You Can’t Shoot The Audience: Interacting, Immersively, with the Tragedy of War
Of London’s interactive immersive output, I’d say a solid 20-30% is themed around war. Usually by setting it in World War Two; a popular period for media in general.
However, I’ve yet to see any of it really pull off the core beats of most war media. One or both of:
A. The Tragedy Of War
B. The Heroism Of War
I’ve been thinking about why. What is it that makes interactive immersive media less good at these narratives?
Brief Side Note: I Don’t Like Most War Media.
Frankly, I almost invariably think that it would have been better to focus on something else that’s human - famine, want, love, joy, softness.
But I do like some. Enough that I think I can write this. And either way, I like this as a theoretical exercise that may help someone else.
Pulp Media: Hollow Symbols
There is another name for interactive immersive theatre: game theatre.
Many makers believe in the art of pulp. Of mass-market media, aimed at general audiences. Of Hollywood-type inspirations and touchstones.
This is great. I mean that. I love those shows. It’s really easy for them to hook people in with big, clear, family-friendly flavours, which is important for a form that lets adults play.
But then they have a tendency to share the faults of mass media. While there is great pulp media, there is a far larger hoard of media that imitates the moments of greatness, without understanding (or perhaps making the effort to imitate) what made those moments great.
The example I tend to reach for is the “we’re a family” moment. When I first encountered it, it appeared in stories of people truly lost in the world, cut off from blood-kin for various reasons, forming something people needed. Now, it’s a cheap way to say something more akin to “team of friends”.
Within war media, this might be showing the audience a young soldier who tragically dies too young. A callous commander giving a terrible order. The grime of suffering. All strong images that can be powerful, but might also be reflected without substance.
At the other end, that of heroism, it is the noble sacrifice that feels like nothing without a swell of strings under it [the speech-with-all-the-features-of-a-rallying-speech is another variant of the same]. The vital charge that doesn’t seem that important, actually. The grudging respect that seems unwarranted in its grudgingness and/or respect.
This is, I suspect, the first reason why interactive immersive media struggles.
It needs people to play its games, so leans pulpy by default. But then its big, clear, recognisable hooks struggle towards the subtlety I’d like to see to truly feel the tragedy.
Myself, I think we can have a little more faith in the audience. They’re here for theatre. So what else might we need to do to make them feel?
Audience Buy-In: Vulnerability
This is, I think, the first step.
We need to believe the audience can buy into the show. Believing they can come to be moved, to be open to being vulnerable.
We can then seek to make a space where we support them being vulnerable. Not just vulnerable enough to play. Being open to feeling things.
Without vulnerability, there is no deep caring. Without caring, there is no tragedy or heroism.
The great advantage of game theatre is it incorporates risk intrinsically. Almost any game involves some element of perceived risk, even the most deterministic.
If we care, then the risk begins to matter more.
If we care vulnerably, then we can begin to see the path to tragedy.
Tragedy, Not Mechanics: Agency in the Wrong Places
If the theme of our piece is tragedy or heroism, we need to make that the centre of the piece.
Each mechanic must reinforce the theme.
If the real appeal of the show is ‘come and be the high command in this war’, we’ll see mechanics around commanding armies represented by abstract tokens, the chance to phone allies and request help, all the stock tropes of the war room.
And that is fun! It’s just not where the tragedy lies. Nor the heroism. We ought to go back to the drawing board and find out where tragedy and heroism lie, then find mechanics that reinforce that.
‘Can you win the war?’ is not a tragic prospect, though we might be able to make the audience feel like heroes at the end. Give them the chance to make the brave gambit. The necessary move.
We’ll come back to that - how to get the audience to buy in to the idea their choices matter, deeply, beyond mechanics and passing schlock.
But right now, let us ask the questions that might create various forms of tragic show. ‘Why must young people die for their countries?’ ‘Is it ever worth sending someone to die for their country?’ ‘How do you bear witnessing someone prepare to risk their life?’ ‘How do you cope with sacrificing thousands of lives at your desire?’
There’s a question of scale here. The first three imply a really small scope; the last a very high one, at the top of the tree.
Intimacy of Story: Placing the Audience in the Tragedy
Place the audience close to the tragedy, and they might see it more clearly. In intimacy there is vulnerability.
They are the medics preparing, the logistics teams crate-stacking, the gate guards, right behind the front line. The facilitators are the people going to die. Or be injured. After all, we can’t actually shoot the audience.
The audience are the people learning to care about them, forming bonds and camaraderie that must end. Perhaps getting a sense of how much of a waste it is, or how necessary it is. Feeling unhealable fear, seeing people warped by violence, cold or hot inside to survive it. Being, not winning.
