A Refreshing Take on Larp in Film: Review of Treasure Trapped

A Refreshing Take on Larp in Film: Review of Treasure Trapped

Treasure Trapped (2014), directed by Alex Taylor, is a documentary about larp made by the UK company Cosmic Joke. In a short article in the Wyrd Con Companion Book 2012, the filmmakers describe the background of the film’s journey. The movie started as an exploration of modern day fantasy larp in the UK and its roots in the seminal 1981 larp Treasure Trap, in which players engaged in a dungeon crawl-type adventure wearing full costume in a castle. The filmmakers summarize their work as such:

“Whilst making our documentary, Treasure Trapped, we have been trying to focus on the unexpected twists and turns in the development of larp—not least that, in the Scandinavian world, it has become a method of teaching, something completely unheard of in the UK. No matter how far our journey takes us into the intricacies and developments of modern larp, we always unearth the same core values: ideals of warmth and community spirit; jokes and eccentricities; language and rules; all of which have stayed with the hobby since a group of people set out to acquire a Victorian folly in Thatcher’s Britain and could only have dreamt of what they’d create.”[1]Alex Taylor and Michael Surman, “In the Beginning: Treasure Trap – Opening the Pandora’s Box of Larp,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2012, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), 55.

Treasure Trapped

Expectations for the documentary have been high based on the lofty scope, especially with the inclusion of Nordic larp and edu-larp placed in conversation with more mainstream forms like fantasy boffer and post-apocalyptic genres.

Many readers may already find Cosmic Joke’s work familiar, as they recently produced the documentation footage for the Polish-Danish Harry Potter-inspired larp College of Wizardry (2014), which transpired in a gorgeous castle in Poland. The footage went viral last year, reaching dozens of media outlets[2]Johannes Axner, “College of Wizardry 2014 Round-up,” Nordiclarp.org, December 9, 2014. and placing high-quality, immersive larp at the forefront. At the time of this review, the trailer for the College of Wizardry documentary has reached almost a million views, with the longer documentary itself at over 64,000 views.

Previous to this footage, mainstream audiences were likely only familiar with the infamous “Lightning Bolt!” video (2005), in which an American boffer larper throws lightning bolt packets at a foe, which became a viral sensation and a rallying point for the mocking of larpers. The movie Role Models (2008) was one of the only other mainstream representations of larp, which emphasized boffer combat and the social ineptitude of the players engaged in the activity. Even before these representations, role-playing games have faced extreme stigma and moral panic since their inception in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with parents terrified that their children would engage in occult activities or “lose touch with reality.”[3]Lizzie Stark, Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-playing Games (Chicago: Chicago Review Press). You can read Lizzie’s review of Treasure Trapped here.

While the College of Wizardry videos may not reassure parents on either of these points, the high production values of the larp in the video footage ignited the excitement of Harry Potter fans around the world who have always dreamed of having the opportunity to attend a school like Hogwarts. More importantly, perhaps, the footage made mainstream viewers more aware of the term “larp” and its potential as an art form. As Claus Raasted, one of the College of Wizardry organizers, explains in an article about a Nordic larp documentary featured on the Discovery Channel, “I don’t think we benefit from having ‘Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!’ as one of our strongest media representations. If we don’t do something to change it, we’ll never move past that image.”[4]Claus Raasted, “Taking Nordic Larp to Discovery Channel,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), 65.

Due to the early hype around the film, even before this newer footage went live, many of us waited in anxious anticipation for the release of Treasure Trapped. Never sure if journalistic representations will mock or otherwise misunderstand larp, the production of a new documentary tends to arouse emotions of both excitement and apprehension for researchers and practitioners. Fortunately, Treasure Trapped does not disappoint, offering a series of examples of high production quality larps interspersed with excellent interviews from experts like UK scholar Laura Mitchell and several larpers in the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany. Many of the interviewees are familiar faces in the Nordic larp scene, such as Cecilia Dolk, Mads Lunau, Eirik Fatland, Claus Raasted, Astrid S. Andersen, and Jamie MacDonald, among many others.

