Live-action roleplay has been a big part of our life. That’s how we met, and met many of the people in our lives, and that’s how we spent many years creating stories and entertaining ourselves and our friends. We’ve spent some time away from it for a few reasons, but have had the opportunity to do more LARP lately, some at Gen Con, and some in and around the city. Since Nicole has spent so much time watching and working in reality television, ‘The Upgrade’ was of immediate interest when a friend sent it her way. We arranged to run it on a Wednesday at OCADU in what seems to becoming a regular live-action roleplay night in Toronto.

The Upgrade is a jeepform scenario, which has a few features. Lizzie Stark has a good explanation for people in North America and other similar LARP cultures, but primarily, they involve real-world situations, resonate emotionally, use metatechniques like monologuing and temporal play, and have game masters act like directors, setting and cutting scenes together.

What makes The Upgrade cool is all of the metatechniques and action in the game are diageticwithin the game world. Though some live-action games have out-of-game discussions and areas, this particular game only has in-game actions and discussions. As the game masters are game show hosts, they’re embedded in the reality of the scenario, making thought outside that reality more removed. This allows players to consider what’s happening on multiple levels: as their character in the moment, temporally, narratively, emotionally, and so on. Reality TV is really a brilliant setting for this sort of play — the editing, production, confessionals… they all lend themselves very naturally to jeepform, if this is a showcase for jeepform techniques. In the debrief, we all agreed that the moment when our host at OCADU – Stuart – jumped up to physically represent the show’s swirling graphic at the end of a ‘clip’ stage-whispering “The Upgrade” the moment that it all clicked in terms of ‘getting’ or embracing jeepform.

Though scenes where the players take the role of The Upgrade’s producers are only suggested as an option, we — and everyone else, it seemed — found them a powerful technique to provide players control to the way the game went and how their characters were treated while providing levels to the play experience. In our rough guide for the evening, we’d planned two producer scenes. We’d wanted the scenes to give the players a chance to express their wishes in terms of ‘dates’ and potential couple scenes, and to give us an opportunity to gauge their interests, and later on in the game, how they were feeling about the characters and if they wanted to back off or really try to break them down. It gave them much more ownership and agency in the game than they might if they were just playing their character, and they gained insight into how easy it is to exploit people’s issues and weaknesses for profit and entertainment. If we were to run this again, and for longer, we’d definitely include a few of these production scenes to keep the story and the narrative drive in the players hands, leaving hosts to take notes and facilitate. It might have been our familiarity with radio and tv production (and Nic’s particular in-depth academic and practical experience with reality television) that made us focus on those scenes as well.

Aside from all that, there’s the discussions of long-term relationships and how they go awry, which was likely interesting to a group of people mostly in long-term relationships. It’s not surprising that the long-term relationships created for the game are in trouble; it’s tough to imagine people with solid relationships opting to test them on national television. The original couples seemed to want to try to stay together, even when it didn’t necessarily seem like a good idea and there actually might want to be better options, while as ‘producers’, all the players were interested in was driving them apart and creating drama. This all seems accurate, but made for some dramatic moments, both in the moment and in the past and future.

As the host/facilitator, it was really interesting to watch the interactions of the characters, and how the players chose to tackle the scenes that came up. The guide says it can be played to comedy or tragedy, and though there were definitely comic moments, especially in the initial scenes, it very quickly went to a place of more serious emotional drama. Nicole sort of wishes she could have captured some of her reactions, or revealed them to the players somehow, as they would have likely been pretty rewarding. The hosts were often surprised.

Things to be aware of:

  • There aren’t a lot of rules in terms of safety or anything else in the game, which we figured was attributable to assumed knowledge. This game was likely created for people with some familiarity with jeepform and Nordic larp techniques in general, so there may be an assumption that players will know about ways to control or stop the action (cut and brake) or how to discuss comfort with physical intimacy. Stuart suggested some discussion of how to handle physical contact in particular, as it’s not something we’re generally used to negotiating in live-action spaces in North America. Our debrief suggested it’s likely cultural (some European larpers just fully go with whatever happens between characters) and personal (Nicole is more comfortable with physical interactions in live-action than Gary).
  • This game says it can be run in 2-5 hours. We ran it in 3.5 including setup and debrief, trying to keep scenes short, because we had something of a time limit. We only managed to send the ‘couples’ on one date, and we all agreed that two would have been much more effective. We also all agreed that, to run the game as it’s meant to be run, giving players the time to get used to creating supplemental scenes without feeling like they’re running down the clock, we’d really want a good 7 hour stretch were we could include multiple dates, production meetings, scenes with supplemental characters, past and present scenes, and a few breaks. We may try to arrange a weekend where we do this.
  • The character profiles can cause a few difficulties. One issue with them is the translation, which is completely understandable; it’s not as if this is a professional translation. Another is that the couples are pretty heteronormative and difficult to shift into another context, which is also understandable, as these sorts of shows don’t generally push those boundaries. However, when we did have to make a same-sex couple (or a fake same-sex couple, as it was), the dynamic was kind of interesting. We discussed having different kinds of relationships on the show, though that could require tweaking the show concept. Gary and I also discussed creating different characters for another run. (The characters were also not particularly sympathetic, but that may have been the point.) Nicole found the focus on children or not wanting to have children interesting.
  • Just a comment: One player said he’s seen people rewind and replay 30 minute scenes several times. Nicole finds this fascinating in particular as she’d consider this an imposition on the players (and in our live-action culture, the players might too). We might have to check out some videos of play.

We really enjoyed the experience as a whole. Though Gary isn’t necessarily sure he’d want to experience this scenario as a player, we’d both certainly run it again.