I’ve been doing a lot of gaming since the stay-at-home order went out. Tabletop games translate really well to an online format—it’s easy to play D&D, for instance, over a video call, and there are lots of tools out there to facilitate virtual maps and dice and all the other accoutrements for a standard tabletop game.
I wasn’t sure if LARP would have a virtual analog in the same way. LARPing requires a greater level of immersion, and there are lots of aspects of that immersion that seemed inherently intertwined with being present with each other physically, like setting and costuming and movement. The two things I love so much about LARP are the sense of immersion and the intense connections it fosters between people. I feared that if online LARP wasn’t able to hit those buttons in a way that was satisfying, it would make me feel more lonely and isolated rather than being cathartic, like a reminder that what we had now just wasn’t as good as what we’d have normally. But when given a chance to give it a try, I had to see for myself.
The Board is an interactive social game put on by Lucid Immersive that calls itself an “immersive experience.” (The immersive community has crossover with the LARP community that I’m involved with, but the other participants and I agreed that their games felt somewhere in between an immersive and a LARP.) The five players represent the five members of the board at Vertex, a young pharmaceutical company, and the 90-minute-long game represents a single board meeting taking place over a conference call. Of course, the meeting is anything but routine—the mysterious founder of the company is missing, and we have a similarly mysterious bid on the company from an anonymous buyer that has to be decided on ASAP.
The conference call format is a stroke of brilliance, in my opinion. It takes the parameters in which we have to work right now and makes them feel like an integral part of the game, rather than a reluctant compromise. I work from home and often take remote conference calls, and this really did capture the feeling of that, right down to the minute or two of technical troubleshooting at the beginning to make sure everyone could hear each other. I was even provided with a Zoom background that was customized to fit the aesthetic of my character, and it really helped me get a feel for what he was about. (I’m not ashamed to admit that I forgot to turn it off and the other folks on my next real conference call also got to see it.)
Speaking of my character, I was playing Alex, the flashy head of marketing at Vertex. The organizers only asked me one question before giving me my character assignment, about the first three words that popped into my head, and I’m honestly not sure how they nailed casting so hard. (After getting our characters, another friend who was playing and I both bragged about how we got “the best one.”) I thought the pre-made characters did a good job balancing the things I needed to know about my character to fit into the story, while still giving me room to add my own flairs of personality. For instance, the characters had names but none of the names strongly indicated gender, although all five people in my game chose to make our characters men (which probably tracks, I suppose, for the board of directors at a sketchy startup).
The character materials outlined both the common knowledge about Alex—he made it big in marketing by leading a sneaker company to wild success—as well as the secret truth about his background. After reading Alex’s secrets, and some of the secrets he knew about the other characters, I realized the game was going to be completely bananas. (So bananas, in fact, that I want to be careful about spoiling too much of the intrigue for folks that want to play themselves!)
Our 90-minute meeting was fast paced and full of corporate intrigue, some of which I was involved in, some I knew rumors about, and some that was completely outside my sphere of awareness. The promotional materials described it as similar to an escape room but without puzzles, and I wasn’t sure how to conceptualize that, but in retrospect I understand. The way we were all given different scraps of information and had to piece together the full picture as a group did feel a little like a puzzle—and who doesn’t love a game with lots of secrets?
Also, when I say it’s fast paced, I really mean it! I was skeptical about our ability to cover all the intrigue during a 90 minute time slot, but it seemed like most of it did come up. In fact, the organizers coached us a little beforehand about the fast paced nature of the game, with this excellent advice: “If you find yourself wondering if you should spill a secret or save it for later, just go for it!” This was really helpful for me; I have a tendency to not get around to stuff I want to do in a LARP because I’m waiting for the perfect moment, but being aware of the quick format really helped me overcome that habit.
There were other aspects of game that were only really possible because of the virtual Zoom call format. I started the game with a pre-planned bit where my husband came into my camera’s view wearing a bathrobe and asking for cab fare to get to his “next client” and I responded with, “what have I told you about interrupting daddy while he’s working?” It got some laughs and was a great introduction to my sleazy character, but isn’t something that would have worked in a traditional game. We also did the whole thing in front of a live audience who were also present in the Zoom call, able to post text in the chat but not turn on their audio or video. I was actually quite nervous about “performing” for an audience, but ultimately it really added something to the game. Some of the audience members pretended to be frustrated shareholders and seeing their messages pop up at the bottom of the screen was another element of immersion. (That said, Lucid Immersive also runs The Board as a private, audience-free experience for folks with stage fright!)
Virtual gaming is inherently different than in-person gaming in a lot of ways, and there are definitely features of LARP that don’t translate to the format. But there are new aspects as well, and it’s interesting—and yes, cathartic—to be able to explore the hobby from a slightly fresher angle. I hope that while we’re sheltering in place, these kinds of virtual events continue to gain traction. I’ve made lots of friends in the LARP community who live all over the world, and while it can’t replace the fun of traveling out of town to see them, it would be great to be able to play with them more frequently, even once in-person games are an option again. (In fact, I played The Board with two friends who I met at The Night in Question!) In the meantime, Lucid Immersive is doing their part by developing interesting games in the video call format. The Board has already run several times, for private or audience groups. They’re also playtesting another game, The Circle, which is similarly run but follows the story of the leadership team for a goth cosplay club whose members have been disappearing under mysterious circumstances. (I playtested The Circle, too, and even though it was still being tweaked, the premise was delightful.) They say necessity is the mother of invention, and there’s certainly a need for virtual gaming now! I look forward to seeing what other kinds of games will pop up in the next few months.