Ben McKenzie, our Games Mechanic, talks about a work commissioned for Fresh Air in 2014: Serious Business’ Spirits Walk.
It’s pretty rare at Pop Up Playground that I get to play a game I’ve had almost nothing to do with, but last year that was exactly what I got to do with Spirits Walk, the headline game of the festival – and what a game it was.
Commissioned by our Artistic Director Robert Reid from UK designers Serious Business (Grant Howitt and Mary Hamilton), who luckily for our budget happened to be living in Sydney at the time, it was the centrepiece of last year’s festival, taking players not across Federation Square but into the heart of Melbourne. Here’s the video trailer, filmed by Elliott Summers during the festival:
So: players are invited by the Tattered Prince, head of the court of Melbourne’s spirits and gods, to join in the Spirits Walk, a celebration of the spirit world. But you can’t just rock up to something like that unprepared, you must have a mask – and not just any mask, a mask made of spirit stuff. So the Prince has weakened the walls between our world and his for an hour, and given us instructions on how to find various little gods of Melbourne. If we can satisfy them, they will grant us tokens of the spirit world we can bind into a mask so we can join in the Spirits Walk!
What that translated to was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I scurried about the city, following the map in my guide to the spirit world, looking for the gods and enacting the prescribed rituals needed to summon them. I was asked to trade a worthless piece of paper for “something of value” with strangers, to give up a secret of my own to a snappily dressed spirit under a bridge, to dance intimately with a partner under the gaze of the public to music no-one else could hear, to fight invisible monsters to protect ordinary people just trying to cross a bridge, and more.
All of these activities were transgressive and touched on things we’re told not to do: wave (cardboard) swords around in public (don’t worry, it was slow and safe), ask people you’ve never met to give you something, ignore the approving or disapproving looks of strangers as you dance in front of them… Each on its own was magical, but to dash about the city seeking out as many of them as possible in a limited time made it exactly the sort of transformative experience you see in stories of urban fantasy and (to borrow Grant’s own term) junk magic.
When I say transformative, I don’t just mean of the player, but of the city. One of the great experiences of games like this is that you don’t look at the space in which you play them the same way. Degraves Street isn’t just a collection of cafés for me anymore – it’s where I danced to please the Skipping Girl, a spirit who just wanted me to be free and embrace the music; Hosier Lane isn’t just “that one with the amazing graffiti”, it’s where I gave up my favourite hat to a spirit without knowing when or how exactly I would get it back. These are magical stories and experiences that are layered on my city, crafted with great care and style by Grant and Mary and executed by the amazing cast in their incredible masks.
Spirits Walk is another example of a game that just isn’t possible without the infrastructure of a festival. Robert Reid and the Fresh Air team took Grant and Mary’s design and hired actors, commissioned masks and costumes and props, scouted locations and scheduled rehearsals. I often joke about one of our early works, The Curse, that it requires more actors than players, but some of the greatest experiences need this kind of scaffolding. The players still make the stories themselves, but they are guided by creatures of our making, played by actors and mediated through craft. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s for pieces like this that we make Fresh Air.
All the more amazing, then, that we did it on the shoestring budget of last year – and that it was free to experience! I really hope Grant and Mary mount it again, because every city deserves a little junk magic.
To keep making things like this, especially in collaboration with international designers, we need to increase the Fresh Air budget – and that’s where our Pozible campaign comes in. Please check it out and pledge if you can – there are some amazing rewards on offer! But it’s just as vital to our success for you to help spread the word.
Spirits Walk photos by Sarah Walker