Crossing the Threshold

Introduction

In my experience in interactive events – whether live-action or computer game – a player’s level of immersion in the game world is a direct driver of the intensity of their experience and of the amount the event affects them emotionally.

It’s my belief that a major component of engendering that immersion is in how you deal with drawing the player out of the real world and in to the world of your game or story. I call this part of the game experience ‘Crossing the Threshold’, and in this article I’ll discuss techniques our team have used in the past to achieve this. For this, I’ll cite examples from one particular event, God Rest Ye Merry, the live 1950s Christmas ghost story we ran (as Crooked House) in 2015.

My usual caveat – I’m not an academic or, particularly, a theorist. I tend to work by intuition on these things, try them out, and then when they work go back and analyse why they were effective.

It’s my belief that similar techniques to the ones I describe here can be used for many different types of interactive story – LARP, theatre, VR and even computer games.

Background

If you’re unfamiliar with live-action role playing (or LARP), then think of this as a weekend-long murder-mystery-style event in which paying players take on characters we’ve designed for them.

In this instance, we hired a massive country mansion on Exmoor in the UK, filled it full of ghosts (using audio, video, physical tricks, props, stunt crew and all sorts of other special effects) and then threw in some players to see what would happen.

So, since this is a ghost story, all of our techniques were targeted towards achieving one basic design goal: “Scare the player, not the character.”* These techniques are little psychological tricks designed to get the player off-balance, on edge, and to strip them of self confidence and emotional support. These ideas are drawn from all sorts of sources – often inspired by the work of expert manipulators such as Derren Brown, Andy Nyman, and even Hitchcock, but equally as often drawn from our own previous events and experiences.

The Booking Form

Phobias

Before the event started the players had to fill in a booking form – as per usual, this included name, address and so on. It also included a question encouraging the player to list their phobias and potential triggers. We made it clear that we wanted this information so that we wouldn’t cause extreme distress to the players, and in fact we never intended to make use of them (and didn’t). But the mere inclusion of that question started the players thinking about what could happen to them, what experiences they could go through, and to start imagining how far our event might go.

The Game Rules

When we sent out the briefing packs to the players – including all their character documents – we also included out-of-character rules. These were very brief (our rules are always light, as we feel they get in the way of immersion), but we did include several features entirely designed to ramp up the players’ expectations.

Safe Word

We gave the players a word that they could use if they ever felt they couldn’t bear what was happening to them. We never intended that they should use it – in point of fact, the design team never even discussed what would happen if someone did use the word. It was simply there to, again, put their imaginations into overdrive. This is similar to Hitchcock publicly announcing that paramedics were stationed in cinemas for showings of Psycho – the audience do half the work for you.

Combat Rules

Most live-role playing events include rules for combat using safe weaponry. We knew from the very beginning that there would be no combat in our game, as the players were up against ghosts which would be manifested using puppetry, video, fire effects, audio and so on. There was no way that combat made any sort of sense. Still, we included combat rules (which also covered healing and death) to make the players think that their characters could be hurt – to give them another source of fear.

There Will Be No Breaks

We made it explicit that as soon as the players stepped into our world they would not leave it for 48 hours. There would be no breaks from being their characters. No time when you could sleep and feel safe. Once you crossed the threshold, we would not relent.

There Will Be No Safe Spaces

Likewise, we informed the players that there would be no safe spaces. No places that they could go where they could not be subject to the story in our game. We relented slightly with privacy – we said that we wouldn’t spy on them in bathrooms – but we still made it clear that the game would be active even in those spaces.

On The Threshold – The Lodge

pasted-image-1838At the end of the driveway up to the mansion itself was (appropriately, talking of thresholds) a gatehouse, the lodge. This was where the players arrived as ordinary people, and where they would get dressed in 1950s gear, put together their 1950s luggage, and leave all of their modern paraphernalia and the real world behind.

