Thoughts on Secret Cinema

This has been sat in my drafts for nearly two months now. I’m not sure why. So here it is.

I went to my first Secret Cinema show last weekend (or y’know, months ago, now) – “Tell No One”. The run is over, so I can say that it was based around Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Secret Cinema is obviously not a LARP, but like any interactive dramatic presentation, it shares a lot in common with it, and it’s certainly closer to being a LARP than say, a Punch Drunk production.

A lot of this is going to sound negative, I suspect, not because I didn’t have a good time (I really did), but because I naturally noticed the stuff that didn’t quite work more than I did the stuff that did.

I’m going to use the term NPC or actor interchangeably in this post, because they performers sat right on the line for me – they were clearly doling out a fixed narrative, with no scope for it to be changed, but at the same time, the performances were clearly very, very improvisational, and all the crew were superb.

The action was set on an military base, and the paying public were either military personnel, in a variety of different groups, intelligence staff, government officials, or press. The various actors/NPCs were people you’d see on an airforce base or figures from the movie in question.

It was incredibly loud, everywhere, at all times – regular sirens and background noise, lots of people shouting. That was far and away the most serious problem I had with it. When you’re standing less than three feet from an actor who is telling you something you need to know, and you literally can’t hear them, that’s a problem. I suspect it was a deliberate design choice, but if you’re two people back in a crowd, you can’t exactly lean in to hear better, and the actors were not in a position to repeat themselves – there was almost always a group waiting at every actor I came to. Lots of the space was open, with open frame space dividers, that denoted zones, but didn’t limit sight (good) or sound (bad).

I don’t know who does the narrative design work for the various things they get the audience doing, but I would bet money that they come from a theatre, rather than game-narrative background, because everything seemed linear to me. Meet person A, get quest 1, which will lead you to person B, who will give you quest 2, and so on, very little branching. And crucially: if the story line gets derailed, as happened to me, you find yourself standing about wondering what the hell to do next.

The group I was with got given a simple fetch quest – go to the secret bar on the base, get a ring, and return to the NPC to get on to the next bit. Except, when we got back to where he’d told us he’d be, he wasn’t there, or anywhere nearby. No idea why not, and there was nothing around to give us a cue to go elsewhere. My group stood about for a few minutes, then broke up, and wandered in separate directions. And I had no other events to fall back on. I tried to go back to the start, but the actor parts had their own narrative going on, so the person I thought I needed to talk to wasn’t there, presumably having moved to somewhere else. I was literally left with nothing to do.

So I wandered about a bit to examine the sets and tagged along with another group, that had absolutely nothing to do with what I had been doing – I basically just joined an entirely different narrative line, that was clearly equally linear. I spent the next two NPC encounters a bit sidelined at the back of a group – they were fun, but I didn’t have the information from earlier in the narrative to participate – my new group had clearly learned “facts” about communists (can’t say the word “blue”, a few other absurd things) earlier on, so I was reduced to spectating, rather than participating. That was OK-ish, because the actors were entertaining, but I felt like I could have had more fun if I’d known the right facts – by the time I’d picked them up, the narrative was coming to an end. And I never found out how my original narrative ended.

Crowd control wasn’t flawless, either – where the groups met up often got very crowded, which exacerbated the noise problems, and made it hard to hear the actors, or bottlenecked people in corridors/doorways, so that by the time that was sorted out, there was a risk of having lost your group, or at least of having missed the first minute or two of a five minute encounter. Often that was a recap, but there were definitely a couple of points where I (and the other folk at the back) arrived pretty much as my group were wrapping up and leaving for the next thing.

That said: most activities were clearly designed to be group activities, very little solo play, which is good at that scale. And the NPCs were pretty good at involving players, pulling them in, rather than waiting for them to volunteer, although there was still priority given to proximity, which sucks if you were at the back of the group.

I’d also note that I arrived with someone, and we were instantly split up by the actors, and basically didn’t see one another again until the end. Which was kind of rubbish. A better integrated booking system, that allowed them to be smart about keeping duos and trios together, but splitting larger groups into pairs and trios would be good.

So, in summary:

Good:

  • Crew and actors, all great.
  • Set dressing, excellent.
  • Narrative easy to engage with, didn’t require any serious role-play stuff that might’ve made people feel awkward.
  • Narrative events were designed to be engaged with as a group, rather than one on one.
  • Game elements were simple, easy to follow, basic memory stuff, nothing that would tax someone who just came for an interesting evening out.
  • Worth noting as well: generally high standard of costuming on the part of the audience. You can get people to pay dress up, if they’re invested in the idea/given a clear brief in advance.

Bad:

  • Way, way too loud.
  • No branching in narrative.
  • Limited recovery options when things went wrong.
  • Logistical/crowd movement issues.
  • Most “game” elements (all the ones I encountered, anyway) were the same – remember a thing you’d heard earlier.

Overall, though: A lot of fun. Very expensive fun, it has to be said, but the ticket price is definitely on show in what you get – I’m sure they make a profit, but I don’t think they’re waltzing off with a boat-load of cash, they clearly spend a lot on the show. I would absolutely go to one of their events again, and would probably get more out of it, now I know the scale and kind of idea.

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