Immersive, interactive, in-character: larp edges into mainstream entertainment

The Peckforten Papers is a collection of writing about UK larp published by the Wychwood Press. You can buy it on Lulu should you wish, or get the pdf here.

I wrote a bit for it in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, and it’s down here so I don’t lose it…


I am sat where it all began. For values of “it” and “all” that are arguable, for sure, but they’re certainly true for me. The entire family tree of Treasure Traps; Durham, Cambridge and late-lamented Birmingham (in no particular order), of Labyrinth, of fests and of Fools and Heroes, maybe. Of a small Norfolk system called Overkill where I first ran linears, absolutely. Of the live-combat side of larp in the UK, probably.

I’m leaching Peckforton Castle’s wifi with a pint of Estrella and a laptop, sat in what was the “smoke room” in the original Treasure Trap’s “basic” adventure. Back in the day, monster weapons were coated with paint, and a ref checked if you’d been hit with red for a small amount of damage, black for a lot more or even green for poison. The staff blame the paint that still marks the walls in “off limits” areas on “an American paintball company.” I am unconvinced, but better an unnamed company than an entire hobby which happened to be born here. Right now it’s a luxury wedding venue. It would make an excellent phys-rep for a College of Wizardry, but would need a ticket price to match and I’m sure it’d be worth that.
Next year, I hope to be sitting in a hotel in Walt Disney World, just starting out on an experience where I’m in character for a couple of days, immersed in a Star Wars themed environment, interacting with Star Wars universe characters, and inspired to change my own and others’ narratives with my actions. The kind of thing their 2013 patent and the news stories since then have fanned as rumour, delivering storytelling through emerging technology, I think they call it these days.
In the 35 years since I started larp, the mainstream has been embracing bits and pieces of the hobby. I didn’t notice for years, but now it’s hard not to. “Immersive”, and “interactive” appear with increasing regularity in advertisements for various types of live entertainment. I’ve seen them used to describe theatre, cinema, music from classical to art-rock, newer forms such as Escape Rooms, Zombie Runs and what we’d once have simply called Haunted Houses. The words “immersive” and “interactive” mean more to more people.
There’s a bit of the mainstreaming of parts of geek culture that can be traced from Harry Potter, bless’im, the cinematic release of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the re-birth of Star Wars. There’s something in individualised or even mass-customised experiences vs. commodified digital delivery of the same entertainment to everyone.
In this article, I’ll place larp in a landscape of other events I’ve been to that are a little bit “larpy”: immersive, interactive, and maybe even a little bit in-character…

Immersive

By this term, the mainstream tends to mean an activity happening in an environment which is authentic to a setting, with people who are dressed and act authentically to the setting. Note, “a” setting – Plunkett and Maclean is my favourite example – it’s lousy at being authentic to Regency Britain, but it’s fabulously authentic to “Plunkett and Macleany Britain,” an altogether better place in which to play. They don’t mean mentally immersed, or at least I don’t think they do, with a very few exceptions I’ve come across, they also don’t mean “in character” – more on that later.

Punchdrunk is a well-funded theatre company with a magnificently executed schtick; the audience moves. Not merely in the sense that a promenade performance moves; where the audience move at the prompting, urging or instruction of ushers. Punchdrunk audiences simply wander about. Punchdrunk shows are unique to their environments, which are simply stunning. I’ve been to two of their shows for adults. The “Masque of the Red Death” took elements from Edgar Allan Poe stories, and wove them round Battersea Arts centre. “The Drowned Man” created a Hollywood cinema studio with accompanying trailer park and town in the shell of a disused Royal Mail sorting office.The attention to detail in the set dressing in particular verged on the obsessive; with documents, letters, and props all forming part of the story.
As a member of the audience at a Punchdrunk event you’re immersed in the story, in that you have a physical presence where you wish to be. You are certainly in a place which is itself part of the action. You’re all given white masks, so you were all blank faces staring at the action. At “Masque of the Red Death”, you were given black robes if you weren’t dressed for the time, so many of you were raven-like, flocking round points of interest. What you experience is (probably) unique because you move at your whim.

