Yesterday I took part in CoLab’s Hostage: a spy-run where you are given a radio earpiece and a mission, and for an hour run around trying to stop the bad guys – tailing enemy agents, searching for clues, and so forth. All perfectly fine and fun.
The company have specifically asked us to avoid giving spoilers, and I’m going to respect that, so I won’t be giving a review, as such. It struck me as I left, though, that I’ve done a number of these kinds of shows now, and I’m starting to see a pattern as to how they handle storytelling, and I think it has implications that leak into all interactive performance forms.
Put simply, I don’t think these spy-run / city-dash events deal with story very well. Perhaps that’s not the producers’ concern, and they’re more interested in the visceral experience, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Certainly I’m starting to lose satisfaction purely from the novelty of running around pretending to be a spy, but once you move beyond that superficial layer there’s not much propping these pieces up. In particular, they’re lacking strong and in-depth storytelling.
I became very aware of this last night, which followed the same general pattern that others have: we meet a contact, who then proceeds to dump the entire plot on us in one big exposition monologue (including telling us why this impacts us – i.e. why we should care – by saying something like “You’ve all been negatively affected by the nasty things this organisation has done”). Then we’re off doing the mission, running through several tasks which keep us occupied, but which don’t actually advance, enhance, or expand the story in any meaningful way. Partway through, there’s a plot twist – again told to us via an info-dump monologue – and then a little more running around and it’s the end.
The thing that bothers me about this is that it’s very lazy storytelling. There’s a lack of integration between story and activity which is ultimately quite unsatisfying. The puzzles that I’m solving don’t actually reveal anything new about the story-world that I’m in, or advance the plot of the particular adventure I’m on. It’s busywork: an arbitrary task that needs to be overcome in order to move onto the next bit – which is probably another arbitrary task. When the narrative does progress, it’s through heavy info-dumps which are effectively disconnected from the actions we have been performing.
This wouldn’t be acceptable in a thriller novel, play, or film. Even something as action-oriented as James Bond gradually leaks its plot through the results of various fight scenes and sexual conquests. There’s a puzzle that needs to be solved, and each action reveals another piece. Not so with so many interactive experiences, which give you the action, and often a localised puzzle, but don’t connect these puzzles or pieces of action to the wider story-world, whether through an increased sense of understanding, meaning, character development, or narrative progression.
This may sound like I’m being picky. You might ask why it matters if there’s weak story development when the whole point is about the visceral experience. And this is where the importance of the matter really lies, because once the novelty has worn off you need a good narrative drive to maintain experience. For one thing, if I start to feel like I’m just doing meaningless busywork, I drop my investment and am much less likely to suspend disbelief. But it goes deeper than that. It’s through story – not just “this company is bad and must be stopped”, but the ongoing development of cause and effect that impacts not only the events, but the people and characters involved – that suspense is built.
Suspense is massively important, particularly in thrillers, but it can be very hard to manufacture in an experiential manner. For example, I’ve had quite a lot of guns held to my head. I’ve been shouted at, frisked, held up against walls, restrained, threatened… but never have I ever forgotten that fact that this is a show, I am an audience member, and no matter how much the nasty man shouts at me, he’s not actually able to hurt or kill me. It’s not suspenseful, because I already know the outcome: I will be fine.
Now, let’s think about traditional theatre. We know that the actors are actors. We know that they’re not actually killing each other. And yet, we willingly suspend our disbelief and read the performance as if they are. We look past the actors and read onto them the characters that they represent. We grow to care about them through coming to understand who they are, how they have been effected by the world in which they live, what their motivations, passions and flaws are (and – in good storytelling at least – we’re neither given flat-out good or bad guys, nor outright told “this is why you should care!”) And anything can happen to these characters. So when a gun is held to the head of a character we have become emotionally invested in, we feel suspense in a much more tangible way, because the character can die.
Of course, characters can die in spy-run shows as well. But they don’t all that much (possibly because, aside from the villain, there’s usually only one main character who is acting as your guide), and when they do the dramatic or suspenseful impact just isn’t there. Why not? I suspect it’s because we haven’t had a chance to become invested in the story-world, or in the character. The piece has focussed so much on our experience and involvement, it’s forgotten to make the world three dimensional. It’s so concerned with constant momentum, that it forgets to slow down and allow the necessary breathing-room that deep character development requires. So instead we get stereotypes: the evil corporation, the resistance group, the contact who leads us around, the nasty villain… all of which are impossible to emotionally connect to or invest in, because they aren’t real people. They lack depth, subtlety, or nuance. They’re strawmen more concerned with constantly pushing us forward than developing a world. And when they are threatened, I don’t really care, because I never cared about them to begin with.
It seems to me that, if this format is going to survive, it needs to evolve. There’s a limited number of audiences out there, and if like me they start to lose enjoyment purely through the novelty factor, then something else needs to take its place. And well-structured and developed storytelling may well be the solution. I can envision a show where, rather than meeting an agent who dumps the plot on us in one big pile, we slowly piece together story, motivation and world through the uncovering of clues and solving of puzzles. Where we discover that all is not necessarily as it seems, rather than the villain telling us. Where the main characters aren’t glorified shepherds, leading us from task to task, but fully-fledged and complex human beings whose lives, beliefs and world-views are challenged as we progress; who grow to be different people by the end.
And of course, this all has to link in to what I am doing as a part of the story, as a member of the story-world. Have the actions I take make a meaningful difference to character, story, and environment. I’ve been to too many events where, if I don’t solve a particular puzzle or achieve a particular task within a short time, our guide does it for us and we’re on to the next thing, making my involvement fundamentally irrelevant. I understand why this happens, of course, but it diminishes the world. Diminishes consequence. Diminishes suspense. But if you can make what I do have consequence, then I become much, much more invested. It’s hard, I know – very hard – but who ever said good art comes easy? If this evolution happens, it could push this genre from something a bit fun and silly, to something with an incredible ability to examine some very difficult issues, and put its audience face to face with the consequences of their actions, made all the more real by happening to characters they have come to care about.
Ultimately, that’s what it has to come down to. We can only suspend disbelief when it comes to ourselves so much. I know I’m not at risk. I know this organisation isn’t really spying on me. I know that the outcome of my actions don’t matter to my life at all. But give me a character who I invest in, give me a story-world I can believe in, give my actions the ability to meaningfully impact on both of those, and make those decisions morally complex… then we’ve got something worth exploring again and again.