(Originally written July 10, 2019).
PLUS ONE, n. (+) The drug is quite certainly active. The chronology can be determined with some accuracy, but the nature of the drug’s effects are not yet apparent.Shulgin and Shulgin 1990.
For some larps it is easy to write about the experience in a way that will make sense to those who were not there. I can describe the events of the larp as a narrative, perhaps focussing on some of the significant set piece moments of the experience, and this will enable others to get a sense of what happened because of a shared context and shared experiences. Even for non-larpers we can explain some of the things that happened in a way that will persuade them to say, ‘That sounds amazing!’ Of course the experience is subjective. Of the various people I know who have played the various runs of Odysseus (2019) over the last week, for example, despite playing ostensibly the same larp, with some overlap, their narratives will be similar, but their reactions to it will be personal. Just as it is with people who have played College of Wizardry, or Inside Hamlet, or any larp that has been re-run. For my UK friends who are unfamiliar with this concept, it is when you run the same larp – usually with the same characters (but different players) – multiple times. It is not a campaign, but literally the same game being repeated. You can play the same larp multiple times, but with very different outcomes.
But I played House of Craving and it was different, and yet I am struggling to articulate how it was different and why. And so this is neither a review, nor a critical summary, but rather a gonzoid attempt to make sense of what the fuck just happened.
A recently widowed man discovers that his wife owned the house where she grew up and that she has left it to him in her will. He decides to spend the summer there – with his extended family and friends – in order to try to come to terms with her death. The characters are all broken in different ways: Some of them aren’t terribly pleasant, others are self-absorbed, others still are so damaged that they would be better suited to be anywhere but in close proximity to these others. Of course this terrible potential for conflict is what powers the engine of larp. But the house is beautiful, the cooking staff are geniuses, and there is a pool, and plenty of champagne, so what could possibly go wrong?
Over time it becomes apparent that these twelve people are not alone. The ghosts of the house object to this family’s presence and, as the day progresses they will influence, manipulate, and then finally control the living family to play out a cycle of tragedy and abuse. Eventually the family will be absorbed by the house, and as the old ghosts move on – into the darkness – they replace their ghosts to become the ghosts for the next family to arrive. And then the cycle will repeat itself. Again and again.
PLUS TWO, n. (++) Both the chronology and the nature of the action of a drug are unmistakably apparent. But you still have some choice as to whether you will accept the adventure, or rather just continue with your ordinary day’s plans (if you are an experienced researcher, that is). The effects can be allowed a predominant role, or they may be repressible and made secondary to other chosen activities.
The stories of this larp – and those who played it – are interlinked and overlapping. A story written in an earlier run may persist as an artifact to be discovered by those who came after. A drawing or a photograph of Jacob may affect a different Jacob when he comes across it in a future run. A short story written by Monica in run 3 could be read aloud by Monica in run 5, but she has no memory of having written it.Metalepsis, again. There are other echoes too, like a twisted game of Chinese Whispers, some stories are retold as remembered or as experienced by the players. Those of us playing run 5 do not know what happened in run 1, but some of that narrative surely became plot to drive our own story. Who are the authors of our fates? Those who played as ghosts in run 1? The others? Ourselves? I cannot say.
This larp is a horror story, it unravels as a descent into madness and death. From the player’s perspective, we think we will have an (un)easy revenge on the next set of family players; but we do not, because the true horror, and the fear is yet to come, as we discover what happens to our ghosts and the approaching darkness that will devour them. And worse still the human’s play back at you. After all this is larp not some Punchdrunk loop. Their agency is real.
