Last Saturday I went to Red Cloud Rising, an interactive theatrical experience put on by Brooklyn’s Brick Theater, essentially a pervasive game or alternate reality game (ARG) in theatrical clothing. Or was it?
Here’s how the show went: small groups of audience members show up to an office on Wall Street, ostensibly for a recruiting session for the fictional company of Bydder Financial. A woman named Charlotte (in reality Gyda Arber, the actress and director who created the show) meets the group and shows a promo video for Bydder, then sends the new recruits off on a bonding exercise. We had to deliver this envelope to someone, but weren’t told who or where. Rather, we had to follow the clues, delivered by text message and phone. The Village Voice called the show “less scripted than programmed.”
As the group progressed through the narrative, we discovered the existence of Red Cloud, a rogue organization dedicated to bringing down Bydder Financial for its shady business dealings.
I went to the show based on Seth Schiesel’s glowing review in New York Times, as had many others in my group. The nontraditional format of the performance clearly impressed my group, which consisted of some RPG fans, a budding dramaturge, and a man interested in producing his own interactive show. At times, the pervasive form of the game did shine through, as when I found a set of sodden pin-striped pants wadded up on a park bench and almost touched them, suspecting that they were part of the game; I did conflate the in-game and out-of-game worlds, which added to the excitement.
I left the show feeling underwhelmed, primarily because I’m familiar with dispersed narrative theatrical experiences, like for example, larp, and so the form by itself didn’t jazz me.
As a game, the show had a railroad-type structure from which groups couldn’t depart, and didn’t offer much in terms of player choices. We had to go to the pre-set locations and perform the allotted tasks, which no doubt made the logistics of putting on such a show simpler and more replicable. As a larper, however, this inability to affect the game world frustrated me. The biggest choice offered to us was the the opportunity to rat each other out as Red Cloud sympathizers via text message. My group discussed this decision out of game, because we wanted to see if it’d make any difference in the final narrative. As a group we decided to turn specific members in so as to experience all the possible endings to the game; being turned in basically involved a scene of special roleplay at the end of the game.
The inability to make decisions that departed from the one set path weakened the game’s overall message about the sneakiness of corporations; the game didn’t enlist me by engaging me with choices, instead it expected me to be on its side, which felt a lot like preachiness.
The railroad-type plot of Red Cloud Rising raised the question of whether this was a game or theater. Maybe it wasn’t fair to judge this production by ludic standards. To me, playing a game means I have some stake in the outcome, and some way of affecting that outcome, and the show didn’t seem to be offering that. On the other hand, this was billed as a theatrical experience, not a game (though it was part of Brick’s Game Play festival). Perhaps we weren’t really actors in this drama, but merely observers of the inner conflict between Bydder and Red Cloud. Still, if that is the case, why bother to dramatize it with a scavenger hunt around Wall Street?
As far as I know, Red Cloud Rising is creator Gyda Arber’s second interactive venture, and it felt like a first or second GM-experience to me — the pieces weren’t working in concert quite yet. The show could have benefited from some additional research; readers familiar with the Nordic gaming scene will see similarities to the Conspiracy for Good, which had a similar message delivered through more complex game play, and with a much much larger budget.
I’m happy to see games and other interactive experiences like Red Cloud Rising coming to my local scene, I just worry that creators are spending too much time reinventing the wheel, and not enough learning from communities that are already doing this stuff, and have been for the last few decades.
Theater people and gaming people: you should get together and make out or have drinks or just talk. I think you have a lot to learn from each other.