Play Journal: BlackBox CPH IV
by Thom Kiraly
I broke this post off from my November Play Journal entry because there was simply too much to say. This is what (and a bit of “how” and “why”) I played at BlackBox CPH IV, Nov 21-23, 2014:
1. De usete (The Unseen) – This was one of only two games I played at the BlackBox CPH festival. I wish I had been in more games, but then again, I also wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller… and so on and so on.
De Usete was a special kind of larp; a mix between blackbox and pervasive play, it took place in a bar and featured a live concert by a band one of the game’s designers sings in. The set-up was one of conspiracy, dystopia, and dark psychedelia. The players took on the roles of people in a secret group known as “the Unseen”. Divided into three houses (red, green, and blue) the players spent the night trying to find potential recruits in the audience and bring them into the conspiracy. A minor problem was, of course, that government agents had infiltrated the secret meeting and were among those trying to get accepted into the ranks of the Unseen. Minor problem So, in short, players were either members of one of the houses or potential recruits. These were all distinguished by scarves of the house colors + white for aspirants. There were also a couple of concert-goers who were not active players, though they had been informed that a larp was going on as part of the concert (or vice versa).
I played a member of the blue house. We were the old money, decadent, aristocracy working to keep the Big Brother Pan-European government out of our business. My team members were great — all dressed up and ready to play. As the game went on, we stayed in our attractively lit corner of the venue, summoning aspirants and assessing them. We also did a bunch of drugs. Strange, strange druuugs, man.
The night at Dark Matter (that was the name of the game’s night club) was shrouded in mystery, wrapped in conspiracy, and laced with . We flirted with, challenged, and invited the aspirants to see what made them tick. We tried to influence the other houses to vote according to our will. We also had our own personal missions, which were somewhat separated from the main purpose of the evening. Mine was: “During the evening, you must meet the love of your life”. That’s probably where most of the flirting came from on my part.
OK, so let me rewind and explain the drugs thing before moving on. I really think I should. The way drugs were handled and represented were one of what I see as the two moving parts of the game (the other being the voting system, which I won’t go into because it was pretty standard). So, There were three kinds of drugs: uppers, downers, and p5ych3d3lic5. They were represented by green, red, and yellow gummy bears, and acted both as commodity as well as roleplaying cues to set people off in new directions. This was probably one of the best parts of the game, and it played into how I received a great roleplaying gift from another player. Roleplaying gift? Yeah, you know, when another player just dumps a thing (doesn’t actually have to be a “thing”, just a Thing) in your lap, basically saying: “here’s a thing. Now, make good play happen with it. You’re welcome, asshole”. The gift I received came from a first-time player who circumvented the whole gummy bear thing and played up his character’s advanced drug dealer goals. Instead of accepting that drugs stopped at gummy bears, he went to the bar and got a small pack of sugar. As we were talking about a potential deal, he held it up and told me that it wasn’t like the other stuff at the party, that it would make me see things as they really were. I saw where he was going and gladly accepted the gift by pocketing the pack and plotting when to drop the super drug. By the time Mother Empire started their second set, I ripped the tiny paper container open, leaned my head back and poured the contents into my mouth. So, it wasn’t sugar. It was salt. Who cares? I surrendered to playing a strange and wonderful trip and the flirt I had been working on up to that point went straight out the window, down the street, across the ocean and into outer space. I danced, got… personal with my house leader and made a wonderful fool of myself, all while wearing the wolf mask.
Wait, I forgot to mention the animal masks, didn’t I? Yeah, so check out this video first and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about (as well as some of the mood the larp was going for):
Mmmhmm… There were a couple of animal masks in the club, and I encountered the first one right away when an aspirant turned to me, holding the wolf mask, and asked: “Sir, did you drop this?” This was clearly another roleplaying gift, so I accepted it without missing more than maybe two or three beats. The wolf mask followed me through the larp, sometimes working as a test for aspirants, sometimes simply serving as a mask to put on for a while and walk around in. If you want to know one thing about me, it might as well be this: I have a thing about masks and being masked. Not a shocker maybe, but I’ll take any chance I get to borrow another face for a while.
In the end, I put my vote on whoever my house leader led me to. I then replaced the wolf mask and danced blindfolded instead.
