Below is a review of Participation Design Agency’s Live Action Role Play (LARP) Experience, entitled Inside Hamlet, written by Maggie Lane, with additional reporting and photography by Bret Lehne.
The lights fade out. A girl in an opulent gown is being pushed against a concrete wall, a soldier’s hand under her dress. A nobleman kisses two girls at once– one sits on his lap. A besotted, ascot-wearing member of the royal family grabs a courtesan and a bottle of Absinthe and heads to a large bed in the center of the room.
I look at my photographer — “What is happening?”
This is not a sex party. This is the first night at Inside Hamlet, Participation Design Agency’s premiere LARP experience. This is only Act One.
What is a LARP?
LARPS (Live-action-role-playing games) are immersive theater with a heavy emphasis on interactivity — an experience where the audience and actors are one in the same. While immersive experiences can often make you feel like a voyeur with mild interactivity or a linear experience on rails, this is not true for LARPS: you are given the agency to choose how to interact with the world and characters. In fact, there are no characters who are not also players. The game is not simply yours to explore, you are the game.
How is this effect achieved? How does Participation Design take 120 strangers and turn them into the smoothly fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Elegant mechanics and firmly established preconditions and boundaries of play are the answer.
The setting is no slouch, either: Inside Hamlet was held in the real-life castle Elsinore (about an hour’s train ride from Copenhagen), lasted three days, and was set in an alternate version of the 1930’s where the communist tide is about to overtake Europe (using an alternate version of history was important as it put history buffs and more casual players on equal footing).
Characters & Consent
A few weeks before Inside Hamlet, participants received emails with detailed character bios and an overview of the show. Guests could choose their character’s gender (a male Hamlet was played by a woman, for example). I was playing a female journalist (natch) named Nessla. Participants brought and wore their own elaborate costumes and traveled from all over the globe to attend.
We started with a workshop to establish the rules (Oh, Nordics and their love of rules). The primary mechanic that governs all play is consent and agreement: This consent is achieved in-game by working the words “rotten” or “pure” into your responses to other players: If you say the word “pure”, it immediately informs everyone that you’re not okay with the direction the interaction is going and you need it to dial it back. If you say “rotten”, it means the opposite: you like this direction and want more of it.
Don’t like a particular romantic advance? Whisper “I’m too pure for that sort of thing,” and your suitor will make a graceful exit. Instead, saying “I’ve been having rotten luck of late,” he may end up kissing you. A fight may break out near you between two other characters–and “pure” may make them take it elsewhere, while “rotten” may make them sweep you up into the fight as well!
Unlike other immersive experiences where there is strictly a “no-touching” rule, Inside Hamlet was, well, “yes-touching”. You could interact with other players as far as you both wished, as long as it was a consensual experience. Consent was paramount to this experience, in ways I’ve only seen reflected previously in the kink community. There were many moments where I was shocked to learn that a couple who I saw rolling on a bed together had never met before the LARP, and possibly would never meet again. This wasn’t just a space to explore the character that had been written for you, but also to explore yourself.
Poisoned Cups, Poisoned Lips
Structurally, the game consisted of three acts, which were centered on the respective themes of decadence, deception, and death. The text of Hamlet provided the skeleton of the experience, and the “royals” would perform memorized scenes from the play at regular intervals. If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right. If there is one word to describe LARP participants it’s dedicated.
Poison proved to be a major game mechanic and that propelled the narrative forward and enhanced interactions. The poison device was simple and elegant: if you tasted vinegar in your drink (or anywhere… say, on someone’s lips…), you had been poisoned. The brilliance of the mechanic, however, was that the effects of the poison were different from act to act, yet it was always up to you as an actor to decide the direction its effects would go. In Act One, poison served as an aphrodisiac and you would react accordingly lustfully (or perhaps you choose to just be overly friendly with everyone). In Act Two, it was a truth serum, or a sleeping potion, depending on how you and your scene partners wanted to roleplay it. In Act Three, poison was death, certain and incurable, the looming fate of almost all of us in this LARP. Dying quickly for dramatic effect or delivering a drawn-out monologue was entirely up to you, but the knowledge that death was now a possibility with every sip added an incredible tension and fear to your experience.
Ramping up these effects and incorporating death into the finale was an incredibly effective storytelling device. Whereas many other LARPs might be tempted to allow players free reign in who to kill and when, Inside Hamlet seemed to know that everything the characters did needed to conform to the arc of the source material.