Part of the tragedy of war is that for the people at the bottom, they can’t change their fate. The tragedy is in bearing it.
At the other end, how do you emphasise the tragedies of command to an audience? Perhaps, every time a regiment is taken off the board, a speaker reads the names of every member who died. Perhaps they have to meet someone’s mother to justify it - and will not be forgiven, no matter what they say. Perhaps any audience member who gives that order also has to write the condolence letters. Again. And again. And again.
This might lift the audience beyond the mere mechanical tragedy, with a gloss of block-colour emotion to add some colour. The consequences are not mechanical, but emotional.
To some extent the challenge is that many of our Anglophone touchstones for war films were made for a generation that had almost universally seen combat, or their children, raised on such stories. My generation doesn’t have that.
Perhaps that’s why so many of these war stories feel a little hollow. War is an imaginary thing to us, in many ways. A conglomerate of stories and melodramas.
Features of the Epic: What Makes War Tragedies?
In war films, those touchstones, what do we see?
There’s proximity to those making the sacrifice, via close-ups and vignettes of camaraderie. Often, there’s an emphasis on youth and lost potential. There’s a sense of waste. Especially in pieces that emphasise the futility of the war in question.
For those pieces focused on heroism, it’s more likely that they’ll emphasise the necessity of the war, and how acceptable it is to kill the enemy in question. The willingness of people to accept terrible risk and privation for the cause.
In both, we may well also see cuts between the frontline and the high command. Perhaps that should be something to consider - having two rooms, where the orders are either given or received.
Naturalism is not inevitable; we can accept that we’re making theatre. If it helps us tell a tragedy, let us consider what we can do.
We cannot simulate the reality of war’s horrors, for obvious reasons. But those horrors are why there are stories of heroism and tragedy. In conventional theatre, the audience are willing to accept those horrors being offstage. In interactive immersive theatre, somehow there presence in the world must be felt, whether through sound, description, or otherwise.
And remember: we can’t do naturalism. Because in theory, the best way to do that would be to gather a group of audience members, and tell them that the only way out of the building was that way, but first someone might want to disable the machine gun pointed at them. It captures the sense of pointless sacrifice by being pointless. There are also some likely legal and logistical issues.
Intimacy and Quality: Acting, Writing, and Creation
I write this because I want to see someone make great interactive immersive theatre about war.
A Journey’s End-type tragedy of loss, comradeship, and struggle.
To do that might require us to say something a little awkward professionally: it’s comparatively easy to write a pulp hero. Just stick to the tropes.
But great pulp, or great tragedy, or great heroism requires a little more substance and subtlety. It’s hard. Why does this story actually matter? Is it just that we like the aesthetics of WWII movies, and the memory of how they make us feel?
To some extent, the issue is one of quality and depth. If there is something real to feel, then the audience may feel it deeply.
Who is Acting; Who is Feeling?
That depth, however, needs to sit equally deeply in the mechanics.
The audience of an interactive immersive show are the protagonists, usually. In game theory worth the name, they have meaningful agency.
Thus the ways in which they exert that agency must emphasise the tragedy or heroism of war. The feeling that both consist of. Of comradeship, sacrifice, risk, and waste. Both at the scale of individual people, and the scale of thousands being lost.
Crucially, they are protagonists. Not heroes. Because in a war story, heroes risk something that really matters to them - life, friends, decency. And the audience don’t generally have that to actually put on the line.
Tragic war heroes, equally, risk life, future, sanity for something wasteful, or terribly necessary. And again, the audience cannot meaningfully do that.
Thus in our tale of heroism or tragedy, it is the audience who do that.
I’m not entirely pleased with my answers yet. But if we believe the audience can buy into it, then maybe something is possible.
A Few Ideas: Four Wars
These aren’t available for free - if you like them, get in touch. Maybe pay me. Credit me. But let’s see.
The Front Line Tragedy
We have a couple of facilitators preparing to head out. Each time they do, they come back changed. A little more hollow, a little more violent, a little less able to deal with the audience as said audience clean beds, prepare supplies, pack kit, and speak with the poor people returning each time.
Let’s have time slip away. Change the lights and sound a bit to reflect new positions, but never let this area understand what the war is really for.
Every time, they make the bedding a little dirtier, the crates a little messier. Slowly pressure-cook the audience. Start telling the first aid team that there’s not enough water to clean the sheets. Give the supplies team new kit to pack into their bags, depending on how things have been going. Potentially, let the actors form closer bonds with some audience members, trying to get a moment alone amid the chaos and the noise.
