I thought I was pretty familiar with Final Fantasy 14, and yet I repeatedly find myself surprised by some of the amazing sights in Eorzea. Things that Square Enix likely never even contemplated when creating the game, such as virtual theatre.
Stellazzio Virtual Theatre is a highly talented theatre troupe on the Diabolos server founded by Zaynava Stellazzio in 2018. It showcases full-length theatre productions, with the team dedicating months of work and rehearsals each time. Everything is as you would expect of any real-world theatre show — right down to the stunningly made programs.
I recently watched the troupe’s one-act play, The Worker — their first project to include voiceovers. It was clear the production held a mind-blowing standard, and even little details like the well-timed changes between furnishing props and minions were perfectly executed. Though seemingly effortless on the surface, the troupe explains that even small aspects of the show like this take more effort than you would expect.
“As with a traditional play, we use calling to make sure we are timing things properly,” stage manager Sasanasu Lalanasu tells me. “So before anything — lighting, music, props — were to be done, I'd make sure Xitra or myself was ready, and then actually call out when it was to happen. Throughout the play, Xitra was going around under the stage and by the seating to be in the proper spot to be clicked on, or place the things needed to be placed.”
The use of macros ensure the perfect timing of summoning the Calcabringer minion from the actor, while stagehands place or remove the doll furnishing to replace it. However, minions and their movement are client-side, so they appear in different locations for every player watching. This caused a new issue for the team to overcome.
“We had to have a system where Sas would take screenshots of Calca's location for me so I could adjust my movement and emotes so it would appear correct for someone sitting in the audience, despite her being halfway across the stage for me or Soso,” Stellazzio explains. “All in real-time, with a very tight window to see the screenshot and adjust.”
The Worker’s 1950s theme is so accurate it’s easy to forget the game isn’t tailored for that specific time era. Levi Talstag, the set designer, explains that creating the set can take anywhere from a week to a whole month, with changes happening right up until the show launches.
“The perfect set takes time,” Talstag tells me. “I would say that creating an era-themed set can be a bit challenging with the restrictions we have with furnishings, but it isn't impossible! With a little ingenuity and furnishing knowledge, you can mix items to look like the shapes and sizes you need.”
Stellazzo gave me a peek behind the curtain and showed me all the clickable items hidden beneath or behind the stage that they use in the production. While audience members don’t see the arrows pictured below — only Free Company house members can — the troupe can use these points to enable them to turn their characters’ heads and bodies without it looking unnatural. An effective solution for turning your character, as doing so manually can cause them to swivel awkwardly on the spot.
Stellazzio was a high-tier raider in Final Fantasy 14, but founding the theatre troupe changed her playstyle considerably. She explains that she got into theatre within her first year of playing, and the game has since allowed her to do things she wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
“I do not mind saying that I have an anxiety disorder, PTSD, and ASD,” she tells me. “There is absolutely no way I could do any of this in real life. But now I have a stage, and I am able to give that stage to dozens of people within SVT, and thousands of people through attendance in-game or on Twitch. That's one of the best parts of virtual theatre, for me, and the biggest advantage of it compared to brick and mortar theatre. People that are physically disabled, are hard of hearing or sight, or have mental disorders that would make that kind of thing difficult have an easier time coming to our shows, or participating in them.”
The change in playstyle also applies to her dedicated team, who rehearse five times a week in 60-90 minute sessions each time. While creating virtual theatre seems like a far cry from the usual gameplay, Amilee Duskwind, a member of the creative team, explained that there are parallels between the two.
“We don't do the raiding scene on Extremes, but in our own way, we do still do that,” she says. “Learning a raid boss is very similar to acting in here. During rehearsals, you do the same movements and expressions through macro over and over until it becomes muscle memory, just like learning a boss fight.”
Stellazzio Virtual Theatre’s biggest production to date was The Phantom of the Opera, which lasted over an hour and featured the live music of The Moogle Troupe. Of course, with a bigger production, the amount of work that went into it was also greater.
“The Phantom of the Opera was really an undertaking,” Stellazio tells me. “We had times where we synchronized a team of dancers with special effects and a live bard band. One of this game's weird little quirks is that only one change can happen at a time. So every lighting effect, song change, set-piece change, all have to be carefully practiced and called so no one overlaps anything. Otherwise, it causes an error, and one person's action is cancelled.”
Given the passion and hard work that goes into each production, it’s hardly surprising that Stellazzio Virtual Theatre has boomed in popularity. The Worker saw queues of over 240 players at a time, with some players waiting for over eight hours, or even overnight, to ensure they snagged a seat — those are Hamilton waiting times.
Each show can hold approximately 100 characters within the FC house, as otherwise model flickering can happen. Unfortunately, that number also includes staff, which reduces the number of available seats for viewers per show.
“The number of people that came to see Phantom was expected, but The Worker is just a small one-act [play] that doesn’t have nearly as much star power attached to its name,” Ashura Amariyo, the voice of the Messenger in The Worker, says. “And we filled eight shows and had to turn people away! The number of people that turned out on Twitch and other streamers’ streams was amazing, too.”
Stellazzio Virtual Theatre faces issues when it comes to restrictions and legalities. For example, obtaining licenses for most plays requires a physical address of where the production will take place. This is something they can't pin down when the cast is from all over the world but joining together in the realm of Eorzea.
“It is a complicated issue that not only needs more public awareness, but also an overhaul of the legal systems,” Stellazzio tells me. “Copyright law was written dozens of years ago and has largely not been updated for an increasingly online and connected world. Different countries have wildly different copyright laws, and this game is accessible worldwide. In order to use voice actors, we have to technically broadcast part of the music, which is an entirely different license than just performing it live. Usually, performance licenses do not include rights to broadcast [or] rebroadcast, and using voice actors or doing showings on Twitch, would both violate that.
“I hope someday that virtual theatre gets enough recognition for the licensing companies to take notice and take us seriously enough to work with us or any of the other incredibly talented groups out there. At the end of the day, we're not playing video games. We're running a troupe, one that is very parallel to how things work in real life. We just happen to be sitting in front of computers instead of being physically together on a stage made of bricks and mortar and wood.”