game as quickly as possible, or do we want to meander?—paralleled the negotiations going on between the asses in the story.
Our varying levels of video game knowledge, puzzle skills, and familiarity with narrative tropes made the experience feel like a collective investment. When some of the later episodes’ minigames felt overly long, I thought of Lazy Ass’ motto—“Boredom is freedom!”—and remembered that I, too, was free to disengage. I liberated myself from my seat and visited the snack table, letting my fellow audience members pick up the slack of advancing the story while I munched on broccoli and carrots and rested my eyes.
FOLDA presents shows in three phases of development called Alpha, Beta, and Go. Asses.masses is currently in its Beta phase—in the context of FOLDA, much like in software development, this means that the performance is audience-ready but still undergoing changes. While the current version is impressive, there are spots where it still feels a little shallow. In the first few episodes, it seems like the audience’s decisions will have an impact on the story, which made it feel like there was more at stake each time the group had to come to a consensus. As the night progressed, it became apparent that we had only a surface-level influence on the plot. By the end, asses.masses felt more like a pop-up book we were reading to ourselves than a choose-your-own-adventure story—still fun, but less exciting. I would be interested in seeing what the game’s creators could do to pursue some of the philosophical questions that asses.masses raises by offering more alternative plotlines. If the players’ choices influenced the trajectory of the story, the asses’ responses to moral quandaries would feel more meaningful.
Beyond the video game itself, I wonder how the in-person elements of the experience could be further developed. As I entered the Isabel’s studio theatre, I was struck by how unchanged the room was from its typical seating plan. The audience was invited to make the space their own, and a few people took up the invitation by sitting on the floor in front of the risers. Though the chairs in the studio theatre are on the comfier side, I heard complaints as the hours crept on that they were becoming a pain in the posterior for several audience members.
I wasn’t totally sold on FOLDA’s invitation to stay indoors on a nice afternoon (the first in a week of environmental tumult), though I appreciated how easy it was to step outside and look at the lake during breaks. Even with these pauses, the show was hard on my screen-sensitive eyes, and I left at 11:45pm with a level of overstimulation that would wipe me out for the weekend. A great deal of care has been put into accessibility at FOLDA, but I suspect that no amount of modifications could have allowed me to experience a one-night version of asses.masses without triggering a migraine. This makes me wonder if the creators could take a page from Slow Ass’ book and offer a multi-day adaptation of it sometime. While there’s an undeniable appeal to the one-night sensation of asses.masses, I bet there are plenty of potential players who could benefit from a gentler pace.
In an era of online streaming and endless access to digital media, the entertainment we consume is highly conducive to binge-watching. I would love to have had the opportunity to enjoy asses.masses without bingeing it. Despite my frustration at the physical pain it left me in, though, I don’t regret putting myself through this experience. Asses.masses is easily my favourite show of the ten or so I’ve reviewed this year, and it’s given me a new sense of excitement for the theatre I’ll get to see—and assess—this summer.