Atlantis is a small town in Washington, USA. It’s surrounded by woods, has no phone line, and the mail service works poorly. The only way to come there is by the railway, and the train is the only way to leave. The ticket office is closed, and the quizzical Conductor (somewhat resembling O. G. Grant) won’t let you on the train without a golden ticket. Sometimes a swirling mist comes from the forest, people not hasty enough to hide in their homes and caught by the mist on the streets get ill, or die. But that is not a problem – as everybody who comes to Atlantis is already dead.
Characters of our larp didn’t notice their death, and all of them decided to board a train to Atlantis for some reason. Some were escaping something, others were looking for a place to start a new life. Some were just traveling without a particular destination. They thought they got a shiny golden ticket to Atlantis in the moment when they actually died. We asked players to fabulate how their characters got their tickets. Their choices varied from trivial; “bought at the ticket office” to strange; “found in a dead man’s belongings” or unlikely; “someone forgot it on a cafe table”. We wrote how the character really died based on these stories. For example, the man who thought he had won the ticket playing poker was actually shot by the loser in a poker game.
Our players didn’t know that their characters actually died in “reality”. Their characters thought they just moved to a new place, having decided to change something in their life. Having come to Atlantis at the beginning of the larp, they did what any of us would do if we were them – looked for accommodation and jobs, got settled, talked, danced, drank…
Participants still had to find out that their characters were already dead – either by dying in-game, or after the game from game masters.
Ticket to Atlantis was a synergy of music, electronics, Stephen King’s despairing nostalgia about the lost 60’s and the question of what is death and what lies beyond.
Using music as a meta-technique, as a building block of a larp in one way or another, has been a trend in Russian larps for the last five years.
Our design team gathered three years ago to create a fully music-based larp House where the world sounds… (2012) based on a Russian bestseller novel House where… (2009) by Mariam Petrosyan. We were so fascinated with how our “musical engine” worked, that we decided to definitely do something more with it.
In House portable MP3 players were used, and the participants had to switch their musical tracks manually, according to specific rules. But in the following year Moscow electronics-for-larp engineers from Ostranna CG made a step forward, so for Ticket to Atlantis we were able to use custom made electronic devices that could switch music tracks automatically, depending on where the player was and what other players were around.
We read Hearts in Atlantis and are fond of this book. Music is extremely important for its characters, for the atmosphere, and for the book as a whole. Having our experience in creating and participating in music-based larps the idea of making Atlantis into a larp was pretty obvious.
In the team, we are all in our 20’s or 30’s. We heard about the 60’s, Stephen King’s Atlantis, we read about the epoch, we watched movies, we felt that anguish at the 60’s King writes about, and we regret we weren’t there. We are afraid of the 60’s because we know what they did to people.
Inspirational pieces: Stephen King’s Hearts inAtlantis (mostly second half), Interstate 60 (2002), Twin Peaks (1990), Across the Universe (2007), Hair (1979), Platoon (1986)
Hearts in Atlantis is not about the 60’s, it’s about people who survived the 60’s, and are still somehow connected to them. And so was our larp.
Ultimately, we wanted to talk about death. Death is a thing that’s frightening yet marvelous; marvelously frightening. One is afraid to die, and to deal with that fear, to live with that fear, one has to talk about it. That was our idea. But such talk is not easy, and not many people are ready for this talk right away. So we decided to talk about death without naming it. We decided to ask some questions and find some answers before saying what we were talking about out loud.
We wanted the players to find out what was going on during the larp. It was possible when they died – from a knife, or bullet, sudden illness or a touch of mist. So in-game death was the major instrument here.
Those who died went out-of-character to a special designated place just outside the playground. What they found there was a room with walls covered with 1970 newspapers from all corners of the USA, with obituaries in them of all the characters with circumstances of their death; photos and short biographical accounts. In that moment they understood at least that what just happened was definitely not death in the usual sense.
After taking one’s time in the newspaper room, overwhelmed players went to another room representing a train car, and an NPC representing a random, semi-real fellow passenger, almost an inner voice, talked to them for some time while the wheels rattled, helping to sort out what happened and to embrace the new state of mind.
In most cases it wasn’t a fully in-game talk, but rather a conversation of two people (each of them just slightly covered by their roles) about life and death.
We tried to make it as comfortable for players as possible and used this communication, besides other, to find out if the player wanted to play on. And to play on was not so easy – as the train was heading back to Atlantis, and player stepped off the train on the same station, in the same role, with all the character’s memory intact.
