Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game

Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*

Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?

On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk‘s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.

I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.

What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.

Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.

As I paced the corridors, trying every door and looking in every cupboard with a real sense of exploration and fear, I thought to myself: this is just like being inside a graphical adventure game. Here I was, in a beautiful fictional environment, opening all the doors and sifting for clues in every conceivable place – I might as well have been playing The Longest Journey and clicking on every hotspot in sight. This was wonderful!

So strong was this feeling that I began, inexorably, to think that I must try to win this game, or at least, discover the solution – any solution – to what’s going on. I rifled through desks and sets of letters in rooms, looking for obvious clues or references to what was going on, and search around with a candle for hidden objects in the basement. Occasionally I would found interesting objects, but after searching all around and listening to the actors, I was stymied – there was no password to be found, no set of clues or puzzles that would unlock a mysterious door, no secret meaning behind the performances and conversations going on. Yes, there was a broad arc during the three hours, and there were clearly mini-stories between the characters, but all of the detail in the rooms, all the cryptic numbers and the strange animal skulls, it was just set dressing.

On coming to the end of the three hours, I decided that I expecting too much. I could see two good reasons for the lack of a unifying and satisfying story; the first was that Punchdrunk simply were not interesting in telling a story and preferred to concentrate on the feeling and sensation of being in this strange house; and the second was that creating a narrative that could be distributed throughout the rooms, and still remain engaging and coherent no matter where and when the audience moved, is an immensely difficult challenge. Not an impossible challenge, I think, but certainly a daunting one.

(I later discovered that Masque was about Edgar Allen Poe‘s stories, which I had never read. I talked to a couple of people who had read the stories, and while they did appreciate things like the Black Cat, they were still disappointed about the lack of a unifying story)

One moment summarised my feelings. Loitering in an exquisitely-arranged sitting room, I picked up a newsletter lying on a table called The Companion and began reading it. Unlike many other fake newsletters which I’ve seen in my time as an ARG designer, it was very well typeset and laid-out, with around two thousand words of well-written articles and adverts. I was impressed, but the level of detail was at once too much to take in and read properly – and also too little, since the articles were too unfocused. They didn’t help me understand what was happening around me.

In graphical adventure games, designers have complete control over the user experience. They can force players on a certain path, and the characters in the game will always act in the same, mechanical manner. Only certain objects in the environment can be examined and interacted with; you might be standing in a library with a thousand books, but you can only read a few of them, and only a few pages of each, at that – the rest is simply blurred over, inaccessible. Gamers understand these limitations, and accept them; this is the price of playing an adventure game, and the barrier is not something they dwell upon.

The creators of Masque have to similarly control the actions of the audiences. The most important instruction the audience are given is simple: do not talk to the actors. Since the actors have to contend with not one but hundreds of audience members, they can’t start talking to anyone without inevitably having to talk to everyone, thus breaking character.

They cannot, however, control the audiences’ senses**. If a room has a corkboard with dozens of pages pinned onto it, those pages must all withstand scrutiny. Unlike a game, they can’t be an indistinguishable blur, they must all at least look real. And so some set designer has to sit down and write on every page, coming up with notes, numbers, sketches and codes, things that look real. The problem is, they look so real that when I see them, I think they must be important, and so I look even closer, trying to discern patterns and clues where there simply are none.***

It’s a curse that also affects ARG designers. Creating a convincing fictional world that is deep and consistent requires unbelievable amounts of content, but at least our labour is constrained by the fact that (usually) the world is accessed over the web, and the web is still lower fidelity than the real world. Masque has no such constraint; their upper bound of detail is unlimited.

This is not to excuse Punchdrunk. It would be possible to retain the excellent level of detail they had but also integrate it more into a unifying story by concentrating on a few specific themes and characters. I admit that this is more what I want from Masque and not what Punchdrunk want, but through the lens of a game designer, I see Masque as a game. Whether or not they realise or intend it, Masque has many game-like properties about it, and there is much to be learned from them – and much to benefit what is already a remarkable production.

*This tendency is often used as an argument against the notion of brain-as-computer, as if all of those past analogies were all equally wrong; personally, I feel that the analogies are actually getting progressively more accurate, but that’s another discussion.

**It’s possible to imagine some control over senses, I suppose, by means of goggles or a mask. More realistically, you would need something more high-tech, like augmented reality or virtual reality goggles – but then you’re entering the realm of videogames.

***In fact, there was an ARG run within Masque, called The Gold-Bug, but since its clues and puzzles were embedded in the noise of the realistic set dressing, I found it difficult to spot it (although when I did find the puzzles, they were pretty cool). There was also an issue with the fact that to get particular clues, you had to talk to the actors – an action that was supposedly forbidden. On the surface of it, it would appear that The Gold-Bug should serve as the deeper, unifying story beneath Masque, but it didn’t quite work that way, mainly because they didn’t seem integrated at all. Having said that, I don’t envy the designers of Masque or The Gold-Bug for their task, especially under the conditions and resources they had…

6 Replies to “Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game”

  1. I recently saw “Reverence: A tale of Abelard and Heloise” at the Southwark Playhouse’s temporary venue in the caverns under London Bridge station. It was a similar affair but with a much more tightly controlled narrative.

