Genre: Rock opera
Theme: Utopia and its Fall
Setting: Rock’n’Roll festival in the late 1960’s, US
Sources: Aldous Huxley ‘The Island’, Jesus Christ Superstar, Platoon, Hair.
The Messiah has been gone for two millennia. The times of rock star messiahs ended half a century ago. We have mass communication galore, but the same questions still stand. In this larp we hoped to find some answers. Many say Jesus Christ Superstar is the best rock opera ever written. Perhaps that’s because the USA of the 1960’s was very much like Judea of the 0’s. In both, the paradigm of the System, the Society, the ‘You are what you do’, the Leader, was being replaced by the paradigm of the Individuum, the Human, the ‘I Do What I Am’, the Messiah. Both approaches have their pros and cons, and Russia nowadays is a battleground for the two (again).
In JCS, the story of Christ is rewritten as a story of the individual; a story of a idealistic madman who dies, not for idea(l)s but because of other people. By his death he declares his ideals, becoming the iconic representation of these ideals in the minds of people. His personality and deeds are erased, replaced by him as a personification of his ideals. Incidentally, this is as true of Judas as it is of Christ. That story of sacrifice and ascension has been retold in innumerable stories: Hair, Platoon, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, etc. and played out in many larps. In our larp, we wanted to create a rare opportunity to “strip away th e myth from the man”, experience them in their full complexity, play their stories, and see how myths are created.
Visions of Utopia
In a sense, the game was set in the USA of the end of the 1960’s and the start of the 1970’s, at a hippie festival; at the same time, it was also set in biblical Judea, and, in more than one sense, in modern day Russia.
The game space was centered on The Stage. Before the Stage the Saint Summer community radiated out in a rainbow of seven groups. Behind the Stage stood the Wall, beyond which was the System. Between the Stage and the Rainbow, there was a large open space. Completely by accident, in the middle of that space stood a single apple tree, which became, more or less by itself, the Tree of Eden. We placed a toy snake in it. The players then put a haystack under it, and it became the place of much merrymaking.
There were seven character groups, representing the colors of the rainbow. Each group was historically accurate as to 1960s USA, and each strove towards a different ideal of Utopia.
This, on one hand, created the conflict, and drove the game forward. On the other, all these teams fit together and, between them, fulfilled every need a society could have.
- Red was the New Left and Socialists. For them, Utopia was social justice, freedom and human rights.
- Orange was Brahmins. They sought Utopia through personal transformation, enlightenment through study, meditation and the teachings of gurus.
- Yellow, the Diggers, were the smallest group. They saw Utopia as the absence of suffering and hunger, and they fed, clothed, and cured everyone.
- Green, the largest group, were the Free Communes, the Flower Children, the iconic hippies: Utopia as eternal childhood, Never-Never land.
- Cyan were gonzo journalists. Utopia was the Truth, and all the truth. For everybody.
- Blue. Bikers. Utopia as freedom. Urban nomads.
- Purple were the followers of Timothy Leary and Ken Keasy, they called themselves the Brotherhood of Happiness. They saw Utopia as a transcendence, and the freedom to do whatever you desire with your consciousness.
This rainbow was opposed by the Grays and Blacks of The System, a grotesque, cynical, and very efficient instrument of oppression: Police, Army, State Propaganda, and The Asylum. They, of course, had their own vision of Utopia: order, conformism, stability, sanity, victory.
Tools and Rules: Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll
Our game, as many Russian larps, was relatively rules heavy. Still, all the rules were carefully tailored to produce the theme and style of play we wanted. Without going into all the details, we’d like to outline the central game design elements that, in our eyes, ‘made the game’:
Sex, Drugs and the Space Beyond the Wall.
Music was the central medium of the game: everything, all the game rules, from sex to fighting to drugs, involved music. In contrast to other games with a musical engine, e.g. Дом в котором Мир звучит/Dom v Kotorommir Zvuchit/The House where the World Sounds… (2012), where every character was enclosed in their own soundtrack, we made music a uniting experience. It was loud, coming from The Stage, as well as being created by the players, and it was as ”Woodstocky” as we could make it.
Free love was of course an indispensable part of Saint Summer. Russian larpers are quite shy, and most larp restrict diegetic sex or make it taboo. But not here.J
To express the pervasive nature of free love, the rules defined that anything creative done with music could be considered as having sex, if the participants so decided.
To express love as sharing, after the deed the players were told to exchange tokens of affection. These depended on the character’s group: hippies gave bead bracelets, leftists pin buttons with slogans, bikers tattoos, etc.