The only thing that changed was character’s name, confusing and arousing suspicions in fellow citizens. Special Dark Secret rules prevented the returning characters from discussing the fact that everybody in town were already dead, and forcing them to deny the idea that they had been in the town before and not just recently arrived by train.
We never considered Atlantis as Hell, or Heaven, or Purgatory, and avoided religious rhetoric altogether. We thought of it as of a place where some people went after they died, just because that was the place they needed to go to sort out what they really needed to sort out, but hadn’t had a chance to while living.
We refused to judge characters in any manner on purpose. According to our idea, Atlantis consisted of common beliefs of people who came there. They thought it was normal for money to exist and to be dollars – and hence there were dollars.
They wanted to have a lot of money – and hence the salary for one hour’s work was a thousand dollars. They had subconscious fears – and hence there was the fearful mist (represented by NPCs in silver gowns and masks, bearing smoke flares).
They had an inner demand for order and the habit of having a job – and hence the town had a Selective Service System office, paying good money for sorting the forms of draftees (with their name, age, color, family, children, job, education etc.) to decide who would go to Vietnam and who would stay in the rear. Grave ethical disputes sometimes arose over these essentially faceless papers.
We tried hard to create the fundamentals; the core of each player’s game, not of some events but of their character, and insisted on players creating characters as elaborate and interesting as possible. Besides other issues we asked players to take note of Important People who changed their character’s life in the past or just sunk deep in their minds, and of an Important Item that once meant a lot to a character (like a handgun that misfired at a suicide attempt), but were lost long ago.
For each character we looked for similarities, “reflections” of their important people in other characters and used the “music engine” to suggest feelings similar to those they had had towards their Important People to occur when they met the corresponding characters.
One could leave Atlantis – by finding the right person who could give them a ticket to a departing train and saying the right words to him – essentially stating that one had had enough of this town and was ready to move on. The train would take them away – ending the larp for the player and taking the character… who knows where, but definitely to some place where they needed to be.
The Music Engine
In larps designed using a technique that we call “the music engine” music mostly doesn’t exist for the character. It serves like a personal soundtrack to the player’s experience, and suggests character’s emotional state.
While creating the characters, players sent us a number of musical tracks, and specified for each track what emotions this music evoked in them. Or, in other words, what music should play when the character was in that particular emotional state.
We used such emotions as happiness, sadness, joy, fear, interest, anticipation, despair and so on. For Ticket to Atlantis, we created a list of 80 emotions that thus could be provided with special soundtracks, and the number of music tracks players sent us varied from 50 (when a participant used just one track for some of the emotions) to 500 (multiple tracks for each supported emotion).
All the player’s music and information on emotions was put into an electronic device we call Armlet, that players wore on their wrist. This device played music like a portable MP3 player into the participant’s ears via earphones so a player had a continuous soundtrack for their larp.
The earphones had to be picked and adjusted carefully beforehand so that player’s ears could endure many hours of continuous use and players could listen to the music and perceive the surrounding sounds in the same time.
Armlet is an STM32-micro controller (the same kind that is used in modern “smart watches”) based device with a screen, some buttons, digital audio playback chip, standard earphones jack and digital radio chip for data exchange in range of up to 30 meters. Other devices of similar design but simpler, with no screen, etc. (we call them Beacons) were placed around the playground marking specific in-game locations.
All the devices were constantly exchanging data packets, and thus each player’s Armlet knew where the player was (by receiving data packets from Beacons) and what other players were around (by receiving data packets from other Armlets), and who was closer (judging by radio signal strength). Using this information and information on emotion-to-music relations specified by the player, Armlet chose what music to play. Reacting on characters that were reflections of one’s Important People was the most notable case.
The critical point that makes this approach completely different from every other way the music is used in Russian larps is:
Organizers didn’t choose music for the larp and didn’t have to rely on if it would trigger the desirable emotions in the players. Instead, the music is chosen by players for themselves according to their own musical taste and emotional reactions. The electronic device maps the emotions (specified by organizers for different situations) to the particular player’s music, thus creating for players their own, special, unique soundtrack that pulls exactly the right strings in the right moments.
In some situations instead of music a player could hear a voice describing their feelings or giving them imperative instructions. It was used for drug effects and in case of a character’s in-game death. Drugs were represented by tiny electronic “pills” connected to Armlet, and lack of a pill in case of addiction caused continuous playing of a special addiction track that forced out all other music for hours, until a new pill was obtained.
The player’s ability to influence the device directly was very limited and rarely needed, thus most of the time player could just listen to the music. A player could only specify (using Armlet keypad) a limited number of intentions (like going to kill someone), and Armlet reacted, for example, waiting for some time (representing the character psyching herself) and then playing a special music track (that a player specifically chose for killing), and while the music was playing the character could actually kill – hence the combat rules.
