Existential Horror: Live Action Roleplay at Parsons
We were on a train in 1870. All we remembered is that we were all from a small western town. No one knew how we had gotten on the train, or where we were going.
‘“Ghost Engines in the Sky’ is a live action role-playing (LARP) event designed to create a sense of existential horror,” said the game’s creator, Nick Fortugno, a professional game designer and professor of game design and interactive narrative design at Parsons.
For anybody who has ever watched “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy or any epic film has felt the urge to grab a shield and a sword before rushing through a battlefield, screaming his or her lungs out, LARPing offers catharsis for that urge.
Fortugno has been LARPing for 16 years. “LARPs come in lots of different kinds, from silly kids’ games to foam sword representations of D&D epics,” he said. “The fact that it’s a LARP means it’s kind of a machine — you put players in the system and through their own emergent action they should produce the emotion and narrative themselves.” In this mixture of performance theatre and role-playing you are asked to physically interpret your avatar.
“Ghost Engines in the Sky” was hosted by The New School’s games club in a Parsons design studio. Blackboards draped with gray sheets were arranged to give the illusion of being in a train car.
Before it began Fortugno introduced the game, giving the outline of the story but very little explanation of how to play. Players were given envelopes containing a limited biography of their characters and a set of colored pieces of paper (money), and transported back in time. It took a few minutes for people to adjust and get into character but everyone took the game very seriously.
The story unfolded slowly, marking a new chapter at every train stop. Unfortunately, there were no real turns in the plot until the end. There weren’t many liberties left to the players but to roam around the room to figure out what to do. Some played poker, some waited, and those that were able to immerse themselves completely into the game carried on conversations and investigations as their characters.
T Most of the players had never LARPed. “There were a lot of first-time players at this event and I’m impressed by everyone’s willingness to step up and take part,” Fortugno said. As participants, the mixture of beginners and experienced players seemed to make the game unbalanced. Beginners needing clarifications (how to use their abilities, cards, etc.) were left in the fog as the more experienced players carried on.
LARP is about total immersion. “Ghost Engines in the Sky” provided only occasional immersion. Fortugno said, “In each version, players, based on their own intuitions, make a different set of decisions in the system and thus different characters become important and new scenes happen.”
Perhaps it was the lack of decisions that made few of the scenes seem important or memorable. It was a fun experience that had the potential to be much better.