And let us remember: naturalism is a choice, not an inevitability. Perhaps there are blackouts, during which painted red marks appear on people’s faces. Eventually, there’s enough light in them to see a reaper-like figure moving among the guests.
Some will say that they think this is invasive and uncomfortable. Which is probably true for most people, but that’s sort of the point. I would say that, as long as it’s available as information in advance, let’s do it.
Let’s make it so that the high command are distant monsters. Whenever anyone picks up the phone, we hear a terrible roaring of distorted words that only one of the facilitators can interpret. Eventually, we start seeing the grotesque, haggard puppet of high command looming over us, pointing inevitably outward, onward, towards death.
Here, we bond with the people who do the dying. Eventually, we see them not come back.
High Command Tragedy
We have the conventional war room map. But as the audience send more troops to their doom, a speaker reads out each name lost. The list of names needing a hand-written condolence letter rises. Any facilitator characters should care about and be visible effected by the loss - and not merely in the pulp sense of “you made a tough call there, chum.”
At first, only a few sheets of paper are brought in, along with a brief collection of reports - “Pvt. Dan Ibsen, he/him, died at 09:15 at Hayes, part of volunteer recreation team”, “Cpl. Lisa Michel, died at Rouen 25/4, widow entitled to a pension, received Military Cross”, “Hudson Lewis, stretcher bearer, missing in action since 05:43 26/4, 3 children.” Each one needs a letter.
Then someone brings in half a ream of paper, more reports. Then a whole ream, every five minutes. Eventually bringing in whole crates of paper, endless reports, demanding that the people moving little pieces on the board write these letters.
The names on the speaker get louder. Reports of deprivation on the front line filter through. Every time the phone rings, someone’s mother, brother, friend echoes out, asking for confirmation that it was worth it, slowly shifting to asking why, finally blaming the high command for their murder.
Eventually, the audience’s agency will either lose the war, meaning it was all for nothing, or win it, leaving the facilitators’ characters broken or just unable to talk about what they’ve done. They silently walk to the letters and start writing. There is no congratulations that is not made hollow by the stream of names still coming through, and the quiet scratch of someone’s pen as they try to write the letters. The radio explaining the scale of reconstruction needed by the other side; the side you’ve been destroying as much as your own.
There must be no comfort for the knowledge that every dead person, every parentless child, is your fault.
Here, we watch the people doing what must be done. We watch some of them sit in that feeling, and others block it out. We understand monstrosity, coldness, and feel it must be done.
Forward Command Tragedy
We have the people between the high command and the dying. Those who have to try and persuade people to obey terrifying orders. Those who have to turn the chaos into pretty pieces on a map.
Perhaps here, we let time sit in normal time. We merely wait. Terribly.
The facilitators are people of authority - the captain, the cook, the young favourite. The audience too. They give orders, which are obeyed too late, not at all, or in the face of unexpected information. They have too few resources as the battle drags on. People blame each other for the deaths. They see facilitators fearing for their lives each time they have to go out to the front; perhaps the facilitators even break on occasion.
The audience, therefore, are deciphering jargon orders, receiving overwhelming information that needs to be interpreted, and every now and again, from halfway through the show, being told it’s their turn to face the inevitable.
Send them out into the corridor. Give them a dirty, ill-fitting uniform. Make them run an obstacle course while someone yells contradictory instructions at them. Make them relay those orders to the next wave of audience volunteers, trying to achieve any objectives given.
Any objective not fulfilled in the time needed? The audience member there longest gets taken away. In a side room, they watch the war being plotted out. They can still contribute - knowing that their advice, whole-hearted as it may be, is going to become the jargon they were haunted by in their own time.
And the names rise higher.
Here, we watch the people in between. The people who are still responsible, closely responsible, but unable to fight their orders.
Or we can stitch these shows together. Three adjacent rooms in a line.
As people slip between the rooms, they’ll see what’s going on. What their agency is doing.
You’ll see, I hope, how each of the above has mechanics designed around a core concept of what we want the audience to feel. Something that augments the tragedy in that circumstance.
Nor do any of the above feel whole. They’ve got nothing more to say than ‘war is bad and/or sad’, really.
The core of tragedy has to be having something of substance to be sad about. Even if you hit all of tragedy’s beats, there has to be the depth too.
What has your war show thought that has got to be expressed through the form of interactive immersive theatre? What about the sorrow and the glory? How it’s unbearable? Unwinnable? Horribly necessary, even when you can win?
Find that out, and maybe you’ll find out how to achieve the core goal:
By the end, we want someone to cry.
The above is not enough. But maybe it will help.