Music

As the players – still their modern selves – entered the Lodge we had music running in the background. We could have used 1950s classics to start getting them in the right era, but instead we chose to use modern horror music from movies and games, many of which were based around deep droning background notes. This was because we felt that hooking them into the unsettled mood was far more important than time period. We borrowed this technique from the West End performances of Ghost Stories, which were excellent at setting the scene using sound while the audiences took their seats.

Private Briefings

EyesOnce the players were suitably dressed and had their 1950s luggage ready, I took each one aside into a room for a one-on-one briefing. Ostensibly this was so I could discuss their character with them (and clarify any secrets and the like) and make sure they were familiar with the rules.

I asked them to pick a card from a deck of Arthurian tarot. They looked at the card, told me what it was, and I made a show of reacting and then writing the card name down.

I also asked them to close their eyes, and took a photograph of them, taking care to use the flash.

Then I thanked them and let them leave.

There was no reason for the card or the photo. None whatsoever. They were entirely there to set the characters off-balance, to get them puzzled, curious and on edge. It worked – after the event, we had people tell us things like ‘I thought the photograph with eyes closed meant that I would find a photograph of myself in a morgue’.

The Road

And so we sent them off in small groups into the darkness. The in-game explanation was that the main road was flooded, and so the car that was bringing them from the station couldn’t reach the house. They had to carry their own bags and struggle up to the house itself. As soon as they left the Lodge, they left behind their old selves, and walked into our game world up a road of twisting trees with a low fog generated by the special effects department.

A fair distance up the path they were met by a dark figure carrying a lantern; a servant from the house come to escort them.

The Arrival

Darkness

DSC00241When they arrived at the house they found it in complete darkness save for candles set in the parlour. The in-game excuse was that there had been a power-cut. Out-of-game this was, of course, an excuse to show the house to the players at its spookiest – unknown rambling corridors in oppressive darkness. We took advantage of this later in the evening to be able to offset the mood – switching on the lights suddenly cheered up everyone and brought in the Christmas spirit we wanted them to get in to before we plunged them into terror.

Drinks

The players were offered mulled wine in the candlelit front room, creating a safe-feeling and almost festive little haven. We used festive smells such as cinnamon to enhance this. As they milled around and met each other (in most cases greeting family members they hadn’t seen for years), the servants took their suitcases up to their rooms.

Alone In The Dark

Teaser1When the players had settled in a little, a servant would come to each one and would tell them that their room was ready. Then, with a single candle, they would leave the comforting womb of the parlour and lead the player through the most circuitous route possible through the darkness to reach their room. There they would leave the player with the candle and vanish back downstairs, leaving the player in a house they know to be haunted in rooms full of unfamiliar furniture and unexplored nooks and crannies.

Unpacking

There the player would discover that their bags were empty. They had been unpacked and their possessions put away in cupboards or drawers.
This was designed to affect them on three levels:

  • This was the sort of thing that happened in country houses at that time, so threw them suddenly into that mode of thinking.
  • This was designed to be a violation for the character, as many of the in-game documents we’d given them (letters, photographs and so on) contained secrets, some of them causes for blackmail. Who knew what the servants had seen?
  • It was also designed to be a violation for the player themselves, as a stranger had gone through their possessions.

Atmospherics

We drowned them in the atmosphere of the house itself; we removed modern props and added our own. Many of the existing artefacts were ideal for us – for example paintings that could have been there since the 18th century – but we supplemented them with our own paintings, books, letters, magazines and other props.

Paintings

On the wall in several obvious locations we put paintings of the players’ ancestors. They knew they were ancestors without us having to explain anything, because we’d used Facebook to grab photographs of the players, alter them in Photoshop and add them to much older paintings.

Weapons

We included objects which were clearly safe LARP weapons designed to be wielded by the players – hatchets, knives, candlesticks, a shovel, a gun etc. As with the combat rules above, we knew perfectly well that these could have no effect on the ghosts; again they were there simply to make the players think that they could be in danger and need to wield these weapons.

Memento Mori

shrine1A number of the rooms were haunted by specific ghosts. When the players entered those rooms – which included many of the bedrooms – they would discover props & paraphernalia from the life of that ghost. For example, one player opened the wardrobe in their room to discover that a 1930s silent movie star had created a shrine to herself, with hundreds of signed photos, posters, and old film costumes. The players knew – due to our background material – that she had committed suicide. They also knew that they now had to sleep in the same room as that wardrobe.