Secret Cinema create immersive experiences based on films. You show up, you’re in a space appropriate to the film, then you watch the film. Some actors do some stuff appropriate to the film. Back in the day, you never knew what the film was. You showed up, not knowing what to expect, they took you somewhere, you watched something.
Now, that’s pretty cool, but what I think they realised is that an immersive experience needs the people as well as the environment to be dressed right, and act right. So nowadays their blockbuster shows tell you what you’re going to see, how to look, and there are crew about to give you something to interact with before the film. I’ve only been to a couple: “Empire Strikes Back,” and “Moulin Rouge”.
The immersive element before “Empire Strikes Back” was the setting of the original “Star Wars” story: Tatooine, a couple of shuttle runs, and the Death Star. The set was simply stunning, and it turned out there were enough geek-sci-fi-fans around for the audience to look good too. When we landed in Mos Eisley, my inner seven year old just stumbled about open-mouthed, when we walked into the cantina with the diddly diddly music playing, he was slack-jawed, when we got to use Jedi mindtricks on a stormtrooper, he was in seventh heaven, when the Death Star pulled us in a tractor beam, he was punch-drunk with experience-shock, and when a life-size x-wing executed an attack run over our heads, he actually exploded. It was pretty awesome.
“Moulin Rouge” was a film-set street in Mountmatre: a couple of bars, a stage and a dancehall with double level seating they managed to hide until we entered the “Moulin Rouge” itself. It was a beautifully effective use of space, and we were moved round impeccably, to the extent that I only really noticed what they were doing on my third run, when I went with a more analytical frame of mind, and a more analytical companion. It wasn’t – to look back critically – as immersive as the set for “Empire Strikes Back”. What I think made it, were the other people. Everyone I noticed had gone to town on costume, in a setting where, unlike “Empire Strikes Back,” there are some easily accessible tropes: “posh” or “performer” are pretty easy to do, steampunk fits, if you feel the need, and low status male at least is a charity shop standard. The audience got (physically) immersed amongst a whole pack of other folk who’d also gone to town on their look.
That physical immersion is one of the elements I prize in larp. Yes, you can patch anything with imagination, and yes, in most games I run you need to. But I think imagination is overrated in larp. What sets larp apart from tabletop roleplaying is physical presence, and there are stories to be told where tabletop is simply a better vehicle. Let it have them, and reserve larp for the stories it tells best, the ones where participants can be physically immersed in an environment and where physicality plays its own part in how the story unfolds. Like a Punchdrunk show, in fact, where the experience is unique precisely because participants define it by exactly where they move to and when.
Like my first linear way back in the day at Peckforton, where I arrived at the main gate of an actual castle to go on my first adventure…

Interactive

I’ve moved castles. I’m now in the chapel at St Briavels, a former royal hunting lodge turned youth hostel. I ran an event here once; a parliament I helped organise for the faction I led as an NPC for the Lorien Trust. I can’t remember the plot too well, actually I’m not even sure we had any beyond some meetings and decision-making, maybe a haunt or two. I distinctly recall not letting the orcs in the poshest meeting room, on account of their OOC (out of character) facepaint and that becoming a bone of contention IC (in character). Nice place, anyway. Decent venue for the right sort of larp, but as so often these days I’d look at it first, then design the game around the location. Anyway. There was interaction, but the focus would have been the IC business of running the kind of political organisation that that needed doing for a faction called the Vipers.
The Punchdrunk events I have been to are only modestly interactive. As a member of the audience you’re not in control of the interaction: they are. There’s the edge case of the serial Punchdrunkgoer who knows not only where to stand to see what, but even where and when to stand to get what for the rest of us is the rarest of the rare, a one-to-one interaction with a Punchdrunk performer.
Back at Secret Cinema’s “Empire Strikes Back,” cutting deals with Jawa or using Jedi tricks to break rebels out of jail were ace, but also pretty structured. Interactions at their “Moulin Rouge” were more like larp, in my experience anyway. While I wasn’t and couldn’t be in charge of the big arc, the event did respond to my actions. There were more small goals and more I could interact with. As well as the signposted interactive elements, the “quest NPCs” if you like, there was reason enough to interact with the majority of the other people there. If participants signed up for it, they got a character name with an objective, and something of a lever on the world which involved other archetypes. More of the interaction could be, should be, would be with the other punters. So when I signed up and was given “Impressario” as an archetype – well, then, best to turn up with a show to put on, and find performers to perform.
These interactions seemed to make the immersion more, well, immersive. Notably, I experienced the film as part of an *us* rather than a member of an *audience*. The film at “Empire Strikes Back” was an irrelevance: we just watched. The film at “Moulin Rouge” carried on the immersive, interactive, inspirational, communal experience. More of the action in the film was conducive to this approach; and we were expertly orchestrated by Satine’s conducting. We were dancing when there was dancing on screen, we were singing (badly, and off-key, but singing) whenever there was singing on screen. We were making the experience together. Was that “interaction”? No, not really. But I absolutely, totally loved it. Essentially, I think it’s a fest larp done brilliantly. There’s enough for people to watch if they simply want to be immersed in an environment. There’s interaction if participants choose to chase it. If they don’t, some other player like me might invite them along anyway and there’s enough inspiration in the background to give those players the tools they need.
My enthusiasm for Secret Cinema isn’t universal. According to some other folk who’ve gone, the reality of the more signposted stuff involving crew characters – the “plot”, I guess – didn’t match the promise. I tend to approach my larp-event-fun pretty defensively – I bring my own fun every time – so this didn’t hit me. Because not *everyone* learns their “character brief”, those sorts of interactions never worked out for me. I don’t think I asked anyone their name, so that passed me by. One person described it as a club night with a film in the middle. They go to better clubs than I do.
Interactive is possibly even more of a trend within popular culture than immersive right now, with a number of sub-genres and related styles I have little or no experience of. I’ve been to one “pervasive game”, an event set in the real streets of London. Their main mistake to my mind was setting an event with a espionage theme in a triangle of London bordered by Westminister Barracks, the Ministry of Justice and New Scotland Yard. My experience was dampened by an initial brief, delivered in-character, which demanded I “Trust no-one”. I managed that so successfully that I avoided the whole rest of the game. One encounter with a “security guard” I heard of second-hand felt a little too immersive for my tastes, helping support my contention that the boundaries of the sandbox are best described out-of-game, not in-game. Another, differencEngine & Dean Rodgers’ “Heist,” was more successful for me. They did well enough at the interactive and immersive element that I forgave them not allowing us to use the props and plans we’d brought with us in favour of operating within the parameters they set us. Then there’s the Crystal Maze experience based on the 80s TV show opened in London in 2016, with another slated to launch in Manchester. Murder mystery evenings, with a longer heritage, and escape rooms, where participants have to solve puzzles in a set time-frame to emerge successful, a more modern invention.
Interaction is where larp can genuinely stand out amongst other media, and good larp does. I’ve heard, and now tend to use, words like “lever” to encapsulate this kind of thing, the idea that the world is a system a player can bend to their will somehow. If a decision does not have consequences that are reflected by the world, it’s not as meaningful. There is some interaction on offer in the more mainstream immersive experiences. I’ve seen immersive and interactive events that said participants would be shaping an actual narrative. I’ve often been disappointed. Possibly because to my mind, if a story cannot be influenced, it is not interactive, it’s a show. Maybe a good show, but a show nonetheless. I’ve been to larp events which did the same, either by accident or sometimes by design, railroading the action so I felt like a spectator.
“You must be able to make a difference and you must want to make a difference,” is something I think Matt Pennington said about good larp once. Part of this is inherent in consequences, if the world recognises and reflects your actions positively, you’ll be more likely to actually do things. Big things. Impactful things. I don’t mean to suggest an action should only have a positive effect. An action should not produce a positive effect simply because a player took it. Heroism cannot be granted, it can only be earned. However, to my mind the world should try damned hard to say, “that was a good thing to have done”, as well as, “You did that thing. Here are the consequences”. “That was a good thing to have done”, as opposed to “That was the Best Thing!” I think I am saying that every defeat should be a Dunkirk. I find this extraordinarily hard to manage myself.
Part of it is leaving sufficient space for the players to make an event their own, so they bring their imagination to the party, so they bring their things to do. Small things, maybe, but personal things perhaps, relationships that mean a lot to their characters or stunts that bring others into the action.
This is a right pig sometimes, because some of the immersioning I want to do requires set dressing ahead of time, groups of non-player characters to be moved to somewhere specific at just the right moment, things to go bang at the right moment, and not some other moment, that kind of thing. And the sign-posting to these scenes kinda stands against interactivity in the active sense I want it, the sense where every interaction has an effect. What of that effect is to kill one of the scenes I want to bring a really cool moment to life? Heigh-ho. No-one ever said this was easy.

