Larp criticism often travels through whisper networks. After a larp event, we dissect it in private company but rarely write our thoughts – at least critically analytical ones – publicly. It has often felt like we – as a community – focus more on feedback and documentation than critical reviews, let alone critique.
A proper critique is a well-argued analysis that assesses the larp for a wider audience than organizers and previous players. Its purpose is not to help the designers develop the larp nor to record it for future larp historians but to evaluate the larp in the context of its tradition and place it on a continuum of other larps. Critique should transcend the writer’s personal experience and give a more general assessment of the larp.
Desirably, critique and critical reviews should not only evaluate the design but also voice questions about the message and meaning of the larp. Was there a point to this larp? Is it reasonable to think the participants got some insights out of it? For example, in his article “These but the trappings and the suits of woe” – Tragedy and Politics in Inside Hamlet” published in the book Larp Politics Syksy Räsänen relates the larp Inside Hamlet to the Shakespearean and Aristotelian notions of tragedy and concludes that it was more of a moral tale than a tragedy.
Our larp tradition is not completely devoid of critical reviews. They appear in blog posts and documentation books. At some point, the website nordiclarp.org made an attempt to publish more critical reviews. And yet, it is hard to find reviews or critique of well-known larps such as Baphomet, House of Craving or Forbidden History which are run several times.
Culture of Critique
In more than two decades of Knutepunkt culture, we have not developed similar institutions of critique as exist in the world of passive art like film, theatre, and literature. In assessing works, the larp community seems to rely on hearsay, impressions and publicity materials. Larp organizers have many tools to control the image of their work, ranging from documentation to the Week of Stories (a rule which prohibits players from publishing negative thoughts in the week after the larp). When we decide whether to sign up for a larp or not, we rarely (if ever) rely on public reviews.
There are many reasons for the lack of a culture of critique. The community is tightly knit. Few people wish to review their friends’ work. Some might worry how writing a review might affect their position in the community or whether negative reviews could reduce their chances to get into larps. A designer might wish to give private feedback to other designers rather than criticize them publicly. It is rarely a good idea to cross the line between making and criticizing art.
It is often pointed out that in larp every participant is a co-creator. Usually it is the players who make the larp, both in the good and in the bad. As a critic, should you evaluate your own contribution (against usual norms of criticism)? Or assess other players’ performance ?
Most of us probably would not feel comfortable playing a larp where this was going to happen!
However, you can argue that there is, especially in commercial larps, a clear distinction between designers/organizers and participants, and that different social contracts apply to these two groups. Moreover, the designers/organizers can be to some extent held responsible for player behavior. After all, they choose the participants and prepare them forthe desired genre and playing style.
This approach does not remove all challenges of larp critique. Some larps are more difficult to play than others, and it often requires skill to get the most out of a larp. Our traditions are built on assumptions about for example what you can do in a larp and how to react to different cues. Do you need to explicitly say that no murders will happen if the larp is marketed as family drama at a dinner party?
It is impossible to spell out all the implicit norms. Often we just learn them through playing.
Thus, people with different backgrounds and player skills will write different reviews. However, this does not really differ from passive art. To write a good review, a movie critic has to understand the genre and the intellectual tradition of the film.
Nevertheless, in larp the extent to which our own actions and attitudes determine the experience is on a different scale than in passive arts. And sometimes, you have a better larp if you turn some of your critical faculties off. On the other hand, to write a good review, you have to have them on.
What if you were to take frequent off-game breaks to write down notes about the larp? How do you think it would affect your larp experience? Or the way you see the larp, more generally? As a larp critic, you cannot escape self-reflection. Players often steer their larp towards interesting directions. Can you always be sure whether an outcome results from the design or your own play (or both)? Should the critic pause to think about it during play? How would it affect their larp and that of others?
Player expectations and pre-event hype affect larps. Too high expectations can ruin the experience if the larp fails to deliver. On the other hand, high expectations can also enhance the larp. Players will give their best performance and press themselves to see things in a positive light. Your attitude frames your experience.
Hype and critical thinking can rarely coexist. If you are to write a review, you cannot strive to see things positively. When you decide to evaluate the experience, you might be already giving up parts of it.
In larps, we have learned to explain away inconsistencies and to play around them. We often steer ourselves away from places where the shortcomings of the design would become too visible. But if you are to critically assess the larp, shouldn’t you take note of them? A critic has to balance between getting most out of the experience and maintaining an analytical distance.
The same problem exists with passive art: there always is tension between analysis and sensation. However, there is a qualitative difference with larp. A critic always uses themselves as an instrument to analyze an artwork, but in a larp, the instrument becomes part of the artwork. As Jussi Ahlroth put it in an article about larp criticism he published in the book Playground Worlds, we have no other alternative than let the violinist review the concert they were playing in.
Moreover, there is no possibility of going back to the objective reality of the larp. The borderline between the things that actually happened and memories/interpretations blurs. In contrast, with a novel, you can always turn to previous pages and read what the text literally says.
These challenges are not a reason to give up attempts on larp critique but they are something to keep in mind. They also partly explain why criticizing larps often is a thankless process. It might also be worth mentioning that there are ways around them. You could use a pen name to avoid community issues. To rise above a subjective vantage point, you might review the larp as a team or interview other participants. Of course, this probably does not make the task more appealing as it adds to the workload.
Is it a problem, then, that larp has no institutions of critique? Lately, there has been more and more interest in larp from inside the arts. For example, in 2016 the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm staged Gertrudes möhippa (Gertrude’s Bachelorette), a crossover between larp and theater.
If larp is one day going to be part of the institution of art – as some of us hope and others fear – then there will be critique. Will we let people without much experience of larp write it? (A regular theater critic could never have identified the design flaws in Gertrudes möhippa that Annika Waern discussed in her review in 2016 on nordiclarp.org)
Or are we going to show them the way by creating our own institutions?
This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Kangas, Kaisa. 2022. “Possible, Impossible Larp Critique.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 124-128. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.
Cover image: Image by Bianca Blauth from Pixabay.