A screenshot from Dark City showing three characters.
A screenshot from Dark City. Art by Sara Eskandari.

Late at night in Aeolus City, Paaya Gaiason (Yesenia Iglesias) stands on a public terrace. Long staircases lead to the lit city streets below. Paaya waits for an unnamed contact. He arrives; there is a scuffle. She plummets to her death.

Days later, there are eulogies from Mayor Sirmon and Antonin Leap, managing director of the Aeolus Investment Organization, the sovereign wealth fund that had employed her as a translator. A month after the public memorial, Chief of Police Herresford announces that her death has been ruled a suicide. Many, including Paaya’s brother, Juda (Niusha Nawab), are convinced she was murdered. The motive is unclear, but Paaya was a talented ethnic Edda in a field dominated by the elite Vassari ethnic group. Albert Bridges, a Vassari nationalist demagogue, is calling for law and order as he decries riots and burning buildings. 

That’s how things unfold in the beginning of the first episode of Dark City. It’s a visual novel, a style of video game especially popular in Japan that resembles old choose-your-own-adventure books, coupled with art, sound, and limited animation. But it didn’t come from a studio or developer known for making video games. It’s the newest offering from D.C.’s 4615 Theatre Company, which has focused on offering audiences innovative remote storytelling experiences instead of live theater for the past year.

“I’ve heard a video game writer refer to his work as ‘making theater,’ which really excited me,” says Gregory Keng Strasser, the main writer and director of Dark City. “Video game writers want the same thing playwrights do: authentic, organic interactions.” But in some respects, “the playwright has it much easier,” he says. “They know what makes their character exceptional. But for the game writer, they don’t know much about the player at all, other than that this person is playing the game. The writer has to anticipate what may be the next step the player will take and devise all of the reasonable possibilities that may be a result of those decisions.” 

This notion was on his mind when Strasser, who is also producing director for 4615 Theatre Company, met with 4615’s artistic director, Jordan Friend, to discuss projects the company could produce in a season when theater spaces—including Dance Loft on 14 in the Sixteenth Street Heights neighborhood, where they had been in residence during the 2019-2020 season—were closed.

Since its founding in 2013, 4615 has been dedicated to presenting new work by local playwrights along with both contemporary and Elizabethan repertoire. So they were already positioned to focus the season-long remote project, dubbed 4615 Go, on locally grown theater. It would also be based on three principles: Every experience had to be “irreplicable” and driven by the audience. “The spirit of theatricality” had to be present in each chosen medium. And every project had to be “a passion project,” says Friend.

“Greg showed me a game he designed based on The Odyssey,” says Friend. While that particular game, The Telemachy, is still in development, Friend found the idea of storytelling through video games intriguing. When they spoke again, Strasser proposed a story set in an imaginary city called Aeolus.

Aeolus City is a solarpunk world: While cyberpunk imagines how information technology could dangerously transform society, as in The Matrix franchise, and steampunk imagines alternative, imperial pasts defined by Victorian technologies like airships and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s analytical engine, solarpunk imagines societies based on clean, sustainable technologies, in which there is, at least on the surface, a balance between society and nature. Many of Aeolus City’s structures are built into gigantic trees the size of mountains and a canopy where the elites live and conduct business.

But the noirish narrative of a murder that political and corporate elites are eager to cover up reveals that Aeolus City is not so utopian. It still has an elite who don’t always operate in the light.

Dark City has been Strasser’s passion project: He could write the story, and he had started learning to write code while working on The Telemachy, but as a theater artist branching into the world of video games, he knew he would need a team. He recruited Friend as a composer, Sara Eskandari to create the visual design of Aeolus City and the characters that inhabit it, and Aria Velz to serve as dramaturg.

