Category: Opinion (page 1 of 15)

Bunker Buddies at the Wildrence, with Broken Ghost Immersives

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Fifteen people huddled together in the Bunker, arranged in a rough circle of couches and chairs. The room itself was a pastiche of Cold War era kitsch, just big enough to fit our group, but small enough to feel a little cramped. The Nostalgia Electrics refrigerator was fully stocked with beverages of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, and the kitchenette was stocked with all the essential cooking implements, hanging from the wall. Near the couch, a chess set was prominently displayed near period magazines to help us while away the time in a makeshift living room space. On the other side of the room, a small crafting table was positioned to give the group space for tinkering with the odd bits and bobs we found. The only signs of real modernity in the room: a handful of tablets strewn around the room, and a laptop propped up in the corner, broadcasting security cam-style footage of the room to our Artificial Intelligence-based overseer, De-Bunk. The apocalypse arrived, and this would be our home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that foreseeable future was severely limited by dwindling food supplies and a malfunctioning life support system.

This is the scenario that Broken Ghost Immersive’s The Bunker thrusts its players into at Wildrence, a basement events space in lower Manhattan. A loose collective of individuals, met with the challenge of surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape with only their wits, a few rolls of duct tape, and a supply of Twinkies. The roughly 2 hour long show is a bit of a hybrid experience: while it combines elements of a number of immersive styles of play, at its core the experience feels like an intimate parlor LARP, where players’ decisions help them learn about the world they find themselves in as they struggle to survive. Routes to survival might involve using tablet devices to negotiate with residents of other nearby bunkers, donning hazmat suits to explore the wastelands to search for supplies and interact more directly with neighbors, and use those supplies to craft items useful for the bunker’s residents. While there is a set narrative underpinning the entire post-apocalyptic scenario, player choice dictates what elements of that story any given show (or player within that show) might encounter.

The Bunker: A Game of Resource Management
Bunker resources are represented through a series of cards that can either be found through exploratory missions into the wasteland, or created by playing a mini-game to combine items at the crafting station. And over The Bunker‘s seven “day” narrative, carefully managing those resources is essential to survival. Every day, players must “consume” one food card, or run the risk of dying right there, on the spot. Satisfying that need is a constant weight hanging over the bunker, with the very real threat of death looming at every turn. Additional cards can be spent at the crafting table to obtain items necessary for short-term and long-term survival, both for the expeditionary forces and the bunker at large. And along with limited resources comes challenges with distribution. Some resources might be pooled for group consumption, while others get held back to ensure individual survival.

The biggest resource for players to manage, however, is time. As with many megagames, how players choose to spend their time is a much more valuable resource than the cards themselves. This isn’t a game where players can get by focusing exclusively on one element of gameplay, as each element informs the others.  Players chatting with other bunkers might unlock new abilities for players tackling the crafting table, while players going out on expeditions might come across information that changes what players negotiating with other bunkers discuss. To encourage players towards a more well-rounded play experience, the game has “nudges” built in that require switching around tasks on a fairly frequent basis. Expedition members might become afflicted with wounds, ailments, and mutations as a result of their journeys, forcing them to be temporarily bunker-bound, while some bunkers may become so hostile that further communications become pointless. Other “nudges” were more direct, as an Achievement Book would dole out cards as rewards to players who helped the team reach set milestones of exploration, crafting, and experimentation.

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Hybrid LARPs as Immersive Primer: On Dragon Thrones and the Blockbuster Renaissance

All images courtesy of Allison Kern Photography

Magic appears to have left the realm of Cambria, and many of its inhabitants, human and non-human alike, are struggling to cope with its unexpected absence. A scourge of the undead emerged throughout the land, and the machinations of the inscrutable “Godfather” appears to be spreading strife among the Houses of the realm. This is the situation that greeted the players of Game Theatre’s Dragon Thrones 3: Exodus Magi upon arrival at Bryn Mawr College for a long weekend of hybrid gameplay, mixing megagames, blockbuster LARP, tabletop gaming, and puzzle-solving into a hybrid event that served as a surprisingly effective primer to different corners of the broader immersive play space. Individual players were free to pursue whatever narrative or immersive hooks struck their fancy, while their Houses as a collective benefited from members stretching out of their comfort zones into all the different features the game had to offer.

