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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Onboarding As Journey

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Last week, the excellent Chloe Mashiter wrote a blog about the audience journey into an interactive immersive show, which I’d recommend you read.

In it, Chloe focuses on how approaches like in-world ticketing sites and marketing emphasise being in-character or in-world, because that is what they must be prepared for. This minimises treating the audience as an audience, rather than monster hunters, pirates, and so on. In turn, that makes it hard to give them information about how to play well.

There’s a useful distinction drawn between how in-world roles interact with an event (the detective has access to police cells, a newsstore owner might have access to gossip), and how players interact with it. It is often assumed that they will know how to interact, or will learn quickly.

It’s the kind of thing that I wish I’d read, say, twelve months ago when I was getting ready to rework Come Bargain With Uncanny Things.


Building on Chloe’s blog, here’s a few thoughts on the subject.

Homework Can Die

This is one of my basic principles of opera. If I come to your show, I have not done homework unless I am explicitly asked to. I have other obligations.

I apply the same rule to interactive theatre. While I’m usually excited by the premise of a show, I have not usually done much research.

There are exceptions; I have turned up in costume once or twice, but that’s about it.

In World Unclarity

There’s an additional problem to online in-world marketing campaigns, beyond (as Chloe said) their being a poor way to convey practical information.

They move your show’s world from a tangible one to a part of the digital sea. They invite a social media style relationship with your show. That is to say, drowning in irony and sarcasm.

Marketing teams want engagement, and therefore will often make light of characters, or accept other people doing so, because it is genuinely funny the first time.

But it does rather undermine shows that then want sincerity and serious engagement with said world.

A theatre with a platform running through it vertically and horizontally. On the walls are various bits of paper, getting darker the further into the theatre they get.
I really liked the environmental onboarding for Charley Ipsen's Macbeth design - the audience entered at the light end of the room, moving into the dark.

Onboarding As Journey

Shield And Torch takes a very direct approach to onboarding, and I really enjoyed it. You walk in, are told the basic concept, and then one of the performers walks you through character creation and the world, all out-of-game, and very freeform. By the end, you’re ready to enter the world.

Riffing off that idea of more explicit onboarding, some thoughts:

Onboarding is a journey from A (I do not know the world, and am outside it) to B (I know the world, and am in it).

Sometimes that journey is internal (gaining useful knowledge, building tools to navigate the world - usually a character is the main tool for that), sometimes external (I have entered a space marked as being in-world; I am in a group of people who have also agreed to act as though in-world).

Usually, it’s a mix of both.

Using that breakdown, what options are there for the journey?

Internal A to Internal B: Conveying information and building tools. Might be a character-building session, or a formal lecture, or a guided meditation to get people into the right mindset for the show.

External A to External B: Usually, crossing the threshold of a venue, or moving to a separate space within a venue. However, it might be learning a skill for a character (crafting, fighting, faxing etc.), or transforming the space as a group (by putting up banners, drawing on walls, and so on).

Internal A to External B: Internal onboarding could also be a process of transforming the external world while staying in one place - for example, a divinatory game where Turn 1 is in the real world, but by Turn 9 is most certainly in the other one, or slowly learning the significance of symbols (Sitting in a whitewashed room -> being told everything white belongs to the Great Cow -> realising that you are in a place of honour within the world of the show).

External A to Internal B: Usually, this is the idea of environmental storytelling, where our external environment (Dark? Bright? Muted? Threatening? Expansive?) shapes our internal mood.

More specific external factors might be selecting costumes and props (telling us something about how to stand and our social position in a space), information posters (giving us a sense of the world’s priorities), or geographic (placing a time pressure on getting from Point X to distant Point Y, thus forcing me to run, will change how I feel internally in a significant way. It might be that I learn that in this world, there is a constant physical threat, for example).

For Come Bargain

Nah, I’m not changing anything this big a few days before the show. I think our onboarding works, even if I’m now thinking about what I’d do differently for next time.

Three things I’d consider:

- Onboarding-as-ritual. Is there a way to bring people into our physical space out-of-world, and then ritualistically bring them into the world?

- The Knowledge Gap. Bargaining is, by definition, a secretive and taboo artform in-world. This means that there should be a knowledge gap. But equally, thinking about ways to bring information to life is important.

- Possible characterisations. Shield and Torch uses two classifications (reputation and guild) to help define player characters. Could Come Bargain? In-world, we’ve got groups defined by varying attitudes towards bargaining (from very pro- to very anti-), and different ways to support bargaining (from crafting to writing to researching).

I could see that being a fun thing to give someone as a way to navigate the space. Or, given Come Bargain’s overtly ritualistic tone, might it be better to form taboos for different groups, rather than crunchy in-world factions?

But for now, do come along if you’d like to - and if you can grab a ticket for Shield and Torch, do so.

P.S. The ultimate onboarding experience is, of course, being punted along the River of Death by the psychopomp of your choice.

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