Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) is something that emerged out of table top games like Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s driven by a desire to be more immersed in living out fantasy scenarios. Boffer LARPs use foam weapons to simulate D&D-style combat, and this genre of live action role-playing is what most people think about when they think about LARPs. But there’s also Nordic LARPs, which have more of a focus on collaborative storytelling, artistic vision, and immersion. The recent explosion of VRChat is being driven by a confluence of different cultures including LARPing, Cosplay, MMOs, MUDs, live improv, IRL Twitch streaming, and a bit of pranking, trolling, and meme culture. But one of the unique affordances of social VR is that it allows you to embody characters, and tap into expressing different dimensions of your personality through role-playing different scenes and scenarios.
When it comes to the future of interactive narrative, then live-action role playing falls on more the generative story end of the spectrum rather than on the authored story. Nordic LARPs can have directors, rough story beats, and rules that guide the narrative in specific directions, but the content of the stories are emergent from a collaboration with the participants. I talk with game designer and LARPer Sharang Biswas at the Immersive Design Summit about his experience of the Just a Little Lovin’ LARP that’s about friendship, desire and the fear of death. It’s a LARP for 60 people who role-play the gay scene in New York City from 1982 to 1984 when the AIDS/HIV crisis broke out. We talk about the different LARPing genres, and what types of lessons LARPing has for the future of immersive storytelling in immersive theater and virtual reality.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So LARPing is live-action role-playing. It's the process of you embodying a character and interacting with other people, whether it's in the context of a tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons, or there's things like free-form LARPing, where you're able to embody different characters and have different scenes. It's kind of like this combination of improv acting with this overall structure of having an arc in a story. So there's been at least one VR experience that's completely centered around live-action role-playing, and that's the Star Trek Bridge group, where you embody different characters and roles and have these different adventures that you go on. And so it has the structure of the story, but allows the players to be able to really get into character and have these fun interactions with each other. And something that's happening with VRChat is that it's a little bit of this open world LARPing where you have the ability to embody just about any type of character that you want. If it's not already there and some of the avatars that are available for you to embody, you can create and upload your own avatar. And you can have different worlds to explore as well. And so you have the situation where people are going into virtual reality and starting to do this live action roleplay in experiences like VRChat. And they're also live streaming themselves on Twitch and then capturing clips on YouTube. And it's kind of hitting this inflection point where live action roleplaying is kind of really taking off as one of the really unique affordances of what is really easy to do within virtual reality. And so when I was at the Immersive Design Summit, they had this town hall moment where people were sharing about some of the most visceral, immersive experiences they've ever had. And in that process of sharing, someone named Sharon Biswas stood up and talked about this experience he had where he was at this multi-day LARP called Just a Little Loving, where they were embodying these gay men from the 80s who were dying of AIDS and it was this multi-day LARP of people having deaths and funerals and just role-playing these characters and he talks about his experience of that. And so I had a chance to talk to Shuang about his experience of LARPing but also to just get an overall view of what is happening in the world of LARPing when it comes to freeform LARPing and buffer LARPing and all the different types of LARPing as well as the implications when it comes to interactive storytelling and balancing this high dimension of agency and control over collaborative storytelling and what that might look like as we move forward into video games and virtual reality. So, that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So, this interview with Sherong happened on Sunday, January 7th, 2018 at the Immersive Design Summit in San Francisco, California. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:55.024] Sharang Biswas: So my name is Shahroong Biswas. I am a weird artist, game designer, writer, person based in New York City. I do a lot of different things. So my day job, I'm the experienced designer at the Medici Consulting Group, which is a corporate strategy consulting firm. that focuses on diversity and innovation. But they're really cool. One of their philosophies is that expertise from various different disciplines is important. So they brought me, a game designer, because I was a game designer, into the team to help work with their corporate training programs and like how do you think about training differently. So I do experience design that way, but I also do a lot of game design and writing, and a lot of my games are participatory live games, so halfway between LARP, like live action roleplay, and like board games, and like theater performance. And I have also mounted a couple of interactive theater pieces in New York, thanks to the generous grant funding of Tisch when I was a student there. And I also, we did one piece where I worked on a LARP by this LARP designer, but we worked together to turn it into an audience-based theater piece that was also still a LARP. Yeah, and I just won an Indicate Award for a game I made, so that was kind of cool.
[00:04:15.109] Kent Bye: Oh, nice. So yeah, we're talking about how LARP gets a bad name almost universally across all the different domains of either games or just in cultural. What is it about LARP? What is LARP, and why is it that it's got such a bad rap?
