The concept of character immersion has been a cornerstone of Nordic larp discussion for fifteen years. I was surprised by how much the concept of steering introduced last year brought to my understanding of character immersion (“eläytyminen”). In this essay I look at five specific experiences with steering towards immersion, some successful, some not.
More specifically, I have usually tried to steer towards immersing in cathartic emotional experiences experiences through my character. Most often this has come through experiencing Saturnine melancholy.
The character immersion definition I work with here is this one:
Immersion is the player assuming the identity of the character by pretending to believe their identity only consists of the diegetic roles.
Steering is the process in which a player influences the behavior of her character for non-diegetic reasons.
That is, out-of-character motivations guide the character in some direction. In my case, the out-of-character motivation is that of delving deeper in the character, and guiding the character towards experiencing strong emotions.
When watching movies, I’m most typically moved to tears when the scene deals with generations passing, time moving on, sons becoming fathers, mothers becoming grandmothers, hints of new babies eventually becoming unrecognized names on graves.
I’ve heard this feeling is called “Saturnine melancholy”, as in melancholy related to time; from the Roman time god Saturn who eats his own son.
Scenes like the one in The Thirteenth Warrior, where the vikings going to battle recite:
Lo there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them.
Or the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof, where they sing Sunrise, Sunset:
Is this the little girl I carried? / Is this the little boy at play? / I don’t remember growing older. / When did they?
Why I am particularly prone to Saturnine melancholy is perhaps a topic for another essay. But I have experienced it enough times to know to steer for it.
Käpälämäki X – Kesäyö
The Käpälämäki series is a Harry Potter larp series set at the uncanonical Finnish magic school Käpälämäki. I attended the tenth episode.
My character was Severi Saraste, a bureaucrat from a well known family of dark magic users. He wanted nothing to do with his family, but knew his job and connections depended on them.
Severi’s job in the larp was to be part of a Ministry envoy overseeing the Käpälämäki school and to make sure the Pureblood kids in the school had everything they needed.
During the course of the larp, Severi and some students were imprisoned by Aurors (magic police) because of their ties to a secret cabal of pureblood extremists.
After a few hours the students were released. Neither Saraste nor the conspirator students had said anything. The immersion was mostly to the situation of being in a damp cellar, being interrogated, trying not to be found out. Exciting, but not exactly cathartic.
Saraste was moved to the attic and left alone to ponder upon his actions.
After a while of sitting alone in the attic, I noticed my thoughts started to drift away from the larp, into matters of real-life work, family, art, food, and so on. I was running out of inner monologue for my character! I had to steer my larp ship out of these low shoals into the high seas of immersion! But I had no chart.
I pulled out my Finnish-style lengthy character description detailing Severi’s childhood, contacts, plots, background, dilemmas, tasks, everything. I figured I would have hours to sit alone, so I read it with care.
Severi only has two choices, neither of which are appealing: he can leave the pureblood extremists and gain freedom but lose everything else, or continue as before, and remain a prisoner of his community.
But wait… Was he actually offered a third choice now? Come clean to the Aurors, and rat out his whole family? They would go to prison and have no power over Severi Saraste or his career anymore. But did Severi have it in him?
This was just the sort of emotional hook I was hoping to find by re-reading the character description. It provided the lengthy alone time with the perfect inner monologue. Severi stared out the window, thinking about what to do. On the one hand, this, on the other hand, that…
And then the in-game radio started playing a sad wizarding jazz song downstairs. Severi could just hear the melodramatic tone, and then the tears came. After I had enough of crying, Severi demanded to see the Aurors again.
“I wish to change my statement.”
“In what way?”
“I want to confess.”
After that the game took a whole new direction for myself and for many other players, including the Aurors and the other conspirators.
I had not planned for this in any way, and neither had the character writer Lissu Ervasti. But by chance, steering, and character immersion, I received the full Aristotelian experience. First, an insoluble dilemma (act one), getting into trouble because of it (act two), then a recognition of some inner truth (anagnorisis), and a complete turn of direction (peripeteia), resulting in an outcome that at first would ha ve seemed impossible (act three). (See also Pohjola, 2003)
The immersive experience would have been just as strong without the turning point, but in this case it happened to serve as fuel for more game content.
