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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Truffle Hunting: An Approach to Interactive Theatre

There might be an overarching narrative, beautiful characters, and ways to influence both, but you’re not here for that.

You’ve spent the entire show rummaging in drawers, talking to actors to try and get a hint, and building up lavish conspiracy theories about Deep, Secret Lore.

You’re a truffle hunter.

What Is A Truffle Hunter?

Anyone likely to be reading this probably already knows the kind of audience member I'm talking about.

They might well be the kind of audience member I'm talking about.

Someone who is far more interested in unlocking secrets than the show itself.

It feels very similar to the completionist approach some people took to Pokemon cards at school, eager to get the cards for the sake of the cards, rather than for use in the game. Perhaps because there was a particular type of Pokemon they liked, or to satisfy a completionist urge, or to brag.

Or video games with unlockable achievements, equipment, and so on.

That is to say, it’s a form of engaging with media that is very common, and has been instilled in large parts of the game-based theatre audience from a young age.

Punchdrunk wields this impulse throughout their shows, even while allegedly resenting their fanbase’s devotion to the art of truffle hunting. Rummage through the drawers in Room X to acquire Knowledge Y, be in Location A to see rare Scene B, and so on. While they strive to make each one of these engagements a meaningful part of the overall show, when I hear discussions about different truffles people find they often sound… underwhelming as truffles.

The joy was in the finding, not in the truffle’s place as part of the show. Or the hyper-enthusiastic joy of fandom, where the pleasure is as much in the exultation of one’s own identity as a fan, and therefore someone who is enthused by any crumb of content relating to the object of enthusiasm, and part of a community that values such engagement.

In other shows, I’d divide truffle-hunting between three broad, overlapping categories:

Easter eggs, one-off references and allusions that are rewarding to those who notice them.

Where done badly, they can also undercut the show by smashing the fourth wall for the sake of a ‘I too am familiar with the source material’ nod-and-a-wink.

Treasure hunts, finding objects and information that are more or less a tangent from the main experience, but are an intentionally laid-out series of clues and nods to reward truffle hunting.

Where done badly, they often give rewards that sit uneasily with the rest of the experience - they give the truffle hunter too small a truffle for the effort required, too much power, or a type of experience that doesn’t fit the genre (such as being able to control a superhero’s actions in what otherwise looks like a political drama).

Deep dives, where the reward is learning layers and layers of information, or receiving increasingly rare objects, thanks to ignoring the main show entirely and focusing on the truffle hunt. Usually this information is the ‘deep lore’ of a show, which often means the information that is not useful for the audience, and possibly useful for the actors to know.

When done badly, however, these rewards are mere padding, only interesting to the die-hard fans.

Relating to Truffle Hunters

This is the temptation for makers of interactive shows. Truffle hunters’ commitment is genuine, and often a great thing to have in an audience.

However, it can also lead to rewarding truffle hunting at the cost of the show, whether by undercutting the central feeling (as in the easter egg example), other players’ meaningful agency in the world of the show (as in the treasure hunt example, where the superhero-commander inevitably has more power than any other player), or focusing on relaying unnecessary facts at the expense of the show’s existence as an artwork with themes and aesthetic expressions (as in the deep diving example).

Since many worldbuilders for interactive theatre are also Game Masters, they share a tendency to imitate Tolkien and make elaborate fantasy worlds with rich lore. They justify this by saying it is a reward for the truffle hunters.

They forget that the joy of Tolkien’s lore is as much in how it is expressed as the lore itself. He writes beautifully. Very few interactive theatre writers do. Thus we serve bad truffles.

Sometimes, makers try to make up for that in quantity of truffles. After all, a little easter egg here, a little hint towards a treasure hunt there, a nudge that this NPC might be able to give you some intel there… It’s all little bits. It’s fine.

We might even justify it by saying that it means the experience is more replayable. After all, it’s easier to create more content (as with video game DLC) or better content (as with the ever-revivable Macbeth).

But for the overwhelming majority of audience members who aren’t truffle hunters, it means having to read those little bits. A little jolt away from the material they’re there to engage with. Every time.

