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‘Non-Player Character’ a clever foray into the world of video games

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The in-game avatars of Trent (Devin O’Brien), Morwyn (Annemaria Rajala), Feldrick (Tyler McKenna), and Katja (Emily Radosevich) in Walt McGough’s “Non-Player Character.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

For the uninitiated, a “non-player character” is one controlled by a video game’s artificial intelligence rather than by a human player.

Uninitiated or not, you’re likely to find Walt McGough’s “Non-Player Character,” a world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse set in the youth-oriented world of video games, funny and harrowing.

Katja (Emily Radosevich) is an aspiring coder who’s designing her own game, in a storytelling mode that’s non-competitive and non-violent, which, in this macho culture, is an anomaly.

Even Katja’s supportive old college pal Trent (Devin O’Brien) is perplexed by her benign concept. The two are now living apart — Katja has moved to Seattle — but meet weekly through a medieval-scenario game called Spearlight.

In Spearlight, the two friends appear in avatar mode, decked out in tawdry medieval attire (fine costume design by Leandra Watson), wielding invisible weapons and miming battles with unseen foes while chatting about their lives: his current fecklessness — he’s back home with his parents — and her ambitious foray into a game-designer career while working at Starbucks.

It’s amusing when other players enter, intoning pronouncements like, “Now you shall face ultimate pumpkin spice doom.” It’s especially funny when Trent’s obnoxious buddy (Tyler McKenna) joins in, as a bare-chested, hunky persona, bringing along a tough Amazonian-style avatar (Annemaria Rajala) who can’t actually speak (her mic is broken) and who types brief messages (projections include texts, digital illustrations and videos; designer: Theodore J.H. Hulsker).

Katja (Emily Radosevich, left) shows Naomi (Charisse Loriaux) the game she is creating in “Non-Player Character.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

But by the end of the first act, Katja and Trent’s non-screen relationship implodes.

And the second act transitions into the scary world of cyberbullying, where Katja and Trent — as real people, not players — reveal a very different side of themselves.

At its heart, this is a boy-girl relationship drama, albeit within an imaginative context. But as such, it’s emotionally unsatisfying.

That’s at least partly because we’re meant to admire as well as empathize with Katja, the presumably heroic interloper into the masculine ranks of game design. But it’s not easy to connect to such a single-minded, even self-centered, character.

Nor does it help that each scene goes on too long and that the cast is generally better at portraying the avatars than playing their real counterparts in simple and truthful ways.

Still, McGough has crafted a clever and insightful look at this very particular virtual community, exposing its misogyny and its allure.

And director Lauren English and her team match McGough’s inventiveness with an equally clever design concept.

REVIEW: Non-Player Character
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Creativity Theater, 221 4th St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 pm. Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, closes March 3
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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