Immersive Horror Game at The Overlook Film Festival
“Three bodies. Multiple murder tactics. Likely connected, possibly not. No leads. He’s taking pieces of the bodies. He’s taking them… for something. Jay thinks it’s ornaments or trophies, something like Dahmer. I think it’s something else. Something… primal. Whatever it is, it’s specific. You don’t remove the skin and the bones and the hair and nails of these people because you’re bored. There’s gotta be a fucking reason.”
We huddle around a small desk, as Detective George Basta’s words echo across the cavernous office. We are listening to an audio recording of the tragic events from twenty years ago, the Mount Hood Massacre. Four innocent souls were claimed, including Basta’s own partner. He apprehended the man he believed was behind the killings, Jed Stanton—but twenty years later, Jed escaped from prison and was sighted in the outskirts of the Timberline Lodge. As guests and staff gather for The Overlook Film Festival, no one is safe. An ominous message echoes across cryptic notes and midnight calls: “Five Of Your Souls Will Be Chosen.” For what? I do not know; but we need to find the truth before it’s too late.
A Game That Permeates the Festival
If the Overlook Film Festival is Horror Summer Camp, then the Immersive Horror Game is the ice breaker that kicks it all off and unites campers under a common goal. Dylan Reiff, creator of Bottleneck Immersive and the Immersive Horror Game, integrated a mystery so deeply into The Overlook Film Festival that it couldn’t live anywhere else. And Michael Lerman and Landon Zakheim, the creators of The Overlook Film Festival, agree. “The Immersive Horror Game is integral to the success of the weekend,” Zakheim explains. “When it’s working at its best, it’s permeating throughout the festival experience and guiding you to check out some of the more obscure festival activities.”
And Zakheim’s words were accurate. The festival, and its staff, events, and location were all intimately intertwined so that fact and fiction were almost indistinguishable from each other. Friendly staff members who helped sign me in on Thursday were violently murdered and found dead the following day. Jed Stanton’s murder car was seen parked in the lot outside the Timberline on Friday, and was vandalized soon after. Even Friday night’s Filmmaker Party was interrupted by the shouts of Cascade Enforcement, the in-game security force hired to keep the festival guests safe, as they chased Stanton into the parking lot and arrested him in front of shocked onlookers and immersive players alike. The action ranged in location as well: rooms were broken into for nefarious acts, clues were discovered among the breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains, and the sleepy town of Government Camp was explored for murder sites and delicious pie. The festival and the game were one cohesive event, inextricable from one another.
Connecting with the Characters
The Immersive Horror Game excelled by creating a fully realized world which would capture an audience’s attention for the entirety of the experience. This wasn’t a two-hour event—it was a world that spanned four separate days and never broke the immersion. The world was inhabited by characters that also never reverted to their real-life counterparts. Whether you joined Detective Basta for coffee at 10 am, ran into him in the Timberline lobby at 3 pm, or raided Stanton’s motel room with him at midnight—he was always Detective Basta. This fact made discerning characters from real-life people nearly impossible. Participants were later revealed to be plants, staff became victims, the killer was someone we knew, and that man sleeping on the couch over there—yeah, he’s a character too. The world was real, and that fostered an emotional experience for all involved.
Let me paint a picture for you: you arrive at the Timberline, ready to jump into the game. You come across a group of players vigorously scribbling in journals, but they run off before you can make friends. You jump into a puzzle, and another two players join you—eager to help. One introduces himself as Garret with one t, and informs us of a crime scene he spied from the Crow’s Nest. You rush outside and trudge through the snowy fields, only to realize you obviously wore the wrong shoes for this. You run into this man again at the party and he takes pictures of you with your head pushed through the cutout of the Grady Twins. When you meet him again, it’s the next morning in Government Camp, and he invites you to join a new group of players, ready to investigate a mysterious shed with four colored locks and a strange symbol painted in red on the door. As the second day comes to a close, you are handed a small slip of paper with the words, “Garret can be trusted.” Wait, what? Garret is a character?
Characters as Players
With a completely open world, “a player liaison made sense this year,” Reiff tells me. “His function really is to help.” Garret did just that. If players were deviating too far from the established path, banging their heads against the wall, or attempting to break something, he would step in. Further, he was friendly; welcoming all new players and accepting them into the larger group. This was essential to forming the community. “Some people get really frustrated when they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, especially in an experience that is this open-ended and broad—so having someone that you know and trust that can nudge you is a very advantageous thing to have.”
But Garret wasn’t the only character player in this world. There was also the town drunk, Pat, who brought the party with him wherever he went—and it was quite obvious where he went. Pat was your wise-cracking, ruckus-causing, but extremely likeable Uncle. During some of the tensest moments, he would make fart noises or heckle the speaker to diffuse the tension. His purpose was “to act out so that the players don’t. When he jokes, [authority figures] yell to shut him up—thus controlling the situation and instigating another aspect of crowd control.” He also served as “the rumor mill, spinning information with a clear angle to generate distrust among players.” It’s a clever way to control a large crowd with a limited staff.
Community: Trust and Paranoia
The Immersive Horror Game served to bring together a diverse group of people who may not have met each other otherwise. “Friendship is a theme that really matters to me and resonates through most of my work,” explains Reiff. “I want you to hold somebody else’s hand that you don’t know and walk through the fire together.” And he succeeded in this goal. A strong community quickly bonded through the complex puzzles and immense theorizing. Specialized chats and social media posts were used to share clues, secrets, and information.
