Last Will was a 24 hour larp about modern slavery and oppression set in a dystopian near future Sweden where economic crisis and a declining social security net has ended up in a situation where debt was inherited and people could be bought and sold as commodities.
Last Will deals with issues concerning human dignity, capitalism, slavery, human rights, democracy, vulnerability, hope and despair. (Last Will Homepage)
The themes of the larp revolved around dehumanization and oppression in the interrelationship between “free workers” and “lifers” in the gladiator stable “Jericho” where fighters were bred for televised VTX (Vale Tudo Extreme) fights. Jericho were the home and workplace for six fighters and a total of nearly fifty people who more or less never leave the building, but eat sleep and socialize in the building with almost no contact with the outside world.
Characters and preparation
When you signed up for Last Will you had could choose between playing a part of the administrative staff (run by the superintendent and the assistant and consists of the analysts, the coach, the doctors, the psychiatrists and the security personnel) or on one of the six fighting teams (consisting of one fighter, a trainer, a fixer, a pleaser and a physiotherapeut). Some characters would be free workers while other would be “lifers”.
We were also told that the actual gladiator fights were going to take place off-site and as players we would only hear radio transmissions of the fights, while the organizers would give the fighters suitable make-up for their wounds, before they reentered the arena.
When you signed up, you became part of a lottery from witch the organizers would find the 44 players of the larp. A rather uncommon way of designing sign-up, but as the larp community is experiencing trouble with larps filling up in minutes these days it seems reasonable and seems to be spreading.
The day before the larp started and a couple of hours on the first play day was used for a mandatory workshop. The time was spent on player introductions, presentations from the organizers, rehearsal of metatechniques, talks in the player groups, playing a few scenes and a single energizer.
On the first day we did player/character introductions and got some basic information from the organizers after which we rehearsed stop-words (green=are you ok? + feedback, yellow=slow down, red=break scene, black=give me more), and meta-techniques (ars amandi, ars marte) with some open spaces in between for discussing play and relationships in the groups and with your close personal relationships. At the end of the day we did an exercise on oppression and played some generic scenes (standing close together pretending to be in a line, looking for something on the floor), that related to the experience we were supposed to have in the larp, while the organizers read aloud from a script (waiting for the bus, looking for the food ticket you lost).
In the hours before the larp we had a short workshop on location where we played some more generic scenes (“how is the line when washing clothes”, “how is it to sign a lifer contract”, “how do people evaluate each other”) partly in our roles, had some more time to talk and did a single energizer (a version of monkeys), and rehearsed how to behave when the fighters were leaving for their fights before we had 20 minutes to make our last preparations for the larp.
The workshops worked ok for me, while other players seemed to think that they were excellent, particularly because the organizers made them feel safe in all the exercises and emphasized that it was always fine to opt out if you didn’t want to take part in a particular exercise. In my opinion we spent a bit too much time on meta-techniques and I was a bit frustrated that the organizers hadn’t applied any of the many tools for character/culture calibration in stead of just telling us to talk in groups – something I find a bit drag and time consuming.
The best thing about the workshops for me was that the organizers were really good at emphasizing that the larp was about oppression through all exercises. However I do feel that the workshop could generally have been directed and instructed more by the organizers to focus on the specific experiences of oppression that they wanted to create. We played some generic scenes, but in my opinion the theme could have been emphasized more through the whole thing. My feeling is that the time could have been utilized more efficiently to focus on the specific experience, as some of the things we rehearsed were not really applied in game. I also have a feeling that it works better (and that I remember more) if I actively play out scenes, rather than having a story told to me – but i guess that is a question of taste.
The scenography for the larp was a fighting arts gym in Stockholm, complete with a floor covered in thick mats, lots of training gear and an actual fighting ring. The organizers had built six spaces, one for each team, in the middle of the room. Apart from that there wasn’t much constructed scenography, so the place looked mostly like a gym where people were camping. I am unsure if the choice to place the teams in separate rooms rather than making more functional spaces in the scenography (this is where we relax, this is where we eat, or whatever) was beneficial for the game. On the other hand this choice focused a lot of the play around the teams, which was probably the intent of the organizers.
