Aaron's Antre: Renga, the only time swearing in a theater is allowed

Aaron Chum, Author

“Renga” tries to do the impossible: getting 100 gamers to work together for a common cause. Photo by wallFour.

As a first semester senior, I do a few things: struggle through AP Physics, stare dumbly at a whiteboard in Multivariable Calculus, help run the Voice and wade through the hell that is college apps.

Oh, and on occasion, I sleep.

But last Friday, I tore myself away from it all to go check out a movie/video game hybrid called “Renga” showing at the Aquarius Theatre, part of the larger Palo Alto International Film Festival taking place that weekend.

There were really two parts to “Renga.” The movie part, consisting of some basic “find your way home after being left for dead in outer space” plot. And then there’s the gaming part, in which everyone in the theater is given a laser pointer and off you go to accomplish that goal.

Yes, I’ll be spending most of this review on the lasers part.

In a few words, the plot is that you’re stuck in outer space and you need to build up your ship while simultaneously protecting against attacking aliens until you’re strong enough to take on the final boss alien.

From my point of view, the objective of the game was just to gather resources and fend of waves of aliens. I think they were aliens. Or spaceships, I’m not exactly sure.

Either way, rinse and repeat until your ship is big enough to fight off the boss alien. Very basic. And repetitive.

But the plot isn’t the reason “Renga” is generating buzz right now in the gaming community. Rather, it’s the whole “massive co-operative game for 100 simultaneous players” part. Each person is given a laser pointer to point at the projection screen and only through the combined weight of multiple lasers can anything get done. For example, several lasers must converge on an alien to blow it up; one person can’t do anything alone. Collectively, the audience must gather resources and kill the aliens in this manner.

And therein lies the excitement (and frustration) of “Renga.” Getting people to work together toward the common goals of killing aliens and gathering resources. It’s like all those old Lego video games where both you and a partner have to simultaneously stand on different platforms to unlock a puzzle.

Now imagine trying to do this with 100 partners. I’m sure those mothers who brought their elementary school children to the showing weren’t too happy when certain audience members started breaking out words frequently found in movies such as “The Hangover” or “The Big Lebowski.”

Within the first five minutes, the deadweights in the crowd crawled out from under their rocks and revealed themselves by randomly waving their laser pointers into random shapes on the ceiling. Needless to say, these people weren’t very helpful to our common cause.

But arguably worse than the deadweights were the dominant alpha types and wannabe Captain Kirks who looked like they were auditioning for command of the Enterprise. I’m talking about you, lady sitting diagonally to me who spent the entire showing yelling that we needed to harvest more resources while also defeating the aliens. Wasn’t that the whole point of the game? Or the guy who demanded that his side of the theater only shoot aliens while the side I was on gather resources. Screw that, I thought to myself as I went back to blowing up the invaders.

I swear I’m a team player. Really.

Somehow, we did it. We built up our ship, defeated the boss and sailed on home.  And it only took us an hour and a half.

“Renga” as a whole is an interesting concept, one that can go far. It isn’t perfect; the creators were in attendance and were the first to admit that in a post-showing Q&A. The plot could definitely use some work, and pointing lasers at the same objects over and over again did get repetitive. But the idea of everyone in a theater playing an equal role in a gaming experience is groundbreaking and certainly one I approve of; it’s clear that “Renga” is on the cutting edge of a not yet fully defined genre of gaming.

I don’t expect massive co-op games to show up in theaters anytime soon. But when they do, I want to be able to claim that I supported them from the start. So remember this review in 10 years when you go to Century Cinemas 16 and play some sort of space opera/murder mystery with elements of real-time strategy and a lot of zombies with 100 other people.

No, I have no idea what that would look like either.

For more information about “Renga,” check out the developers’ site here.