Drugs came in three types of in-game drugs (we did not count the other stuff). The simplest, weed, was simulated by incense sticks, and it was everywhere. To ‘light up’, one put some appropriate music on, and lit the incense, and anyone could join if they wanted. The players were expected to behave more emotionally and be more emphatic when high, but also to react more emotionally if things went bad. Personal chemical hallucinogens were modeled using play buttons; small MP3 players that looked like pin-buttons with the game logo. Each play button contained a 10-30 minute story that guided the player down the rabbit hole.
About a dozen such tracks were recorded: a combination of music, sound effects, descriptions of what a character sees, as well as direct orders to do something, and a ”post/after” effect. Everyone could get a button from a Purple group dealer.
Lastly, every night a shared trip on the Stage, led by the GM’s and joined by everyone, set the atmosphere and, in some sense, agenda for the next day. The first night’s trip, “Celebration of Misbehaving”, was all about breaking free from The System.
It started as a humiliating lesson in a boarding school, and then morphed into a concert, where four deities: Jesus (accidentally female but it worked perfectly), Shiva, Bacchus, and a native American spirit, led the crowd in a Beatles singalong, sharing wine and chocolates.
The second shared trip, “Armageddon” focused on the fears of the 1970’s. It started with everyone playing a competitive game of tag, with loud, somewhat aggressive music playing.
Gradually the game changed: the ones tagged were told to play dead, and increasingly violent clips were projected onto the Wall: Disney cartoons, then 1970’s street riots, then Vietnam war, and lastly nuclear explosions. At the end everyone dropped dead, the video showed the aftermaths of nuclear war, and the theme song from the Requiem for the Dream was playing.
Whenever a character crossed the Wall, they momentarily left the game and went into a meta-game ‘limbo’ where player, as an actor, decided with the GMs, as scriptwriters, where to take the character.
That was done because, in our experience, when the game changes drastically to the worse, many players either drop out of character or lose their motivation to play, and we wanted to give the players a moment to stand back, reset, and look at their character from a narrativist, not simulationist, perspective. We think it worked, because there was very intense game-play beyond the Wall. Some players, however, hated this ‘limbo’, partially because a similar system was used in the larp Стоимость Жизни / Stoimost’ Jizni / The Value of Life (2011), a powerful art-house larp about consumerist society that left many players with a very bad aftertaste.
Prison, Asylum and Vietnam, locations beyond the Wall, were run by the GM team, providing “Passions”; hard moral choices for the character, pushing them to become either a Messiah or a Traitor (or, in one rare case, both). Those who chose sacrifice got a white rose and died; those who chose betrayal got a red rose and returned to Saint Summer. Players who did not choose at all returned as well, telling stories.
Of those, especially Vietnam was successful. We invited a dedicated group of players who, for the last seven years, have run a Vietnam war larp. They brought with them full Vietnam war kit, but more importantly, they brought the right atmosphere; the war mentality, the disgust of the hippies. From the start in the ‘Fort Summer’ boot camp, heavy use of obscenity in marching songs stressed the harsh, masculine, polarized world of the war as opposed to the soft and inclusive Saint Summer.
At the end of the third day, the police raided and razed Saint Summer; the bulldozers mowed the Wall and the ‘art installation’ barricades. Many left before that. Most groups had traitors. Others stayed. The overt message of the larp was that Utopia is impossible because humans are made to fall. But the victory of the Utopia starts from its ruin. Messiah crucified, paradise lost, Woodstock ended, but in their destruction they create the dream, and the seed of hope.
To make the players feel this victory from the ruins, to feel this faith that is stronger than facts, we made the ending ambiguous: in-game, in the finale the police laid down their weapons, while the last news flash, released after the game, said that the police shot down everyone who stayed in Saint Summer. Many players did not believe the news flash, and argued passionately. That is exactly the moment we were driving for. The moment of belief that there is no death, that Jim Morrison still sings, that once in history, the Summer is forever.
Святое Лето/Sviatoe Leto/ Saint Summer
Credits: Olga ‘Shaggy’ Shovman, Ekaterina ‘Freexie’ Godneva, Elena ‘Mirish’ Khanpira, Anna ‘Shakty’ Shekhova, Maria ‘Lotta’ Grubaya, Dmitry ‘Mityaj’ Gruby, Xenia ‘Xenyaka’ Kuznetsova, Seraphima ‘Arnaksha’ Melnikova, Mark ‘Qwerty’ Shovman.
Date: June 13-15, 2014
Location: Empty field in the Moscow Region.
Length: 3 days
Participation Fee: ~€25
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: “Roses are blue, violets are green / where will you be when the acid kicks in?” (music drugs) (Play, Roman Vorontsov). Other photos by Roman Vorontsov and Dalia Kochneva.