Monitor Celestra was a big Swedish larp set in the world of the reimagined TV series Battlestar Galactica. The larp was set in the time of the pilot episode, where almost all mankind has just been destroyed by the Cylon machines. Only a handful of spaceships survived and formed a fleet, which included both the military museum ship Galactica, political ship Colonial One, and the research vessel Celestra.
I played the surgeon on board the Celestra, Dr. P. Albert. (The larp was played three times, and all characters were non-gendered. I named myself Pavel.)
The written character mostly consisted of group briefs, like
Cultural Affiliation: Tauron,
Group: Celestra Crew,
Subgroup: Medical Staff, and
Other Affiliations: Cylon Sympathizers.
Before the group briefs I had a small chapter summarizing my character as a Cylon loving doctor. Then at the bottom of the description this
Cylon loving doctor idea was extrapolated and imbued with playing directions, and out-of-character duties (such as determining the severity of wounds and illnesses).
Cylon loving doctor might seem like a fun character to play, but in the actual larp, the understandable lack of cylons and limited space for medical practice made this almost irrelevant. So I was left with very little of the pre-made material being useful.
We were told to flesh out the characters ourselves, as is quite often the case in Swedish and Danish larps. In Finnish larps the larp design is communicated mostly through the characters, so the “make your own character” style seems strange even for me after a decade and a half of larping abroad.
In this case we were given a forum, and told to develop inter-character relations there. Fine.
I fleshed out my character by giving him a wife and family on one of the planets that was destroyed. I made Dr. Pavel Albert a long-haired hippie with a California drawl in his speech to very clearly mark him a civilian and thus contrast him further with the military personnel I knew would be manning the Celestra at some point.
I decided P. Albert had worked on the Celestra to pay his med school loans, but was now almost done with it, and would get to return to Tauron next week. And I developed some low-key relationships with other players, but unfortunately nothing that would become truly essential in the larp. And, assuming this was a sandbox type larp, I decided the character would try to take over the ship from the eventual military occupation, if push came to shove.
Cylon loving doctor description, all of these, too, became void in the course of the larp. I ended up having to do a lot of impromptu steering in order to get something out of the larp.
The aftermath of humanity being destroyed would have been perfect material for character immersion, and even Saturnine melancholy: I am the last member of my family. My wife has just died. My parents had died. 99.99+ % of humanity has died. But during the course of the game (as of the TV pilot), we would be given new hope of a secret thirteenth colony of mankind: Earth.
Unfortunately most of this emotional potential was made void by the heavy emphasis on action plots, and the breaks in the game.
The game was divided into four acts, with a break between each. Sometimes the break was short, at other times we would leave the location for the hostel. There was always a time leap for the characters. Fine. But the dramatic structure that works for television, does not always work for larps: the big information with the potential emotional impact (“Earth exists!”) was always delivered at the very end of the act. Meaning that we never got to play characters reacting to them.
Similar problems prevented focus on the “everyone you knew is dead” aspect of the setting.
There were plots elements in the larp, too. Is the ship controlled by the original civilian crew or the military visitors? What side is the Presidential representative on? Does Celestra contact the Cylon ship or the refugee ship? Do we have Cylons onboard?
I do not know how well these “main plots” worked in other runs of the larp, but in the second one that I attended, the whole system was unfortunately broken (see also The Blockbuster Formula). A bunch of players who had contributed to the larp via crowdfunding and made the whole thing possible were promised a “special plot,” which turned out to be that they were all members of a secret spy organization.
Their characters were then divided into various groups in high positions, meaning they essentially controlled most of the main plots. During the course of the larp I realized it was not built like the sandbox I expected, and the main plots seemed strangely impenetrable.
What was left was more like an amusement park, and I started steering in that direction to get some enjoyment out of it.
It worked like this: Dr. Pavel Albert went to a location, event or person (such as the AI lab, the bridge, the mutiny, the murder, the Presidential Aide, or the Cylon prisoner), and interacted with everyone as much as possible.