“During daytime, you will need to pack away all your personal belongings, and during sleeping hours the mats used for training during the day will be turned into sleeping quarters for the teams. Also the admin personnel will more or less sleep where they work. This means both that your character will need a bag for all their stuff (no more than 10-15 liters, and scruffy-looking), and that you will have limited possibilities of personalizing your space. But try to do it anyway; think on what your character would have to make their sleeping spot feel a little bit more like home.” (Last Will homepage)
I may have very high scenographical expectations after my last couple of years of larping, but I felt that the scenographical production value was rather low at Last Will. For me the scenography was a bit incoherent with the story of the larp and I never really understood what the scenography was supposed to be in the fiction of the larp. The gladiator stable was about 5 years old but everything was still very temporary, while also having the “nice” vibe of a well equipped gym.
Particularly I was a disappointed to find out that the administrative team and security personnel were expected just to find a place to sleep in the scenography. It felt rather out of character to go to sleep 20 meters from the fighting teams that you had spent all day harassing. Other things…such as the doctors office being in the showers and the psychologists “office” being in a corner of the gym didn’t really do anything for me either. I could have seen a doctors office in a shower room, but then it had to be a really fucked up shower room and a really nasty scenography in general. This was too nice for me.
In my mind it would have been more fitting to place the larp physically in some sort of slum environment with concrete floor and some basic training resources. Or alternatively making the whole thing a bit more “clean cut” and organized. Well…on the other hand the organizers made do with what they had access to and made it work pretty well under the circumstances and none of the other players i talked to seemed to care, so it might just be me being snobby 🙂
Some of the really nice features in the scenography was the collars or bracelets with name codes on, that all players wore (collars for lifers, bracelets for free workers) which made the difference between these two groups very clear. Not least because the guards all wore whistles that in the diegesis would activate a pain inducer in the collars when they were blown twice and a paralyzing agent when blown thrice, if the collar was above knee level. When a whistle was blown once all lifers would sit or lie down, which served to visualize their situation in a very nice way. The meals looked really nasty and worked pretty well. Particularly the plastic bags with some sort of grey potatoish substance was nice.
There was also a soundtrack playing most of the time, but I didn’t really notice it. To me it felt mostly like having a radio running in the background.
Structure and storyline
The larp lasted for 24 hours and had four different “scenes” set. Practice time which was where most of the play took place, food time where we spent ½ hour or so gulping down something grey or purple, fights; where one or two fighters would leave Jericho to go to a fighting arena on the outside, while the players left in the stable could listen to their fight (a prerecorded broadcast) on the radio, and darktime during which we slept. The first darktime lasted for 2 hours and the second for 6, which was sufficient to fuck up my conception of “real” time.
There was no “plot” in the larp, but there were some runtime gamemastering going on. The administrative team would get horrible assignments from the owners, that served to underline the dehumanization of the people in Jericho. For example the guards were asked to do a survey of the sexual capabilities of all fighters and thus had to force all of them to have intercourse, and the pleasers to evaluate them on a scale from one to ten. The organizers also actively intervened in the larp a couple of times by instructing players and planning scenes.
My larp experience
I played a security guard named Hikaru. A war veteran with severe PTSD and a big need both to see people as people and to be recognized as a person. He knew cruelness all to well and wanted to redeem himself, but had no chance to do so in Jericho.
Organiser comments: At first look there is only a hard bitten soldier, but on the inside there is something coming to life that struggles with that mask. A need to mend by seeing people like something more than enemies and cattle. Fate: You will threaten and hurt people in your line of work, but left alone with any of them you have hurt, your mask will drop. (Character description)
I played Hikaru as the “good cop” guard, who tried to be friends with mostly everyone and did an effort to keep people out of trouble by keeping them in line, strongly advising against anything that could potentially get people into trouble. Even though he had a rough attitude, he was rather easy to talk to if you could handle the simple opinions and perspectives on the world – “basically; keep you head down and do what you are told – do whatever you have to to survive”. When the larp started I had a couple of “friends” on different teams who would also tell him what was going on and where trouble was brewing. On the other hand Hikaru followed his own advice – if orders came to do something, anything, he would keep his head down and do what he was told.
Two relationships were central in the story of Hikaru. One was to Peyton, one of the psychotherapists of Jericho, who he had opened up to completely and with complete honesty, telling her everything about his emotional life and what was going on. Peyton on the other hand was a manipulating psychopath who only used him for her own advantage and did what she could to keep him as her personal watchdog.
The second relationship was to Eden, a pleaser he had fallen for when he first came to Jericho half a year before the game started. In the backstory of the character it was described how Hikaru had beaten her bloody during a rage fit, something the player of Eden and I had defined as the start of a horrible love story. Hikaru was obsessed with Eden and felt that if he could only get her to love him back he might be able to leave the war and the horror behind him – she felt real and…soft. Eden on the other hand was so far gone in heroin addiction and objectification that she could neither love him back or reject him, but kept leading him on.
