Somewhere in-between immersive cinema and alternate reality gaming

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Secret Cinema  for Wes Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Secret Cinema is an event usually centred around a movie where organisers create elaborate sets, stories, characters in the universe of that chosen film. Visitors are encouraged to dress up and play a part to interact with this alternate reality. Often the name of the movie is kept secret and you’re subjected to a series of real life scenes before you realise what film you’re watching.


Being a big fan of Wes Anderson I made a bit of an effort to dress up for the occasion and to my surprise the other 200 or so attendees all elected to do the same, thus creating a sort of self-induced delusion of an immersive experience. There’s something incredibly powerful when you find yourself surrounded by people all under an implicit agreement to shift reality in favour of something slightly more palatable. It sort of reminded me of a less structured form of those roundtable roleplay games from university days. The tension between open exploration and game-like structure would have been interesting to play with.

While technology is so singularly obsessed with the power of immersion through higher resolution graphics, sound and 3D geometry, it’s amazing to experience sensorial immersion through more traditionallo-fidelity, techniques. The experience was so encompassing, it hardly even mattered that we finally watched the film on a smallish screen, sat in a warehouse lined with rows of dining chairs.

This ultimately leads me to ask: What happened to the art of immersive entertainment? Will we really feel like we know Clockwork Orange better if we get to see the pores on Malcolm McDowell’s face?

My particular obsession with immersive entertainment began about 13 years ago when I became intrigued by the first Alternate Reality Game created for the Spielberg film A.I. It was a mystery game with clues hidden inside the movie trailer and posters for A.I. which ultimately led you down a rabbit hole into sprawling fake websites and MSN chatbots from the movie universe. The existence of the game was never announced and avid viewers noticed these references and would be led into this alternate world by their own curiosity.

It’s amazing that anyone even discovered the A.I. game and is a testament to the latent obsessive nature of us all, focused in like a laser beam by the Internet.

Online communities formed, people asked why and found thousands of others who did the same. Dedicated players to the game found themselves talking on the phone with in-game characters, receiving mystery packages in the mail and attending mass protest rallies – blurring the line between their virtual and real life worlds.

It was later discovered that a small team of designer puppetmasters ran the game and alongside the players created bespoke events, puzzles and storylines as players unravelled them. The same team also created a similar ARG for Halo 2 called iLoveBees, which found itself with about half a million game followers.

The bespoke nature of these short-lived events prevented them  from being replicated and monetised in a scalable way. EA eventually created a subscription game service called Majestic, which attempted to systematise this type of gameplay into a reproduceable service. Sadly the notion of paying subscription fees for a game was not something that had caught on and receiving automated robot calls from in-game characters felt more like telemarketing. (Also check out: 5 Most Insane Alternate Reality Games)

Last year I experienced a new kind of theatre, staged by the Punchdrunk production company: the Drowned Man was staged in a giant warehouse space in London Paddington where audience members donned masks and roamed the space freely while actors and dancers enacted stories around them, sometimes bringing audience members into momentary interactions. Between these three glimpses into the artform of immersive entertainment I feel that we are on the cusp of something truly new and unique, leveraging technology tools to build new experiences for the senses.

For me the holy grail of immersive cinema lies somewhere between a game and a film, with perhaps these three qualities at its core:

– Make the events reproduceable but feel bespoke
– Give the player a true sense of being part of the action
– Allow for open exploration and structured game-play to suit the nature of the player




One Comment

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