Odysseus, Part I: I’ve Been to Space

As I start writing this post, probably well over a week before publication, my hands still ache from using crutches after I got shot in the leg by a robot soldier (the leg is fine). My left wrist still holds the white band that contains an NFC ticket, holding my medical information. Behind my ear is still a clump of hair and skin glue from my implant. It all feels very fresh, still.

From the 9th through 11th of July, I was at the larp Odysseus, which broadened the horizons of what larp can do. This is the first of two posts. In this one, I describe the production, while the second one will be about my personal story and closer analysis. As I was not involved with the making of the larp, my information is imperfect and I will gladly correct any errors that are pointed out to me.

To get into the mood, here’s the theme song, the EOC Anthem, by Hannu Niemi, Helena Haaparanta, and Mia Makkonen.

Odysseus was the first international blockbuster larp run in Finland. It was loosely based on Battlestar Galactica, with the serial numbers filed off. It took over two years of production before coming into fruition. I played the third and final run, where the last issues in technical execution had been ironed out. The way I’ve been hearing it, though, there wasn’t all that much to iron out. The team that created the larp numbered over a hundred volunteers in positions great and small. The lead producers were Laura KrögerSanna Hautala, and Antti Kumpulainen.

The initial setup was that seven days ago, a mysterious enemy called the Machines had attacked the EOC, a planetary nation state consisting of the planet Ellarion and the moons Osiris and Caelena. The decapitating strike had taken out all major cities. At the same time, the environment control dome of Velian had collapsed. The survivors of the human race were essentially all on spaceships. The first hours of the game were about coming to terms with the new situation and picking up survivors, all the while being harassed by periodic Machine attacks. The Battlestar Galactica episode “33” was a major inspiration.

The bridge, not in a crisis for the moment. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

ESS Odysseus

The starship ESS Odysseus was constructed into the Torpparinmäki school in northern Helsinki. Over three weeks, the team built the interior of the school into a spaceship. The cafeteria became the mess hall and crew bar. The gym became the shuttle bay. Classrooms were turned into the Celestial Lounge, the War Room, the bridge, medbay, engine room, the Captain’s quarters, three in-character dormitories, and the hydroponics garden/greenhouse. In addition, there was the science lab, a freestanding structure that was built in the cafeteria. There were, of course, also dedicated GM areas, an offgame player area, and the offgame sleeping area that doubled as a blackbox for the planet Velian for the first few hours of the larp. Student lockers were concealed inside computer banks. Spaces were divided by freestanding walls. Existing walls were turned into bulkheads.

Covering visible walls served not only the purpose of making them more starship-like but also concealed a lot of wiring for speakers, the computer banks, and lighting. Everything was designed. The space was lit in the cold tones of sci-fi television – blues and greens, with a harsh white for medbay. The yellow and red alerts were exactly that. In the background, there was always the hum of the engine. The ship jumped once every three hours, and I’ve been to metal concerts with less bass. There were concealed banks of speakers whose low rumble was heard, felt, and if you happened to have a glass of water, seen. The engine room is a story all of its own. There was the jump engine, a huge device straight from a Syfy series, its control panels festooned liberally with blinkenlights.

An engineer at work. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

The Tech

I cannot claim to understand half of the computer stuff and the public documentation only covers a part of it, but one of the news articles mentioned that at various points in the project, a total of ten coders worked on setting up the various computer programs used in the larp. I also did not personally engage with any of the systems except for the fleet intranet.

A civilian accessing the data systems. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

Indeed, there were I think around ten laptop computers here and there in the corridors, the lab, bridge, and other locations that players could use to access the fleet intranet. What parts of it they could access depended on their user privileges. For instance, I wasn’t even a citizen let alone held an official position, so I got nothing but the bare bones personnel search, message function, news, and influence votes. Others could get into the artifact database, see people’s medical files and service records, and other cool stuff. I mostly used it to catch up on the news.

The news were also broadcast on larger screens in a few key locations such as the mess hall and the bridge. These screens had a rotation of the most recent news items and a clock counting down to the next jump.

Then there was all the spaceship stuff. ESS Odysseus’s bridge and fighters worked on EmptyEpsilon, an open-source spaceship simulator based on Artemis that the team had further refined for their needs. The simulator has six different player positions for different bridge officers – the Captain, Helm, Engineering, Science, Relay (or Comms, if you will), and of course Weapons. The Captain has no actual controls except her voice. It’s her job to tell everyone else what to do and keep the ship flying.