[00:04:31.785] Sharang Biswas: So LARP is live action roleplay, so the most simplistic way of thinking about it is imagine Dungeons & Dragons, which is tabletop roleplaying games, but imagine standing up and miming it and talking in the character's voice and everything, doing that. The problem is that most people think of just that, Dungeons & Dragons. Which, I love Dungeons & Dragons, I'm not denigrating it, I'm just saying most people just think of that. So, there are all these movies that show LARP where you run in the woods with foam swords and throw beanbags at each other saying Fireball. And like, that is definitely a part of the LARP world. And I'm not, again, I'm not criticizing that part of the LARP world, but a lot of people just see that and they're turned off because, you know, some people are not into fantasy fiction. So they look at that and they're like, oh, this is weird. And like, I've known game designers who are like, oh no, LARP is like super nerdy. Like I'm nerdy, but that's like the epitome of nerdiness. Which I think is silly because at this conference, this summit, we've been talking about how embodied experiences are sometimes the richest ways of transmitting information and emotion. So I think people give a bad rap. But also what's invisible is this other side of LARP where you have a lot of different kinds of role-play going on. So one of my favorite LARPs, this is not like a weekend LARP, it is a two-hour LARP that you can download and play. It's by this, I think San Francisco-based game design company called Thorny Games, and it is a LARP where you play deaf Nicaraguan children creating your own sign language. and it is actually based on a real historical moment where deaf Nicaraguan children were brought to a school to learn to lip read but instead they end up creating their own sign language which then became the basis of modern day Nicaraguan sign language. So I was on the train once with a friend of mine and we just bumped into each other on the street and we were getting on the same train And he was like, where'd you come from? I'm like, oh, I just came from LARP. He's like, oh, where's your weapon? I'm like, oh, no, I was playing a LARP about Daphne Kragwein's children. He's like, what? And this is the whole invisible side of LARP and not necessarily, again, not that it's better or that it's necessarily more serious, but it's very different and it's not seen as much. It's not talked about as much, which I think contributes to the stigma of LARP because people think it is this one monotone thing.
[00:06:51.012] Kent Bye: Yeah, and when it comes to immersive theater, it's all about giving the player agency to be able to make decisions and take action in some way. And it seems like with the structure of a LARP, you're given maybe a backstory of a character, and then from there, it's up to you to almost generate all of the dialogue. And there's story games that try to structure that in maybe a short time to actually have a full arc. It sounds like these LARP adventures, or I don't know what you call them, scenes or extended workshops, you're able to actually play out an entire character's over, you know, many days, maybe even as long as a week. And so what is it that's provided in order to form the structure of a whole sort of narrative arc that is kind of playing out if, you know, each character has their own motivation and intention and like how that actually plays out over a course of a day?
[00:07:38.547] Sharang Biswas: So in many of these LARPs, you are given a character to start with. Now, sometimes you help create that character, and this is often way before the LARP starts. And I'm going to make a little distinction between, like, the three-hour take it home and play with your friends kind of LARP and what are increasingly being called blockbuster LARPs, which are you go for a whole weekend or even a week to this, like, maybe you fly to Poland and do it. Poland is very popular because castles are cheap to rent in Poland. So there's this big difference. In these blockbuster LARPs, often months before the game, you will be sent some information. Sometimes they may solicit what would you be interested in, you know, things like that. And then they send you information, you work on this character, you're given this character, etc. And another distinction, buffer LARP is LARP where you have foam weapons and you hit each other. Freeform LARP is called freeform because the mechanics are very light and they're no like math-based crunchy mechanic. There's no like, I will hit you for two damage, things like that. The mechanics might be, this is a hand signal for when I want you to increase your emotional intensity in this scene, like that could be a mechanic. So, in these free-form LARPs, often called Nordic LARPs because they're popular in the Scandinavian countries and Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland. And in those LARPs, often, even in the ones that you do at home, there's what's known as a workshop period. So you would go into the LARP, let's say it's a four-day LARP, maybe the first half of the first day is all workshops, where you do all these different activities. Some of them are very much like acting games, like warm-up exercises that actors do, and I have a little bit of theatre background, so I saw some of the parallels. And you do that sometimes to get into character, sometimes to get comfortable with the character, and that can be a big thing. So for example, I mentioned at the summit, I talked about a LARP I was at called Just a Little Loving by Tor. I don't remember his last name because it was complicated and Danish. And it is a game about where all of us are playing queer individuals in New York during the AIDS epidemic. And a big part of the game is sex and sexuality. There is a mechanic involving bright pink phalluses on how to have sex in the game, right? You don't actually have sex, you simulate it with these phalluses. But that is understandably uncomfortable for people. And so part of the workshopping was like, let's be comfortable talking about sexuality and miming sexual acts, things like that. Workshopping has to be comfortable, and then, more to your question, workshopping helps build relationships and history between the characters. Because I might have on my sheet that, oh, you have a sister, her name is X, but I've never met her, I've just flown into this country, let's say. I meet her for the first time, and we're supposed to start playing, so these workshops help. Okay, we might have a workshop session where we talk about, so how are we related, what are our parents like, what did we do before, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And these workshop activities really help, I think, bring these characters together and create these histories. Another thing is it's kind of like improv, so sometimes you just go with the flow. You meet a character who will then suddenly say, oh yeah, remember how we went vacationing last year? And I'm like, oh yeah, it was awful. And we just go with it. So that's how you deal with character stuff. And there are some LARPs that recur. not in a repetition way, but in a continuation way. So you go one weekend, and then a month later you go another weekend, and your character grows. I have never played one of those, but those are also very popular. So different ways characters work. And some LARPs have extensive NPCs, or non-player characters, where volunteers will play characters, but they're not paying for the LARP and etc. They're non-players. They're there to facilitate. But some LARPs do not have that. For example, the AIDS LARP I had did not really have non-player characters. We were all just doing it together.