When the situation had exhausted its dramatic potential, he went to a new location. This was most apparent when interacting with GM-played supporting characters, such as the Cylon prisoner. Eventually dialogue with the prisoner started to repeat itself, like talking to non-player characters in a video game.
These emergency steering maneuvers eventually lead to meaningful, emotional content, too, as Dr. Albert, the Presidential Aide (played in a wonderfully enabling manner by Christopher Sandberg), and a few others started hatching a plan to steal a shuttle and flee from Celestra together.
Halat hisar was set in an alternate reality where the Palestinian situation had happened in Finland. The fictional Ugric people had been given parts of Finland, and had conquered even more. Many Finns lived under occupation in “South Coast” (corresponding to West Bank) or the Åland Islands (corresponding to Gaza Strip). It was played in Parkano in November 15–17, 2013, and organized by a Palestinian-Finnish team.
The larp was set at the Finnish University of Helsinki, in divided Helsinki. My character Tuomas Kallo, described as “The Conflicted Realist,” was running for the head of the student council as one of the Social Democratic Liberation Party (“Fatah”) candidates. Other parties were the Party of Christ (“Hamas”), Pan-Nordic Liberation Front, and the Socialist Resistance Front.
My dramatic function was explained in the character description: “You represent the establishment, and through you, maybe the radical roots of today’s ruling party can be seen.” In this reading I was essentially a younger, Finnish version of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority.
Early on in the larp soldiers from the Ugric Defense Forces occupied the university and placed it under curfew. Students and faculty were arrested, interrogated and tortured. During the larp rumors started spreading that my character was somehow in league with the UDF, perhaps giving them information. It was impossible to refute such accusations, but they essentially cost Tuomas Kallo the election and some friendships.
The big turning point, and cause of emotional turmoil for Tuomas Kallo was a student demonstration against the UDF soldiers. I took the megaphone and lead the group in singing nationalist songs. Some people yelled slogans, others threw stones.
The other megaphone was held by a fellow candidate, the Socialist Marie Isola (played by Jamie MacDonald). She was the de facto leader of the demonstration, and got into a shouting match with one of the soldiers.
Things got aggressive, and the UDF soldier shot Marie.
Somebody called the ambulance, which drove towards the demonstration, but was held by the soldiers at the road block, and then forbidden to get close to the bleeding student. When the medical professionals eventually got to Marie, she was already dead. After the larp we found out this was all pre-written by the organizers.
Marie’s death was such a blow that it effectively ended the demonstration. We went back to the university building, everyone full of emotions: sadness, shock, bitterness, anger, fear…
I was ready to let the emotions wash over me. It was time to steer towards Saturnine melancholy!
For that, I found the perfect Turku-style location for solitary immersion: a lookout tower with a very small room on the top, and in every direction windows to the blackness that is Finnish November. There was even one chair there. Just one, as if it was designed for being alone. Perhaps it was.
I stared out the window into the dramatic darkness, seeing soldiers marching on the campus. How horrible…
Had I chosen the right path? Would we avenge Marie? Would we hold a vigil for her? Should I be more radical? What would my father have done, had he not been killed by UDF soldiers? Perfect Saturnine melancholic material for emotional immersion.
But then I, the player, remembered something! This larp used the Black Box technique, and I had decided to try that. I imagined the emotional potential triggered by Marie’s death would be prime material for Black Boxing, so I took the wheel, made a quick U turn, and walked the stairs down to the Black Box room.
Unfortunately the Black Box was taken. Many players had scenes to play with Marie: flashback, dreams, “what could have beens”, and so on. Marie’s player would soon play something else, so all this had to be done now. Mohamad Rabah, the Game Master in charge of the Black Box, asked me to wait.
This called for complex steering: I had to hold on to the emotional potential but not tap into it. To do this, I walked around the building trying to avoid any contact with others who might inflict me with dialogue or plots that would dilute the emotional potential.
