|Date||July 19, 2009|
|Location||Westbatterij, Muiden, The Netherlands|
Exit was a one shot event by the Dutch organisation Evolution Events held in the summer of 2009. The focus was to create a larp that would not have any non-diegetic interference from or interaction between players and game masters during the runtime of the larp, to promote intense play without the feeling of being scrutinised. The prime motivators for play were interpersonal conflicts of a moral, religious and even ethnical nature between the characters.
The basic premise was an (in-game) psychological experiment revolving around escalation in playful interactions. Each game they played would reward them with tokens (which could be traded or stolen in-game) and the experiment was supposed to result in a clear winner, who would win a car. Of course, there was no such thing as winning off-game and no off-game rewards were going to be handed out. This provided the players with a reason to have their characters play to win, but steer for drama.
Players were asked to submit three "character skeletons" for the designers to pick from. Unbeknownst to the players (and supported by suggested non-transparency of the characters ahead of the event itself), the characters that would have the most conflicting world views were selected. Amongst the resulting characters were a prostitute, a political refugee, a hippie and the son of a South African pro-apartheid politician. These characters were then fleshed out by the players themselves. There were no interpersonal relationships at the beginning of the event, since none of the characters were supposed to know one another.
Before kicking off the larp, the characters were interviewed ("intake") by the game masters in their roles as the scientists organising the experiment to create an anamnesis form and to further flesh out some of their wants and needs.
The location had a large room called the "game room" that bordered on both the (diegetic and inaccessible) game masters room (below, this room is called the "organiser room" when talking about its in-game function as the room the scientists were located in, and "game masters room" otherwise). Access to the game room was regulated by a red/green traffic light: whenever the light turned green, a new "game" was ready to be played by the experiment's participants. This allowed the game masters to work in the room whenever needed and ensure the players would not come in while off-game preparations were being made. Secretly, the more important reason was to make sure there was never a moment where the characters could physically interact with "the psychopath" (see Runtime).
The players would be watched using cameras and microphones spread throughout the play area. The players were told not to mess with these, even if it would make narrative sense, since they were needed for off-game reasons as well (seeing as how the game masters were not supposed to enter the play area at all). Also, speakers were placed in a central part of the play area to allow the scientists (and thus, the game masters) to communicate to the experiment's participants (and thus, the players).
Aside from the aforementioned character interviews, the Friday evening did not have any play time, instead being used for boardgames and cardgames.
The Saturday kicked off by going in-game. The game masters "locked" the doors to the location so that no one could leave once the experiment had started. They explained the workings of the "game room" and retreated to the organiser room. After a couple of increasingly competitive games, noises and screaming could be heard in the organiser room and over the speakers, after which the scientists remained quiet for a disturbingly long time.
A distorted voice then announced that the prize for winning the experiment was now no longer a car. Instead, the participants could win their own freedom back by collecting enough tokens. It was emphasised that winning those tokens was not the only way of obtaining them, since the other participants may have won several already...
The situation became more ambiguous by the minute. Were the participants being tricked by the scientists? After all, many psychological experiments turn out to be about something else than initially suggested. But the games they were required to play became increasingly immoral, and at some point, while the participants were in the game room, their anamnesis forms were even posted on a wall in the main section of the play area, strongly suggesting that something fishy was going on - the scientists themselves would, of course, never do this... right?
During the evening, a "Happy Half Hour" was enforced by the voice, suggesting to the participants they dance, laugh and enjoy, do the drugs some of them had "probably" brought in, because the future was unsure for them.
When, on the last day, the players later attempted to trap the "psychopath" in the game room (using a trap involving electricity), the psychopath responded by having the participants build a house of cards where each level of the pyramid would be worth more tokens. As an unstated condition, however, if and when the house of cards fell over, their trap would be applied to one of the original scientists. They could try as often as they wished. The ambiguity of this situation, along with the moral ambiguity of potentially saving all of them at the cost of sacrificing one or more of the scientists - if they really were in any danger at all - served as a nice motivator for play.
In the end, one of the participants was summoned to the game room. When the room opened again, she was no longer in there. The remaining participants were later allowed to leave, since enough tokens had been collected to buy their way to freedom. In the end, the ambiguity was never resolved: the missing participant was not found before the end of the game, and it was never explained whether or not the "psychopath" was real or not.
The game was ended by the first in-person (partially) structured debrief ever performed by Evolution Events. Among the topics were the intensity of the game and the story that had developed over the course of the weekend. Since this game was run long before the advent of any meaningful emotional safety techniques in at least a large part of the Dutch larp scene, it was interesting to hear how the intensity of the game of the game had turned out: where some had preferred a slightly more intense experience, others said the they would have become uncomfortable had it increased any further.
After the event, the forum on which each player had done the work for their character designs was publicly shared, so that players could find out more about each other's characters.
As part of the larp on Saturday, the players needed to fill out a grocery list, with an exact budget, but not really knowing the price of any of the groceries. If this budget was surpassed, random groceries would be removed from the list until the remaining were within budget. The players understood well that this was supposed to be a source of conflict and started discussing outrageous demands like vodka. In retrospect, this could only be done because the players implicitly trusted the organizers not to mess with the groceries in an off-game annoying manner. Running this "game" would be ill-advised when playing with an audience unfamiliar with the organisers, since it would require players to carefully balance their off-game wants and needs with their dramatic desires.
It is hard to find out what's going on if your tools are limited to microphones and cameras. It might be interesting, in an adversarial scenario like this, to create informants or among the players. This could be done diegetically by rewarding them for any information they provide, but this incurs the risk that false information would be provided. It could also be done by creating plants. None of this was truly considered as a valid option, specifically because - as has become the tradition for the Exit series - one of the Evolution Events members was a player in this game and not informed about any of the plans for the game. The players had been specifically asked not to distrust her and believe that she was as uninformed as the rest of them.
During the runtime, the organisers were at one point forced to get into contact with the players when an off-game fire alarm went off. Since it was unclear what was going on, the organisers decided to evacuate until it was clear that everything was safe. It turned out to be a false alarm (since the bathroom of the location was below water level, the location has drainage pumps and one of them had shut off for unclear reasons, prompting the alarm). However, the game had already been interrupted and the players had been allowed outside. A moment in the sun does nothing to enhance the cabin fever-like claustrophobia that the closed off location was supposed to engender.
Although the event was originally envisioned as a one-shot, the formula - a smallish group of characters with conflicting personalities and goals being temporarily forced to coexist in a single space with no way of leaving - was so well-liked by the organisers that it spawned the Exit series, in which each larp is completely disconnected from each of the other ones but shares similar themes and styles of play.