Early in development, the team decided to serialize Dark City in four episodes released on different dates instead of as one long narrative game, and the entire series is now available for purchase as a bundle. The game runs on the Ren’Py Visual Novel Engine. The name is a portmanteau of the Japanese word ren’ai for “romantic love”—romance centered visual novels are especially popular in Japan—and Python, the programming language used to construct it. In this instance, the engine is applied to a science fiction noir. Ren’Py let Strasser plot out a story that allows for branching paths as the player makes choices, while also being customizable: Episode one includes minigames in which Paaya’s younger brother, Juda, interrogates or is interrogated by other characters or searches a room for clues. Strasser also developed a mechanic in which one’s interactions with other characters can affect relationships in later scenes. “Diplomacy is key, and keeping track of the information will be crucial to arguing a successful persuasion,” says Strasser.

In episode one, the narrative picks up a year after Paaya’s death in the city of Chang Doras, where Juda lives in a depressive squalor. He’s been trying to write a book about his sister, but is too overcome with grief to get past the first page, let alone investigate his hunch that she was murdered, and he seems to be haunted by Paaya’s voice and occasional nostalgic reveries. He is jolted out of his funk when he is contacted by Liki Mongada (Raven Lorraine), a woman who claims to be a former colleague of Paaya’s, seeking information that she believes may have been left with Juda.

“I am always intrigued by white-collar crimes,” Strasser states in an email, asking rhetorically, “How [is it] possible to do something so sinister and leave everyone puzzled as to what precisely occurred?” 

For the crime at the center of Dark City, Strasser drew inspiration from the ongoing scandal around the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which he had considered adapting for the stage at one point. Sovereign wealth funds are state-owned investment funds that invest in a wide array of assets ranging from real estate and infrastructure to stocks and bonds. They are often used for economic development, providing pensions, or hedging against an economic crisis. However, in the case of 1MDB, funds equivalent to more than $4.5 billion were diverted through front companies based in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates into private, offshore bank accounts, including more than $1 billion to former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, according to prosecutors. Funds that were meant to be invested in Malaysian society were instead used to acquire private real estate in London, Manhattan, and Beverly Hills. 

It does not take much effort for Juda to realize Liki is not who she claims to be. Liki confesses to being an investigative journalist; her interest in Paaya stems from her work as a top translator for the Aeolus Investment Organization—a fund like 1MDB. Liki is pursuing evidence of corruption at AIO and believes that, because contracts and sensitive correspondence went through Paaya, she could have been in a position to know enough that her death would become convenient. As with 1MDB, the mystery at the center of Dark City is how money that is earmarked for the general public ends up in the pockets of those who already have more than anyone else. Juda and Liki quickly form a partnership, and soon Juda is accompanying Liki back to Aeolus City, slowly drawing connections between Liki’s suspicions and some of his more puzzling memories.

Aeolus City society is complicated by the sometimes tense relationship between its two main ethnic groups: As rendered by Eskandari’s illustrations, the Edda, to whom Juda, Liki, and Paaya belong, are visually identifiable by thick swirling two-tone stripe patterns on their skin and often dress to show their stripes. Meanwhile, the Vassari have lines on their faces that resemble the branching capillaries on the back of leaves, and dress formally in layers, often incorporating blossoms into their wardrobes. Many of the elites are Vassari, and a once fringe Vassari nationalist party hostile to the city’s multicultural history is increasingly moving toward the political mainstream. Meanwhile, if Liki’s suspicions are correct, then AIO is using development projects to push Edda not just out of certain neighborhoods in the city but also off traditional lands beyond the city limits.

Although Friend has composed for the stage, the experience of composing music for a game was very different. “The music is written to be looped endlessly rather than as a contained song,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve gone into Vangelis territory,” he adds, citing the Greek electronic musician and composer perhaps best known for scoring films like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. Friend’s score was an extreme departure from his own 4615 Go passion project, Old Soul, a cabaret-style home concert of original songs and personal anecdotes about his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression presented over Zoom.