The fighter on Edens team, Sol, did not approve of what was going on and in desperation tried to vent her frustration and anger on Hikaru, which only made him treat her worse. When she started abusing Eden sexually to get back at him (or at least that was what happened in my mind), the situation escalated further and Hikaru used every opportunity he had to make her life miserable. When the owners of the stable came by to inspect the fighters and wanted the guards to show the security measures it was Sol he told to stand up, when the whistle was blown.
The culmination of their story happened as Peyton, knowing very well what was going on, ordered Hikaru to first beat and then rape Eden in one of the showers…first under the excuse of wanting to interrogate her, but later the questions she asked Eden was about admitting her love to Hikaru. And she did…wet from being showered in cold water, beaten bloody and then raped, she finally admitted her love…and Hikaru actually believed her, for a moment.
“The note from my abuser Hikaru left on my bed. The answer was: “Make me feel something. Anything.” But not even when he raped me on Peytons order I felt anything, just numbness and a slight irritation. I kept seeking him. Maybe if I got him mad enough, or desperate enough, it would change…Eden was broken and hollow. She had long lost the ability to feel anything real, anything but the drugs. She was totally detached from her physical body. It was only a tool of no worth unless it was used by someone.” (Player of Eden)
Shortly after Hikaru broke down when one of his best “friends” got hold of his gun and shot himself in the showers with, leaving a note for Hikaru. The last hours of the larp was spent in a semi-apathic state, just observing the horror of the place called Jericho. The last thing Hikaru did was to go after Sol. When he noticed her and Iben, the coach, being close he placed drugs on Iben in an attempt to frame him. The larp ended just as the situation escalated, but it was definitely the end of Hikaru.
At the debriefing we had some time to hug and cope with the experience before we were shown a short TED talk about modern slavery. The video gave some really nice perspectives on themes of the game, but for me didn’t quite relate to the experience as it dealt with a very different kind of slavery – for me it was more about an emotional connection.
It has been obvious after Last Will that the larp was a very strong experience for many players. For me, the larp worked really well in the personal play I had, but I also felt a bit distanced from the “real game” by being in the role of a guard. The game was as I see it generally well thought of and designed, even though I found several elements lacking.
It seems to me that the design of teams and characters worked surprisingly well. I have a strong feeling that the personal stories and relationships has been very important for most of the players experiences, which i suppose can be attributed to well written characters.
On the other hand I had the feeling during the game that there seemed to be a lot of “plots” going on and I felt that there was a lot of secrets, that was not really important for the oppressive focus of the game and at some points got annoyed that so much focus was put into these side stories. I had the feeling that the game contained a lot of unused or unnecessary content, that served more to confuse the experience that to add to it. Some elements were:
– at timeline of Jericho, that was not really important for the game and confused a lot of players as they couldn’t connect their play to the stories.
– a central storyline about political parties and election, that was neither introduced at the workshop or played a big part in the game for most players. Most likely because no one could really remember the different political parties.
– money was in play, but not really used as far as i saw. They didn’t really make sense either as there was nothing to buy. (Other players have contested this and it seems that there was some [quite a lot even?] play around money during the game.
– gender stuff: we were told that gender did not mean anything in the game, neither when it came to status or sexuality, which is all good. But at the same time the organizers implemented that players could choose what gender they wanted to play, which didn’t make sense to me, but rather served to complicate the design unnecessarily.
– A special note should be given to the metatechnique ars marte which we spent 45 minutes rehearsing at the workshop, as I never saw it used in the game. The technique is actually a very nice way of having a physical experience of fighting while still being in control and able to larp. However, it is not a very good technique for making it look good when beating someone up. Neither does it work well for jumping into a fight from an argument as the techniques is highly ritualized. In my mind the only way the technique could have made sense in this larp was if it had been used as a diegetic rule – meaning that within the fiction it could have been the only “legal” way of fighting without the guards stopping you – that might have made for some interesting play. As a fighting technique that should replace the good old simulation of beating someone, it doesn’t seem to do the trick.
A bit more tightness in the design of scenography, workshops and ingame features would in my mind make the larp much more interesting, but all in all Last Will was a really good experience. I had some great moments and the organizers managed to deal with some very strong and interesting themes in a powerful way. Thank you to all who participated in making the experience possible.