A second mechanic in Inside Hamlet allowed the re-imagined setting to expand and spiral far beyond the limitations of both Hamlet’s story and Hamlet’s home. Though Castle Elsinore is impressively large and well-maintained, the sections available to the players were confined to just a small portion of the castle — a set of three rooms upstairs during the day, and a bunker in the basement at night. This could easily have felt overly cramped, but the boundaries of the game were made to stretch far beyond those walls. In each room of the castle, alongside the windows overlooking the courtyard, an excellently designed vintage telephone sat ready for you to call “outside”. You would pick up, and hear voices perhaps of rebels and communists on the outside, or your press contacts, or your mother, or whomever you wanted to speak to.
In reality, the designers and staff of the game were on the other end of the phones role-playing with you, but within the game universe this mechanic acted like a full-wall mirror in a small room–enlarging it through reflection and illusion. It provided a world beyond the ramparts that you could talk to and interact with. With the clever placement of the phones next to the windows, it was easy to look outside and imagine the war outside the walls.
Likewise, these phone calls made by generals affected a “War Board”, a sort of game-within-a-game detailing the movement of soldiers across Europe as communists gained power. As the Red Army closes in and death draws ever nearer, the war game revealed itself as inevitably unwinnable with a swarm of enemy pieces advancing towards the castle. Players whom were heavily invested in the mini-game, frantically shouting with desperate machinations regarding troop movements now stand glumly with their heads in their hands.
A Role For Everyone
Seeing those players have such a clear journey over the course of the event was just a peek behind the curtain of how many different ways there are to play this game. While myself (and certainly my photographer) found ourselves drawn to the debauchery made possible by the consent mechanics, other players delighted in the theatrical aspects of the Court of Elsinore and the chance to interact with Hamlet and the royal family, or to play war games, or use the phones to contact imaginary loved ones, or design and distribute communist propaganda. The world of Inside Hamlet is ultimately a playground for all of those choices, as designer Bjarke Petersen would explain in our post-LARP interview:
“We don’t control anybody’s actions, they do whatever they want, as long as they follow the rules.” He explained that this fits directly into a Nordic concept called “The Good Father;” =a good father will give you the opportunity to have nice things — so don’t break them.
Experience Designer Johanna Koljonen, agreed, and laid out the underlying philosophy of Nordic LARP as opposed to the more competitive American style: “The way that you win this LARP is not for your character to get the most stuff. The way you win this LARP is to have the most interesting story.”
It was through careful attention to detail that these interesting stories were facilitated. For Johanna, an efficiency of each piece, or “design elegance” was necessary: “Every item in the space has to serve several functions, otherwise you’d have to have ten thousand things.”
I was particularly intrigued by the variety of furniture in the space, particularly the number of beds. Johanna explained the science behind what she called designing intimacy: “If there’s one hundred people you need seats for sixty. If there’s not enough chairs, then characters will sit down on the mattresses. This creates an intimate bubble, while of course you’re completely visible and everyone can hear what you say unless you whisper.”
As I listened to Johanna and Bjarke discuss the finer clockwork of a world I had only just discovered, I realized I had experienced the work of two passionate masters of their craft. What had felt like undirected chaos and abandon during the game was now revealed as a carefully designed wind-up toy. Yet, how well this toy works is completely up to you.
Johanna elaborated: “These larps are not products, and they’re not really a service…you buy a ticket and you buy the permission to create something with other people, but you’re still only going to get out as much as you put in.”
This level of attention to detail combined with a care for establishing boundaries for players sets Inside Hamlet in a class of its own. It is a premium cutting edge exploration of the form where both new and veteran LARPers can explore, enjoy themselves, and then die.
And my own death? That is the question.
Wearing a black lace evening gown and matching gloves, I began Act Three appropriately dressed for my own funeral. I originally wanted Nessla’s downfall to be entirely insignificant — tripping over a piece of furniture and gashing my head open or even accidentally poisoning myself. However, another player offered me a death so beautifully dramatic that I couldn’t refuse. I chose to die by being strangled by my secret half-brother, an act of mercy on his part so I would not meet the firing squad of the approaching communist rebels. It was a lovely death.
Inside Hamlet will have another run in November 2018, tickets are available now. Learn more about Participation Design Agency here.
Maggie Lane is a writer, producer and journalist in Los Angeles, focusing on virtual reality and immersive experiences. Bret Lehne is a writer and photographer based in New York.