“It’s in an alternate world, but because it’s still grounded in our world, I had one foot in quotidian sounds and one foot in more surreal sounds,” Friend says. So in Aeolus City, in the lower levels of the night markets and the “Dark City” close to the Mother Trees’ roots where Liki lives, the sounds might be based on woodwinds or vocals that have been tweaked to sustain a note beyond what is humanly possible. 

“[Aeolus’] lower levels have more identifiable melodies, with reverb for sounds meant to naturally occur in a physical space, and [there is] a pristine ugly to the upper levels with more processed aristocratic music,” he says. Music indicates more than just place, as there are “more artificial sounds as we get closer to the villains,” Friend says with a chuckle.

Velz, by contrast, did not find the transition from being a dramaturg who works on the development of new plays to being a dramaturg who works on a video game to be a radical shift: “In the most fundamental way it’s the same job of making sure the script is accessible to the audience, and that the themes are clearly expressed,” she says. 

Velz also wrote the third episode of Dark City. While the first episode features Juda at the beginning of his investigation into Paaya’s death, and the second episode features Liki as the protagonist, Velz says “I wrote my episode from Paaya’s point of view.” Velz adds that Paaya, as an Edda, is “from an ethnic group that does not normally have power but she does, [consequently] we explore the theme of internalized racism, and it reveals why Juda loves Paaya so much.”

Velz also touches upon the theme of internalized racism through the character of Gideon, a half-Vassari executive, who as of episode one, is only known through his emails. “Greg, Sara, and I are all biracial and we wanted to explore that theme,” Velz says. Still, “we were careful not to present a one-to-one relationship between the ethnic groups in the game and real world ethnic groups,” she adds.

Strasser also describes his collaboration with Eskandari, who has primarily worked in the media of video games and comics, as going well beyond the character designs and into the material culture of the world. Recalling how even contemporary technologies often display their premodern ancestry, he describes how they developed the written script for the Edda: “Because we knew the environment where [the Edda] first settled would be filled with leaves and plants and trees, we designed their language script to have been first written on soft material like banana leaves,” he says. “In that regard, we did have to look at scripts like Khmer, Thai, and others to understand that those scripts were created out of practicality, so as not allowing tear or destruction of the material.” Consequently, versions of this no longer leaf-based Edda script appear in different fonts during gameplay, whether handwritten in the margins of Vassari texts (Vassari is rendered as written English) or as stylized in-game messages when the player begins or completes a minigame.

Just as intriguingly, Strasser has decided that the two languages have different ideas of gender. Vassari is similar to English and has gendered pronouns and personal names, but Edda has a history of being more fluid; it became more restrictive under the influence of Vassari grammar. When Liki expresses an openness to using they/them in addition to she/her pronouns, it’s both an assertion of personal and cultural identity.

The differences between the Edda and the Vassari are conceived in a fantastic way in the first episode. Some of the Edda, whether by biology or culture, are capable of accessing a mycorrhizal (fungus root) network that connects the Mother Trees that dominate the cityscape, gaining energy and information, and they’ve even developed religious views based on this symbiosis. However, mycorrhizal networks are not fantasy: Drawn from real world scientific research into forest ecologies, they are networks of subterranean fungi that facilitate the exchange of nutrients between trees of different species in return for carbohydrates produced by the trees. These networks also allow plants to communicate with one another through both info-chemicals and electrical signals, helping them to better respond to changing environmental conditions. 

Indeed, it is strongly implied in the first episode that some Edda have the ability to download their consciousness into the mycorrhizal network when they die, leaving us wondering if Paaya might be trying to speak to Juda as a mycorrhizal ghost.

When asked what a playwright and theater director brings to video game design, Strasser says, “Jordan asks me the same question. The answer is ‘I don’t know,’ but I do feel that this experience will change the way I will be writing and directing plays in the future.”

But the ultimate question for players is: Must Aeolus City always be a dark city of corruption, or can the interconnectedness of the trees be a model for a brighter future?  

Dark City is available for Mac and PC at $3.99 per episode or $8.99 for the four-episode bundle. 4615Theatre.com/dark-city.