It's hard to know what language exactly to use when describing Swamp Motel experiences. They are immersive theater shows that mix gaming with an escape room-like feel. The twist, however, is that they run on an entirely virtual platform and feature actors (including Dominic Monaghan, aka Merry the Hobbit) who lead you on a mischievously creepy merry dance across the internet.
I played two of the British theater production company's games/shows during the pandemic -- one in October, one in April -- and it was the most fun I had with my friends throughout this whole, tiresome interlude. They drew us into a murky underworld of corporate corruption, where we had to turn detective to discover what happened to missing people and locate the presence of ancient artifacts to save London from a shadowy cabal of rich and powerful figures.
The experiences, which sit squarely in the mystery/thriller genre, can be played by teams of up to six people, each with their own computer over a custom video platform. For the next hour or two, you solve puzzles and hack your way through computer systems on a mission to uncover clues that are sometimes hidden in Swamp Motel's custom-built interface but sometimes force you to cross boundaries into more recognizable parts of the internet, such as Facebook and YouTube.
The Swamp Motel experiences offer a digital spin on immersive theater and escape rooms -- two forms of entertainment devastated by the pandemic and the need for social distancing. The fact that you can participate from your computer means this could just as easily appeal to anyone looking to break out of their usual Netflix routine or itching to test out their carefully honed internet-sleuthing skills. Ollie Jones, one of the company's two founders and creative directors, is the gamer on the team and believes they have discovered a sweet spot between appealing to gamers and traditional theatergoers.
"A world in which you can create something live, that gives you the freedom of video games is going to be a Venn diagram for lots of people," he said on a Zoom call with his fellow founder and creative director, Clem Garrity, and Swamp Motel Managing Director Daniel Hemsley.
Turning the internet into a playground
When the pandemic hit, the Swamp Motel team, which usually creates immersive events for brands, canceled everything in its pipeline. As people began gravitating to Zoom, the team began to realize the internet had potential as an arena to create experiences with some of the same elements of playfulness and immersion.
"Zoom and the internet were perfect places to give you agency, let you explore and tap into this world that really, once we started deploying it across the internet, starts to become seamless, and you can't understand where the story starts and ends," Hemsley said.
The idea for the first game, Plymouth Point, began with discussions about what would happen if you were on a Zoom call and a stranger unexpectedly joined, or what it would be like to discover something weird in an email that led you to someone's Facebook and made you figure something out about them. These experiences could act as a trail of breadcrumbs to drive the story forward.
But in designing Plymouth Point, they still had to go back to the drawing board. Not only did they not have much tech knowledge, they had never made a show where their audience was isolated before. "We're used to upending the expectations of coming to a theater show by grabbing our audience's hand and pulling them out of the seat and asking them to come through an immersive experience," Garrity said.
They had to use everything they knew about theater, character building and creating a narrative to understand where the peaks and troughs of the drama should fall in an internet-based show built using their rudimentary skills.
Plymouth Point was built largely on Squarespace sites, but the team quickly upped its tech game. By the time I'd discovered Swamp Motel's work in October and played the second experience, dubbed The Mermaid's Tongue, the team had brought on coders and people who understood how to build more interactive sites to create something more polished and professional.
The third game, The Kindling Hour, which I played this April, seemed more sophisticated still -- at one point encouraging us to hack into a custom back-end database that felt very real to my tech-literate teammates. (While all the games do take place in the same universe and follow on from one another, they can be enjoyed as standalone experiences.)
Without a big budget for a live cast, the team had to rely on pre-recorded performances, which presented a challenge to them when they wanted one of the characters to interrupt the Zoom call between audience members. They got around this by relying on common technical difficulty -- a faulty internet connection. The interrupting character freezes mid-sentence and has trouble hearing you, a convenient way to explain why you can't talk back to the pre-recorded character.
Just like in a real escape room, help is on hand during Swamp Motel shows if you're struggling to solve the clues. But it was important to them, Garrity said, that the figure wasn't "a voice of God that can come in if you're getting things wrong, and say: 'don't do that, look under the bookcase.'"
Instead, they thought it would be more fun if the guide was part of the game, a character in their own right -- a shadowy figure who was lying low and needed your help solving the mystery by sending you texts and speaking to you in the chat box.
This also presented a challenge, because that guide had to be a real person who was on hand to help you out while manually running the game. By the time the team released the Mermaid's Tongue, they'd moved away from Zoom and created their own video-conferencing platform with an app that automated much of the audience's progress through the game.
Now one stage manager operates four games at time. "The system allows it to be more hands-off for a stage manager to be able to watch more games and only get involved directly when needed to," Jones said.
As well as improving the tech, other elements of the production have improved over the course of the series. The pre-recorded character scenes in Plymouth Point were all filmed from home by the actors under lockdown conditions. By the time preparation for The Kindling Hour rolled around, lockdown restrictions weren't as harsh and allowed for full COVID-safe location shoots with multiple performers at once.
Delight in the unexpected
Swamp Motel's creative team has a background working with some of the biggest names in immersive theater, including theater companies Kill The Beast and Punchdrunk, which created the iconic long-running New York show Sleep No More -- and it shows.