    The story is set in a monastery and the play begins in the theatre’s bar where several of whom later turn out to be important characters begin to interact with the audience even before the play has properly begun.

    The audience don hooded robes and assume the role of students at a monastic school.

    They are cleverly shepherded from location to location by members of the cast in much the same fashion as would happen at a real school.

    The set consists of many fantastically decorated rooms and passages and the audience, by providing the bulk of the school’s “students” add to the authenticity of the scenes immensely.

    Once the play proper begins, audience participation is limited to providing this sort of silent extended cast (extras if you will) and travelling from place to place at the instruction of the cast members. The narrative is not linear but is split into chunks at various points in the play, resulting in groups of students being split off to different locations. Each group then sees a different scene (which run concurrently) before meeting up again for the next. The clever thing the producers have achieved is to create a narrative which still makes sense no matter which scenes you end up seeing. At the end when the “students” come together for the final scene, a convincing ending unifies the fragments you have experienced throughout the play.

    Regretfully I didn’t manage to get hold of any tickets for Masque of the Red Death (it’s hugely popular and sold out really fast) so I’m unable to make a comparison between the two productions, however I think it’s fair to say that the less linear the narrative, the more difficult it is to provide a coherent and unifying story. In “Reverence: A tale of Abelard and Heloise”, Goat and Monkey Productions sacrificed genuine audience participation in the sense of the audience having any control over the narrative, and instead told a satisfying story. Undoubtedly there is a middle ground between this and the experience you describe in Masque of the Red Death which is worth exploring further.

  2. It sounds like Reverence was more of a ‘promenade’ performance, which as you say, sacrifices the free agency of the audience for a more satisfying story. I gather that Punchdrunk’s previous production, Faust, had a more coherent story, and not just because it’s based on one very strong and well-known story, but because of the unique nature of the building it was performed in.

    Someone told me today that for many people, when they see a production like Masque for the second time, they get obsessed about the idea of seeing all the ‘cool’ stuff like the one-on-one meetings (just as I did), and so spend all their time trying to ‘play’ the performance – usually detracting from their enjoyment.

    I suppose this is a bit of an unfair criticism to make, since most people don’t see traditional plays twice, but it’s intriguing in this case, because Masque is *not* a normal play – it feels more like a game, and thus ‘replayable’ (pun not intended).

  3. Interesting thoughts indeed, I am especially struck by the different levels of detail implicitly demanded by web versus real world.

    I think you’re confounding a couple of things in your analysis though.

    For sure MOTRD has no satisfying unity of narrative, its source material is a portfolio of many stories and I think it therefore may be impossible for anyone – even Poe nuts – to hang imaginatively their necessarily fragmented experience onto an equally fragmented narrative structure. But that’s not the same as it not being enough of a game, no? Which without wading in too deep definitionally, feels like a world and narrative that would change in response to players’ actions. The player actions of MOTRD is simply that you are free to wander and discover what you can of an immersive world, it’s more immersed active spectatorship than interactive. A more unified narrative experience gives you perhaps a more satisfactory spectatorship. It doesn’t directly empower interactivity.

    There are one-on-one encounters in MOTRD, that you can stumble across if you are a bit bold and a lot lucky (and the smaller scale of Battersea Arts Centre in comparison to Wapping makes the chance of these actually much higher). But the charge of these is more from the intimacy of being alone with a performer than the interactivity of the situation. I ended up in a cupboard with one performer, having petals stroked across my face while she whispered about a secret love, really strong and intense but when I asked her a question, the set-up did not allow her to respond.

    The games you reference are all one-player, are they not? That’s a characteristic of the classic adventure game? While MOTRD is forced through economics if nothing else to host 250 plus. It’s curious, that still one’s experience of MOTRD is so individual and encouraged to be so – and yes, therefore ‘almost an adventure game’ – whilst you are in an environment with 250 other audience and the structural challenge for the makers is to make something that is so ‘multi-player’ and satisfying for all. So better a comparison than adventure game might be with a MMOG like WoW (which I hardly know).

    But the other constraint of the live event is the time investment. You get 150 min max in MOTRD per trip (yes of course you can revisit if you’re lucky/rich to get tickets but you have to design a satisfying experience for a one-time trip). I think most MMOGs demand much more playing time..?

    The design challenge is how do you make a truly interactive live experience that this scale of audience can play in a one-time visit and still deliver narrative satisfaction to all on whatever level of engagement? There’s a number of ways this 64k question might be answered. I wonder how many still preserve the freedom of exploration that if nothing else delivers a sense of adventure (if not adventure game) – the ‘what will I discover next?’ visceral anticipation that is Punchdrunk’s high.