None of the people our house voted for ended up being the ones brought into the conspiracy. The houses, having surrendered to drug-induced nihilism, instead voted for the two government agents to join us. This was very, very satisfying. The only way it could have been more PKD-ish is if we would have found out that, without knowing it, we were actually working for the government as well (which was actually a rumor I never had time to engage with, though it started at the perfect moment where all four members of the blue house had dropped the yellow gummy bears (or substances of the sodium chloridic kind). It would almost have been a let down if none of them had gotten in).
All in all, the only thing that didn’t really gel with me was how different the views people had on the level of secrecy surrounding the conspiracy were. I went into the game with the impression that we were going to be mysterious and only have a few aspirants to try and figure out. Instead, almost everyone in the club were part of the game, which gave the whole thing a sort of WoD larp feel to it. In hindsight, I think that my assumptions were wrong, but that the expectations could have been handled a bit better beforehand.
2. All Little Boys are Dead – After getting too little sleep after De Usete, I considered not attending this game, but I’m glad I fought the lazy impulse to just sit at home and went anyway. It was a treat.
All Little Boys are Dead is set in the trenches of WWI and takes the players through one frightful night of the great war. Every player has a partner with whom they share a character. They play different sides of this character, sharing memories and hopes, but differing in terms of personality and psychological response to the war. At any given moment during play, one player in a pair will play blindfolded and the will play mute. These restrictions can be switched in the pair on the mute player’s initiative.
The memories the players share are both roleplaying cues (what they are allowed to talk to the other boys in the trench about) and their hitpoints, indicating the extent to which war has taken its toll on them. If you ever run out of memories, you have to be dragged back from no man’s land (if you lost the memory there), or simply play dead in the trench. You can be given memories by other players, thus jumping back into the game, but the memories are few and getting new ones is risky as it entails venturing into no man’s land and possibly getting caught in an attack.
Oh, and you all wear military helmets to protect you from the dirt being thrown at you by the GMs on the other end of the room every time there’s a heavy artillery attack. Yes, I know this sounds silly, but it turned out to be one of the coolest parts of the game. Every time you heard the ominous whistling sound of an incoming attack, you’d hunker down and wait for the impact. The sound of first the bomb and then of dirt hitting the boys’ helmets was very satisfying.
The trench itself was a thin area along one of the long sides of the blackbox. It was bordered by low stage platforms you had to crawl over to get to the rest of the room: the dreaded no man’s land. The room was full of smoke, dramatic lighting, and the noises and explosions of the battlefield.
So, there we were, blind or mute, crawling around the trench trying to keep close to our partner while finding someone to talk to about going home. One of the points of contention after the larp was whether or not the boys should actually be able to talk about anything other than memories, which was the case in this playthrough. I thought it added a surreal and tiring quality to the game and by the end I just went over my memories to no one in particular, hoping someone was still listening.
The only time the blindfolded character was allowed to talk about anything other than prewritten memories was when addressing the other parts of himself, i.e. the player playing the other half of the same character. Being blindfolded talking to a mute person, the only feedback I got from my partner was physical, but it turned out to be enough. I think we did a good job both exploring the inner workings of our character as well as trying to connect to other people in the trench.
Then, of course, there was death.
Death came in the form of two gangly shapes dressed in rugged trenchcoats and pink gasmasks (as is so often the case with death, right? Right?). Inside the masks were pink LED lights giving the impression that some unnatural light emanated from within the heads of the creatures coming to rip our memories from us. They slowly chased us all around the room until they had taken two memories, potentially leaving players without memories when they left. What made this part effective was the fact that the mute player’s role was inverted. The two halves of a character (i.e. the two players) were not allowed to touch when death was approaching, but the mute person was allowed to shout the character’s name in order to guide the blindfolded player to safety.
After nearly two hours of crawling around, sharing and listening to memories, hiding from shell attacks, and running from death, I was pretty exhausted. I sat with my back against the wall of the trench and blabbed on about my friend from home and how we used to ride a motorcycle. My partner huddled up to me and just as we took each other’s hands to pray I heard the old, familiar and soothing sound of Nina Simone singing:
“Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel.
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me yeah
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good”
The lights went up in the room. Dawn had come and I walked out of the game, hand in hand with the other half of my character, smiling.
I wish the music and noise would have been louder, though…
Considering the length of this post, I reckon my only attending two games at BlackBox CPH IV actually was for the better. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the organizers of BlackBox CPH IV! I’m happy I could be part of it.