[00:11:27.011] Kent Bye: In terms of narrative design, is there either the writer or director or somebody who's either written a script beforehand of different plot points that are happening, or is it something that is completely emergent based upon what is happening, based upon what people have created out of this dynamic improv and collaborative storytelling?
[00:11:46.826] Sharang Biswas: So that also is richly varied. That's really interesting. So for example, there's a LARP in America that happens called New World Magiskola, which is a LARP where all of you play wizard college students. It's like tapping into the Harry Potter desire that everyone has, especially the adults now because they grew up reading Harry Potter. So it's like literally full of adults pretending to be college students. It's great. But in there, there are a lot of NPCs, non-player characters, who are doing things. So there's like all these plot things going on if you want to take part in it. If you don't want to take part in it, you can ignore that and have your teen romance, or you're like, we're gonna get revenge on the professor, or all these things you want to do, or even like, I'm gonna save the world, but you do it amongst yourselves. So that's cool because you have the option. Magiskola also had this cool thing where they had a room full of generic costumes. They had a makeup designer on staff and they had volunteer actors on staff and you could go in and request a scene. You could be like, tomorrow I would love if my estranged father shows up at lunch and we have a big fight and I slap him. this is an actual scene that I've witnessed." And then they're like, okay, let's see if we have the capacity. Oh yeah, we have actors free for tomorrow at the time you wanted. And so at lunch, this person will come and be like, my daughter. And you're like, ah, you slap him. And so that was really cool. You could do it before the LARP started. You could submit a form in the weeks prior and they would like try and schedule all these scenes. But Jim let me also be like, oh, by the way, I'm playing a professor. I would really love a monster to break into my class tomorrow and the class bands together to kill it. or whatever. So that's one way. The other way, like I said, was all these NPCs are doing plot things. You don't have to do it. And then there is a big part of this emergent where, well, in that lot, for example, a friend of mine was like, OK, let's do like this ritual to like summon the spirit of knowledge so we can cheat in our exams. And I decided part way that the ritual goes horribly wrong and I get possessed. And like we did this like whole It just happened in the moment. I'm like, I want to get possessed. It's really fun to pretend to be possessed. So those emergent stories happen. Then some LARPs have certain structures. So Just Little Loving, the AIDS LARP, there were structures. There were three nights of game. Each night was a different Fourth of July party in subsequent years. And there was a theme for each night. So the first night was desire. The second night was fear of death. And the third night was friendship. So there was this overarching theme that was told to everyone. And we did workshop every morning to try and set the tone of that theme. And so that informed some of the emergent narratives. People kept that in mind. So it's interesting when you're LARPing because you have this dual presence. You are present as yourself and simultaneously present as your character. So you can be meta thinking about what you're doing, which happened to me while I was crying, which is fascinating experience. And then some LARPs. So Emily Kerr-Boss is a game designer based in Massachusetts, and she does these amazing romance based games. She doesn't only do that, but she's very well known for amazing romance based games. And I worked with her to turn one of her LARPs into a theatrical piece. And it lends itself very well to that because the LARP itself, if you're playing the game with your friend, it's like a three, four hour experience. And you just buy the book and you can run it with your friends wherever you are. One of the people playing it takes on the role of a director. The game is called In the Arms of the Pack. The first scene is like celebration, and then the second scene is like conflict, you know, that sort of thing. And the director can then be like, okay, it's all improv, but the director can be like, okay, stop. I would love to see in the celebration scene the two of you before the conflict actually happened. Let's see that happening. So the meta parts of the show, the director, the directorial decisions, the casting, all that stuff is part of the game. And the players see that so much so that in the middle of a scene, director can say, pause. I would like you to be more intense or can whisper in your ear. Actually, do you remember when he like cheated on you? Why don't you talk about that? And then you might you might respond. You don't have to. So in there, the like bare bones, like structural parts of the narrative are supremely visible. And I got asked a question during the summit. Does that detract from the game? And I'm like, no, at least in my experience, of course, all the people that might. But in my experience, it doesn't. Obviously, for that moment, you're not in the game anymore, but once you get back in, it works well. It could also be because her LARP is designed to be... I'm not LARPing an alien from another planet who is completely different, so it's easy to relate, but yeah.
[00:16:24.130] Kent Bye: I'm curious to hear your story of your experience that happened that you shared during the Immersive Design Summit. Just because it, you know, a lot of people when they think of LARP, they may think about, you know, running around the woods with a sword, but it seemed like a very emotionally intense moment that you had. Maybe you could sort of describe your experience and tell the story of what happened to you.
