Play Journal LEA vol. 4 – Betwixt and Between Larp and Death
by Thom Kiraly
Tuesday was an In.Sa.Ne. dAyyy. Went into town. Had “breakfast”. Worked on our larp. Larped on a tram. Ate at Blitz. Performed a ritual in a mausoleum. Ran a larp. Had Børek.
Please, allow me to elaborate (in other words: this is going to be a long post. Get ready).
“The game takes place in the realm of Limbo, betwixt and between life and death. Beyond time. A waiting place to reflect on life as it has been so far before either returning to life once again or facing the unknown on the other side of death.”
That’s the pitch. How can you not want to play it? Add to this the fact that the whole larp was played in a vintage tram car while it moved through the streets of Oslo (or: “All cities and none”).
Limbo is a very elegant and hackable game. It can be, and has in fact been, adapted to many different contexts and venues. The larp was originally written as a chamber larp, but it has also been played as a larp/dance mashup and now, finally, as a tram larp.
Let’s start with the pre-game activities. After a short briefing, the players were given a sheet with a boxchecking form. On it were a series of statement with which we stated our level of agreement by checking boxes next to the statements. Having done so, we then stated the level to which our characters agreed with the same statements. The sheet, thus, gave us the opportunity to choose how close to ourselves we wanted to play. It also forced us to examine our own views on death and where they come from.
Finally, the sheet also included a space to write an unfulfilled wish of our character and I liked this part (which is missing in the pdf version I’ve linked to) because it gave everyone at least something to play towards, no matter how little they wanted to return to life. Without this unfulfilled wish, I fear that people would have started to go along with the situation a bit too quickly.
The second significant pre-game activity was picking colored pipe-cleaners and pictures that were significant to the characters. The colors of the pipe-cleaners signified things the character had done or experienced in their life and were to be played as actual physical objects in game. So, the characters would be wearing them, but whether or not they themselves knew exactly what the pipe-cleaners signified or not was up to the individual player.
The pictures were spread out in the room during the briefing and we were asked to focus on one and remember it during the game. I’ll come back to how this worked out, but what I’ll say about both of these techniques is that they served as very good icebreakers. When, in game, you were unsure of what to say or how to strike up a new conversation in this strange place, you could always ask about the pipe-cleaners or pictures. Perhaps you wore the same colors? Why? Who took the picture? Why are you holding a photograph of my dead mother? etc. etc. etc.
The actual play started with everyone putting a black veil over their heads. The veil worked well in that it was possible to see through it without seeing each other’s eyes (i.e. meet some other players gaze). It was truly a strange sight to behold, this collection of individuals crammed into a vintage tram going through Oslo on their way to Limbo – all of them wearing veils.
Once everyone had put on their veil, the GMs hurried through the tram, throwing pictures on the floor. Of course, by some wonderful chance, the picture I had focused on during the pre-game prep landed right at my feet. I instantly knew where my game would start. But first, one of our GMs read the following passage from a Coleridge poem:
‘Tis a strange place, this Limbo !–not a Place,
Yet name it so ;–where Time & weary Space
Fettered from flight, with night-mair sense of fleeing,
Strive for their last crepuscular half-being ;–
Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny hands
Barren and soundless as the measuring sands,
Not mark’d by flit of Shades,–unmeaning they
As Moonlight on the dial of the day !
But that is lovely–looks like Human Time,–
We all “woke up” and began playing. I spent a fair amount of the game playing internally and enjoyed it quite a bit. However, my immediate connection to the picture (I chose to play a photojournalist and the picture was one my character had taken) helped me get to talking to the others on the tram quickly. Oftentimes, I was the one getting questions about the picture I kept staring at, which was nice since I didn’t have to push it on people.
What is really clever about Limbo is how players are encouraged and allowed to play towards completely different goals without necessarily breaking the game or the experience of for each other. I played my character for tragedy, but there was no problem with people having characters embrace the situation and, in some cases, finding it amusing or soothing. Limbo was simply a place where all of these attitudes were to be expected.
The GMs served a role as ticket vendors as well as show-runners. Throughout the game, they walked among us giving out tickets to various afterlife destinations. This ended up building on the customizability of the play experience in a neat way. See, if you grabbed a ticket to “Oblivion” or “Reincarnation”, that said something about your character – something different than if you were to go for “Ghost in the Machine” or “Gates of Heaven”. It gave the other people something to talk to you or each other about. Why, for example, would anyone think they deserved to go to hell? Why would they deserve to go to heaven?
Naturally, they held out until the last moments to give out tickets back to life, which was what I was really looking for. In an equally unsurprising move, there were very few of these and, having quickly snagged one for myself, it was heart-wrenching to witness some people play out their desperation and sadness over not getting a ticket.
The game ended with the GMs announcing that we were all approaching our final destination and that it was time to get ready. We sat down (not an altogether uncomplicated task in such a cramped space, mind you), put our veils on, fell silent, and listened to our GM reading us out of the game using the same passage we had entered with.
Ritual [workshop] – Apparently rituals are a big thing in Norway (at least in the larp community) and this, of course, means that we had to have one. A real one. A serious ritual in a serious place. We gathered at the LEA house in the eastern part of Oslo, went through some pre-ritual exercises and were divided into groups. The workshops focused on improvised sound and movement with the sound being a sort of chant jam and the movement being an easy version of contact impro dance. The details are boring, but the result was kinda cool.
After the pre-ritual workshops, our group was the first to head on over to the mausoleum, which turned out to be one of the strangest places I have ever visited. A lot of that feeling is, of course, related to the context of the visit, but I can imagine that the scary, strangely erotic, somewhat depressing mausoleum is all of those things regardless of the reason for your visit.
All in all, the ritual turned out to be quite a draining experience, both physically and mentally. After the initial rocky start, the four small groups we found ourselves in started interacting and playing off of each other’s cues. The end result was a collective experience bordering on the sacrilegious and divine at the same time.
OK, collective may not be the right word for it, but some parts definitely arose from our collective movements and sounds being exactly that. It almost goes without saying that a qualitative shift often occurs as a result of the quantitative dimension of the group. This goes for political movements and rallies as well as religious or (as in our case) secular rituals.
Leaving the mausoleum, walking through the cold rain, I felt both strengthened and very fragile. I think that the exhaustion of work, both before and during LEA, and play had caught up to me. Add to this a pinch of old memories from my time as a christian and you’ve got yourself a cocktail filled to the brim with staring-into-thin-air. I know that I was asking for it going into the ritual because I really made a conscious effort to be swept away by it, but I didn’t quite expect it to work as well as it did. Even now, writing this, I can feel my eyelids become heavy and cold and I’m back outside the mausoleum, walking to the subway that is going to take us to the venue for our evening game, thinking about the two skeletons painted on the wall of the mausoleum. Above the exit, they are forever frozen in an impossible kiss.
The Touch of Your Voice – This was the larp my group created as part of the Larp Exchange Academy. We ran it after the day I’ve described in this post. So, yeah… It was draining and stressful and hard and awesome and sad and funny and scary and cool. I’m happy with it. I’m also happy with the title I came up with. It is part of this Play Journal entry because the game requires the game masters to play caregivers at a service home (i.e. I did actually play in this larp). I’m (probably) going to write a longer post about this larp and I’ll link to it here when I’m done with it. Stay tuned and all that.