(Header photo courtesy of Cara Mandel of www.noproscenium.com)
Having never been to New Orleans before, I was hopeful that I would be able to see more of the city (or, at least, the French Quarter part of it) than the path from my hotel to the theaters where the movies were being shown at the Overlook Film Festival. Luckily, the festival had a built-in solution to this (very first world) dilemma - the Immersive Game. I had never done one before, but was assured by some veterans that it was a safe bet the game would take me to various places around the area, allowing me to soak in the environment (and, yes, a few bars along the way) with purpose instead of just wandering aimlessly and hoping to see something interesting. AND it would give me something to write about for Crypt, so win-win!
As I said, I had never done one of these before. But I have done a number of escape rooms, and took part in the Tension Experience which had an immersive component I largely stayed out of (but got updates about from friends), so I had the basic idea. For those totally uninitiated, it's a mystery of some sort that combines puzzle solving, staged areas, and actors and has the story unfold over an extended period (such as the length of a film festival). You aren't committed to anything; you can take part in it as much or as little as you like, and likewise the game's designers have plenty of wiggle room with regards to how immersive it really is. Players might be accosted by actors, they might get phone calls, someone might even break into their hotel room and lead them to a ritual in the snow. It might take a day, or a week, or - in Tension's case - months for the entire game to unfold, and if your participation level starts to wane the game will just go on without you.
This year's version was quite different, however, due to the nature of the festival's location. Previous Overlook fests were held at isolated hotels, so the game was held almost exclusively in/around that one location, and the designers had more control over their environment. Sure, there will always be some confusion from non-players (such as "Missing" posters that some folks thought were real), but in general it was easier to plan things out. It was also easier to get access to the players and/or encourage them to seek out the characters in the game, as there wouldn't be too much unrelated activity in a snowy hotel in the middle of Colorado or Oregon. This is New Orleans, however - they can't exactly control the city or its inhabitants, and encouraging players to walk up to strangers or seek out creepy locations would not be the best idea.
Plus, even though festival HQ was a hotel (the Bourbon, to be exact), folks were staying all over the city (another unlikely event of years past), so things like breaking into players' hotel rooms and freaking them out went the way of the dodo. From what I understand, this version of the game was more puzzle based and designed for casual playing, which was very helpful to me as I needed to be seeing movies and couldn't always commit 100% to the game events, but didn't want to just drop it either. For the most part, everything was designed to go at your own pace, but there were a few timed events that you'd just completely miss if you decided to see a movie (or sleep), and thankfully nothing meant being kept from playing anymore. Think of it like skipping a cut scene in a video game - you're at a disadvantage for the story, but bypassing it didn't hamper your ability to play. Luckily, I only missed one major event, because I went to see Puppet Master instead (you're welcome, universe), but I made up for it later - I'll get back to that.
The game actually kicked off a couple weeks before the festival did, via the Instagram account of "TheCelestialRaven". In the days leading up to the start of the festival proper, she posted a few cryptic clues that had us testing arcane technology called Hellschreiber and looking at wine websites that ultimately had nothing to do with anything. Part of the fun of these games is that you might be reading too much into something and going down a path that has no relation to the game, but still, you might learn something so it's not a total waste of time. When you WERE on the right track, you'd start getting info about the basic plot of the story this year, which concerned Raven and her parents, who were apparently acting strange recently and troubling her with their behavior. Raven was hopeful her friends at the Overlook Film Festival (hey, that's us!) would be able to help her figure out what happened on Fat Tuesday, which is when she noticed that her parents started changing. These bits of backstory were available on the Krew de Gras website, which initially needed to be unlocked via password by solving a cipher, but is now up for all to read if they wish.
Before we could take any part in the actual game, we had to sign up (I believe they had a hundred slots) and go through orientation, which occurred on Thursday, prior to the first films. It was there we were told how to safely play - people from the game would have pins to identify them, and if someone did NOT have a pin then they weren't part of the game and we definitely shouldn't try to "solve their puzzle" or anything like that. We were also shown a symbol to be on the lookout for when we were traveling offsite by following coordinates or something, as that would let us know we were in the right place. We were then encouraged to hit up the opening night party, and sure enough there were two characters to meet there. One was Jordan, a goth/punk-ish girl who was representing "True de Gras", and the other was Avery, a well-dressed guy who was part of the so-called "Nue de Gras", a faction that was seeking to change the outdated old ways that Jordan's side was clinging to. Both of them kept mentioning that they weren't enemies or anything, just not seeing eye to eye with the future of their Krewe (and somewhere along the line we learned that Jordan sided with Raven's father, while Avery sided with her father).