[00:16:44.326] Sharang Biswas: Sure. So this was back in Just Little Loving. So my character in Just Little Loving was a porn star prostitute who was a druggie and he prostituted himself in order to even live in the apartment. His sugar daddy gave him the apartment and he was in a sad state, right? But he was also very tightly knit in the leather community, which is very big. And at that time, in the 80s, it had its own thing going on, right? I actually borrowed leather from friends to dress up in that, so that was kind of cool. So the first night, no one has died yet, it's the first night, so people playing the leather group, we had had workshop time where we'd establish our relationships and stuff, and there's this one guy, his character name was Simon, we had decided together that, oh, Simon and Chain, Chain was my character, are very close. They're good friends, they're very close, they're obviously fuck buddies because we all have sex with each other in the fiction, not in real life. There was actually a specific rule in the LARP which was like, we're gonna be simulating sex, during the LARP you are not actually allowed to have sex. If anyone catches your eye, wait till the LARP is over, there's another after party. So, wait, hold it. Because they wanted that desire and all that stuff to be part of it. So, there was this friend person, and then the first night, so the first year, in quote marks, he dies of AIDS. And you know, you see him in the funeral, you see him in the coffin, like I laid flowers on him. And the interesting thing is, very often when the characters are in the coffin, they are bawling. They are like crying, lying in the coffin. I noticed that, and I'm like, whoa. Anyway, so the next year, there was a drag queen, there was a big performance and this drag queen was performing to Mad World, the song from the Donnie Darko movies. And there was a drag queen, there was also a band, there was like a fictional band that was performing and there was a drag queen, something like that. And the performers were also players, so they had just decided, oh, we want to sing Mad World. So they didn't know, because there were 100 people at this LARP, so we weren't all communicating at every moment what all our storylines were. So I was listening to this song, and they're talking about it's a mad world, right? And I was like, so AIDS is coming, everyone's dying, and I started thinking, in character, about Simon, who had just died. and listened to the song sitting in the space in my leather harness as chain, I started crying. This is the first time I have cried in an interactive game experience. I've cried once, twice in movies. It doesn't happen very often. I'm not a crying person, but I started crying. And it was really interesting because, again, that whole dual presence was there. Like, at one side of me was Xiaorong thinking, oh my God, I'm crying in a LARP? This is the first time this happened. This is fascinating. It might sound weird, but I remember thinking that while crying. And then this one side of me is crying. It's like, oh my God, Simon's dead. We're all dying. It's a mad world. Oh my God, we're all... I remember I said this line to someone at one point in the game, all the fags are gonna die, me being one of the fags, right, because of AIDS. And I remember thinking that at that moment, like, we're all dying, we're all dying, my friend is dead, I'll never see him again. And it was super emotionally powerful and intense and people around me were like, are you okay? There's a mechanic in that game where you can make a hand signal to check in with someone to see are they actually, like if you're hurt, if you mind being hurt, that can be dangerous because you might actually be hurt or you might pretend being hurt. So there's a hand signal that you can do to check in. Are you really hurt? That kind of thing. People did that check in with me to be like, are you, are you okay? You're bawling. And I did the hand signals back, which is like, yes, I'm fine. But I was crying, and that emotion was there, and it was very real. And there's a thing in LARP, it's called bleed. It's a term that's used to talk about when fictional emotion and fictional narrative, whatever, collides with real. That's why LARPs often have debrief exercises at the end to let go of your character, because you might have been through harrowing emotional experiences, especially if your friends are dying of AIDS. Which, it was interesting because some of the participants in the game were older gentlemen who had lived through the AIDS crisis, actually had had friends who died of AIDS. Which is one reason I wanted to go to this LARP, because I wanted to get in touch with all the sacrifices that were made to give me the freedoms I have today, right? And so, it was a sort of a bleed moment, because I'm like, I'm really sad right now. But it's interesting because I wanted to be sad right now. People ask me all the time, why would you go to this game? It doesn't sound fun, it sounds sad. I'm like, well, people watch sad movies and read sad books, and they're sad, and you read Russian literature and you know it's going to be miserable, but it's still good literature. So same thing, you want this emotion. And I find that LARP is very good at bringing these emotions. Like, for example, there was a plot line where me and this other dude were competing for the affection of this one guy, and at the end of the LARP, I could still sense some tension between us, even though we had no reason to have this tension. But immediately after LARP, those feelings, emotions, stay with you for a bit. And you do workshop, you have to, like, get rid of them, or not, if you don't want to. Sometimes you get emotions that are positive, like self-confidence, and, you know, that's good for you. For example, I was playing a character who was a very attractive character. And the way you play an attractive character is you tell people, by the way, my character is really attractive. And everyone will just treat you as though you're really attractive. It's really empowering, actually. Because I was this prostitute porn star. So everyone was like, oh my god, hey, Shane. And I'm like, hey. It was great. So those kinds of bleed is fun. But some are more intense. And so you want to deal with that. So yeah, that was one of my most emotionally intense experiences in an interactive setting ever.