Explaining what Dragon Thrones offered its players requires a step back to examine its component parts, before understanding how those parts fit together to make a broader story. What follows is an introduction to a number of different flavors of immersive play, as told through the magical lens of Dragon Thrones.

Megagames: These Rules Subject to Negotiation
House Wyndon’s Fortress of Sadathea was taken over by an army of the undead, and troops were falling to the horde en masse in an effort to regain control of Wyndon’s seat of power. Things were looking dire for the beleaguered nation-state, until the King of Ardmore completed an arcane ritual that enabled him to ascend to literal godhood, transforming into Lord Lucent of the Light. With his divine blessing on the battlefield, previously slain troops were brought back to light, and the undead forces were routed.

Most traditional board games don’t include mechanics that let its players ascend to godhood as a literal deus ex machina, and doing so would generally be considered a game-breaking mechanic. But megagames are the board gaming equivalent of the classic improv game “yes, and” – while megagames have a core set of rules, gamemasters known as the “Control” exist to give players the flexibility to find creative solutions outside the pre-defined rules without breaking the experience. In the case of Dragon Thrones, every faction was gifted with a single source of untapped potential – in the case of Ardmore, that source was Ardmore’s Dragon Throne, a throne constructed out of the corpse of an elder dragon. The King of Ardmore would approach the Game Theatre team embedded into the story as characters with his plan, and they would in turn impose costs to enact that plan, and describe what form the results of that plan would have on the megagame itself.

While the King of Ardmore’s deification is an extreme example, this flexible ruleset is as an integral a function of megagames as the large team sizes that make separating fact from fiction a practical impossibility. At PAX Unplugged 2017, Ironmark Games ran The World Turned Upside Down, a “short” four hour megagame themed around the American Revolution. Players were assigned roles as famous figures from the fledgling American states or the British Empire, and lobbied for dominance through legislative finesse, military might, and a deft hand at espionage. I played as a British spy, where the two teams had the opportunity to steal resources from each other through a card game. As the evening progressed, it became clear that things were not going well for the British, and the spies collectively planned to embezzle resources and retire wealthy to the Bahamas. We approached Control with our plan, and they set a fee of how many resources we’d need to collect to enact this plan. This type of “last turn madness” is so common for the genre that a podcast dedicated to the space adopted the term as its name.

But while traditional megagames typically use in-game currency and resources as the coin to power “rule-breaking” moves, Dragon Thrones’ biggest moves were powered by investments in time, through the live-action role playing game and puzzle elements.

Live Action Role Playing: A Flavor for Every Player
One of Helfarian’s diplomats called me over. With magic gone, Helfarian’s Iron Drakes were unable to fly due to the heavy weight of their construction. In exchange for sharing the findings of the research, Wyndon offered up access to their wyverns for study, along with access to their wyvern handlers. As Helfarian’s engineer, I was called over to seal the deal and develop a plan of action for redeploying the engines of war. Since I was also serving as Master of Coin for the House in charge of managing Helfaria’s progression along the various megagaming skill trees, I diverted funds to the development of this special unit and provided our General with a new force to bring to bear on the battlefield.

Since LARPs have the potential to leave players both physically and emotionally vulnerable, signing up for Dragon Thrones starts with an introductory call to feel out what players are looking for in an experience, as well as gauging whether they might play nicely with others. Using that information, every player is assigned a character and backstory to better fit into the world. In the world of Cambria, I was given the role of the engineer Nikol Bellum of House Helfaria, and provided with two pages of backstory explaining how I came to find a place in my Kingdom and my personal goals for the weekend, along with what I knew about the other members of other players pre-Cambrian Summit, along with skeins of plot threads that could potentially drive collaboration and conflict. These character descriptions were delivered weeks in advance, giving players the opportunity to negotiate tweaks and modifications to create the character they wanted to play for the long weekend.

Every House had a member of the Game Theatre team embedded as both character and gamemaster, serving as an in-world concierge to guide players through the various challenges, and to check in to ensure players were enjoying themselves along the way. Dragon Thrones is a salon-style LARP, focused on creating and encouraging interactions between players unlike the more combat-focused boffer LARP format. So while many characters brought foam weapons as part of their costuming, players could not use them against each other directly. Instead, the focus was on role-playing through relationships and court intrigue, complemented with questing for the more action-packed tasks, which took a variety of forms.