However, not all information was openly shared among the community. An early clue revealed the phrase: “You can’t trust each other at the Timberline. The Killer is one of you.” From that moment on, people began to distrust each other. Factions formed under the various characters and alliances were strong. We were urged to work together, but the game itself was designed to instill a sense of paranoia. Characters warned us not to trust some of the other characters, so alliances were strained and friendships tested. Reiff admits, “I wanted people to truly believe that someone they knew was in on the big secrets; how would they react if they began to distrust someone they arrived with—or even someone they just met.” Paranoia was a vicious beast. Friendly teams fell wayside to alliances formed at secret midnight rendezvous. This culminated at a trial, as players that were suspected of being the killer were bound and gagged. We were asked to testify against those we did not trust—and I did not hesitate to cast my doubt. However, this was all a clever ruse for the real killer to make his getaway and the final victim to be killed.
The Choice to Collaborate
The ending literally chastised players for not working together—and allowing the killer to escape. Akin to a Telltale video game or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, some claimed we failed to collaborate and thus, received the bad ending. Yet, Reiff maintains that there was only one ending. “The mission was to trust each other; that you couldn’t do it without everyone. But as the game continued, a lot of secretive moves were made,” Reiff explains. “It’s really interesting to see the contrast between the instructions to work together at Orientation and the fracturing of factions with information being hoarded.” But the game promoted the factions and distrust—it wasn’t born organically from the players. In fact, some players did speak up during the trial, urging others to work together and not condemn any of the suspected participants, but the authorities in the room would not let us go down that path. It’s an interesting choice for the players to fail to catch the real villain of the story in the concluding moments of the Immersive Horror Game, but it does offer the potential for the main villain to return next year to finish what he began.
So how much choice did players have in this game? Reiff developed story tracks that would lead the overall direction of the experience. However, he allowed room for emerging narratives. “I wanted to take the real-time events and marry them with what was programmed. I utilized the social world, group chats, and character information to keep rumors swirling and push people towards a heightened paranoia.” The experience became a series of decisions and reactions to those decisions. Those who submitted to Cascade Enforcement’s voluntary interrogations might later find snippets cleverly edited to implicate them in the investigation and attribute mental illness to their actions. Pat, causing trouble as usual, spread many of the rumors, casting doubt on players who hid in the shadows. Reiff watched all of this unfold and used it to create some truly wonderful personalized interactions. “It’s important to me that you can affect the story. To me, that’s what makes immersive entertainment really special.”
Various Ways to Interact
The Immersive Horror Game was designed to be played as heavy or as light you’d like. With three different tiers, you could adjust your level of involvement accordingly. The Hunter tier was for participants that wanted the game to take precedent over all other activities at the festival. While you may be able to catch a movie or two, the majority of your time would be spent playing the game, solving puzzles, and interacting with the community or various characters navigating the Timberline. The Player Tier was for those who wanted the game to be non-invasive to the normal festival schedule. They would not be pulled into the game to the same degree as Hunters but were still included in the community and most of the main events. Finally, Lurkers were those who did not want to interact in the game world, but wanted to receive recap emails and follow the various on-goings of the Immersive Horror Game. Yet, these roles were not set in stone and lines could blur as Hunters take a break and Players get caught up in the magic of the experience.
With over twenty hunters and numerous other players, Reiff wanted to make sure that everyone had a personalized experience. “Everyone plays differently and wants different things. Some are looking for personal interactions, others more invasive interactions. I want to be make sure everyone has the opportunity to have the experience they want.” The Immersive Horror Game succeeded in offering different opportunities for different players. You could take the lead on puzzles, you could hang out with Pat who was selling Mount Hood Massacre t-shirts to make a quick buck, or you could even troll the killer by texting one of the victim’s phones. Furthermore, those who had a connection with one of the main authority characters had the ability to be deputized by them. In one of my favorite moments of the weekend, I had the honor of being deputized by Basta at a secret rendezvous in town at 1 am, which may or may not have included a series of tests and two slices of Huckleberry pie! Having multiple entry points offered a place for each player to gain a connection, personal or digital, with an aspect of the game.
Conclusions and the Future
What’s in store for the future of the Immersive Horror Game? It will return next year for The Overlook Film Festival. And for those spending their second year at the Timberline Lodge, Reiff reminds you, “Things always come back. We have the ability to develop character arcs over years. You’re going to have a deeper love for certain elements, but it will be a completely different story.” Newcomers will be able to jump into the narrative and structure easily while veteran players may recognize or continue a relationship with a given character. “You can come back and see your old friend Garret, and if you’re new, you can meet Garret for the first time.”
The Overlook Film Festival isn’t just an immersive experience, it’s an immersive adventure. Driving up the road to the Timberline, you cross from the real world into fantasy. A hotel plucked straight from a movie, filled with psychics, detectives, security forces, and a killer. And you have the freedom to explore it all. It’s a playground for the immersive fan in each of us, filled with discovery, excitement, and intrigue. This experience is unlike any other—because it can’t exist anywhere else. Drive up that evergreen-lined path, spend the weekend at the Timberline, and pray that you aren’t one of the five souls chosen.
For more information on Bottleneck Immersive and the Immersive Horror Game, please check their website and follow their Facebook. To keep up to date with The Overlook Film Festival, check their website and follow them on Facebook.