“Jesus, life really imitates art,” Aran messaged the group over WhatsApp. Napoleon replied with a ‘mind-blown’ emoji.
The Pandora Papers scandal had just exploded in the news. The massive leak revealed a far-reaching shadow financial world, built to protect vast sums of hidden wealth for the rich and powerful.
It was only the previous night that we’d finished unearthing another vast global conspiracy engineered by furtive greed, bad actors and widespread corruption. It had been us that had leaked the data directly to The Guardian, in fact.
True, this conspiracy had (I mean, one assumes) a lot more cultish and cryptological aspects than came under that morning’s headlines. Blood sacrifice, for instance, and plenty of vengeful murder. A mermaid in Eastern Europe. A twisted Arthurian legend, a code hidden in a satanic hymn, and another on a mixtape including a song by Lil’ Wayne.
We had been playing Isklander: an immersive, multi-platform online experience and elaborately constructed puzzle, in which the players’ digital snooping skills are tested along with all our assumptions about where ludological and theatrical borders can be drawn. Swamp Motel is the company behind the game, made up of a band of polymaths who have found their niche in this innovative, cross-artform digital space. Companies like Swamp Motel have been doing their thing for a number of years, but with COVID shutting down any entertainment arena that requires bodies in public proximity, the theatre world’s eye has inevitably swivelled in their direction, along with new audiences craving a new social activity to keep the intolerable boredom at bay during lockdown.
Isklander is a worthy diversion. Painstakingly crafted to immerse players in a web of intrigue across familiar and unfamiliar digital realms, it blends pre-recorded theatre with text messages, email, live text-based interaction and a pixelated rabbit’s warren of other websites, platforms and files. Nudged – and sometimes hurried – along on our quest, Aran, Napoleon, Agatha and I found ourselves allied in the resistance against an evil, hegemonic cabal called the London Stone Consortium: a nasty bunch of traditionalists who court the arcane and are markedly white, male, self-aggrandising and middle-aged.
Isklander in full is a trilogy – Plymouth Point, The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour. While you don’t have to play all three parts, and you pay for them separately, the first two end on cliffhangers. You can also book yourself in to play solo, or in a group of up to six. In our team of four, we only had three laptops, with Aran and I – seated next to each other on the sofa – sharing the one screen (and sometimes fighting over the clickpad).
Immersive productions are all about curating their parallel world at every possible touchpoint, and Swamp Motel are artisans in this regard. The first email containing the link that launches Plymouth Point, for instance, is framed as an invitation to a Residents Watch meeting. On the central command game web page where individual players can see, hear and message each other through a Zoom-like interface, an old lady pops up in a small window and tells us fretfully that the young woman who used to water her plants has stopped visiting. Later, our gateway to The Mermaid’s Tongue is a reminder to attend a live online drawing class.
Trailing the elusive character of Ivy Isklander, our team entered into an unfolding series of hidden clues planted in at times eerily convincing Facebook profiles, Gumtree listings, corporate websites, email inboxes, Instagram posts, online auction items, YouTube videos, Google maps and dozens more hidey holes scattered across the web.
This hijacking of the digital labyrinth, and the sly intrusion of the game into commonplace domains, is the most effective mind-hack of the Isklander experience. When a text message popped up on my phone from an unknown sender, I literally squealed – despite knowing full well I had given over my phone number at the initial login.
It’s not that the mechanics are particularly mindblowing – while the simulation’s scaffolding and design are incredibly detailed, it was more objectively admirable than actually enjoyable. And there seem untapped ways that players could have found rewarding interactions with the game beyond the cumulative cracking of codes, too, with its infinitely spawning open browser tabs. Sometimes it seemed as though we were just problem-solving grunts for Ivy, or Katherine, or another character in the game, at a remove from the real shady business going down.
With a flexible 90 minutes of playtime allotted, the riddles themselves square off at a Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or Lovatts Puzzles level – albeit having an added prerequisite of pretty good web navigation skills. If I’m honest, one of the most exciting ‘discoveries’ in the game that I solved was of a hobbit. “IT’S MERRY, GUYS! IT’S MERRY!” I screamed when Dominic Monaghan’s distinctive lopsided jaw appeared on the screen for a brief pre-recorded cameo, consequently drowning out his audio. (Napoleon quietly muted me.)
While playing as a group definitely made it more fun (particularly in the social drought of COVID), our sleuthing was frequently disjointed, too. On the other side of the screen, I’d hear Agatha yell out triumphantly “One for Arthur!” or “best served cut in half!”. Meanwhile I’d be bumbling about on another window, sunk into detail that was only ever meant as immersive world trimmings.
“What’s that?” I’d yell back weakly. “H-how did you find that out?”
If all of us were found to be stumbling around blindly for a little too long, a moderator (masquerading as a character in the game) would prompt us in the chat of the main window. “I wonder if there’s something in her auction items?” a message might blink up, figurative eyebrows pumping up and down meaningfully.
Sometimes, these prompts came a little too soon. Afterwards, we joked that our game’s babysitter was angling to finish their shift early. (They did, too – most of our games took about 40 minutes.)
It wasn’t like the camp corporate horror story giving meaning to our actions was all that enthralling, either. One character in particular hoodwinked us one too many times – going from victim, to grinning murderer, to hero at way too fast a pace to be believed.
What makes Isklander a compelling, novel experience is that it has its participants literally playing out the game’s very relevant premise: that it is incredibly easy for fiction – as iniquitous lies or creative fun – to be enfolded into our digital spaces and everyday lives.
It also manifests just how easy it is for the personal information that we thoughtlessly divest online to be exploited in ways beyond our short-sighted imagingings. You leave the game with a new, slightly unnerved understanding of how complacent we are as digital citizens.
And with the feeling that you really should choose less obvious passwords.
Part One of Isklander is available now