The fighters, placed in separate stations in the hangar bay area, ran just Helm and Weapons. The fighters were thus two-seaters, though I heard that one of the pilots flew at least one mission solo, controlling both stations at once, in the best tradition of hotshot rockstar pilots.

Pilots talking to a navigation officer. Photography: Santtu Pajukanta.

Then there were the NFC tags used and scanned by Engineering, the scientists, and the medics. There was a mobile app called HANSCA – short for “hand scanner” but also homophonous with the Finnish word for “glove” – that could read NFC tickets on wounded people, alien technology, and broken stuff. Every player also had an NFC ticket on a white wristband that contained their character’s pertinent medical data, such as whether they carried a certain genetic mutation that allowed them to use Elder technology. Seriously wounded characters had NFC tickets strapped to their wrist, which would reveal more serious injuries when scanned with HANSCA. Some of the engineers’ tasks likewise relied on scanning NFC tickets in certain places on the ship and then solving some kind of minigame or puzzle. One of them was described to me as a Flappy Bird clone about piloting a maintenance drone.

The science lab, sciencing the hell out of a thing. Photo from the first international run. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

The most mind-blowing thing, though, was that it all worked. The systems were stable and there were no catastrophic failures. While of course things were fiddly and runtime adjustments were needed, EmptyEpsilon did not, for instance, decide to crash in the middle of an epic space battle. The only time the data systems were down was during a jump when they were supposed to be down. The only time I saw a program not do what it was supposed to do, it was Discord, of all things. It may feel like I am belabouring the point, but this does not happen. It’s long been a truism that relying on your software to do key things at your larp is a recipe for embarrassment at best and disaster at worst. Odysseus had a variety of systems and they all just worked from the first run.

Her Crew

The mess hall. Note the freestanding structure of the science lab on the left. Photo from the local run. Photographer: Tuomas Puikkonen.

Then there was the actual character writing and game design of the character groups. Odysseus has been described as a “clockwork larp”, in the sense that different character groups performed their duties at their workstations, reliant on other character groups to get their work done, and thus the game advanced. Engineers prepared the jump engine for a jump to a new location, which was then plotted out and executed by the Bridge. The Armoury would equip the Marines, who’d be shuttled down to a planet and end up in a firefight more often than not. They’d usually recover an ancient beacon. Wounded Marines would get dragged to the Medbay to get patched up or have parasitical worms cut out from them or whatever, while the beacon would be hauled off to the Science Lab for the Scientists to puzzle over. Once the Science Lab had figured out the coordinates for the next beacon, the Machines would usually be breathing down our necks, so the Bridge would be scrambling the Pilots to keep them off. Hopefully the Engineers by this time had repaired whatever had been damaged in the previous jump and prepared the jump engine to get us he hell out of Dodge.

There was also a bunch of politicians, criminals, and other civilian refugees from EOC and the planet Velian keeping things interesting in the meantime.

While Velians and other civilians were to supply their own props, characters serving in the EOC fleet had rental costumes – jackets for Bridge officers and Medbay, overalls for Engineering and Pilots, tactical vests for Marines, lab coats for Scientists. They also had name tags on them. In fact, all characters received an in-character name tag, though the ID cards of the civilians were in too small a typeface to read without conspicuous peering.

The Medbay got pretty graphic at times. Photo from local run. Photographer: Tuomas Puikkonen.

The character writing was top-notch. In the Finnish style, the character briefs were individual and on the long side. Mine clocked in at eight pages, plus another eight pages of Velian cultural brief. I also apparently ended up playing out the exact character arc that the character’s writer had had in mind for my character. Notably, this arc is not readable from the brief. As the plot of the game was reliant on surprises such as who are the hidden androids, the briefs were not readable ahead of time for all players. I am given to understand that they will be made public eventually.

The larp was extensively documented by photography teams. Most of the photographs are still in post-production or under embargo, but some sets have been made public. They can be found at Larppikuvat.fi, and new photosets will be added there as they become available. Also, as certain photosets from my run of the game are released from embargo, the photos in this post are subject to change.

Jaakko Stenros, who played in the first international run, wrote a long post analysing the clockwork nature of the game as well as its themes. Of course, I played a different run where some key pieces fell very differently, and a different character from his, and though I agree with a lot, my experience was fundamentally different. And that will be the topic of the second half of this post.

Velians having a meeting, with yours truly as Protector Jardan in the beard and the white robe. Photographer: Santtu Pajukanta.

1 thought on “Odysseus, Part I: I’ve Been to Space

  1. Pingback: Human Monstrosity and Odysseus | Jaakko Stenros

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