This is the second half of my Odysseus larp report. For Part I, see here.
The first post covered the basics of Odysseus, which I will not repeat here. In this post, I talk about my personal experience and the story arc of my character. This is by necessity a narrow perspective. The game had 312 players over three runs. The text reflects my experience and is neither meant to nor can it invalidate someone else’s.
This will be very long. Grab a drink or something.
It was a very large game and different character groups had completely different experiences to a greater degree than I’ve seen even in larger larps. I have no idea what it is the engineers actually did, didn’t understand the depth of medbay’s work until I saw the photos of them pulling parasites from someone’s arm, only heard about the Zodiac crime organization after the game, and so on.
Protector Jardan of the Velians
My character was Mission Commander Jardan (to the EOC), or Protector Jardan (to their own people). They were a leader of the Velian character group. In postgame conversations the Velians have been described as “space elves”, “space hippies”, and “hippie space elves”, but really none of these are good analogies (though I am reliably informed that their spiritual leader, the Guardian, was indeed “Space Jesus”). I’m not sure there is a good analogy. While you could make a case for bits of the Velians being inspired by certain sci-fi and real-world cultures, they’re more or less their own thing. There’s maybe a dash of Star Trek’s Vulcans in there. They were an offshoot of humanity dwelling on the inhospitable planet Velian in a single city built by an ancient alien species, covered by an energy dome that made the environment liveable. Their science and technology were far beyond what the EOC had, though they did not have spaceships.
Their society was basically a kind of spiritual gerontocracy, with the oldest members of the Protector caste forming a ruling council known as the One Percent. Other castes were Healers, Shields, Sentinels, Ambassadors, Mechanics, Labourers, and so on. Technically above the Protectors was The Guardian, the mysterious figure who was not quite a god, but maintained the dome. The Guardian was an alien, which the Velians knew and would be revealed to the rest of ESS Odysseus during the game.
Because city-sized environment domes don’t make population growth a great idea, they had adopted the lawfully-mandated practice of using implants that suppressed romantic feelings or lust, and procreation was clinical, controlled, and performed with extracted genetic matter and womb tanks with no need for physical attraction or messy coitus. In a workshop before the game, we also agreed that Velians would always refer to each other as “they”. To them, gender mattered little.
As a note on design, we were all given unobtrusive pronoun pins to go with our name tags. During the workshops we had out-of-character name tags. During the game, military characters had their names on their uniforms, while civilians had ID cards that it was recommended we wear visibly. Their design was not entirely ideal since the type was fairly small and I couldn’t always read the name even when I was talking to the person. Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory for larp character names – except for the Velians, some of which I never managed to memorise.
Protector Jardan was old. At 68, they were the second-oldest character in the larp after The Guardian, who was an alien being so old that age became meaningless. They were also a member of the One Percent. Jardan was very much a traditionalist, set in their ways, and as much of an authoritarian as the consensus-political system allowed. Their faith in The Guardian was deep, and they were Jardan’s only confidant. Jardan was rather like a distant father to his people, especially during the game when his entire peer group had just died.
The Waiting Game
As the game began, the energy dome on Velian had been shrinking. The One Percent had concealed this from the people of Velian to avoid mass panic, but finally, rather too late, sought to evacuate the planet. Jardan had been the leader of the delegation and had been off-planet to negotiate for aid with the EOC when the dome finally did collapse, coincidentally at the same time as the Machines attacked the EOC. They started the game stranded back on Velian with the remnants of two different EOC naval crews and the last survivors of Velian, in an ancient spaceship whose life support systems were functional but hours away from breaking under the strain. (Long story.)
The ship was a large classroom that’d serve as the offgame sleeping area once we were done using it. As is visible in the photo below, it was rather more symbolic than the rest of the larp’s set design, with school furniture, and mattresses on the floor. The lighting did a lot, though.
The first five or six hours of our game were about fixing the communications systems so a distress call could be sent, boosting the life support what little we could, talking with one another, and waiting.