    As for the Gold-Bug, it seems like something designed for the more immersed to engage with rather than a narrative that could unify the experience for all however casual, one story rather than the whole. And what I can make out of its structure not an archetypal ARG, a bit ARG-like. Not that you don’t make very valid observations of the signal-noise problem and the contradictory instruction of interact/don’t talk. But I’d be surprised if the makers don’t at least try soon to discover ways round these and other obstacles.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I certainly agree with some points, but I do have some issues (very quickly jotted down):

    I don’t think that a coherent narrative is necessary condition for making something a game; but I would say that interactivity is. And while I didn’t touch on it particularly in the original post, I don’t feel that Masque is very interactive at all; I never felt that my actions really changed what the performers did, or the story (which is understandably highly choreographed). Indeed, given that you’re not allowed to speak, there’s a real limit set on interactivity.

    Certainly the one-on-one moments in MOTRD are something you just can’t get in any other medium, but as you say, they are inevitably few and far between. I couldn’t figure out what I had to do to get one of these moments – perhaps there is no rule – and so it got a little frustrating to see other people spirited away while I was just hanging around.

    MMOGs and ARGs make for an interesting comparison with MOTRD. When we held live events in Perplex City with roughly the same audience size, we had the same problems of making sure that everyone had a chance to do something fun. We also had to bear in mind that there were thousands of other people who were interested, but couldn’t come along. One of the ways to resolve this problem is to allow people to discuss and vicariously experience the live event; and this is something that I felt was missing. Not only did the audience not talk to the actors, they didn’t talk to each other (well, not that much). I wonder whether it might have been interesting to film the one-on-one interactions and show them to others?

    MMOGs do demand more playing time, and I think MOTRD excels in creating such a sheer sense of place and atmosphere in short amount of time. Then again, MMOGs are cheaper 🙂

    I think we are getting a bit confused between narrative and interaction here, by the way. I don’t think that one requires the other – MOTRD could’ve had a more coherent and satisfying story without adding any more interactivity. Doing both at the same time, now that’s more difficult…

  5. I might not have been clear but I certainly agree not to confound narrative (un)satisfaction and interactivity, that was one of the points I was making.

    And yes, I do agree that MOTRD isn’t properly interactive. And I think Punchdrunk would agree too.

    I don’t think that there is a rule to catching a one-on-one, boldness stacks the odds slightly in your favour but you are still in effect rolling dice.

    Interesting regarding the discussion/vicarious enjoyment as a way of increasing scale. The problem for MOTRD if that happened inside the show is that there is no way for the performance and viewer to imaginatively incorporate that action of discussion – groups of people talking would be a distraction from the immersion of the fiction if you can’t imagine what they mean within the narrative. Never mind the audibility issue. Talking with the actors is impossible as structured without mucking the timing of their loops such that their next encounters happen as scripted. The bells in the soundtrack cue them as to where they have to be and when… 🙂 Although I think it’dve been interesting to have scripted some empty spaces in the loops as windows for interaction.

    Without having experienced one, Perplex City live events were I imagine quite different. They’re set in the reality of the players’ world with fictive elements, which means harder to nudge out of immersiveness than the total fiction of PD. And they are all about players collaborating and discussing, those actions are part of the implied game-play. That’s quite easily scalable.

    The Palais Royale bar inside MOTRD where audience can take their masks off, and the aftershow bar – those are the places where theoretically the audience can discuss and vicariously enjoy what they missed. Both are analogous to the ARG forum. But I wonder if that audience-audience interaction needs to be facilitated structurally a little more when live and with less time for it.

    I also wonder about filming. Interesting potential but tricky too. I dunno if it wouldn’t just heighten any disappointment at missing that interaction. Also, most films of theatrical performance completely fail to capture the visceral thrill and a one-on-one might do more so. What would filming and youtubing achieve beyond a ‘you should have been there’ response.

    None of this to be defensive or critical of your good self or MOTRD. Only that I think it’s worth teasing out exactly how an event works and what it is, and there’s a danger for all of us in thinking that features of one event will automatically transfer to a similar. MOTRD is a beautiful immersive environment to adventure through, the performers are part of that environment more to be spectated than interacted. The question still is how, indeed if, it could be made interactive.

    I suspect that we should watch this space…

  6. I was one of the Gold Bug hunters who participated in the game which ran alongside MOTRD. As well as the clues at the venue itself, which I’ll agree could be difficult to spot and decipher (lack of light contributing to this!) the Hunt also had an extremely rich life on the web where a small band of enthusiasts helped each other solve the various codes and progress the Hunt.

    I can’t agree that it lacked integration with the show itself at all: indeed it rewarded the persistent. One room could only be accessed if one had solved a particular code and was taken there by one of the characters at the end of the evening – you can’t get much more integrated than that!

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