And I question whether interrupting their experience is a helpful urge. I am not entirely fond of truffle hunting.

The Problem of Truffle Hunters

I have chosen the phrase ‘truffle hunters’, and I do recognise that this means I am comparing these audience members to pigs.

For there is a gluttony in this approach (I know pigs are intelligent animals, but rhetorically). It prioritises getting tangible things over having fun in the rest of the show.

Sometimes that’s fine, and indeed desirable. There are plenty of interactive immersive shows where the aim is fun, however you can find it. Frequently with a drink in your hand.

But for those where the aim is to use interactivity and play (to a reasonable extent) to explore a serious theme or question, where emotional engagement is desired by the company (though not always well-designed for), the quote that comes to mind is “though terror be in love” from Paradise Lost.

There is a part of truffle hunting that decides to prioritise gathering up toys and nuts and expensive, rare fungi over being vulnerable and exposed to the substance of the show. That would rather spot an easter egg than their underlying sadness at two sisters falling apart. That finds it easier to squeal and be excited than weakly but deeply moved.

I find it takes time and concentration to feel like that. It’s why sitting in silence in a theatre can be a magical experience. Truffle hunting, especially for inadequate truffles, allows someone to come and hunt rather than be part of something wonderful.

Yes, there’s a snobbery here. I have an obnoxious and childish tendency to think people ought to play right.

While I recognise that not every show needs to be careful of truffle hunting, or seek to make truffle hunters engage with the real show, and leave the apparent truffles alone.

Towards Better Truffle Hunting

Were the writing better, I would say the best solution is to make sure the truffles all contribute to the overall feeling of a show.

Sometimes this does work. Where the truffles align with the material but don’t get in the way, it can be wonderful, and not undermine anyone’s experience. Much as, when learning a well-designed game, one can gain ever-greater levels of mastery, while still being able to be matched by an initiate.

Sometimes, I think it’s best not to have truffles at all. Let the show simply be better, and beautiful, and streamlined. If you want people to come back, let them engage for the pleasure of engagement in excellent work. We are happy to see a great production of Macbeth twice.

What it should not be is a way to reward people in-show for ticking certain boxes and doing certain actions. Where I have seen that happen, I have generally been frustrated at realising that my own actions have meant less, or been undermined to gratify a die-hard fan. Once again, I think of Punchdrunk. Having an expert Punchdrunk truffle-hunter tell me that my experience was bad because I did not know where to find the truffles merely made me wonder why we had paid the same price for a ticket, given that I could only afford to go once.

My favourite truffle-hunting experience was the traitor track in Crisis, What Crisis? I got to play as a spy working for a foreign government. I do not think anything I did affected the main experience, but it was satisfying for me, meant I got to see plenty of the show, and the clues I was seeking were sequestered away from the main material of the show while - crucially - the style of truffle hunting tied into its themes.

I believe that, if I were creating an experience for the truffle hunters, this is where I’d lead it. Espionage and other fields where seeking hidden knowledge is important thematically invite truffle hunting.

If everyone in the audience is on the same page, then there’s less issue in knowing that whoever finds the secret plans first has leverage, or that persuading an NPC to tell you some detail of their shared backstory can give you a way to impersonate them, or other ways of competitively exploring the show.

It also means that all of that truffle hunting can be integrated into whatever the central motif and tone of the show is.

You are secret agents for a vast array of different agencies, competing to try and shape events at a high end diplomatic conference. What will you do to achieve your ends?

You are scholars trying to find out more about an eldritch ritual, unearthing both the horrors that have happened and ways to extend your hand a bit - before your enemies can. Should all knowledge be public?

You are a team of lawyers trying to resolve an inheritance case that has been unfolding for nearly a century. As you dig ever-deeper, is eternity as glorious as it might seem? (Yes, this set of truffles is The Makropoulos Case).

But I may be wrong. We shall see.

I leave you with this:

Demand better truffles, or leave them alone and let yourself engage with the real show.

Though terror be in love, it’s sometimes worth feeling it.

A picture of a desk strewn with papers; a generally gothic vibe.
We conclude by admitting that yes, I have made truffle hunts.


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