After action report: Secret Cinema’s Guardians of the Galaxy

I’ve written about Secret Cinema before: Bridgerton and Moulin Rouge and mentions of others. It’s fair to say I’m a fan. Guardians of the Galaxy improves on their world-running, but the viewing experience is so-so. Is that important? Not to me – the Secret World was a blast.

“Secret Cinema do “immersive experiences” based on films. You shows up, you’re in an immersive space, then you watch the film.”

From my post “It’s a secret”
Nice to see the rules laid out in the venue.
Photo by Mariam Nam Attack

I’m fond of saying larp is immersive, interactive and in-character. Everyone and their dog is calling their work “immersive” right now, have been for years. For me, immersive is combination of the physical and the mental; you’re in a space and a state of mind which puts you *in* the work, not just acting as an external observer. I really should read the definitions others use; in drama circles in particular. Interactive events move you from observer to participant; as well as being in the world, your existence and actions are recognised. In-chararacter implies this presence and activity is driven not by your own self, but by the self of a character you’re portraying with their own ambitions, goals, and dreams.

Secret worlds

Secret Cinema’s Secret Worlds are real close to larp. They’re immersive, they’re interactive, and you can choose to adopt a characterisation. (Caveat: See “Don’t mess with the narrative” below.) I suspect the main difference is that they’re avowedly for enjoyment, larp as a medium can do anything, Secret Cinema concentrates on entertaining the lovely punters.

When it comes to Immersive, Guardians of the Galaxy’s production design was really good. They took the worlds from the film, and made them real. Costumes were on point, the actors were instantly recognisable as their characters, the set was excellent. The reveal when you first arrived was right up there with their Star Wars experience. Someone had really thought that through. That’s not unusual from them, though. Their work varies from great to subline. Bladerunner was off this scale, and beyond. So; Guardians scores well, although not beyond expectation.

Where Guardians took a step up was in its Interaction. Missions have been a part of Secret Cinema’s world since – well, at least since my first, Empire Strikes Back. You’d get passed between actors – larp would call them npcs of course – with clues to get into secret areas, pursue the plot of the experience and so on. Guardians took this and amped it up with a way if bringing your own play with you. Before the evening, they cued you in. Bring “Terran treasures, earn units.” So beautifully on theme for the setting, so in tune with the films. So well done. Trading was neat. On top of that, missions. You earned Units for doing stuff, you earned more for doing stuff well. The fact they ended up on a score board, and there was a winner – mostly irrelevant to me, although there was an amount of playful competition on a fan group I’m in. Beautifully playful, actually. The fact the world recognised your actions. Priceless. Also some nice “time-multiplying”; codes to crack, that kind of thing. Engagement that didn’t need actor time. Added to the fact that considering what to bring, and acquiring it was a whole other thing to talk about beforehand. Really clever. Brought us all closer into the brand. Great marketing as well as a richer experience.

Don’t mess with the narrative; an aside.

Ephemera: got the goth My Little Pony in trade, the “Being contract” was a prop with a code on it you could crack to warn Peter he was to be kidnapped, the Top Trumps card came from one of the wonderful Positive People.

What Secret Cinema’s Bridgerton had which Guardians did not was space: space to tell your own little stories with other attendees. That I loved. There was so much going on at Guardians, there wasn’t as much room for it. But also, it’s the larper attendee’s bananaskin. It’s where we might go too far.

There is; I think; a tension at the heart of the Secret Cinema experience. They want to to be immersed, the more the better, but up to a point. It’s a set narrative, plotted in great detail beforehand. I’d love to see The Book for a Secret Cinema immersive; their ASMs must be amazing. However. If something you do because of your immersion threatens that narrative, you threaten the enjoyment of others’ and they cannot have that.

As an example – your clan earned Units by doing stuff, and those Units were actually given you by SC actors using a tablet. Some of those were fixed in place. The interface was “secured” by a PIN, but a wise larper I know observed it would have been a trivial bit of social engineering to get that PIN, and use the interface yourself. To give your clan a bucket of Units. That’s good solid Rascally Ravaging, right? But is it Crappy Customering? I think it probably is – because it would have devalued the actions of other attendees, and so made them less into the main Interaction. Once folk knew it was a possibility, you’d get a scrum round the fixed tablets. Not good experience. But I kinda wish I’d tried it once… If anyone did, I’d love to know how it went.

Your agency is very limited outside the bounds they set – and I can’t find anywhere where they specifically articulate what those bounds are. Unsurprisingly. It’d be really hard to be precise. That’s a lot of words, no-one would read. One of the Positive People of Secret Cinema – Facebook fan group extraordinaire, and the only genuinely positive open community I’ve ever founnd on Facebook – has done a really neat list of “Don’t”s, which I should do a cut of here at some point.

Immersive viewing

Immersive viewing is where Guardians fell a little. There were no performers at the show, just a few light effects. It was – pretty much – like a decent independent cinema viewing. Not awful, but didn’t add a whole lot. (Except for some singing from the audience at the end of the film, which was pretty emotional. No spoilers. One day, they’ll choose a show where you’re genuinely in the film again; Guardians didn’t really lend itself to actors being active in front of the screen.

In conclusion…

As a medium-term fan, who loves the Secret Worlds; that element was slightly, and only slightly, behind Bridgerton. The film was well behind my dear Moulin Rouge though, so Guardians sits in third, with a special mention for neat experience design in the Strange World.

Obviously, I’m going to whatever they do next.

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