The movie starts with the filmmakers seeking out their first larp experience by shooting the last session of a 6-year run of Maelstrom in the UK, a larp run by the company Profound Decisions. Maelstrom is notable for featuring elaborate props and costumes, as well as a large player base. They then travel to other local larps, including the post-apocalyptic themed Wasteland. While we do see the filmmakers’ confused reactions to these initial experiences and hear the confusion common to outsiders trying to understand larp, their attitudes are more curious than scornful. Eventually, they dip their toes into larping themselves, taking up foam swords at a boffer practice.

Interested in seeking out other forms of larp, the filmmakers journey to Sweden, where they film the first run of Monitor Celestra (2013), the Battlestar Galactica-inspired larp that took place on a real historical warship. The filmmakers explain Nordic larp in broad strokes, then offer detailed footage of the Danish rerun of PanoptiCorp (2013) and the Danish all-larp boarding school Østerskov Efterskole. The filmmakers had released these vignettes previously on YouTube; I found watching them edited together in their entirety quite special, especially when streamlined with more traditional styles of larp to demonstrate the wide spectrum of the form.

Overall, the film does an excellent job of presenting larp at its best, emphasizing high production values, its educational potential, strong community bonds, and the potential for psychological transformation. The footage is visually gorgeous and carefully spliced with thoughtful interviews from a nice variety of sources, such as experts on larp and students at the school. Particularly touching are the interviews with original Treasure Trap attendees speaking about how much the larp changed their lives and their nostalgic yearning for that past experience. I was especially pleased to see workshopping and debriefing shown in the film in the Nordic section, including scenes with Norwegian larp designer Eirik Fatland leading players through rituals to start and end the PanoptiCorp larp.

Despite the excellence of the content, notable inclusions to the documentary would have enhanced the finished product. I would have liked to have seen the high quality British theatre-style games, such as the Regency larps that take place in nineteenth century period costumes and locations. Brief footage of mainstream fantasy larps in Sweden or Denmark would have provided a larger picture, as Nordic larp is but a small subset of overall larps in those regions. Ideally, the film also would have touched upon the freeform scene and filmed at Fastaval or the Stockholm Scenario Festival, although admittedly freeform is less visually stimulating than full-costume larps.

Portrait PosterThe film would also benefit from a brief explanation about larp around the world. Though Grand Expedition founder Rick Wynne discusses the worldwide scope a bit, a sense of the history of larp in other locations from a scholarly perspective would add to the utility of the film as an introduction point for uninitiated viewers. Alternately, the filmmakers could explain that their scope is limited to the UK and Scandinavia and is not representative of all larp. These are minor critiques, however, and did not detract from my enjoyment of the film.

In summary, I highly recommend Treasure Trapped as an excellent larp documentary. The inclusion of various styles — from fantasy boffer to educational to Nordic larp — gives a much broader view than other documentaries to date. The interviews are thoughtful and deep, while cute animated graphics and editorial comments by the filmmakers add a bit of levity to the piece. From a big picture perspective, the documentary provides a refreshing counterpoint to many of the notably shallow representations of larp in past films.

From what I understand, aside from film festivals, the documentary is currently only available if groups set up a special screening through Tugg, though the film should see wider availability at the end of 2015. I definitely suggest setting up a screening if your local community can draw enough people to buy tickets, as the visual imagery and sound quality is worth seeing on the big screen.

References   [ + ]

1. Alex Taylor and Michael Surman, “In the Beginning: Treasure Trap – Opening the Pandora’s Box of Larp,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2012, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), 55.
2. Johannes Axner, “College of Wizardry 2014 Round-up,” Nordiclarp.org, December 9, 2014.
3. Lizzie Stark, Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-playing Games (Chicago: Chicago Review Press). You can read Lizzie’s review of Treasure Trapped here.
4. Claus Raasted, “Taking Nordic Larp to Discovery Channel,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), 65.

Authors

Sarah Lynne Bowman
Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. is a role-playing studies scholar and adjunct professor in Humanities, English, and Communication. She is the author of The Functions of Role-playing Games and the editor of the Wyrd Con Companion Book.
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