Eventually I made it to the Black Box and played a dream sequence where Mohamad played Tuomas Kallo’s father. After plenty of “What would you do, dad?” and “My son, you already know what you have to do” we concluded the scene. I found it difficult to fully utilize the emotional potential I had come in with, perhaps because I lacked mechanisms for steering Mohamad, or because Mohamad had some other aim with the Black Box scene.
Some time after the Black Box scene we held a small memorial event for Marie. We raised the Finnish flag, sung some sad songs about how we join our ancestors in Heaven and one day, we, too, will fade from memory. That was what finally made Tuomas Kallo (and me) cry.
KoiKoi was a larp about stone-age hunter-gatherers played in Norway on July 1 – 5, 2014. The larp was played in numerous Scandinavian languages, and us Finns played strangers from a neighboring tribe who had become humans, that is, members of this tribe. My character Duskregn was a loincloth-wearing warrior married into the Bear Family.
The larp was only a little about any single character’s individual dilemmas and dramas, and quite a lot about the society going about its business. Children becoming men, women and nuk, young men and women traded to other families to bear new children, and the old dying and being remembered. It should have been a perfect opportunity for some Saturnine melancholy, but somehow I never got there.
All the instances of transformation were ritualized, which made perfect sense for the larp and could easily have added to the atmosphere. So we had a ManRit for children becoming men, a KvinnRit for children becoming women, a NukRit for children becoming nuk, a DödsRit for old people dying, a MinnsRit for remembering those who had died after the previous KoiKoi meeting, and several family rites for leaving one family and joining another. Some families even had washing rites and such.
Between all those rituals and the getting ready for them, the content of my larp was mostly about hanging with my family, sleeping with people from other families, and dancing and telling stories in the big tent-like house.
In a modern-day larp I would have brought a book for my character to read during downtime. In this case, the storytelling took that part.
I listened to stories, performed in stories, and told stories of my own. As a professional writer coming up with stories is something I enjoy doing, and I am quite experienced at it. Unfortunately I ended up steering too much into coming up with stories for others to hear, instead of steering for getting everything out of whatever situation I was in.
Most of the time I didn’t realize this was a problem, until after the larp. But after the MinnsRit where we remembered the dead, and everybody told stories about their loved ones, I was disappointed to not have really felt it.
All the elements were there: generations passing, everyone having lost their loved ones, us becoming aware of our mortality and of the fact that others will eventually take our place and tell stories of us. We even had a few ancestors (nuks with masks) watching us. It should have been a cry-fest for me, but it was not.
During the MinnsRit I spent too much brain-power on trying to come up with a story to tell. I was a recent addition to the AnKoi, but maybe I’d killed one of them earlier when I was still a Stranger. That might be a powerful, emotional twist. But who, and how? And why did they only die now? Or are there actually too many stories, and it’s getting kind of boring, and it takes too long to get through the mandatory memories without me adding new ones?
What I should have done is steer for experiencing this full on, seeing us in the millennial line of people coming there to hear memories, share memories, and become memories. It is possible that due to my character’s outsider and barely developed past, I lacked points in which to attach such emotions.
At times during the larp I felt not as my character but only as myself as a hunter-gatherer. Then I tried to figure out a more complex personality or back-story for my character. Maybe I was a spy from the strange tribe who was examining this tribe for weaknesses to exploit.
One of the designers of KoiKoi, Eirik Fatland, has spoken about how Aragorn in the Prancing Pony would be a horrible character, since he would have no connection to any of the other characters, or the plots amongst the other visitors. But he would have an inner monologue Fatland parodizes as
I am Aragorn, I am so cool. I am Aragorn, I am so cool…
An inner monologue of that kind would ha ve been preferable to having no inner monologue at all.
For me KoiKoi was a very powerful experience and an excellent larp, but in this sense a failure in steering for emotional immersion.
College of Wizardry
College of Wizardry was a Danish-Polish larp played November 13 – 16, 2014, at Czocha Castle in Poland. The larp was set at a magic university in Harry Potter world, almost twenty years after the books.
I played Bombastus Bane, Professor of Dark Arts. Defence Against the Dark Arts, I mean. Essentially the Snape of Czocha. The professor characters were more or less created by the players themselves, but the organizers were quick to react to our ideas about contacts and plots.