[00:22:38.968] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like that most of the immersive theater experiences that I've seen have pretty authored narratives in terms of the narrative structure is pretty well set. There may be brief moments of interaction where one of the actors may engage in one-on-one, but most of the decisions that are being made by participants aren't having any impact on the overall arc of the narrative. It's pretty much on rails for the most part. It seems like though with video games and video game design that you could start to perhaps encode some of those more sophisticated rules of drama management as AI comes in. Maybe we'll start to do that. But there's something about like a dungeon master who is basically the director who's able to read all of the subtle body language cues and the context and the common sense. I think we're a long ways away to be able to automate something like this. It seems like immersive theater would be the place to really start to experiment with this blend between some authored structure but a little bit more live-action role-playing and LARPing. kind of blended together. Is that something that you've seen a good combination of, of having some sort of loose structure of a narrative arc that may be on a fixed time period that you may go to a big immersive theater experience, but have a lot more leeway to be able to participate as a character and actually do this LARPing where you feel like you have much more agency than is usually afforded to you within an immersive theater experience?
[00:24:03.700] Sharang Biswas: So I have seen that kind of thing in LARP, where there are these seeds of plots embedded, like this character is going to start doing this thing, and then everyone can respond to that thing, and that can catapult and branch out and become all sorts of things. I was going to say I have not seen that in immersive and interactive theatre spaces, but then It's hard to say that because the distinction between LARP and immersive theater is very thin, in my opinion. Some people say, oh, but it's the set design stuff. But no, some of these LARPs have really epic set design. Again, you'd rent a castle in Poland and then deck it out to look like Wizard School. Or the Downton Abbey LARP, I forget what it's called. They do the similar thing there. There's a veneer of difference. It's like, you know, is this fine art or not fine art? It's that kind of difference where it's not really a difference. So I've seen that in what gets self-identified as LARP. I have seen a lot less of that in what gets self-identified as interactive theater. And that's one reason I'm so interested in the summit. I mean, one of the speakers yesterday, Sarah, was talking about how we're all these different practitioners doing this thing. We are like the blind man and the elephant where we all see one tiny part and we don't see how it's all connected in one way. And so I think LARP and game design that way offers a lot of opportunity for immersive theater to take on some of those, like, let the audience do this. Now, of course, there are certain things you have to think about. So in LARP, it is a very self-selected audience, right? Where you're like, we're doing this LARP once, who wants to sign up for this LARP? It's also very expensive. In immersive theater, to manage the economics of a theater troupe you have to like let a lot of random people come and sign up and go to this thing and so not everyone is necessarily ready or used to or comfortable with having that much control. You have like I don't know actors and rehearsals and all that to deal with. So there are of course realities of the medium that come into play, but like LARP has managed to do this to some degree. And so I think merging these seemingly different art forms, which are, I argue, in fact, very similar. I think, hopefully it'll happen soon, especially in America where the Freeform LARP world is becoming more famous and more interesting to people, and game designers are talking about it more, I think. I'm talking about it at conferences now, things like that. And I think, I'm hoping they will merge more. I think one reason we don't do that is because there's a history of scripted theater, and there's a tradition of that, and it's successful, so people are like, oh yeah, that's how theater is. And it would be great to break away from that and see what happens. Yeah.
[00:26:54.469] Kent Bye: Yeah, I was talking to Tommy here at the Immersive Design Summit and one of the things he was talking about is there's a number of different ways that he has to prevent people from trying to stress test or break the experience. So if you are able to be somebody who's not participating or someone who is being super aggro and competitive or somebody who is doing maybe a little bit too much of a live action role play when it's really they're supposed to be kind of more of a passive recipient of the story. So in LARP, do people tend to not stress test the system and try to break the rules because it would not only ruin the experience for themselves, but for everybody? Or is there sort of the ground rules that are set out beforehand to just make sure that like, hey, look, you know, you may want to do this, but you may be breaking the immersion for other people if you sort of violate these rules.
