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Aaron Loeb Is the Best Video Game Designer Slash Playwright In the Business

Scott Lucas | September 26, 2014 | Story Galleries and Performance

Aaron Loeb doesn't want you to know much about his new play Ideation, which premieres tomorrow at the San Francisco Playhouse and stars Ben Euphrat, Jason Kapoor, Mark Anderson Phillips, Carrie Paff, and Michael Ray Wisely. He is, as they say, spoiler-averse. That's a tough line to walk, since the script was given the Glickman award for best new script last year when it ran as part of the Playhouse's experimental series. Now it has leveled up to the main stage, and Loeb wants to make sure it retains its ability to shock.

We can't tell you much except that it's hysterical. And thought provoking. It will give you something to talk over with friends long after you leave the audience. It concerns a group of consultants with a problem solve that's a little bit out of the ordinary and that Loeb says draws thematically on his wife's work as a human rights lawyer who sues perpetrators of genocide. He can only describe it by making up a word. "It's plausiating," says Loeb. "Plausible and nauseating."

Loeb is a man accustomed to making stuff up, and not just as an author. He's a senior vice president at SoMa mobile game developer Kabam, which you may know from its naming of the field at Cal's Memorial Stadium or its recent infusion of cash from Chinese internet giant Alibaba. In addition to writing, Loeb started off as a game designer, first for pen and paper roleplaying games and then for electronic ones, lured out to San Francisco by a friend during the first Dot Com boom.

"There aren't a lot of video game designers who also write plays," says Loeb. In part, that's because the two aren't seen as complementary mediums, the way that television or film are to the theater. After all, it was only a few years ago that Roger Ebert denied that video games should even be considered art at all.

But experience as a game designer gives Loeb's scripts, which also include Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party and First-Person Shooter, a puzzle-like quality not usually seen on the stage. "I used tools for narrative construction that are the same ones that I use to construct video games," he says. But that doesn't mean that the skill set is directly transferable. Video games are "anti-linear at their best," and Loeb thinks they allow the player to dip in or out at their discretion. "You couldn't write a play for an audience that didn't show up at the theater," he says. Video games also prize directness. Mario is the hero and he's saving the princess from the monster. Plays are not usually written with that level of simplicity. Loeb says that "what's considered good dramatology is ambiguity."

That's how he's constructed the hall of mirrors that takes place in Ideation. It's a mystery, but one without a pat conclusion. "There are clues throughout," he says. "But it is not possible to unravel the play completely." The harder problem is to make up your own mind on the material. Not to get too hoity-toity about it, but that's the kind of Bretchian provocation that Loeb locates his work within. Or, to put it another way, he's the best damned Dungeon Master you never had.

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