Bane’s whole family (mother, father, wife) had been in the wizard prison Azkaban since the war portrayed in the books. Bane’s wife had been pregnant at the time of imprisonment, and had given birth to their son Vladimir in prison. Vladimir had grown up in Azkaban surrounded by Dementors and criminals.
Friday at lunch Bane received a letter informing him that his wife had passed away at Azkaban. I realized this is prime material for heavy emotions washing over me, and immediately steered towards this. I left the dining room for the Dark Forest in order to wallow in these emotions alone. Very Turku School. While I was in the Dark Forest, I realized the playing style of this larp would actually benefit from me making this as public as possible, and decided to make a steering turnabout.
I returned to the dining hall to attack the Auror Bane assumed to be responsible for killing his wife. The private emotion became a public spectacle. Essentially this meant that I suppressed the emotional potential in the death of Bane’s wife, and created a dramatic scene instead. A scene, which would later on bring more emotional potential to be explored.
When the immediate conflict was resolved the Auror took Bane to a private location, and explained what had happened.
“Professor Bane, your wife didn’t die naturally. She was killed.”
“By your son Vladimir.”
Horrible news for Bane, but great material for emotional immersion! He was very distraught, but didn’t cry his heart out, yet.
What finally broke Bane’s heart (and mine) was the Sorting Ceremony on the evening of that day. Looking at all the new juniors walking to their houses, and being cheered, Bane suddenly realised Vladimir was nineteen, and this year he would have been a junior.
My thoughts briefly touched on this idea while observing the Sorting. It immediately triggered a strong, sad emotion. The kind of emotion one normally steers away from in real life. But a larp is a safe space for experiencing them, so I steered right into it. One never knows what one finds when exploring these subconscious emotional triggers, but in this case, my larp ship crashed into an island of gold!
I started thinking that if Vladimir hadn’t grown up in Azkaban he would have been sorted into House Faust, and Bane would have been so proud. Or sorted into some other house, and Bane would have had petty arguments with his son.
And Vladimir would be so excited about all those student crushes and initiation rituals and all the ordinary life of the nineteen-year-old wizard. Which would never happen.
And maybe his mother Miranda would have been there on the balcony with Bane watching him. Which would never happen.
I cried in and off for an hour about this, first looking down at the ceremony, then afterwards when a student witch took Bane aside and he poured his heart out to her.
Even though the larp College of Wizardry itself was far from tragic or sad, it provided the backdrop for a great experience of cathartic Saturnine melancholy.
Steering is a very useful way for a player to analyze their behavior after the larp. By understanding the idea behind steering, the player can also realize when they are doing it during the larp, and it can make it steering easier, and more fruitful.
Steering does not need to happen in speech or actions, it can also happen inside the player, guiding for more interesting thoughts.
I have given five examples of trying to steer towards emotional experiences within character immersion. Some of them were successful, some not: and in the case of Monitor Celestra, I had to abandon that goal mid-game, and steer for something else.
Only the two last larps mentioned (KoiKoi and College of Wizardry) happened after the introduction of the concept of steering. The concept allowed me to better understand even the larps I had played before it: but in the case of College of Wizardry, I remember actively thinking about steering as I was doing it.
Mike Pohjola(2003): Give me Jesus or give me Death! Published in panclou #7, 2003.
Mike Pohjola (2004): Autonomous Identities – Immersion as a Tool For Exploring, Empowering and Emancipating Identities, in Beyond Role and Play, 2004, ed. Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola.
Helinä Nurmonen, et al (2012): Käpälämäki. Finland.
Fatima AbdulKarim, Kaisa Kangas, Riad Mustafa, Juhana Pettersson, Maria Pettersson and Mohamad Rabah (2013): Halat hisar. Palestine, Finland.
Eirik Fatland, Tor Kjetil Edland, Margrete Raaum, et al (2014): KoiKoi. Norway.
Charles Bo Nielsen, Dracan Dembinski, Claus Raasted, et al. (2014): College of Wizardry. Poland.
Eirik Fatland (2014): What is a Playable Character? Video, 07:30-09:40.