How would you make a game about Orson Welles? I had never thought about this until I read, these past few weeks, One Man Band, the third part of Simon Callow’s ongoing biography of the director and writer and actor and occasional seller of Paul Masson wine, this volume covering the period from 1947 to 1964 – from Othello to Chimes at Midnight.
Now I can’t think about anything else. In a way I’ve been growing up with Callow’s books on Welles; I read the first instalment when it came out in 1995 when I was 18. And in a way that means I’ve been growing up with Welles too. He was 24 by the end of that first book. With One Man Band, Welles and I are both in our forties and a bit knackered. I’m a bit knackered anyway. Welles is actually still a bit knackering.
The man loved chaos. His life, his lies, his imagination, his failings, his appetites: everything about him is exhausting. And it must have been exhilarating and terrifying to be there with him, pulling films together as he hopped across Europe, staging plays that only came into focus – if at all – on the night of first performance. I want to get a bit of this world for myself, but from a safe distance: no broken bones, no unpaid debts. After the biography, games, inevitably, seem like the best way to do it. But how? How would you do Welles in a game? How would you capture someone – above six foot and pretty heavy by his forties, the cliche is made for him – larger than life?
About halfway through the book I started to realise something. Something kind of perfect. Welles was terrifying but he was also easily terrified, and one of the things that seems to have terrified him was acting with other actors. Callow is brilliant on the theatre stuff – he’s brilliant on everything; I’ve loved him ever since his unsettling and flickeringly thuggish performance in Amadeus, that glimpse of suppressed violence really scaring me as a kid – and he’s particularly good on the psychology of an acting troupe. Welles would often star in the plays he was directing in the period covered in One Man Band. He was Ahab, Othello, Falstaff. But he hated to actually rehearse with his actors. That seems to be the gist of it. He would make excuses to not be in character when everyone was getting the play ready. He feared their verdict?
This means that other actors had to act around him – act around him twice really, once in his absence during the rehearsals and then once again with his sudden and surprising presence during the actual performances, when he’d be there with platform shoes and funny makeup he’d designed himself – often a false nose, and often a false nose that would fall off during on stage – and without a very strong handle on his script.
It’s fascinating. In films, Welles is so huge – the scale of him, the richness of the voice, the control of all things in the frame. But in rehearsals? Not there as often as he could manage to be not there.
And it makes me think: games are surprisingly good with absences. Games about character in particular. Edith Finch, Gone Home, Lifeless Planet – okay there’s a spacesuit, but it reads as a form of absence and the one moment with a visible human is a bit of a letdown – these are games in which character is always present and centre stage, but the characters themselves are off-screen, with no danger of the uncanny valley breaking the spell.
So maybe a game about Welles would be a game about everyone in Welles’ orbit except Welles. Maybe it could be a write-around in the style of Frank Sinatra has a Cold. Maybe you’re rehearsing a play – theatre allowed Welles to react to things quickly but also dialled up his fears and bad behaviour – and you’re trying to interpret the wishes of this presence, this brilliant exhausting ghost who is never quite visible. A voice from the wings, from the stalls, a shadow moving about fixing the lighting, throwing in new ideas, new gimmicks, cutting lines and adding them, editing reality all about you while somehow remaining out of reach.
And brilliantly, this thought had me rushing back to the first volume of Callow’s biography, to a detail that had never left me: the trailer for Citizen Kane, in which Welles introduces the entire cast except for himself – and yet remains the central, controlling presence for the three or so minutes of its duration.