Theatre

Isklander is an interactive online thriller that puts the audience at the centre of its plot. By Alison Croggon.

Isklander

A scene from the interactive online theatre experience Isklander.
Credit: Matt Hass

I first encountered code when I was about 12, after reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold-Bug. Widely credited as one of the first examples of detective fiction, and also an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story narrates the discovery of a piece of parchment on which an encrypted text is written in invisible ink. When decoded, it reveals the location of a vast buried treasure.

I spent months afterwards devising increasingly fantastic codes and writing messages in lemon juice on pieces of paper stained with tea. If I’d continued on this path I might now have a highly paid job in software encryption, but sadly what endured from my pubescent obsession was the fascination with writing stories.

Swamp Motel’s three-part virtual theatre piece Isklander, now released in Australia after a successful British run, draws on this investigative enthusiasm. It’s co-created by Ollie Jones and Clem Garritty, who are also both associate directors of Punchdrunk, the company famous for the immersive Macbeth-inspired work Sleep No More. Isklander sits somewhere between live immersive performance, an escape room and the kind of online Zoom theatre that became increasingly common after the pandemic closed down live performance.

Through a transmedia mixture of prerecorded videos, online detective work and live messaging, up to six players work together – at least in theory – to unravel and foil a tale of sinister corporate skulduggery, with divagations through English occult history and folklore.

With the cast including the likes of Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings, Lost) and Dino Fetscher (Years and Years), perhaps it’s not surprising that the film and television rights were sold earlier this year to Gaumont, which made the series Lupin and Narcos. For this incompetent player, the proposed adaptation sounds like a good thing: I might find out what actually happened in the end.

I played the three parts – Plymouth Point, The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour – over the course of one weekend, variously with co-players and alone. Perhaps the way I played it was expressly, if inadvertently, designed to highlight the limitations of online interactive theatre and the technologies used to deliver it, but it’s fair to say that it was a mixed experience.

Plymouth Point begins with an invitation to a Zoom chat with Katherine Stewart (Illona Linthwaite), bastion of the Plymouth Point Residents’ Group, who is worried that a young woman, Ivy Isklander (Bathsheba Piepe), has vanished. I and my co-players are tasked with finding her: we are sent off to stalk her sketchy Facebook page, which is almost entirely populated with photos of her dog. From there we find her email address, deduce her password and break into her email account to uncover, amid anodyne reminders of yoga sessions, suggestions that Something is Afoot. It seems that Ivy has been meeting with YouTuber Evan Loughty (Dominic Monaghan), who we find is being pursued by sinister forces for his citizen journalism.

What’s eventually revealed is a conspiracy theory that dates back to the era of witch-burnings and that centres on a company called the London Stone Consortium, “a group of very bad people”. It seems that it derives an unexplained power from the London Stone itself, a real and somewhat mysterious artefact of oolitic limestone that now sits in St Swithin’s Church in the City of London and supposedly traces its origin to Roman Britain.

To say that our investigations were chaotic is somewhat to understate the reality. One of my co-players, inspired by the essential Britishness of the story, spent much of the time trying out their bad Cockney accents. The other joined after completing three hours of online teaching and was mildly hysterical to discover that I had inveigled them into yet another hour and a half of wrestling with shared screens and Zoom discussion. It highlights a danger of this kind of interactive piece: after almost two years of pandemic lockdowns, it can feel too much like work. But even so, we muddled through to the end.

Swamp Motel recommends Chrome as the preferred browser for this game and gives you a test page that we duly used to check that audiovisuals and messaging were working. However, we couldn’t find a way past the security settings that restrict screen-sharing, which meant we could only share one tab at a time: something that became an increasing problem as the screens proliferated. In fact, the biggest challenge of the game was how to organise browser tabs so we didn’t accidentally close ourselves out of it altogether.

To make things worse, some crucial plot points were compromised by a dodgy internet connection, which meant that, despite attempting to upload the lowest possible resolution, we missed some clues embedded in the audio content. Luckily, these were supplied by what I suspect was the frustrated person texting us behind the scenes. I can’t say it wasn’t fun, but most of that fun was supplied by my increasingly anarchic co-players.

With this in mind I attempted The Mermaid’s Tongue solo, which is not the recommended way to experience the game. This time the conceit is that we are taking part in an online drawing class. As the kimono-draped model arranges herself on a small screen, I am messaged by a fellow classmate, who is worried about a character from the earlier episode. Again, we break in to websites with alarmingly poor security, find clues, decipher codes, search real online pages and head off in pursuit of another mysterious artefact. But this time we learn, through vaguely threatening texts sent to our phone, that we are also being hunted.

Without the distraction of my co-players the story was clearer, but I was also more conscious of time ticking down – we are given one hour and 45 minutes to complete the story. This creates a strange dissonance: the game seems at once too complex and too simple.

We are given a lot of information to digest – web pages of information about the history of witch-burning, for example – from which we are meant to pick out clues. This demands close and thoughtful reading, which is in increasing tension with the countdown. On the other hand, once you work out what the puzzles are – which can take a while, even with prompting from your unseen interlocutor – they are extremely easy to solve. This simplicity is a necessity no doubt for the conceit, but also it undermines an essential suspension of disbelief.

I don’t even want to talk about episode three, The Kindling Hour, except to say that anyone whose life depends on my internet sleuthing skills is doomed. At least I gave it a shot. By the end I felt impatient – the story was too superficial to compel me to keep digging when the signposts vanished. And with this kind of work, you need to be fully invested. 

Isklander is available to play online at Isklander.com.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Gaming the system".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.