[00:27:39.390] Sharang Biswas: So a lot of the workshopping is about that. For example, in the Wizard School LARP, Magiskola, right, there's this whole system of points. It was based on Harry Potter, the idea. So everyone, there's a house cup at the end and all the houses, these five houses made by these authors of the LARP. And I remember in the workshopping, our workshop facilitator, Harrison, was like, OK, guys, so your character might be mischievous and break rules a lot and lose points or whatever or might love getting points because they're like super like they want to be a goody two-shoes but he said don't make a character that completely dislikes the point system and wants to rebel against that because that is not the game we're playing Like, you have to have at least some investment into the structures of this institution. You might have investment in that you want to change it, or you don't agree with it, so you have debate with the professors and things, but don't make someone who, like, doesn't care about the point system at all, because that will break the game. And so that was discussed beforehand, very explicitly. And that happens, like, in the workshop. You're like, okay, this is a game about this. So in sign, the sign language LARP I talked about at the beginning of the game, the rules say don't talk during the game. And participatory games and interactive theater, I believe, are like, you know, they only work with the social contract. We're all in the game. We want to play this. It's like a board game. You all decide we're going to play these rules. We're not going to cheat because that's not fun. So there's a lot of, yes, let's decide beforehand what is or is not going to happen and what is in or not in the setting. So, for example, we understood in Just a Loving, without it being super explicit, that this is not a sci-fi game, right? We're not going to have aliens come. We're not even going to, like, cure AIDS. No, this is a set pretty historically. This is understood. So that was understood. In terms of breaking mechanics, so in the freeform world, mechanics, the game mechanics stuff are mainly narrative, right? So there's very little of really breaking in terms of game mechanics. In the boffer world, there are actual combat mechanics, right? Like, I will hit you with a sword, and if I hit your shoulder, this happens. If I hit your chest, this happens. I have never done a boffer LARP, which is terrible. I should. As a game designer, I need to experience it, and I want to. But what I understand is there are often, like, GMs roaming around, and you can... Because I've done high mechanics mini LARPs without the boffer weapons, but with, like, okay, I use my special power on you, and you fall asleep, and blah, blah, blah. And in there, often you have to call the GM, the game master, and be like, hey, so I did this power on him, but he has a defense power. Does it work? And the GM will be like, oh, yes, it will work. Or no, I don't think it'll work. Or let me roll dice or draw random cards and tell you if it works. Now the interesting thing happened once where, so I'm used to playing freeform LARPs, I was at a convention and I was playing a heavy mechanics LARP and I was this like mean prison guard and these characters who were children, they were all, the people were older than me but they were playing young children, were like hiding and I walked into the room and they're like oh we're hiding and I'm like pause game because in many LARPs you can pause game to decide what's going to happen next. So I'm like, pause game, do I see you? And then they were like, I don't know. And I'm like, okay, would you like me to see you? Would it be more interesting for your character if my character sees you or not? They were very thrown by that question. They were like, no, what's your skill? And I'm like, I don't have a skill in this, on my character sheet. And then I'm like, let's just decide. And they're like, no, no, no, no, no, we need to call a GM. And I'm like, but the GMs are busy mediating a fight over there. Let's just, what would be more fun for us? Do you want me to see you or not? That's up to you. I can see you and we can have an altercation or I can not see you and you trick me and then hit me over the head and run away. Either of those are fun. What would you prefer? And they're like, well, it would be really, it would be awesome if you see me, but we don't know if you see me. We need to call a gym. So there was this dissonance. And I'm like, no, but this will suit the narrative purpose. But they were like, no, no, no, no, no. The ludic structure we are in are very important. So there's do the rules, trump the fiction. So when you do Dungeons and Dragons, for example, some people play the game like, oh, I must reference the rule book now. Oh my god, no, this cannot happen. And some DMs, myself included, I'm like, sure. I'll allow. That's really fun. So, breaking the game, I've seen, could be more possible in those kinds of LARPs, where there are very strict rules about what can happen. In Freeform, I mean, again, I'm only writing my first LARP, I've written a lot of other kinds of games, but I'm writing my first LARP now, so I have less experience in that, but I feel there is less room for breaking the game in Freeform-style LARPs.
[00:32:22.432] Kent Bye: Great. And it sounds like that as a game designer, you have a background in developing games. But with the LARP, it's sort of like this blending of this live action roleplay interactive narrative. What are the biggest open questions that are driving your work forward and the things that you want to answer through your creations that you're making?
[00:32:42.016] Sharang Biswas: So when I give talks or when I teach game design and things, I am very much a proponent of the idea of using game mechanics to convey meaning and rhetoric. So, in a non-freeform way. So, for example, I won an Indicate Award for a game where you eat food that you have each cooked, and then you use the flavors and mouthfeel of the food to inform the story you're going to tell, because you're playing an alien parasite eating people's memories. So the act of eating mimics what you're doing in the game, and then the flavor and texture of the food you eat are the flavor and texture of the memory that you're consuming, fictionally, and then you describe the memory, right? So I'm a big proponent of that and I want to try and do things like that more with these games. So I have done it in these like performance kind of games, like I said. So I did a game at a gallery in Manhattan where you were playing spoiled Victorian children trying to learn the esoteric arts from a governess character, which was me. So you were trying to learn magic. But my design partner, Max Seidman, and I really wanted to make you feel that learning magic is very difficult. It is not easy. So I have a little bit of a linguistics background, so we wrote a grammar for a language of magic and printed textbooks, which the players had, and so they had to literally Go through the textbook to find the answers and do their spells and they had to like solve like linguistic puzzles almost When I told my Ling professors, it's like you kind of gave them the homework I assigned you I'm like, yeah, I basically I wrote my own version of it, but I gave them the homework He used to assign me. It was pretty funny And so I'm really interested in that like so they are actually putting the effort of like studying sort of have to read the book and look to the glossary and index and things So the mechanic of the game really informs the mood and the story and the narrative that I'm trying to convey. And I would love to see that more in LARP if possible. So it's done in Bofor, right? It's done in Bofor LARP because you are actually swinging a sword and things. But I'm also a proponent of, like, let's try and make games without combat as the main thing. Not because I think combat... Okay, I do think combat is bad in real life, but not because I think combat games are bad. I love combat games. Everyone likes combat games. But I think there are many of them, and we can make games about different things. And so I want to try and do these kinds of mechanics. There are good LARPs that do that. There's a LARP I haven't played. A friend of mine told me it's about passive-aggressive teapouring. where you are all I think you're like aristocrats like sniping at each other and you're like pouring tea aggressively at each other so like those kinds of things really interest me and I really want to do that. I also really want to do like I have done some of the lot with like the NPCs but I want to push the aesthetic level to the level that a lot of these immersive theater shows are I mean I won't be able to do that right now because I'm not a producer in that way to marshal all those resources, but I want to be in a show that is at that level of detail. They get pretty detailed and pretty cool, but I've never seen it to the level of like Then She Fell or Sleep No More, which are famed for their intricate sets and things like that.