House of Craving is an immensely physical larp. You play it with your whole body in a way that I find terrifying; there is little abstraction, and more touch in this larp than I have experienced before; largely because of the proximity and influence of the ghosts. But as ever you retain autonomy, the option to tap out or to invite escalation exists.I tap out once during the larp. I have one quiet regret for not tapping out a second time. I attempted to escalate but the mechanic – lightly scratching a co-player – does not work for those who bite their fingernails! Despite the ability of ghosts to eventually control humans, as players we remain responsible and accountable for ourselves and our own experience. We are instructed to steer for our own play, rather than to focus on the experiences of others. It is a bold undertaking, and a risky one if the players are not all on the same page. But for our run, we are all on the same page! We had an evening together before the larp: our players met for dinner in Odense and then had some self-guided workshops (with wine) at the venue. Here is the point I knew it would work. So much of what we do as larpers is subliminal. If you know your fellow players already it helps, but sometimes a group or an individual just does not gel. Our core-group of four players whose plots and backstory were intertwined clicked. Understanding that this group were all looking for similarly intense experiences really helped; we know even before the larp starts that we’ll be able to cooperatively play ourselves deep into the madness that is to follow. The word often used is chemistry, but perhaps it is more reasonably alchemy.Or possibly pharmacology.
The first morning consists of a series of workshops; these are designed to teach you how to play the larp. This is not simply an explanation of meta-techniques and an info dump of rules, but rather a set of subroutines that reprogramme the players to conform to the new social norms of the story world. We, the new players, are slightly nervous and slightly hungover, watching the players who had been the family the previous day. It is interesting. They smile, they hold eye contact for longer, they are unafraid, have no concept of personal space, and carry with them a nervous joy that permeates the black and white checked ballroom, empty but for a candelabra and a few chairs. I want to opt out of at least one of the proffered workshops, but force myself to take part; I am so far beyond my comfort zone that it becomes Brechtian. The sessions are physical; I am strong, used to fighting back; part of the exercise here is to give up control. The ghosts always win. Pushed to the floor with ghosts whispering in my ear I take a deep breath and relax, becoming one with the checked tiles beneath my cheek and I am not afraid anymore.
The larp starts with a nap. The characters have fallen asleep before lunch and all awake in different parts of the house. They amuse themselves for an hour before lunch – Jacob and Wilhelm do “masculine things” in the garden, the homoeroticism of wrapping someone’s hands before putting on boxing gloves is lost in front of an audience sipping champagne – and then at lunchtime, things start to get weird. At six thirty the humans are utterly under the control of the ghosts, and by midnight they are destroyed and devoured by the house. The whole experience is ten to twelve hours of intense play but the following day the cycle repeats except the human players of the previous day are now their own ghosts and a new set of humans come in – as the same characters – to repeat the day. All except for the first run, where the ghosts are NPCs, and the last run, where the family players do not get to play ghosts. I played the penultimate run.
PLUS THREE, n. (+++) Not only are the chronology and the nature of a drug’s action quite clear, but ignoring its action is no longer an option. The subject is totally engaged in the experience, for better or worse.
But when it comes down to it, I can’t begin to describe what happened. Individual events and scenes taken out of context may sound challenging, confusing, or simply make no sense, and the contexts are subjective. Instead I am going to have to resort to the obvious analogy. Larp is sometimes thought of as a consensual hallucination, and this one was more hallucinogenic than most.
The Shulgin scale – quoted throughout this piece – looks at the experience of a chemical over time, and describes the physical and mental effects of the experience on a positive scale of plus one to four (Shulgin and Shulgin 1990). As I am typing this, another player on a backchannel chat is describing the mental state of the players, four days after the larp, as like a comedown after 48 hours of MDMA. Their description is valid. Except there is no crushing bleakness for me. I am still on a high. I am mainly frightened that it will wear off and what it will feel like when it does. Other players have described this process already. Perhaps this is a part of the horror of this game, having to look in the mirror and realise that the larp is over and the magic circle is no more?
