Imagine two larps: the first one is about angsty teenagers figuring out the meaning of life in a remote mountain cabin. The second one is exactly the same, except those teenagers are being atacked by zombies. Which larp do you think will attract more players?
In “Talk Larp”, one of the three downloadable anthologies published at the 2011 Knudepunkt conference, Juhana Pettersson’s contribution “The Necessary Zombie” contains two very useful observations:
a) that players rarely have a problem with weird and experimental larp forms – it’s the lack of relatable content that often scares them off from arthaus stuff.
b) that a succesful larp needs some clear relatable content – some hook that explains to the player how the game is played. Pettersson calls this “the Necessary Zombie”. You can add existential angst and arthaus experimentation on top of that. Just make sure you have the zombie.
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Having worked with marketing the laivfabrikken larps, and developed a sense of what will attract a bunch of eager ready-to-play players and what won’t, Petterssons observations ring very true to me. In my community in Oslo we’ve already begun saying things like “we need a necessary zombie for this game!” and “where’s the zombie?”
Zombies come in many forms, not all of them tied to genre fiction. For Marcellos Kjeller, it was the music of Kaizers Orchestra, and the sex-appeal of the mafiaesque resistance fighters evoked by their lyrics. Never mind that the larp took the form of a musical, with cut-scenes and weird meta-techniques: it was filled twice, and could probably be filled more times. For Café René it was the familiarity of the “Allo’ Allo’” TV-series we grew up watching. The laivfabrikken game “Falne Stjerner” (fallen stars), about discarded items hoping to get a new life at the flea market, drew blank stares until you pointed out that you could play the character of Mao’s Little Red Book, bitterly rambling about your former owners fall from communism. Relatable content. And what is more relatable than a zombie? They’re scary, they’re dead, and they eat brains. Everyone and their grandmother knows how to play one.
Pettersson also has a good point about why relatability is much more important in larp than in litterature and cinema: if the player struggles with understanding the content, she is also struggling to create it. Lars von Triers newest movie will continue running whether you “get it” or not. The larp, however, will stop.
I covered some of the same ground, with less precision and more detail, in my paper on “interaction codes” (published in Role, Play, Art). However, that one has the title “Understanding and Establishing Patterns in Player Improvisation”. I’d rather talk about zombies.