Jardan was overjoyed to discover that The Guardian had survived, and crushed to find out that these few survivors were all that was left of the thousand strong people of Velian. Entire castes had been wiped out. The only other member of the One Percent who still lived was Protector Omyr, who had survived grievous radiation burns.
I only realized around the time they were on their deathbed around three hours in that they were an NPC that was scripted to die. Down to 16.
The engineers figured out the technology and the medics tried to patch up everyone. We were all dinged up so bad that the start of our game got slightly delayed because everyone needed to get their wounds and injuries on. It was not a bad delay since it did not affect the game of anyone but us and we still got a good six hours of frustration and waiting before getting rescued. The design was purposefully such that we got on the edge as the life support ticked down.
Finally, rescue arrived, in the form of a team of gung-ho Marines and a cowboy shuttle pilot from ESS Odysseus. Six at a time, we were shepherded onto the shuttle and taken up to the ship. In practice, we were hustled out of the room, out of the side door of the school, into a van tricked out as the shuttle, and driven by some route to another door that led to the hangar bay. At this point, I fell entirely out of character. The dimly lit classroom had been nice and everything, but it was also very recognisably a classroom, and now we were getting a taste of the 360° illusion and high production values. I was grateful for my hood, because it could conceal that I was grinning like an idiot during the entire drive. We then went through the airlock and entered the Odysseus.
It was already late so there wasn’t much of a welcoming committee. Those needing medical attention (which, to be frank, was all of us, but there’s minor scrapes and then there’s severe radiation sickness) were taken to the medbay, we met Quartermaster Hayakawa and had our details taken so we could be issued ID cards, and around the time Doctor Peters called time of death on Researcher Fide, I realized we had another scripted NPC. Down to 15.
We’d hashed out a decently complex memorial ritual for the dead in the workshops. Turns out there was a good reason. It was performed at least three times during the game.
Here, I had one of those moments. I do not, as a general thing, cry on demand, and it takes quite a bit of psyching up for me to produce tears. When the realisation hit Jardan that Velian was a dead world and they shouldered part of the blame, I did not cry. When Protector Omyr passed, I did not cry. When Researcher Fide lay there dead on the medical table, I did not cry.
And then, when at the lowest priority for medical attention, the scrapes on my hands were being cleaned, I figured “this would sting”, and that’s when my face started leaking full force. I played it as a collapse of Jardan’s leaderly reserve now that the immediate crisis was over and he could relax for a moment.
Cogs in the System
Odysseus’s nature as a clockwork larp soon became evident. The EOC characters all basically had their duties already set, either officially in one of the crew positions or unofficially as politicians or criminals or whatnot. The Velians came to this from the outside, and our first order of business was to get into the mesh. That was my priority as a leader both in and out of character – to get eyes and ears everywhere as well as prove to the EOC that we could pull our weight, and to get people play, respectively – and we very smoothly got our warriors into the Marines, the pilot into the cockpit, the physicians into the medbay, one person into Engineering and us political types into… position-type things. There was a lot of politics going on that Jardan took one look at, decided they were so far out of their depth they did not know which way was up, and delegated it to the Ambassadors. The one position they operated in was the War Council.
The core experience of my game ended up being the burden of leadership, in trying to hold together the Velian group and find a way to keep their culture alive with fifteen people, many of them excitable youngsters. We also had the issue of the implants running out of power and the younger Velians feeling an entirely new spectrum of emotion, which Jardan disapproved of, especially in the middle of a crisis. I’ve never had so many conversations about procreation.
The other part of this was negotiating a place for Velians in the social, legal, and political structure of the fleet, which also involved keeping up The Guardian’s sacrosanct status. Velians were an independent nation, not citizens or subjects of the EOC, but we were all in the same boat now and had to move fast to get some security.
