Saving the Environment with Zombies
Tourists are standing in the queue for the Ferris wheel. Some are eating ice cream. Suddenly two viking zombies, covered in seaweed, shamble from behind the ticket booth. They stumble and crawl to reach the higher platform of the popup cafe. The zombies ignore the tourists and other bystanders, because they’re not players.
There’s a public discussion of the state of the Baltic Sea going on in the cafe. There are politicians, activists and lobbyists arguing what should be done to save the Baltic Sea from an imminent ecological catastrophe, and who should do it. This is the larp.
At first, the characters look at the zombies in confusion, but after the first couple are infected, panic ensues. As one of the organizers, I scramble around picking up purses, shoes and other items the players drop during their impressive zombification scenes. The zombie victims are rushed into makeup so they too can join the undead horde, and I take personal items to the back room of the cafe for safekeeping.
Baltic Warriors: Helsinki was the first in a hopefully longer series of political larps about environmental issues related to the Baltic Sea, and especially to the way oxygen depletion in the water can lead to “dead zones” in which nothing lives. These are caused by many different things, but one culprit is industrial agriculture.
This and future larps are part of the wider Baltic Warriors transmedia project. The creative outline of the project is by Mike Pohjola. He was also the principal designer for this larp, with some help from me. The Baltic Warriors project is a complicated international co-production, steered by the German film company Kinomaton.
Baltic Warriors: Helsinki was played at the Allas popup cafe on the Helsinki waterfront on the 30th of August, 2014.
In 2011, I published an article called The Necessary Zombie in one of that year’s Knudepunkt books, Talk Larp. I argued that even an experimental larp must have some elements that are familiar to the participants, and that they are comfortable with. It’s hard to be creative if all the elements of the game feel foreign and opaque. I called this familiar element the Necessary Zombie because zombies are one example of an element familiar to most. We all know what to do in a zombie game.
I never really expected to end up actually making a game with zombies, necessary or otherwise, but in the spring of 2014, I was asked to join the organizing team of Baltic Warriors. My job was to act as a larp producer in the context of the wider transmedia work.
The Necessary Zombie has more to do with Baltic Warriors than just the zombies. Baltic Warriors is a political creative project, and that means it’s supposed to reach people. As transmedia projects tend to do, it consists of many different kinds of media operating on different levels. Some are national or international, and others, such as larp, are local.
In Pohjola’s larp design, the zombie is meant to liven up an otherwise dry subject, and to make the game easier to approach for the participants. It also acts as a blunt metaphor. In our fiction, the Dead Zones forming and growing in the Baltic Sea would make long-dead viking warriors rise from their watery graves as terrifying undead monsters seeking to attack the living. In the game, the political debate was cut short by the attack of the viking zombies.
This went into the heart of the political analysis underlying our game: Everyone agrees that something should be done to help the Baltic Sea.
Yet very little is happening. If this continues, soon it will be too late. Too much talk, too little action, and the viking zombies will get you. Or the damage to the sea will be so severe, it can’t be fixed.
In its first game, the Baltic Warriors project was following ideas about rapid prototyping and iterative game design championed by Eirik Fatland and Bjarke Pedersen, as well as following my own experiences in the use of a test game to help with the design of the larp Halat hisar. The basic idea is pretty simple: Since larp is relatively cheap and easy to produce, why not try out ideas in smaller games before committing resources and time?
This attitude also encourages taking creative risks. Will it work? We’ll see! It’s a test game. We also had a reason to run a test game that went beyond the demands of the game itself. The transmedia nature of the wider Baltic Warriors project demands that we document the larps thoroughly. In the test game, our documentary crew would get valuable experience with how to shoot larp.
The location was provided by one of the partners, the Korjaamo cultural center. As a larp space, the open-air cafe was pretty much the opposite of private: In addition to our documentation team and reporters and photographers from various media, there were tourists and random passersby. Indeed, this was part of the design. You could jump into the game after a brief talk with an organizer.
It was supposed to work so that you’d get a short instant-character, a couple of pointers about what you could do, and you’d be ready to start playing. You were a citizen, a version of yourself, who had come to the meeting to air some of your own concerns about the state of the Baltic Sea.