In-character

This is where we depart from the mainstream.
Secret Cinema kinda do this, I’m pretty confident no-one else does, really. After “Empire Strikes Back,” I said I’d not bother with multiplexes so much, I’d just save up until Secret Cinema did something else in a genre I liked. “Moulin Rouge” It wasn’t *exactly* a larp, in that there was precious little characterisation or *emotional* immersion going on. However, I’d be happy going to one fewer larp a year, and blowing the cash on another night out in Mountmatre. It was kinda like a gateway drug to larp. To me, it’s weakness in that was it’s “character generation” system; only luck gave me a role that I was comfortable with, which led me to the kind of experience I delight in.
Other “immersive” pieces have said something like, “It is the future. You’re a citizen.” or “You’re a spy”, but put nothing into the experience except that assertion to make attendees think or behave differently. Sometimes, less forgivably for me, they’ve gone so far as to reject my efforts to behave as someone in that environment might behave in favour of only recognising conformity to the narrow behaviours expected of audience members, as opposed to participants. I think I’ve learned to set my expectations as I’ve gone to more “interactive” events. It’s a matter of identifying the power I, as a member of the audience, has, and pushing those limits so they bend but not break. Just as I’d do in a larp, in fact. There’s social contracts everywhere after all, even if they aren’t always as clear as you’d like.
As pointed out by one of the wise at the time, an earlier “immersive and interactive” piece I wrote didn’t explicitly require “participants to be playing a character rather than being themselves” at all, which was a bit revealing to me in retrospect. I think there’s something in the sort of “my body is a puppet” roleplaying I do, and the “I become my character” roleplay which others do. Something to ponder anyway. It’s quite something of a volte face to move from not even mentioning “in-character” to the realisation that it is the uniqueness of larp as a hobby, but there it is.
This is what we do that no-one else concentrates on yet. That Disney resort? They might. We’ll see.

References

College of Wizardry
The 2013 Disney patent
An example story concerning the Disney resort
Punchdrunk
Punchdrunk: Masque of the Read Death
Punchdrunk: Crash of the Elysium
Punchdrunk: The Drowned Man
Secret Cinema
Heist
http://www.sixtostart.com/onetoread/2008/everything-you-know-about-args-is-wrong/

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