As a fan of immersive theater, I appreciated the slickness of the productions and the delight I felt when unexpected things took me beyond the perceived boundaries of the experience. For me, immersive theater is at its absolute best when it guides us to suspend our disbelief just enough so that the boundary between reality and fiction becomes indistinct, immersing us in a disorientingly liminal space where we can feel ourselves become part of the story.
An example from the real world comes from a corporate London event I went to in the early 2010s designed and run by Punchdrunk. At one point in the evening, I went alone down a candlelit corridor into a dark office, found a number on a scrap of paper in a filing cabinet and dialed it from the phone on the desk. My attention was caught when a light flickered on in the darkened apartment building opposite. I watched across the void as a figure entered the far-off room, picked up the phone and began talking to me.
It was such an extraordinary and unexpected thing to occur that I had to fight the urge to screech with delight. Instead, I stood in silence, my heart beating out of my chest, as the figure kicked off their shoes, laid back on their bed and told me about their day.
I got a similar thrill from venturing beyond the custom-built internet architecture of the Swamp Motel games onto the real internet -- to Facebook, Instagram and even to a staff page on the real website of a real university.
At various points -- like in my Punchdrunk experience -- you need to text and call phone numbers you are given and make a note of the information you are given on the other end of the line. But perhaps my favorite moment was finding a YouTube channel complete with subscribers and searching for clues not only in the videos but among the comments.
"When you're in a Punchdrunk set, it feels endless -- it feels that you can walk through any door and the set will keep going, which is something we really, really strive for," Garrity said. "And I think we quickly realised that the internet is kind of the perfect place for that."
In my own experience, navigating back and forth from familiar online territory throughout the experience lent credence to those parts that were less familiar and to the excitement that comes from feeling as though I was genuinely solving a mystery while breaking the rules.
Hacking into the social media and email accounts of strangers brings a sense of mischief and excitement that people really tend to enjoy, Hemsley said. They wanted people to ask, "Is this part of the story? Am I just hacking this person's email?" he said.
But relying on outside platforms also created a whole separate set of tech challenges. The first game, Plymouth Point, requires the audience to hack into an email account. At first the team used a Gmail account, but after being hacked into multiple times from different locations with lots of wrong password attempts, it locked them out. They ended up going through multiple Gmail accounts, then Yahoo, then AOL, before finally building their own.
Sometimes Plymouth Point shows had to be canceled because SquareSpace just wasn't working. Then on the press night for The Kindling Hour, Instagram went down, which was a problem because clues were hidden there. Fortunately, the team had thought to create a backup fake account on Facebook, which was still working, featuring the same information for audience members who couldn't access Instagram.
"There are a few backups that are in place, but we are slightly terrifyingly sort of a slave to the internet working," Garrity said.
Immersive theater redefined
I played the games as part of a group of four -- the same group I've been with whom I've played a number of different online games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Animal Crossing and a number of other (mostly free) online escape rooms, this past year.
We all agreed that, even though we were communicating through screens, it was the closest thing we'd experienced to actually doing a real-world activity together.
Without the pandemic, it's doubtful that experiences such as The Mermaid's Tongue and The Kindling Hour would exist at all, which would be a shame. The reason it's so hard to put what Swamp Motel has created here in a box is because the shows represent a unique form of entertainment that doesn't just take advantage of all the internet has to offer, but simply could not exist without it.
The experience of creating these shows will likely also shape real-world immersive theater -- especially future shows created by Swamp Motel.
One major thing for them to rethink, Garrity said, is whether there is scope for allowing and involving personal technology at shows. Traditionally in immersive theater, and at Punchdrunk shows in particular, audience members' phones are confiscated and locked away at the start.
"There's a thousand reasons why that's a good shout," he said. "[But] I've been changing my mind a bit about that recently, and I think in our next live thing we're more interested in how we can integrate that and make that a good gripping element rather than a distracting one."
If phones are involved in future performances, it won't be for anything naff like having to scan QR codes. It will have a genuine purpose, but more importantly to Swamp Motel, it must also contribute to truly making the experience immersive.
"A lot of stuff that's called immersive isn't immersive -- like a shop with a new display, that is not immersive," Garrity said. "If something's happening to you while your phone's on you, and then your natural reaction is to check something on your phone, which adds up with what's happened to you, that makes it immersive."
I'm excited to hear that the team is already working on the next project, which involves taking what they've done with the trilogy of online games and pushing it in what Hemsley described as a "new and exciting direction." One of my own team members commented that it felt like "they were building an expanded escape room universe," and it seems as though he could well be right.
"There is a very exciting live experience coming to whatever platform it ends up on, be that real world or be that online," Hemsley said. Garrity, too, hints that they could be looking at either online, in-person or hybrid events that he hopes will take the immersive theater scene by storm.
"The genie won't be going back in the bottle," he said.
Plymouth Point, The Mermaids' Tongue and The Kindling Hour are currently available in the UK. Plymouth Point is available in the US. The Trilogy will launch game times across Asia Pacific, North America and Europe in June 2021. For news, tickets and timezones keep a close eye on the Swamp Motel website.