When Michael Golamco began researching Build, his play about two frazzled, lonely guys on the brink of releasing a revolutionary video game, the writer bought a book on how to program MMORPGs — massively multiplayer online role-playing games, which you play with other people on the internet. He read a few articles on the subject too. More importantly, he delved into the mother of all MMORPGs, World of Warcraft. He joined a guild, got himself a snazzy guild tabard and embarked on raids.
Then Golamco became engulfed in writing the play. He dropped off the virtual world for a few months, then ventured back into the game, only to find out that his guild had dropped him.
“That people I had never met…disowned me felt really bad,” the playwright confesses inside an office at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. “Those human feelings will always exist.”
Programming and video game culture are embedded deep within Build, which is in previews at the Geffen right now and officially opens on October 24, but this isn't a 90-minute thread of geek in-jokes. The play, directed by Will Frears, centers around an Odd Couple-like pair who have been building games together since college. Will (Peter Katona) is clean-cut and on-the-ball, trying to keep the sequel to the team's breakthrough hit alive. Kip (The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski) is a pizza-chomping shut-in who has just developed a game engine that could change the industry. Sharing their workspace in Kip's Palo Alto home is a female A.I. (Laura Heisler) — i.e., a robot — whose mere presence indicates how much the two have disconnected from their previous lives, pre-fame and pre-tragedy.
“I wanted to think about technology in almost mythological terms,” Golamco explains. “Not how we do it, but why.”
The exact year in which the plot unfolds is unknown to the audience. The play itself (originally commissioned by actors Joel de la Fuente from Law and Order: SVU and Daniel Dae Kim from Lost and Hawaii Five-0, though they don't star in this production) involves elements of science fiction, but in a way that is completely plausible in our modern world. “Science fiction isn't about the future,” says Golamco. “It's about the present.”
He adds, “This play will always encapsulate for me a little part of the 21st century that people will never be able to get back that has its own kind of jadedness, but, at the same time, it's own kind of innocence compared with what the future holds.”
The science fiction in Build is grounded in reality and that's thanks to Golamco's own background. He grew up in the Bay Area at a time when the region was coming into its own as the center of tech. When he was 8, Golamco's father brought home a Commodore 64 and typed in programs found inside magazines for his son. Young Golamco started playing games that used the BASIC programming language. “I wondered what would happen if you changed these lines [of code],” he recalls. “That's what got me into programming.”
Golamco considers his interest in programming a “parallel path” to writing. “They're very similar in a lot of ways,” he explains. “You're trying to do the maximum amount with the minimum amount of code.”
While he was in college at UCLA, Golamco, who initially wanted to write novels, gravitated towards plays after he helped start an Asian-American theater company on campus. They put together free shows every quarter, drawing crowds so large that they would bring in extra seats and still couldn't fit everyone. “That showed me the power of what the audience can bring collectively,” he says.
Golamco equates the theater audience with gamers. During our interview, he mentioned that he was keen on getting Bethesda Softwork's latest game, Dishonored, because the freedom of the game is allowing players to discover new aspects of it. That's also how Golamco wants people to approach Build. “When the players really own it, and the audience really owns it, that's what gets me.”