Interview – Ben O’Brien, BigHeadMode and Bonus Stage
On a dark night, in the last days of… July, I went to an event that’s undoubtedly a celebration of gaming culture. That would be Bonus Stage. The live gaming-themed variety show is the somewhat unseemly love-child of Carlo Ritchie and Ben O’Brien. In advance of their next show, I had the chance to speak with Bonus Stage’s O’Brien this week, and ask him a few serious (and many not-so-serious) questions.
While not strictly a game itself, the next show is particularly exciting form an Australian perspective, as it will have Greens Senator Scott Ludlam as a special guest. Ludlam has been integral in having the senate conduct an inquiry into the state of local game development. That show will also feature another special guest, Dante Basco, who may be better known as Rufio from Hook, or as the voice of Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Coming up to the 7th show of Bonus Stage, with clear momentum surrounding the event, did you always expect it to be a success?
Ben: Honestly, you never know how anything is going to be received. Also it depends on your idea of success. I mean, it’s been nearly 8 months and I still don’t have a jetpack. Our compass for the show was just to make it the fun kind of event that we’d enjoy. Having a variety of entertainment, music and conversation followed by drinks and gaming. The beauty of a variety show format is that everything will resonate differently for different people, so hopefully there’s something for everybody.
Variety shows are common throughout the world, and Australia too had a particularly strong tradition with them. Have there been any that you would consider strongly influential on how the show runs?
Ben: Carlo and I are both huge fans of Conan O’Brien, so that’s probably a big one. I’d say the variety show format is like the wrapping paper to the Bonus Stage present. We’ve got a house band, comedy acts, pre-recorded bits, Carlo’s monologue. But we’ve also tried to keep the tone a bit more casual and welcoming like a group of friends hanging out and talking about games. And then after the show we actually get to mingle and play games with the audience which is great.
Some could describe the rise as meteoric. Would they be your words?
Ben: Well, in my experience, meteors have a tendency to hurtle terrifyingly towards earth and then you need Bruce Willis and a ragtag group of oil drillers to save the planet by blowing it up with a nuclear device.
What’s the worst response you’ve received to any content in Bonus Stage – joke, sketch or other?
Ben: I don’t know about worst, but my parents enjoy watching all of our sketches then calling me up just to tell me they don’t understand them. Also one of our audience members was absolutely devastated when Carlo shaved his moustache.
Why can’t Exos dance for shit?
Ben: I’m not sure I understand the question, since anyone who’s played Destiny would know that Exo’s have been specifically programmed to pop it and lock it better than anyone else in the galaxy.
What made you take the leap from the radio to the stage?
Ben: It was never a huge leap really, given both Carlo and my prior experience on stage. Carlo was doing improv comedy at the Giant Dwarf, which already had a number of great talk shows but nothing about games. So we figured, why not? There is this annoyingly persistent attitude that ‘gamers’ stay indoors all day and night playing games but if events like PAX Australia have taught us anything, it’s that people who play games come in all shapes and sizes and when you bring all those different people together over a mutual love of games, people can have a really great time.
How does preparing for the stage show differ to preparing for radio? Is there more than just wearing pants?
Ben: Oh yeah. Sometimes you have to wear shoes, even socks (in the colder months). I know you’re joking there but the real beauty of radio is that you never see your audience and they never have to see you. I have a wonderful collection of comfy, dorky sweaters that I love to wear on radio that I’m pretty sure would get me booed off stage.
The two mediums actually inform each other well. There’s kind of an informal rule in radio that you should try to never do the same thing for longer than 10 minutes. Whether it’s a topic of conversation or a particular segment, you should generally try and keep things moving or at least break things up with music or a sketch. It’s been a good compass for having a fun, fast paced show.
What mistakes have you learned from in setting up Bonus Stage?
Ben: We had a show early on where one of our comedians had to pull out of the show and we had no back-up plans. So we had to put our heads together and think up a new segment. We ended up having William Erimya, a comedian and improviser, come on the show as Alex Kidd which ended up being great fun. I think that taught us a lot… First of all, always have a back-up guest. But mainly, that you can make anything entertaining if you’re having fun with it. We had no idea what Will would do as Alex Kidd and we ended up having a great time on stage as a result, which I think made it a more entertaining segment. Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow.
Will the Movember edition of the show be called Bonus Stache?
Ben: Well, anyone who came to our first few shows would have seen that Carlo celebrates Movember in many months.
But as far as November goes, we’ve already been tossing around some fun ideas about potentially doing a Game of the Year Show.