Unfortunately, this was one of the parts of the game that didn’t really work. We only had two people who did this. One of them managed to become part of the game, the other didn’t until the zombie attack, which had a democratizing effect.
Baltic Warriors is the second political larp project I’ve been involved in, after Halat hisar. In both cases, using the game to get media attention for the issues has been a part of the overall strategy of the project. Getting media interest for a game is really about how good a story it makes. Halat hisar was easy to publicize: Palestinian larp in Finland is a good story. Baltic Warriors was not especially difficult, but definitely harder than Halat hisar had been. It didn’t have an exceptional hook, which meant it had to compete with all other newsworthy events and cultural happenings going on at the same time.
We got a few mentions on radio and local news, and one really nice article and video in Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Helsinki. I only later found out how this had come to be: through relentless badgering of the paper, by many different people in our organizing group.
During the production we joked that we had more partner organizations than we had players. The punchline was that this was literally true. Of course, this was because our small game was the pilot for a big project. It had the support structure of a much more ambitious production.
Our system for who played in the game was somewhat chaotic. We had a public sign up, we invited players, we had people just show up, and at the very last minute, many of the people from the organizations we worked with decided to play. This proved to be a very good thing: Larp is hard to grasp if you don’t try, but when you do try, its power becomes manifest. In complicated transmedia projects, it’s good that the people who are involved understand and appreciate the form.
As a result, we had a strange player base: Some were larpers who knew how to make game but didn’t have a lot of personal experience with environmental politics. Others were professional activists who were new to larp but knew the subject of the game very well.
At least in my estimation, this combination worked well, with larpers helping to make the game work and the newcomers giving it some authenticity.
In practice, we tried to cast characters so that there would be mixed groups. For example, a larper could play a politician and an activist could play her assistant. We planned the characters so that the politician in this scenario would be more of a “face” character, and the assistant more of an “action” character.
Some of the participants were given characters who were the opposite of who they were in real life. For example, one activist player had a business lobbyist character. A participant who was a real business lobbyist got a character who was an environmental activist.
I believe that most people can larp pretty well on their first try, especially in a game with experienced players. That’s how it went this time too. It was fun especially because some of the players from the partner organizations were of an older generation. It gave the game verisimilitude. After the game, we held a public discussion about the issues raised in the game. The idea was that it would be good to show how things were in the real world: What was fiction, and what was true. In the panel discussion, one of the participants was the Finnish Minister of the Environment at that time, Ville Niinistö.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get him to play in the larp itself.
The political debates of the game ended in a pre-designed non sequitur: The zombie attack. We had briefed players about this beforehand. Practicing the rules had doubled as a warm-up exercise before the game started. What had until that point been a very social, discussion-oriented game suddenly turned into everyone running around the place trying to complete the ritual to banish the zombies.
If the players managed to carry enough clean water in their hands to the ritual location, they would win. If not, the zombies would win.
Trying to care for clean water was a game mechanic, and according to player feedback, it worked on a conceptual level.
The zombies were a structural choice I had been a little worried about, because on a story level, it was kind of random. It proved to work in practice, though, probably because it gave the game an action- oriented, fun ending. The characters could only survive by working together to achieve a common goal. That was a good thing to finish with.
Baltic Warriors: Helsinki
Credits: Mike Pohjola (Design), Juhana Pettersson (Additional design and production), Sarita Sharma (Production), Harmke Heezen & Miia Laine (Production Assistance), Julius Sepponen & Make Up For Ever Academy Finland (Zombie Effects), (Film documentation), Kinomaton Berlin & Made Partners: Goethe Institute, Baltic Sea Action Group, Korjaamo, Helsingin kaupunki, Finnland-istitut in Deutschland, AVEK, Medienboard, Berlin-Brandenburg, Media, Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig- Holstein, Nipkow Programm, EsoDoc (Production)
Date: August 30, 2014
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Length: 3 hours
Participation Fee: none
Game Mechanics: First minimal, then light zombie mechanics
This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014 which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.
Cover photo: Participants discuss the game while a member of our film crew records sound (Pre-game, Juhana Pettersson). Other photos by Miia Laiene and Juhana Pettersson.