Of course, The Guardian’s true identity as an alien was one of the big secrets of the larp, and the narrative function of a secret is to be revealed. When the chips came down and orders came from up the hierarchy to get their medical information, the Odysseus crew was just too damn nice for that to happen. It was actually the Quartermaster of the Odysseus who came up with the idea of mocking up an innocent-looking dummy medical profile for The Guardian and running that up the flagpole to the Galaxy Commander, by dint of martial law the effective head of all humanity. This was called Operation Mushroom – “keep them in the dark and feed them shit”. Of course, the secret had to out eventually, but nobody got shot over it, despite all my strident invoking of 500-year-old cultural taboos and blasphemy.
Of course, keeping alive a culture of 15 people is not a goal destined for success, which was something Protector Jardan came to understand during the game. Though they counselled their people to adapt, Jardan realised they did not have the capability for it themselves, and in delegating responsibility, they made himself less and less indispensable to the Velians. Thus, when they were dragged from the deathbed of Aid Naethan to a meeting looking for volunteers to embark on a suicide mission and destroy the Machine mothership – which The Guardian was an important part of – the decision to stand up and take one for the team came very naturally.
I’d never died in a larp before.
My last fifteen minutes of the game were sitting aboard ESS Starcaller, operating an alien cloaking device that allowed us to approach the mothership so we could blow up it up with an explosive device we had on board. Though there were pilots, a scientist and some Marines on board, we were a microcosm of five volunteers, paralysed by the machine, sharing stories and talking about mortality.
There was one of those perfect moments right at the end, when the countdown was already running. I’d been pressing the button on the cloaking device for fifteen minutes, and the situation was tense, so I was pressing it rather hard, and my hand began to shake. Opposite me, fellow volunteer Kerrie Ray asked: “Sir, are you alright?”
With a wan smile, my melancholic reply was drowned out by cockpit chatter and swallowed by the explosion: “No, I’m dying.”
We sat together in silence until the end of the game, listening to the cheers of the pilots coming back to the hangar. There may have been crying.
There was a lot of dying, and a lot of that dying was some variety of suicide. The character of Tristan Fukui, the secret android and XO of the Atlantis, was scripted to space herself and come back. There was a suicide bombing whose circumstances I am somewhat unclear on. And then there was the last journey of the ESS Starcaller, a kamikaze mission to take out the enemy. We were not aware that taking out the mothership and the paranoid AI would, in addition to the Machines, kill every android on board.
The suicide mission was not the only possible end scenario, though it was the one that all three runs ended up with. According to the organisers, the other two possibilities were for the Odysseus to run and leave the fleet behind to be destroyed by the Machines, or take the mothership on in a straight fight and lose. While communicating with the AI was possible, success through diplomacy wasn’t in the cards. The AI, you see, had a bunch of human minds inside it so it knew how humans are. Odysseus’s image of humanity is a bleak one.
Before we embarked on our final journey, there was a scene where us volunteers took the stage, and The Guardian revealed their face to the whole ship, and gave a speech about what it was we were going to do: give our lives to end an intelligent species so that our own might live. The core message was that this was the endpoint of consistent failure of societies to live up to their own ideals. This was what fucking up looked like. “When you tell this story to your children, do not omit the mistakes, for it is there that the lessons lie.”
While we were flying out for our date with destiny, the civilians aboard Odysseus could watch the events unfolding on the large screen. As the mothership exploded, the androids died, and the final photographs of the larp paint a mournful picture.
Odysseus was never going to have a happy ending, and it was the greater work of art for it.
The Game Masters have published a blog post explaining larger story design decisions and spelling out a great deal of the background stories. It is very useful for context, and the “Final Words” section is vitally important.
These posts owe a great debt to the photography team of the second international run of Odysseus: Tuomas Puikkonen, Mira Strengell, Santtu Pajukanta, Ami Koiranen, and Henry Söderlund. I am deeply grateful that they have donated their time and skills to preserve glimpses of the magic.
Their full galleries can be found at larpkuvat.fi. The galleries of Ami Koiranen and Henry Söderlund are not yet public at the time of this publishing, but once they are, I may return to this post to edit in a few more appropriate shots. They captured their own share of gold.
Thanks also to Ninni Aalto for proofreading the first, vastly less coherent version of this text, and providing many helpful suggestions.
Header image by Mira Strengell.