[00:36:00.839] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of immersive experiences and what they might be able to enable?
[00:36:10.908] Sharang Biswas: So, again, I don't want to denigrate traditional non-participatory, non-immersive media. They are very good and successful and have their own set of affordances and advantages. Few things are as cool as reading a book or reading an article like that does so many things for you that other media cannot do. Because you can go back, you can reread, like I've read books where I sit and read a sentence multiple times because it's a cool sentence, I'm thinking about it. So, not denigrating any of that. However, I think these media, and I'm saying these again because there are all these different escape rooms and immersive theater and interactive theater and LARP and etc. These media really allow you to capture the power of embodiment where your body is physically in the story, the situation, the narrative. And that does things. I have a biomedical engineering background, right? There's so many things going on in the body that you have no control over, right? The flight or fight response, classic example. You don't decide for your heart to start thudding, for your breath to change, for like the loosening of the muscles in your stomach and all that stuff, right? You don't decide that. It just happens. And taking advantage of those things that go through your head when you are embodying something, I think is very powerful. So Meyerholt, the famous theatre theorist, talked about biomechanics, where he made his actors perform all these actions to try and bring out what the character is emotionally feeling. And I think of that, I've talked about that in a lecture actually, I think of that in the LARP context by physically embodying, by doing a ritualized action, even just by being in the space where you see it around you, can really convey emotion very well. It can convey rhetoric very well. So I can see these experiences being used, and they are being used to make a certain argument or being used to teach. We know that training simulations exist. That is a thing that exists. And they are very larp-like if you think about it, right? They can teach you because you're like simulating the experience. So I was in Orlando recently for my day job. I was at the Veterans Affairs Hospital where they train physicians. And one thing the guy told us, for example, was when they're training, they have to pump in hospital smell. because that smell is, we all know that, you know, the story of the madeleine and like eating the madeleine, the smell and taste are so important in memory. So he was like, yeah, when we train our physicians in the simulation area, we put in the hospital smell so that they feel they're in a hospital, right? To bring about, to like cause the parts of the brain that aren't conscious to make you think, I'm in a hospital, I can smell it. So those kinds of things I think are the most important. I also think, of course, the whole agency quest is interesting, and we had a whole session yesterday about what is agency. Traditionally, people are like, oh, if you can change the ending, that is agency. But in the video game world, people often talk about games where, like the Telltale games, which are these branching narrative games, you don't really change the ending most of the time, but you still feel like you do, because the act of making a choice makes you think you have agency. So there are all these questions about what is agency. Having said that, I think agency is a thing to play with in these things. It is so cool to be like, yeah, there's a show where, no, no, I saved the guy. He didn't get murdered. What I did was important. And you feel, well, obviously it can be a power thing, which is what a lot of video games are about, like making you feel powerful. But it's also about like feeling involved, like you made a difference. You changed things. You are important in the world, which is often something one often doesn't feel in this vast world with invisible social forces controlling our lives, you know, all that kind of stuff. So yeah, so I think agency in many different ways, in many different terms, because that means a lot of things, and embodiment, I think, are the powers of these media that I think make it really exciting.
[00:40:16.273] Kent Bye: Great. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:40:20.883] Sharang Biswas: Oh, well, I want to thank the people who made the Immersive Design Summit. I know Gabe a little bit. I didn't know the others as much. They put a lot of effort into this. They brought all these cool, really interesting people, and I want to thank them. And I want to thank you for randomly plucking me out of one of these sessions and being like, you want to talk to me in my microphone? Yeah, so I think. Oh, go play stuff. Go to immersive shows. They're weird. They're wonderful. They're awesome. Go to weird art galleries where they have weird game stuff going on. You will enjoy them. If you don't enjoy them, at least you'll learn something new that you don't enjoy them. But try them out. Go to them. A lot of people, a lot of work into making these. It doesn't pay super well, but they do it because they want to support the arts that way.
