Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Another Tension Experience Update (& Meta-ish Thoughts)

Yesterday something pretty amazing happened within the world of The Tension Experience and I wanted to write about it even though it didn't happen to me. To me, this event represented a significant step forward in the [whatever-this-experience-is] because it did NOT happen in Los Angeles.

Early evening central time, Tension started broadcasting on Periscope from an unknown park. It took everyone awhile to figure out where this park was located, because it wasn't local to LA - most of the time the ones in LA they are able to figure out quickly, because the bulk of the participants live there, and the videos usually zoom in on a landmark or sign identifying the place. This video began with a close up of a photograph of this statue - which is in Kansas City. I should also mention that the video was addressed to a specific participant "M." M., like me, is located in the midwest, actually fairly close to Kansas City. As the broadcast went on, we saw a path through a park and eventually a letter drop inside a cement block. We ALSO saw The Tension Experience logon to the broadcast and demand that whoever was filming stop immediately - indicating that this was NOT sanctioned by them. Curiouser and curiouser..

Not in Los Angeles!
What followed over the next 12 hours was nothing short of amazing, and took me back 15 years to - you guessed it - Cloudmakers. Because this wasn't about a bunch of people in the same city working to attend the same event or solving the same puzzle or trying to get to the same location, it was a bunch of people all over the country working to get one thing accomplished TOGETHER. One of the truly revolutionary things about The Beast back in 2001 was that it required a hivemind and we didn't have much of an infrastructure for one yet - we had the internet obviously, but no social media in the sense that we have today, no built-in community for solving it. We formed our own group and we were just one of many working on it. There was no central forum set up for us and (unless I'm forgetting something) absolutely no contact with the puppetmasters, only in-game characters through occasional phone calls and emails. No guidance. Difficult puzzles were put out into the world, puzzles that very, very few individual humans had the capabilities to solve, but groups of hundreds or thousands stood a chance and DID solve. The game required teamwork. Last night, The Tension Experience did as well, even if it wasn't intentional at first.

Cloudmakers Yahoo Group - next time I need to view messages in this group, sort by date...
The problem that caused the need for teamwork was that it turned out to not be as simple as M. simply getting into a car and getting to the location - he was in the middle of a family event, and his circumstances just weren't going to allow for it. A second Periscope video suggested using Uber, and several people on the forums offered to pay for one, but the problem was not transportation. At first, it seemed like, because this was something intended for M. and only M., we weren't going to see the letter at all - a third Periscope indicated the letter was now unavailable and "some clues weren't meant to be found," but shortly afterward M. received a phone call. He was given a 24 hour deadline to pick up these documents, and as a group we set to work helping him solve the problem.

I offered to pick them up and deliver them to M. as a last resort - I live 6.5 hours away, but I also have the luxury of...what's that thing...oh right - SUMMER. I mean, I have a trip that's two days away and a show that techs next week in Texas but a road trip for a secret immersive experience/game/cult/thing-I-can't-explain? Why the hell not. I live for things I can't explain. Let me be clear here - this was only to provide a courier service (albeit a long one) between the location of the letter and wherever I could hand deliver it to him, and only because it appeared I might be the second closest to the letter and I had the resources to do it.

But another participant had a better idea. Michael posted on craigslist and on reddit, hoping to find a brave person willing to do something that sounded nuts for some compensation, and he got a few bites. This is the part where I went to bed, so everything that happened next, happened after dark, and I read about it the next morning.

Would you respond?
Apparently a guy (I will now refer to him as Reddit Guy) made the trip to the park and retrieved the letter. He didn't Periscope the journey as we'd hoped but he DID get it. However, when he got there, there was someone waiting for him - a person described as "a very old man, in a suit, smoking a cigarette." Smoking Man asked Reddit Guy what he was doing there, and wouldn't leave him alone, and followed him back to his car after Reddit Guy retrieved the letter. Reddit Guy, terrified, asked Michael "what the f--k did you get me into??"

Oh, Reddit Guy. I am so insanely jealous of you right now! Here's why.

You HAD the uncanny experience that pulled you out of the meta - I live for finding that and probably never will. Because of who I am and what I do I always look for seams and see behind curtains into how things are made, it's second nature, because I also make theatre. It's honestly made it VERY difficult to see and enjoy any theatre at all in the past 15 or so years. Every once in awhile - very rarely - I get to experience something that pulls me out of my self and into its own world. Otherwise, my own brain doesn't shut up. I look at the details, the lights, the set, how it's built, what's going on backstage (and yes, I am still looking at Tension through the lens of it being theatre, so find the analogies to those things where you can). I need something truly special to keep me from doing that. My first visit at "Sleep No More" DID THAT, and it was intoxicating - second and third did not, it had worn off, and I saw the mechanics. My one visit to "Then She Fell" did, and I'm hesitant to go back, because it was such a perfect experience that I'm not sure I want to remember it any other way.

And I get that you did not ask for this, you're amazing for having taken this on last night and we're all so grateful that you did. I hope that this didn't terrify you to a point that you're scarred for life and can't see it as some sort of bizarre adventure, or even get involved now that you've heard this exists.

None of that is a slight on any of those shows I've seen or experiences I've had - my brain works serious overtime, and it's not an easy thing to get me to lose the rational thinking that knows when something is scenery versus actual real living room on stage. On the other hand, I get completely absorbed in books all the time. Part of why I'm drawn to Tension and to finding or creating experiences like this is because I'm curious to see what *does* manage to do this, if anything. I'm fascinated by the experiences people have at "haunts" and am considering going to Heretic this fall (if I can get tickets), just to see if my reactions actually line up with what I think they'd be. When I was in LA and had my Echo Park adventure, I was definitely *partially* pulled out of myself and into the right headspace for the rest of the afternoon and evening, but most of me was still able to rationalize that I was not in fact being followed. It was a weird place to be, part of me freaking out, and part of me saying "you're an idiot, why the hell are you freaking out?"

We're now all waiting for the news of the letter getting to M. and finding out its contents. This whole entire thing - being in a location so far from Los Angeles, bringing together everyone & requiring teamwork, the ingenious use of craigslist and reddit to find someone willing to do the legwork, involving and completely unexpectedly scaring the daylights out of Reddit Guy when he arrived in person at the site - completely brilliant and unexpected. Bravo, Tension.

Edited 8/30/2016: This post has received some attention due to the Daily Beast article, "The Biggest Mindf*ck in Los Angeles." Out of sheer stupid pride I feel the need here to say that several of us figured out (with the OVERT help of Tension themselves) on July 4 that this was actually the work of a plant. This incident also sparked a discussion between myself and Steve Peters at Storyforward about the ethics of experience design (not gaming journalism) and I believe the plan is that I will be joining him on his podcast in a few weeks to talk about this.

Edited 10/13/2016: And here is the link to that Storyforward podcast episode on Ethics & Immersion. There have been a lot of discussions lately on this topic and it is important as more companies and individuals begin to create work and add to this form - consent is everything. The Tension Experience works for the individuals who signed up because we specifically consented to an intense, deeply personal and possibly invasive experience. Tension themselves did an excellent job of keeping the darker aspects of the narrative and performance away from the general public, and in regards to this particular incident should be commended if anything for observing that the game was about to go "out of bounds" and stepping in to make sure no one was unintentionally affected. I do believe there is an important and much more interesting conversation to be had regarding the ethics of the participants involved, given that recruiting off Reddit and sending a stranger into the park was wholeheartedly supported by the group and I'm not sure that anyone to this day feels that it was wrong.
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