You have some significant big guests coming up for the next show. Why them?
Ben: A lot of people have commented on how different our guests are for this show. With Scott Ludlam, we actually made contact with his office before our first show about him being in a sketch we were working on called ‘Everybody Games’. But he ended up having to pull out because he was incredibly busy. Then a few months ago, when he started talking publicly about why we needed more funding for the Australian Games industry, we thought he’d be a perfect guest.
For Dante Basco, Carlo and I are huge fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and we’ve been wanting a voice actor to come on the show since day one. The moment we saw him in the Oz Comic-Con line up, it was a no brainer! And luckily, the show we’ve created is weird enough that we can get away with having an Australian Politician and a Royal Firebender on stage at the same time.
Who would your dream guests be?
Ben: Carlo and I have got a dream list of voice actors we’d get on the show. Top of the list would be Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer doing a live ‘Shepard vs Shepard’ voice off to determine the ultimate Commander Shepard.
Also, anyone who worked on Banjo-Kazooie would be at the top of my list.
A blue-collar slacker travels long distances to lands of exorbitantly wealthy mansions and estates, to find the girl he has a thing for is shacked up with a reptilian monarchist. Nintendo pitch or Killing Season series two?
Ben: That sounds like a fun Nintendo game. I look forward to playing it sometime in 2047 when it will eventually get released.
Big Head Mode has been running since 2012 so presumably has a decent following. Do you ever get people on the street ever recognise you from the radio?
Ben: Oh man, constantly. I can’t even go to the local pharmacy without a kind old lady asking me to sign her copy of ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’.
Games and gaming culture are represented on television, in concerts, at conventions, events, on radio and now a live theatre-slash-variety show. How important is the cross-medium proliferation to gamer introspection and the maturation of gaming culture?
Ben: It’s an interesting question. I think one of the greatest things about Bonus Stage is bringing in so many different members of the gaming community and having them all in the same room. Most gaming communities tend to foster online, either in games or on the internet and as great as that is, I feel like that’s also where a lot of the problems arise. On the internet, people can act a lot more aggressive or defensive than I think they would in person.
When it comes to the maturation of gaming culture, I think there are two sides… The way gamers view their own culture and the way everyone else views it. They’re kind of working together and against each other at the same time. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to point out inherent flaws in the gaming world, which is definitely something gamers are sensitive to. Sometimes that sensitivity is justified and sometimes it isn’t. But at the same time, you can have occasions where something beautiful emerges from gamer culture that just demands the attention and cultural and artistic respect of everyone else. We’ve had technological innovation, artistic innovation… and it’s already bleeding into other aspects of society. There are games used as educational tools, games used as physical therapy or even for coping with depression.
Games have been maturing for years so it’s inevitable that gamer culture will follow suit, even if it is dragging it’s heels a bit.
The annual IGEA/Bond University report Digital Australia released in July showed that 68% percent of Australians play video games, and 98% of homes with children have games. With that in mind, what might the landscape of gaming culture look like in the future, and where does Bonus Stage fit into that picture.
Ben: Our mentality has always been that ‘everyone games’.
I have this argument with my Dad constantly. Most nights before going to bed, he plays Sudoku on his iPad yet he refuses to accept it’s a game. With mobile games, Facebook games etc, there’s more gamification than ever before but I think most people still don’t fully realise that they actually play games.
So I think the future of gaming is going to be more about people coming to terms with the idea of interactive mediums in general. Things like VR will probably only enhance that further.
As far as where Bonus Stage will fit into that? Definitely a Bonus Stage Kinect game.
Your recent sketch on indie gamedev was well-received and resonated with many, but beneath the joke, is there a sense of frustration with the state of game development in Australia?
Ben: There’s definitely frustration that game development in Australia doesn’t get as much support as it deserves. At the moment we have so many brilliant, talented minds that are being forced to move overseas if they want to pursue a career in game development. There are a bunch of great games coming out of Australia at the moment but I don’t think many people realise how bloody difficult it is for the devs. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been encouraging local devs with a portable build of their games to bring them along, to try and support them however we can.
I suppose the main frustration we have is that some people seem to have a weird hostility towards Indie games, when really, it’s the constant innovation and creativity that we see in Indies that is forcing the AAA titles to keep with the times.
Thanks to Ben for his time.
Save Game agreed to interview Ben O’Brien after the opportunity was raised by Bonus Stage’s PR. We will be attending the next Bonus Stage on Saturday, September 26 with a complementary ticket. Public tickets are available through Giant Dwarf, with special tickets available for attendees of Oz Comic-Con.