As soon as I saw Block Stop‘s By the End of Us, I knew I wanted to take part. I’d seen Red House Mystery‘s first-person shoot ’em up re-enactment over Chat Roulette (yes, really) last year and, ever since, I’ve wanted to experience something similar for myself. Having played Block Stop’s Counter Call earlier this year and seen the reviews for the previous run of By the End of Us, I was reasonably confident that they could pull off this part-theatre, part-game event successfully.
It’s a lot of work to go to for one person so, to make the first-person game economically viable, Block Stop have turned it into an interactive theatre performance. They sell two types of tickets for the show – single-player mode and multi-player mode. The slightly more expensive single-player ticket gives you the right to control the main character in the performance (and obviously only one of these tickets is sold per show), while people with the multi-player tickets are in the main theatre watching the action. This review is written from the point of view of the multi-player game, but you can read all about the single player experience if you scroll down to the comments (don’t worry – there’s a reminder at the end of the post!).
It’s an interesting dynamic – the person who gets that single-player ticket is led off to a room entirely separate from the rest of the audience and, from their point of view, they’re just playing a computer game except that the character is voice-controlled (and you don’t get to save your game…). The only interaction they get throughout the show is talking to the main character and seeing what she can see via her live feed.
That main character is Mia Culper, an assassin who needs to navigate her way through an underground complex to find and kill her target. The audience mission is, well, vague. It’s not clear what your mission really is, or what your allegiance should be – that’s decided by the collective mind. Broadly speaking, you get to see everything from Mia’s perspective (which surprised me until I realised it was the only realistic option) but you also get to listen in to, “talk” (via your host) to, and effectively control, another character in the game. That’s achieved by giving each member of the multi-player audience a remote control which allows them to decide, from a range of options, what should happen at key moments during the game.
Once the audience had arrived and settled down, we got a brief introduction explaining what we had to do and watched a video that set the background. Then the video feed went live and we could see Mia Culper, or rather, her hands. It was interesting listening to the single player getting to grips with how much interaction was required – which could have been anywhere on the range of “turn left twenty degrees” to “head for the other end of the complex” and I think Block Stop had struck a good (and sometimes quite funny!) balance. With our extra knowledge, it also meant we knew certain things that the single player didn’t, which built up the tension nicely in the theatre – whether they would see a critical piece of evidence that might be useful, for example – but most of the time we were equally in the dark.
The action flipped back and forth between the single player and our character whom we had to get to perform certain tasks. The nature of the group vote was always going to be frustrating. All too often I felt like I was on the “losing” side of the decision. There was contention between people who wanted to choose the more interesting option and people who wanted to play the option that they thought would work better from a gameplay point of view. I fell into the latter camp, but it seemed like the majority of the audience were in the former, so I rarely felt like I got to control our character. At times, the voting mechanism changed so that something would happen when a certain proportion of the audience had clicked their button (e.g. when should you run away?). That worked much better for me, because it felt like you were in control all the way through, until such time as the magical barrier was reached.
It was great being able to see everything that Mia could see, and hear the controlling player. That might have been helped by us knowing the player or because of his style of play. The single player has a massive effect on the game – slower players could make things last 50% longer and potentially leave the audience bored. Our player moved along at a nice speed and his commentary caused a few laugh-out-load moments. He also played the game almost flawlessly which, while disappointing for those of us who wanted to berate his poor decision-making, did mean that overall the storyline was much more satisfying.
In terms of the content of the game, it was a combination of first-person shooter, a bit of spycraft and a puzzle game, although the puzzles were little match for an experienced escape room player – he quickly realised how to solve each of them. There was an interesting story that started off pretty vague but crystallised throughout and some nice twists to keep the audience engaged.
So what did I think overall? Well, I’m glad I went. It was an interesting experience, but one that was tempered with a little bit of frustration. I’d love to see them split the audience into smaller groups and allow them to control different characters in the game. While that would obviously add significantly to the complexity, it would have made me much more engaged where often I felt more like a passenger. Speaking of complexity, at a technical level I was extremely impressed they managed to pull this off. Except for a couple of moments, everything flowed smoothly and the only glitches we saw were a few seconds where they lost connection and we had to wait for a reconnect. All that and the actual filming location was about a mile away in the Vaults at Waterloo!
Of course, that’s all my perspective from the multi-player mode. What about the other side? While I obviously didn’t take that role on, I did get to chat to two people who did, and it was interesting to hear their very different viewpoints. The single player is incredibly isolated and doesn’t really know what’s going on most of the time. Their choices can lead to the whole game going horribly wrong and failure at all their missions. I’m sure they’ll add their thoughts below.
Oh, and the final result? We did OK – surviving till the end and choosing what we wanted to do. Sadly we were overshadowed by our single player who had an almost flawless game, but fortunately only almost.
[If you want to read the single player’s comments, don’t forget to scroll down!]
Two questions immediately come to mind:
1. Do you think the choices you made actually affected the story, or was it the classic videogame trick of path A and path B both leading to point C?
2. Did you feel like the results displayed on screen actually reflected the room, i.e. the results were rigged to take you where they wanted?
1: Definitely. Our game ended up with all characters surviving and the single player basically meeting all their objectives. Another game that I heard about ended up with what sounds like a bloodbath and total failure.
2: I believe so. Every time I clicked my button the count went up. I can’t be sure (the votes generally didn’t last very long so the number generally rose constantly , although one was probably around a minute or two in duration, so harder to fake for everyone in the audience)
So, I think they’re being honest, and they definitely had enough endings mapped out that it would be an odd choice to fake it. How much difference it made? That I can’t really say.
I was the single player in The Logic’s game, and I think it’s worth sharing my perspective because the single player mode really is *totally* different.
Before the show I had assumed it was me “versus” the 5 friends that had tickets – only when a large crowd was filing in before the game did I click that I was effectively on show in front of a paying public! Heart pounding I got set up in my secluded ‘control room’ and was run through the instructions, and then we were off – I introduced myself to Mia and started directing her on her mission. There was a fairly gentle start allowing me to get used to the game and start building a relationship with Mia, but it didn’t take very long before things escalated somewhat, by which time I was totally immersed and was almost forgetting that there was an audience at all…
The thing that really stands out is the intensity of this experience – several days later I was still spinning through everything that had happened in my head (even now I can remember almost every detail), wondering how things would have worked out if I’d done some things differently and kicking myself for the subtle mistake that put the “almost” into “almost flawless”, above. The game was really fun but it felt far more real, dark and dangerous than a video game and in an amazingly short time I found myself really feeling responsible for Mia, caring about the mission and I was genuinely nervous about what might be around the next corner. The one downside to all of this is that it’s quite a lonely experience – not only was I totally alone for the game itself, after the show I was really buzzing and wanted to keep talking through everything I’d done, which I suspect my friends found pretty insufferable. Happily I was able to chat to the cast, who seemed to have enjoyed it nearly as much as me!
I can’t recommend this highly enough for gamers that aren’t going to be shy about playing in front of an audience. It was an open-world game with seemingly infinite freedom. You can have real conversations with characters, you have to react to everything in real time and you can’t stop and save – which means that every decision feels hugely important, and may have a massive bearing on the outcome.
I’ve long been wanting immersive theatre where your performance really makes a difference to the way things pan out – and for me this really does that. It’s a brand new genre and I’m really excited to see what Block Stop do next…