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Immersive experiences in London worth writing home about

One of the things I love about being an experience designer is that I have a really good excuse to go see other immersive experiences and call it work. That is exactly what I did, every night, with my friend and business partner, Frances, when we went to London for 5 days for the inaugural World Experience Organization Summit back in June.


BURNT CITY

The first night we were there, we went to the Burnt City experience produced by Punchdrunk. I’ve heard wonderful things about Punchdrunk and their immersive theater creations for some time now, understandably as they were some of the first to start producing immersive theatrical experiences such as Sleep No More in New York.


We entered Burnt City at the designated time, leaving our things in the coat check. Following Punchdrunk’s usual format, we were given masks to wear throughout the experience, separating us from the actors and putting us into a position of spectator. I couldn’t really say what the story was. I think I’d have to go back many times to understand the multiple plots and stories that seemed to be woven throughout. That didn’t really matter to us in the end as we were both fascinated and quite impressed with the decor, which we explored enthusiastically but in silence, as we had been instructed to not talk during the experience. The place was huge and labyrinthian with many different spaces, ambiances, and areas, from a greenhouse over a flower shop, to a cabaret, to a sort of military camp and a huge open space with giant metal beams coming out of the floor. The performances were fantastic, largely contact-improvisational dance-based and for the most part without dialogue, although there were private moments with just one or a small group of participants in which the actor spoke to the participants directly. I felt the emotion come through despite the lack of a comprehensible story or dialogue. Frances did not feel the same and qualified the experience as “Disney for the Depressed”, due to the immersive but not interactive nature of the audience participation and the rather dark and monotone foreboding atmosphere that was maintained the entire time. However we both really enjoyed Peeps Cabaret and ended up spending the last 30 minutes of our time there!


Phantom Peak took us through sprawling sets


PHANTOM PEAK

On our second night in London we were invited, as participants of the WXO Summit, to participate in the Phantom Peak Experience. Phantom Peak was where the Summit was taking place so we had already become somewhat familiarized with the space and our curiosity was piqued as to what was the deal with the platypuses, of which there were plenty all over. It seemed to be the Phantom Peak mascot and yet there were no other references to Australia (everyone knows platypuses are endemic to Australia). The experience began with about a half hour during which participants mingled with the characters in the Main Hall area. It was a fun opportunity to ask questions like “what’s the deal with the platypuses?” Answer: “They were here before.” The actors were very good, very believable in their characters and they all seemed to have a very good knowledge and understanding of the stories, rules, characters, and attributes of this strange and fictitious world called Phantom Peak. After eating a fairly unimpressive meal (perhaps the only thing I found really in need of improvement) that one can order at automatic ordering stations, Frances and I decided to embark on one of the “trails”. After filling out a short questionnaire on a given website, it was suggested we do the “Vanishing Act” trail. Following clue after clue, task after task that was given to us via our smartphone (it would seem impossible to do this experience without a smartphone) we ended up visiting many different spaces throughout Phantom Peak and talking with multiple characters. My favorite part was the end, when I had to announce to a rather endearing and naive young man that the woman with whom he’d been communicating and pining over was in fact an AI. After announcing the bad news, I comforted him. His emotion seemed very real and brought up real feelings of empathy on my part. Despite our fatigue, Frances and I both greatly appreciated the experience for the quality of the acting, the cleverness of the game, and the colorful and curious decor and props.


THE GUNPOWDER PLOT

The third night, as part of the WXO Summit, we were sent on an “experience safari”. Small groups of Summit participants were sent to do different immersive experiences all over London. Frances and I were excited to find ourselves going to The Gunpowder Plot, an action-filled experience based on the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Unfortunately, we arrived a little bit late so we missed the little informational introduction, but thanks to the somewhat modular nature of the experience, they were able to insert us into the experience right after the first scene. We found ourselves “prisoners” with another inmate who was in bad shape and who was shortly removed from the cell presumably to be executed despite the tearful protestations of his wife. Shortly afterward we were taken from the cell and helped to “escape” so we could be enlisted to help the British military stop the rebel Catholics from going through with their plot to blow up Parliament and the King with it. The experience mixed live situations with a lot of implications and interaction with the actors and VR moments in which we would put on VR headsets and be transported somewhere else. Frances came out of the experience extremely enthusiastic. She loved the interaction, the story, and the overall adventurousness of the experience. Though I enjoyed it very much, I did feel the VR was not great, too much like a video game. And while the acting was quite good, I did not feel it was really exceptional. Frances and I also agreed that it was unfortunate that we were pressured to make “an important decision”, only to realize that our choice probably had almost no bearing on the ending.


You can tell this is work-related by how serious we look.


THE FINAL EVENING

Our fourth and final night in London was an experience that we sort of co-created. It began with going to see Moulin Rouge The Musical. Though I found the story (the same as the movie) outdated in social values and mores, the production was fantastic with gorgeous costumes, sumptuous decor, incredible performances, and wonderful music. And while it was not an immersive production, it immersed us all in a vibrant dynamic energy that engaged us emotionally and had us leave the theater very pumped up and inspired.


As we had another place to be and we wanted to get there as quickly as possible, it somehow seemed that the fastest option (though definitely not the cheapest) was to take a London TukTuk. So the three of us (Scott Levkoff from the Summit had come with us to the show) jumped into the brightly lit, pink TukTuk. Admittedly, it turned out to not be the fastest option due to traffic, but I’m convinced it was the most fun. It was an experience in itself, being transported in a man-powered vehicle through London with La Macarena and Barbie Girl blaring from the little speakers… a perfect way to segway from the show we had just experienced.


We managed to join the closing of the summit just in time to follow a small group on their way to the closest club for dancing and mayhem. We then closed out the night at a local London diner to satisfy the special hunger that comes from not having dinner and partying until the wee hours.


Though much of the evening was not planned and was not technically an immersive experience, thanks to the awesome people we were with and our own spontaneity, we ended up co-creating my favorite “immersive” experience of our trip. ❤


xoxo

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