After a bit of theater involving a thrown drink, both of them told us where we could meet up with them later if we wanted to know more. This led to a big decision, as we were marked depending on who we sided with, to keep anyone from switching sides or spying. Jordan or Avery would draw on your hand with invisible ink, and had blacklight pens to make sure you hadn't already committed to the other side (my friend got caught trying to do just that, and it got back to the game wardens with almost terrifying speed). With most of my friends following Jordan, I decided to follow the Avery side of things, and he gave me a card with GPS coordinates showing where to meet him the next day. Luckily, the meeting time didn't conflict with anything besides being slower to get out the door in the morning, and I made my way there, making a few new pals upon arriving at the bar that the GPS pointed to. Avery then gifted us a token and a map with five clues, kicking off a little Amazing Race-style trek around the city as we worked together to solve each clue, which would then inform us where to go next. Our primary goal was to learn the name of the other Krewe's deity in order to gain power over them, but my primary goal was to stay hydrated as I walked (per Fitbit) 10,000+ steps over the next two hours so that I didn't pass out when I finally sat down for a movie.
This was my favorite part of the game, as I love puzzles and figuring things out, and was able to contribute more than once (such as noticing that a message reading ROMAN ACCENT FIXTURES had slightly larger writing for the "M", "CC", and "IX", i.e. a Roman Numeral, in this case "1209" - the street number for our next location). It also could have been worked on at your leisure - all of the businesses it led us to were open pretty much all day and it turned out that Jordan's crew were given the same clues (just a different starting point), with the final clue telling us where/when to meet that evening, which was not until 9pm. This was the one thing I missed, sadly, but a bit later the Instagram account brought me up to speed and told me where to meet a new character, a detective, the next morning (and he was at the place with the really good beignets, so it was easy to convince me to go there). He provided another list of clues, and similar to yesterday's part of the game, off I went around the city, finding new places along the way (including a bookstore where I grabbed a new cheapo horror paperback for my growing collection) and running into a number of my friends.
It turned out that all those pals had sided with Jordan on that first night, but the clues (which included new pages on the Krewe de Gras website) were increasingly pointing to "unity", and this is where I made up for missing out on the previous night's event - no one else I was with at the time had Avery's version of the token, and both were needed to solve the final clue. For all the stuff about choosing sides and what not, the goal of the game was to come together and repair the fractured family unit and its Krewe, which was nice. But first: an exorcism! Turns out Jordan was possessed, and my man Avery was the one who led the exorcism to save her life, while we all helped by shouting and forming a circle that moved clockwise around her as she began shouting and moving in a trance-like state. Since this occurred at the festival's closing night party, I couldn't help but wonder what the people who weren't playing and were just trying to grab a drink or network must have thought about seeing this nonsense suddenly unfolding next to them, but hopefully they were clued in before calling the cops or something worse.
Alas, this concluded the game; on Sunday we were told we could meet up with Raven, now reunited with her parents (also again in harmony), and were given the above token (penny for scale) as a thank you, i.e. proof you played the game to its completion (or just knew to go up and talk to the red haired woman sitting in the lobby of the hotel). The festival was still going for another day, technically, but there were no films left to premiere (Sunday's schedule was all encores) and a lot of people were leaving already, so it makes sense that they wrapped it up already, and quite frankly I wasn't sure if I'd be able to stay awake for anything if I had to run around the city again. But I quickly decided that if the next game is run the same way, I think I'll try to go about the clue-solving parts by myself or maybe with one predetermined partner. Not because I'm antisocial or anything, but I'd get a bit bummed when my friends would solve things faster than I could; it almost felt like cheating in a way. I have no trouble asking for hints if I'm at a total loss, but in some cases I didn't even get a CHANCE to be stumped as these veterans would figure it out before I had even finished reading the entire clue. There was one brief instance where I had to let everyone go ahead of me because I had to go do something, and then returned where we left off to figure out that and the next (final) clue, and it felt really good to solve something without any help - I wish I had more of that satisfaction along the way.
Otherwise it was a blast, and I encourage like-minded folks to try one sometime. I'm not into the invasive aspects that some have; even f I didn't have a child in my home I doubt I'd be OK with someone pretending to break in or whatever. I just like solving puzzles and having a good reason to explore the area, and obviously watching a minor horror story unfold with occasional participation in its events is right up my alley. The possession sub-genre isn't exactly my favorite for movies, but there's something undeniably freaky about watching it happen right next to me, even when I know it's all staged, so I can't imagine how much I'd get into a slasher type plot if a future game used that as a backdrop (hint hint, game designers!). It's also a great idea for a festival, as it helped break up the proceedings so you're not just in a cycle of watching movies/talking about those movies for three days. The overall message of the game's narrative - that a mix of the old and new is the way to proceed - even fit the festival's aesthetic. There were no repertory screenings this year as they have done in previous installments, but many of the films themselves owed a debt to the genre's history, such as the Amicus-esque stylings of Ghost Stories and Satan's Slaves invoking '70s cult flair (not to mention a full-blown revival of the nearly 30-year-old Puppet Master franchise). As I get older and grumpier, I'm not sure if a "just movies" festival would be enough to entice me to get on a plane and pay extortionist hotel fees anymore, but with things like this, it not only sounds good - it's something I feel I can't miss. Here's hoping I can return to the festival and take part in its alternative programming in 2019!