This is a little bonus advice from Alex Roberts and Lizzie about the nuts and bolts of writing larp critique. It’s loosely connected to our recent three-part series on larp critique, and it’s an attempt to think through some of the unique practicalities of larp critique that might differ from other forms of critique. You can find part one of the series, defining larp critique, here; part two of the series, on why critique is useful, here;and part three of the series, on how to write good critique, here.
On describing larps
Compared to other forms of artistic criticism, larp crit is at a slight disadvantage. If you’re writing a paper on Jane Eyre, it’s fair to assume your reader has read Jane Eyre. But larps are ephemeral, and in some cases, quite rare! It’s possible that neither materials nor documentation is publicly available. You certainly can’t assume everyone reading about this larp has already played it. To bridge the gap, we recommend a brief explanation of the following elements:
What universal human themes–love, betrayal, friendship, etc.– was this game about?
What world and time period was the game set in. Jane Austen land? The future? The 1890s without railroads but with dark magic?
What was the game’s over-all vibe? Was this a slapstick comedy? A gritty realistic look at WWI? Kitchen sink realism?
This could include workshops and other official on-site preparations for the game, as well as stuff the organizers asked players to do before hand, like read 200 pages of history, or stuff players did on their own, like pre-planning stuff on social media.
How was the larp’s runtime organized. Was there one big long period? Was it divided into acts separated by workshops? Was it a series of short, discrete scenes?
What elements of the larp were important and not what-you-see-is-what-you-get? Could characters deliver interior monologues? Was a particular method used to represent intimacy? Could you say certain words to dial drama up or down?
How active was the organizing team during runtime. Were facilitators scene but not heard? Or were they everywhere at once, playing extras or starting and stopping scenes actively?
What happened afterwards? What kinds of formal and informal debriefs were there? Did the larp call for a structured discussion, or did the players end up deciding to go to the diner and tell war stories afterward?
A larp cannot be completely separated from its audience, because it does not exist without them–a larp is not a text, but an experience. Incorporate considerations of how the same script might play out with a different audience, and why. Consider not just the players’ immediate conditions (i.e., it was the Sunday of a con) but demographics and cultural context as well. Be aware of your own cultural context too, and make explicit your expectations and interpretations, particularly when the larp was written or run by someone from a different culture.
Speaking of audience: good critique will also adjust for “noob high.” Larp is an inherently powerful medium, and this power hits new players like a freight train, almost inevitably blowing their minds. Critiquers should take this into account as they write.
On critiquing real-world systems in larp
Critique can also recognize that a game is a symbolic system, a representation of something that exists in the real world. It can be fruitful to interpret these symbols and attempt to make explicit what the designer is implicitly representing. As with all critique of systems, our ideological lenses help us here–for example, intersectional feminist, queer, or indigenous perspectives could all highlight interesting aspects of the systems embedded in larp. That said, we would love to see a critique that is sophisticated and subtle, that expresses more than just whether or not a given work is racist/sexist/classist/etc. What design elements create what conditions? In what way? And how might that change?
It’s not about you, or even your preferences. It’s about why.
You might like or dislike a given larp, but in critique, it’s important to focus on why. For example, if a game turned out to be highly competitive, and you don’t enjoy competitive play, “these elements encouraged the players to compete with each other” is more useful to say than “I didn’t like this.” As in all things, perceptions of larp quality vary not just individually, but across communities and cultures. I don’t need to know if you prefer salmiakki or tire d’érable–but please tell me which one comes from maple syrup and which one contains ammonium chloride, and speculate on what that might mean for the prospective taster.
What practical tips do you have for writers of larp critique?
Alex Roberts is a writer, designer, and journalist of live-action games. When not hosting her acclaimed interview podcast Backstory on the ONE SHOT Network, she freelances for companies like Thorny Games, Pelgrane Press, and Bully Pulpit Games, as well as outlets like Storycade and VICE. Keep up with her at www.helloalexroberts.com.
Lizzie Stark is the author of two books. Leaving Mundania, about larp, and Pandora’s DNA, about the world of inherited breast cancer. Her journalism and essays have appeared many places, including The Washington Post, Daily Beast, and i09. She also designs games and serves as the main author of this blog. But you probably knew that.
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