Don’t ‘Panic!’ There’s a Musical on Your Phone

Peter Panic
Courtesy of Adult Swim Games

Mobile gaming and musical theater: Two great tastes that taste great together?

That’s the premise of “Peter Panic!,” a new videogame in which let’s-put-on-a-show dreams are achieved with lightning-quick minigames and original musical-theater songs. Since Adult Swim Games released it on the Apple iOS App Store March 3, “Peter Panic!” has managed to stand out from the weekly deluge of new apps — ranking among the top-five music games for iPhone and iPad, and downloaded close to 300,000 times — precisely because it mashes up two genres that don’t usually get mentioned in the same breath.

The pairing also highlights the fact that both videogames and musical theater are in the midst of similar cultural moments. Once the niche territories of fanboys and obsessives, both genres are having their appeal broadened by things like mobile phones (for gaming) and “Glee” (for musical theater).

“Games have been an insular subculture for a long time, but they’re in a place now where they’re forming stronger connections to the rest of the world,” said Frank Lantz, a game designer (“Drop 7”) and the director of the NYU Game Center. He could say the same for musical theater, which in recent years have begun to look to genre-defying and unconventional inspirations for shows like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.”

With a game design that recalls Nintendo’s cult-fave “WarioWare” series, “Peter Panic!” originated as a thesis project for developer James Marion, then studying at the Game Center. For the project’s 36 tracks of original music, he found a composer and collaborator in Ben Bonnema, a graduate of the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program — the same program that has yielded the creators of Broadway musicals including 2014 Tony champ “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and the upcoming “Tuck Everlasting.”

The game’s narrative, told in cheerfully retro graphics, centers on a fresh-faced young grad’s struggle to return the magic of regional theater to his hometown (and maybe also to avert the clandestine rise of an ageless demon). Between gaming challenges, “Peter Panic!” is peppered with interstitial tunes written in a classic Broadway style and performed by actors including Emily Skeggs (“Fun Home”) and Gideon Glick (“Spring Awakening”).

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The game’s wacky concept grew out of Marion’s eclectic background. He’s always had an interest in games and 3D modeling, but he also has a theater B.A. from Rutgers and a resume that includes stage managing at a New Brunswick theater and serving as the tech director of a theater school in Morristown, N.J. “My thesis statement for ‘Peter Panic!’ is: I want to make people want to see a musical who’ve never seen a musical,” he said.

Bonnema echoed the crossover sentiment. “We tried to appeal to the gaming crowd who’s never set foot in a theater, and to the people who wait out at ‘Ham4Ham’ every day,” he said, referring to the daily ticket lottery (and occasional sidewalk show) at “Hamilton.”

The matchup is, in part, practical, tapping a separate, avid fanbase for a title that could get lost in the ongoing flood of new games for your iPhone. “You have to work really hard to find your audience, and it seems like theater has a built-in audience,” Marion said.

The download numbers suggest healthy sampling, but free downloads don’t equate to revenue. That comes from the $2.99 that some players will pay for the ability to save their game progress. (There are also two bonus songs winkingly offered at $1 apiece, bringing the total you can spend on “Peter Panic!” up to $5.)

Even with earnings still shaping up, the creators remain encouraged by the reaction.  The game’s second and final part — styled as Act II, natch — will be released in the coming months (with a whole new batch of original music by Bonnema), and Marion is already toying with ideas for his next musical-themed project. If “Peter Panic!” takes the form of a traditional razzle-dazzle musical, he wants his next offering to be more intimate and emotional, along the lines of recent computer game “The Dragon, Cancer” — or musicals like “Next to Normal” and “The Last Five Years.”

“Musicals can actually deal with stuff,” Marion said. “So can videogames.”

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