Lizard and Flower, a pair of fairies idling in the Bryn Mawr courtyard served as quest-givers for many of the more exploratory quests of Dragon Thrones, guiding groups of players through some of the campus’ more iconic locations to help players tackle some of the more global challenges of the game, like the recovery of magic through collecting physical orbs and cornerstones of magic that contained power to influence the world of Cambria, either through the megagame or more personal pursuits. For one particularly memorable moment, I joined a group of players in translating a shroud through an impromptu theatrical performance recounting a tale from the two fairies’ pasts. Teas, hand-fasting ceremonies, and live performances from dancers and magicians also served to create the 360 degree illusion of being immersed in the world of Cambria for those who wanted to evoke that sense of realism. And while Dragon Thrones is not a boffer LARP, lessons in foam weapon combat were provided, culminating in a boffer tourney to whet the appetites of the more combat-inclined.

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Happy Escape Room in a Boxing Day!

It’s Boxing Day! The day when thoughtful gifts from friends, family, and coworkers are exchanged for store credit, and when you start planning on how to convert that stack of gift cards into even more presents. Something to consider for puzzle fans: the escape room in a box.

Comparing escape rooms in a box against their traditional escape room counterparts is a bit like comparing a theatrical performance with its cinema adaptation. Paying a premium to see a performance of West Side Story live delivers an experience that can’t be completely translated to film, and attempts to directly lift the experience will make that absence noticeable. However,  in the hands of the right team, cinematic adaptations can do things that would be impossible on a live stage. This article explores how three different companies brought their own particular spins on bringing the escape room genre home.

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Giving Escape Room Stories Room to Breathe through Theater

Madame Daphne’s Tarot Reading Room and Séance Parlor is hard to find without assistance, hidden away in a Houston artist’s studio. An invitation from Madame Daphne herself provides instructions through the former rice packaging plant’s stark white interior to the medium’s lair, its lavish decor making it feel like a room out of place. Stepping over the threshold begins a 90 minute experience that tells a tale of deception, magic, and love spanning almost a century.

Strange Bird Immersive’s production The Man From Beyond thrusts 4-8 players into a supernatural adventure that combines a masterfully crafted escape room themed around Harry Houdini with an immersive theater performance to frame the experience, set within the walls of Madame Daphne’s parlor.

An Immersive Theater Sandwich
The Man From Beyond‘s fictional narrative starts the minute players step into the room, as Madame Daphne greets her guests with a dramatic flourish. All the standard onboarding activities of an escape room are wrapped up into the context of the room, with a flair for the dramatic. The requisite waivers are still signed, but are done through the narrative conceit of the séance. Players are presented with the rules for the experience through a series of photographs in the hallway leading to the séance parlor, illuminated by candlelight. The séance itself sets the stage for the escape room portion, setting the narrative context for players when they take over the story’s agency.

Once the room’s clock starts ticking, the room transforms from séance parlor into a standard escape room. In a room surrounded by Houdini’s tools of the trade, players must tackle a century-old mystery on a deadline. At key milestones in the experience, micro-moments of theatrical exposition serve as narrative cut scenes, serving the dual purpose of rewarding player’s progress through the puzzle portion and reminding players of their broader purpose in the room. Solving a major puzzle might unlock information about Houdini’s wife Bess’ previous efforts to speak to her dead husband.

Most room escape games leave little room for telling a narrative that exists outside the room’s theming. A room based around an archaeological dig might hide some of its puzzles in a dig site and draw upon those themes to inform its puzzles, but a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required to tackle the room’s challenges. Even rooms that try to adhere to their own internal narrative consistency stick to a bare-bones plot due to the realities of room design. Players must often split themselves up into continually shifting groups to divide and conquer in the most efficient way possible. While this tactic is highly effective at uncovering a room’s secrets, it forces players to experience the room’s narrative in a disjointed fashion. Players might all be aware they’re escaping from a jail cell, but the specifics of their escape route might only be known to a few participants, on a need-to-know basis. This challenge is exacerbated in the final minutes of a room, as teams scramble to put together the final pieces needed to escape. Often, escape room operators’ explanations at the end of the room are as necessary to explain the accomplishments of teammates as they are to highlight overlooked puzzles and clues.