Passing one of the earphones to another player was treated as empathy, a desire to share one’s feelings with another person. However, different people naturally feel different emotions while listening to the same music. This pretty well represented the chasm of human misunderstanding. Sex was represented by taking some of the clothes off and dancing while sharing earphones and listening to one of the players’ special sex music.
Most other rules of the larp (like rules for representing brawls) was also based on some special tracks that could be played by Armlet at some particular time or as a result of player’s interaction with Armlet.
Atlantis is surrounded by woods and we made the forest a mystical place, accessible at night only, much similar to the Black/ White Lodge in Twin Peaks. There were gazebos there, depicting typical locations in a typical American expression of that epoch – boy scout tent, movie theatre, perfect housewife’s living room, Vietnam bush trench and so on.
In those places there were Important Items of the characters. Having another character’s Important Item could give you enormous (and definitely not kind) power over that character, but you could bring only one object from the woods so you had to choose whether to take your own item or someone else’s.
The woods had a special soundtrack, and gazebos were connected by trails made of LEDs (essentially Beacons) that reacted to Armlet presence by lighting up before a character, and going off behind them, and one only could walk from one LED to another. Different trails reacted to different characters, so each character had to find their own way in the woods.
Though created in Russia with little to no awareness about Nordic larps, the game seems to follow the Nordic tradition pretty closely. It lasted without interruption for 38 hours, and it used some meta-techniques like music as an instrument for influencing player to affect characters. Of course, Armlets and earphones didn’t exist in-game, a train car was symbolically represented by a room with properly arranged chairs, and NPCs in gray were only representations of swirls of mist, but mostly what you saw in the game was what your character saw. Moreover the larp was psychologically challenging and made participants face some existential issues.
It was our second larp using the Music Engine. In general, it used the same paradigm as our House where the World Sounds… (2012) though the technique was almost fully automated, creating a personal context-based soundtrack for each player, reducing player’s interference to minimum.
There have been something like 5 – 10 music-based larps in Russia, the trend appeared around the beginning of 2010’s, though games besides the two mentioned above used completely different approaches to using music.
Another important game that must be mentioned here is Saint Summer (Moscow region, June 2014). Based on Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Across the Universe and The Wall and created by our friends completely independently of Ticket to Atlantis, that rock-musical larp explored the 60’s at their peak – with sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and Vietnam war.
From a musical point of view, it was a complete opposite to Ticket to Atlantis – it used a stage, loudspeakers and hit music to set the pitch and drive the action of the whole game from one extreme to another. Set a few years before Ticket to Atlantis and held three months before, it served as a prequel for a number of players who participated in both projects, some of them playing the same characters.
We were doing what we called “a kind larp about the good”, though it was neither simple to do nor easy to play. It appeared to be a larp about realizing some simple yet important things. One of our players, talking to an NPC on a “train” after his character died, said that besides his own death, he was much more disappointed with the fact that all other the nice and wonderful people he met in Atlantis were in fact dead.
The fact that they were dead made them less valuable to him. Well, we tried to convey the idea that death is a choice. Some people die by their own choice long before their actual death, and some continue living even after they die. Our characters had no real cause to consider themselves dead except the fact itself, presented to them in the way of obituary. They could live on, the only thing they needed was the courage to live on. Death has no power over those not afraid to live.
We should say that in the end, after a larp that definitely was not easy; even really difficult, after some reconciliation with themselves, most players came to feel what they called “warm aftertaste”. And we felt a lot of joy after reading reports about the larp settling down in heads and hearts, people giving up pain and struggle and moving on with joy. It was very warming to hear something like “It wasn’t a larp about death. It was a game about life and about the absence of death”. We are very thankful to our players for saying that and helping us to believe it’s true. We end with some quotes from reports:
Ticket to Atlantis
Credits: Nadezhda Vechorek, Vasily “Jolaf” Zakharov, Evgeniya “Nel” Patarakina, Philipp “Phil” Kozin, Dmitry “Kudryavyj” Roldugin, Anastasiya “Suliven” Dobrovolskaya. Electronics development, Ostranna Creative Group: Gennady “Kreyl” Kruglov, Roman “Jam” Leonov
Date: September 11-14, 2014
Location: Rented summer houses near Moscow, Russia
Length: 38 hours
Participation Fee: €85
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: Welcome to Atlantis. (Play, Julia Tishkova). Other photos by Julia Tishkova.