House of Craving was a solid plus three for me. It is important to note that this is not a rating scale. A high number is not objectively the goal of larp, or the best thing. One cannot argue that any larp that fails to achieve it is a failure – because most larps don’t, indeed hardly any larps do, nor do they intend to. House of Craving was a horror tarp, but there were no moments of blind terror or jump scares and it did not feel dangerous. The fear was the slow realisation of creeping entropy juxtaposed with beauty, and this juxtaposition made the fear feel much worse. My run produced two of the most beautiful larp moments of the 34 years I have been larping, including one which was so eye-wateringly incredible that it makes me gasp to think about it. I am not going to tell you what they were. It would be like describing the effects of 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-chloroamphetamineDOC, a hallucinogenic amphetamine first synthesised in Canada in 1972 (Shulgin and Shulgin 1990). to someone who had not taken it. I can’t offer you details, only impressions.
I played towards not some sort of death, but towards oblivion. My character’s ending was a ceding of control to the unknown by a character who was willfully in control of himself and his environment up to that point. He did not allow himself to feel physical fear or pain, he kept it inside, until – at the end – only fear remained. The only thing that scared him was the loss of his wife. His litany “without you, I am nothing” became the poem that ended the larp, as he slipped away from her and the lights went out. (Here I literally move away from my fellow players and end the larp alone in the darkness, I feel their hands reach out to find me, but I am gone.) “Without you I am nothing. Without you I am nothing. I am nothing. Nothing. (nothing).”
The patterns and the layers of the piece is what made it work; the ultimate form of intertextuality, stories tied into intricate and beautiful knots, held tight against willing skin. As a piece of ontological design which constructs a narrative and performative space – a larp if you like – House of Craving is a masterpiece of the form. It is a dramatically and personally profound piece of capital A-Art. Given the right players, a little bit of larp magic, and a prevailing wind, it can be life changing. It is certainly life affirming, sexy as hell, and really rather scary.
PLUS FOUR, n. (++++) A rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a “peak experience,” a “religious experience,” “divine transformation,” a “state of Samadhi” and many other names in other cultures. It is not connected to the +1, +2, and +3 of the measuring of a drug’s intensity. It is a state of bliss, a participation mystique, a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes, which has come about after the ingestion of a psychedelic drug, but which is not necessarily repeatable with a subsequent ingestion of that same drug.
There is a point on the Shulgin Scale above plus three. Plus four, however, is a state of being which is profound by definition and by effect, but it can also be terrifying and dangerous. The experience of playing House of Craving was a powerful one yet it remained safe. But the fall out is even more fascinating. I feel fantastic; as though the loved-up effect of MDMA has persisted long after the chemical has worn off. My body image issues, whilst probably not gone for good, are certainly in abeyance; I went into the larp as someone who would describe himself as “old” “fat” “bald” “ugly” ”haggard”; I have come out of it with a healthy dose of “fuck that.” Do you know that we are all beautiful – all of us – and that is the truth, everything that tells you different is merely advertising? I have no religious conviction that this state of affairs will persist, but the larp has produced a profound effect on how I perceive who I am, and this is plus four, and it is wonderful.
If a drug (or technique or process) were ever to be discovered which would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end, of the human experiment.
— Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin, PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (pp. 963–965).
Shulgin, Alexander “Sasha,” and Ann Shulgen. 1990. “#64 DOC.” PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Transform Books. Available at Erowid.org: https://erowid.org/library/books_online/pihkal/pihkal064.shtml
—. 1990. PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Transform Books. Available at Erowid.org: https://erowid.org/library/books_online/pihkal/pihkal064.shtml
Cover Photo: Promotional photo from House of Craving. Photo by Bjarke Pedersen.
|↑1||Shulgin and Shulgin 1990.|
|↑3||I tap out once during the larp. I have one quiet regret for not tapping out a second time. I attempted to escalate but the mechanic – lightly scratching a co-player – does not work for those who bite their fingernails!|
|↑4||Or possibly pharmacology.|
|↑5||DOC, a hallucinogenic amphetamine first synthesised in Canada in 1972 (Shulgin and Shulgin 1990).|