Stooges

The final part of dragging the players emotionally kicking and screaming across the threshold was the use of our stooges. We often use stooges in these games – people who appear to be paying players but who in fact are controlled by us – as they’re a useful lever for steering the plot, and also useful when we want a body to turn up in a gruesome way.

In this game we used two stooges very specifically very early on to emotionally unbalance the players.

Aunt Sophie

Many of our players, in their background material, had letters from their Aunt Sophie. A staunch protective influence for the whole family and a strong emotional support, she wrote to them in sympathy over their problems (all the player characters had deep-seated problems) offering solace, comfort, and holding out the possibility of solutions. “Let’s talk when we meet at Christmas, I’m sure we can sort it out.”

Aunt Sophie was played by someone called Rebecca South, who prior to the game was terribly enthusiastic about it on our Facebook group, swapping costuming tips and tricks and befriending the players.

On the first night of the game that player was late, ostensibly due to bad traffic, so we told the other players that she would arrive later on.

However, at around 10pm the phone rang. (An entirely 1950s phone connected to our own phone system built by a friend, allowing us to control communications in and out of the house and effectively fake an ‘outside world’.) This was a police inspector from Oxford, informing the player characters that their beloved Aunt Sophie had been in a terrible, fatal accident.

There never was a Rebecca South. We entirely invented her, created a Facebook account for her, and interacted with the players as her. She never existed.

Aunt Sophie was purely in the game so that we could rip out the emotional support from a good third of the player base. “It’ll all be all right,” many were thinking, “I just need to talk to Sophie.”

Edgar

The last stooge we used was Edgar, the competent, calm and cool-headed eldest brother & head of the family. He could cope with any crisis, and led the family in, for example, dealing with the grief over Sophie’s death.

He was found crushed to death by a fallen chandelier late on Friday evening. The last emotional support ripped away, characters who had been spendthrift, shallow & irresponsible suddenly found themselves at the head of the family having to deal with murders & ghosts with no help from anyone.

Effectiveness

The tricks and techniques above resulted in a slow but inexorable downward spiral for our players which meant that they were drawn into becoming their characters and part of our world; were drawn more and more into a cycle of fear; and were left without emotional support. We believe it added hugely to the sense of the players ‘being other people’, and magnified the rest of our effects and tricks tremendously. With immersiveness, and particularly with horror, the more you can make the player’s mind do for you, the better.

In fact this was so effective that shortly after entering the darkened house one player decided that he couldn’t cope with the stress and gave up and went home. So perhaps some times we can push it a little far. 🙂

Conclusion

So – obviously – a lot of these things are specific to a live event, and even more specific to horror. But they all stem from the same basic question – how can we draw the player into our world? Or how can we drown them in its atmosphere, knock them off-balance into the emotional state we want them to be in?

It’s definitely easier in live action. It’s perfectly possible in books & films, too, though expensive – see Hitchcock, or maybe J.C. Hutchins’ Personal Effects: Dark Art, which uses a lot of physical artefacts in the same way as our player briefing packs.

In computer games I’d suggest you can achieve at least some of this by simply paying careful attention to menus, title screens, music, loading screens, even the Steam artwork for the game. If you do have a physical copy, you can do a lot with art & artefacts.

And then perhaps by looking at your interfaces – would minimising UI help, or drawing them in to become more diegetic, more part of the world? (See, for example, Dead Space and Isaac Clarke’s health bar + UI being part of his suit.) Can you somehow unbalance them by connecting with their real world? (See The Secret World‘s external websites or Metal Gear Solid‘s Psycho Mantis and his reading of your save games.). Or can you tie the interface or controller to the real world somehow? (Guitar Hero, or Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound Concordance.)

In any case – I hope this has given you some food for thought. Feel free to ping me on my usual address with any questions!

*Which I’ll write another article on at some point.

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