[00:41:05.549] Kent Bye: It is awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:41:09.271] Sharang Biswas: Thanks. Thank you so much for plucking me.
[00:41:14.307] Kent Bye: So that was Sharang Biswas. He's an experiential designer, a game designer, and LARPer. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I think that this blend of live action role play is something that I expect to see a lot more, especially when it comes to virtual reality experiences. So live action role playing, I think, is a bit of the pinnacle of what's possible for collaborative storytelling and emergent storytelling. I had an interview in episode 441 with Christopher Perkins, he's an expert dungeon master for Dungeons and Dragons, and he talks about this process of the theater of the mind, which is what happens with D&D. With D&D, it's a little bit less of an embodied playing out of these different scenarios, but it's still a huge part of the theater of the mind. There's so much that's left up to the imagination. And I think with the actual like live action role play, you know, there's the buffer where you actually have the foam swords and you're actually embodying the different actions and have different rules. And it's very structured in that way. But there's a lot less structure within the freeform LARP and it's much more about the narrative that's unfolding. And there's workshopping and you can sort of pause it and ask questions about what type of experiences that people want to have. or give feedback to each other in terms of like whether or not you're okay, whether or not you want to increase or decrease the emotional intensity of any given scene. And that there's these kind of cultural differences between whether or not you're going to be run by the rules of an experience with something like the Boffer LARP, with game masters who are walking around and helping kind of mediate what the interpretation of the rules might be for how the scene is going to unfold, versus something that is much more of a interactive improv that is happening between different peoples who have a backstory and a character of what their motivations and intentions are, and then that sort of plays out for these different motivations of different characters that are playing out in these different scenes, and that are unfolding over multiple days at some of these more extensive blockbuster LARPs. So to me it was super fascinating to hear about some of those structures and some of the problems of trying to take some of these principles of live action roleplay and put it in the context of some of these authored stories and immersive theater experiences or even in virtual reality experiences where it's very difficult to code for all of the different various possibilities and artificial intelligence is nowhere near of being able to handle some of these complex interactions. When talking to Christopher Perkins, there's a huge part of what he does as a dungeon master where he's paying attention to the context, he's being able to pick up all the subtle body language cues, he's being able to tune in to whether or not people are having a good time or not, and he's able to pick up on context of common sense that is very difficult for an artificial intelligence to really discern right now. So the Game Master and the Dungeon Master being able to facilitate that is something that is going to take a really long time for Artificial Intelligence to try to replace. And so because of that, it becomes very difficult to start to integrate different dimensions of live-action roleplay within an experience that has some sort of narrative. Eventually, in mediated experiences, they have drama managers that can sort of, you know, help take in that input and maybe, you know, have different branches and endings. But the live-action roleplay is much more on the far extreme of a generative narrative that is much more kind of emergent in the moment. And so it's also, at the same time, the highest extent of agency and expression, and you're really super immersed and embedded within these characters. And so I do see that in the future, there's going to be a little bit more of the live action role play to give the actors the highest extent of control over their experience. Now that said, this is something that requires quite a lot of different skills of improv, of acting, of being present in the moment and being able to react. And I think that there's actors that are doing that, but expect that these are the types of skills that are going to be cultivated through these types of virtual reality experiences. I see that already happening with people going into VRChat and once you go into VRChat and you embody a character, you just completely get transported and you have this transfer, this body transfer that happens where you almost have this virtual body ownership illusion where you start to really identify with those characters that you're embodying. And it's just the same as the LARP where you're putting all these costumes and you're sort of acting it out. But in VR, you're able to completely go into beings that aren't even human-like or characters that as people look at you, they don't have to think about it. They're just sort of unconsciously start to react to you as if you're that character. And so it was super interesting to hear Sherong's experience of having kind of like this dual awareness of being able to embody a character and to be able to have a part of his brain that's thinking from the perspective of his character and the relationships of that character. And, you know, having that cognitive awareness that that's sort of a fictional layer of reality. But at the same time, there's this bleed that sometimes happens. So if you have these experiences that are kind of transcendent across the boundaries of that layer of fiction and kind of are speaking to some of your direct experience that is able to connect and resonate with you on a deep level. And I think that is kind of the magic of the LARPing of being able to have these kind of fictional interactions, but at the same time, it's tapping into these deeper true emotions of your own life experiences. And so it sounds like that the whole process of LARPing is this process of embodying within a character to really tune into the intentions and motivations of this character and to just get present and to just kind of see what emerges from that perspective of the character, but also the deeper intention of what type of experiences that you want to actually have. And as we move forward, I think that virtual reality as a medium is going to be super well-suited to be able to handle these types of LARPing experiences. We're already starting to see it within VRChat and Star Trek Bridge Crew, but this is, I'd say, is one of the huge affordances of virtual reality, and that eventually, at some point, people are going to want to have much more immersive experiences like these week-long blockbuster LARPs, where you get to be physically co-located with people and have the narrative arc that's unfolding over multiple days. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a donor. This is a listener supported podcast. And so I do rely upon your gracious donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.