In the last decade or so, an explosion in ‘immersive’ performances of theatre, cinema and art has occurred. These performances break out of the normal theatrical mould by having the audience interact with the play, making it a more intense and exciting experience. London has played host to a huge number of site-specific and immersive plays, including the Barbican’s wildly popular You Me Bum Bum Train, Gruff Theatre’s twelve-hour Macbeth production, and Punchdrunk’s groundbreaking non-linear plays, which kickstarted the genre. Secret Cinema brought the immersivity trend to film-going; Gingerline applied it to fine dining – could it also work for the board games industry? From the sell-out success of many of these ventures, it’s clear that there is a great demand for new and exciting experiences that go beyond the traditional limitations of each genre. This blog post will explore methods of achieving immersion and the resulting effect on the audience’s experience.
On their own, board games have to work hard against a sense of detachment and disbelief, similar to that in traditional theatre. No matter how gripping the board game, you are probably playing in familiar, well-lit surroundings (as discussed in Welcome To Sub Terra), which detract from the tension. This is why an ‘immersive’ MegaGame experience could be so powerful; it would overcome all of the usual barriers to engaging in a game, keeping the plot and structure of your favourite board games whilst making them even more absorbing.
The location of the performance is vitally important to the success of the immersion. Punchdrunk frequently use abandoned buildings to stage their plays, whilst Alice’s Adventures Underground takes place in the Vaults, a series of underground tunnels beneath Waterloo. Seeing the play up close, with no separation of stage and audience, creates a sense of being caught up with the action that is hard to achieve in a traditional theatre. The buildings themselves can contribute to the ambience of a production; whether that’s a tense, dark sense of unease in Punchdrunk’s Faust, staged in an empty warehouse, or claustrophobic domesticity in Fix&Foxy’s A Doll’s House, played out in Londoners’ living rooms. An immersive production can create a believable setting much more effectively than a stage play because the entire surroundings mesh with the play’s theme.
After setting the scene with location choice, next, the gaps need to be filled with props. Secret Cinema uses incredibly lavish sets and special effects to create jaw-dropping spectacles – last year’s production of The Empire Strikes Back featured a life-size X-Wing fighter suspended above the audience. However, these epic productions require both huge audience numbers and ticket prices so high that they often provoke an online backlash. The challenge for productions with lower budgets is to keep props looking convincing – badly made props will shatter the illusion of an alternate reality. Fortunately, there are plenty of creative ways to outfit an immersive production without the vast budgets of big-name brands. The Docklands Museum in London is a great example of this: the wooden shacks and stone flooring transport you to Victorian London, needing only a few barrels and ropes to fully set the scene – making use of dim lighting both to set the mood and hide the flaws!
Many of these productions also use direct interaction between audience and cast members to make them feel involved in the action – board games already give players agency to make their own decisions and interact with other players, so this would be easy to scale up to an immersive production. The key aspects to focus on are therefore a well-chosen location and effective set design that can draw players deep into the game, giving them an amazing chance to step into their favourite fantasy world and explore.