The Man From Beyond addresses that problem by explicitly carving out time outside the escape room’s unforgiving countdown to allow players time to take in the story. Every player is aware of what they’re doing because they experienced the introduction together, before the clock started ticking. Every player knows the main narrative beats because the information is broadcast to the group at key moments. And the grand finale can be fully experienced since it takes place after escaping the room, removing any time pressures that might otherwise cause players to gloss over the story.

Because Strange Bird Immersive created space for players to breathe and take in the narrative, it stopped the puzzles from overwhelming the game’s powerful narrative themes. During my team’s playthrough, we made it through the puzzles at a steady clip, but were so moved by the bittersweet tale that few of us made it out through the full experience without shedding a few tears along the way. It wasn’t just that the story was pulling on our heartstrings. It was knowing everything that happened was because of our actions.

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Finding the Future Again at the Franklin Institute

franklin-institute-archives

Five years ago, Jane McGonigal locked me inside the New York Public Library overnight. I didn’t particularly mind…after all, it did give me the opportunity to thoroughly explore the library while waiting for the building to open for business the next day. Did you know Charles Dickens had his deceased cat’s paw taxidermied and affixed to an ivory letter opener? Or that a special run of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was bound with asbestos-lined covers? I even got to briefly explore the library’s underground stacks. The experience was part of the New York Public Library’s Find the Future event, a 500 person scavenger hunt through some of the library’s most fascinating artifacts on display to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I still have fond memories of that night under lockdown at the library,  and I was brought back to that moment last night at the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin Institute is a museum in Philadelphia that takes hands-on science seriously. Exhibits ask visitors to do everything from learning about Newton’s laws of motion by using pulleys to lift themselves off the ground, to showing the limits of short-term memory by seeing how many numbers visitors can remember in order to open an increasingly complex combination safe. The museum even holds monthly themed “Science After Hours” events to ensure learning about science remains exciting for people of all ages. Last night, the Franklin Institute’s after-hours event was themed around crime scene investigations, with special stations set up around the museum to teach visitors everything from cryptography to forensic science, through live demonstrations. Mixed into the schedule was a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for the first 20 museum members to sign up.

The guided tour started off normally, highlighting the museum’s close relationships with the Wright Brothers and its collection of artifacts. The Franklin Air Show exhibit even features diagrams the brothers drew on strips of wallpaper…or at least it would have, if the wallpaper hadn’t gone missing. In its place? A clue, leading our group of 10 to areas of the museum typically not accessible to the public ranging from executive corridors to library stacks. It culminated with the recovery of the missing artifact, as well as the opportunity to see items from the museum archives not normally shown on display.

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Everything You (Probably Don’t) Need to Know About Cloverfield

10-cloverfield-lane

Bad Robot is releasing a new Cloverfield movie on 03-11-16, more than eight years after its cinematic debut. The film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, isn’t exactly an official sequel to the original, but has been described by JJ Abrams as a “blood relative” to the film. Whether this blood relative will mark the return of the enigmatic Cloverfield Monster remains to be seen, but the familial resemblance is evident with 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s new alternate reality game.

It’s highly doubtful that a thorough understanding of a eight-year-old viral marketing campaign will be required to enjoy the return to the Cloverfield universe…but then again, it can’t hurt to be prepared for anything.

The Mystery of 1-18-08
On July 4, 2007 moviegoers were treated to a trailer for a JJ Abrams film with no name. All they had to go on was shaky footage of the surprise farewell party for a cool dude named Rob, wholesale destruction of property by…something, and a date: 1-18-08.

From the date, players quickly discovered the (now-defunct) 1-18-08.com, which served as home for a growing collection of photographs. Click on a picture and shake it enough, and you might flip it over and find a message or two. Stay on the site long enough, and you might catch a muffled roar. But for the “main” Cloverfield site? That was pretty much it.

The story emerged as players explored beyond the photographs. One path led players to tracking down (now blank) MySpace profiles of a group of friends that would eventually gather for an ill-fated party on January 18, 2008. Yes, MySpace. Hey, it was a different time. Jamie Lascano was particularly active, and set up the website JamieandTeddy.com to document her only slightly creepy long distance relationship with Teddy Hanssen through a series of private vlogs, protected under the password “jllovesth”.

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