The Isklander trilogy mixes detective games, video calls and immersive theatre
Watching an old BBC news clip, we wonder, not for the last time, what exactly is real and what isn’t
We’re on a video call with an older woman who’s not quite sure how to use the platform, her choppy Internet connection causing the audio to stutter and fall out of sync with the video feed. It’s a familiar situation but what the woman is telling us is, fortunately, rather less so. Her neighbour, Ivy, has gone missing. And, as you dig into the recent history of Ivy’s employer, it turns out she’s not the only one.
This is the starting point of the Isklander trilogy, a series that exists somewhere in the space between immersive theatre, escape rooms and videogames, and which plays out entirely within a web browser. To find answers to its mysteries, you need to scour characters’ Facebook and Instagram profiles, break into email inboxes using guessed-at passwords, and deploy your search engine of choice to track down relevant webpages (some of which have been built for in-universe companies, others tucked into the actual sites of businesses and institutions). Watching an old BBC news clip on YouTube that seems to confirm the conspiracy at Isklander’s heart, we find ourselves wondering, not for the last time, what exactly is real and what isn’t.
“It’s a credo we’ve always had,” says Ollie Jones, co-founder of Isklander creator Swamp Motel. “We don’t want anyone to see the edges.” That was the foundation of the immersive theatre company’s work in live events. Jones points to the time it recreated Resident Evil 2’s Raccoon City police station in an exhibition space on London’s South Bank, where visitors would dodge zombies in order to reach a cocktail-serving safe house. “We don’t want people to think, ‘Well, if I go through that door, it’s just a fire exit that goes down to the street’. You want people to wonder what’s behind every door, to not know where the edge is.” Moving online was perfect, he says, “because the Internet just sprawls out.”
Not that this was the logic for taking the leap in the first place – it was a simple matter of survival. “The lockdown happened, and everything got cancelled on us,” Jones says. Given that immersive theatre is predicated on audience freedom and proximity to performers, it was hit even harder by COVID-19 than traditional theatre, which could at least offer distanced seating and Perspex screens. Rather than give up, though, Jones and co-founder Clem Garritty tried to take inspiration from the circumstances we all suddenly found ourselves in – hence the familiarity of Isklander’s setup. “Everyone was using Zoom,” he says. “We thought, if we use that as our starting point, is there a way we can create an experience that feels real and as if it’s actually happening to you?”
The first chapter, Plymouth Point, opened its doors to the public in May 2020. Cobbled together out of a Zoom call, a Gmail inbox and a few “ropey Squarespace sites”, it was intended to be a way to quickly test the waters. “It was only supposed to be live for a few weeks, just as a kind of case study of what you could do online with some easy-to-access tools and a bit of imagination.” Sessions have been running ever since, attracting tens of thousands of players. (The official site, isklander.com, handles all bookings.)
The original has been reworked to bring it in line with its sequels, The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour, which moved away from Zoom and onto software developed in-house. Like any good theatre production, though, the whole thing is still evolving, particularly when it comes to the amount of guidance provided by the ‘stage manager’, who communicates via in-character messages. Isklander has started to warp the Internet around it, with repeated searches driving some of its keywords up the Google rankings. In some cases that has only improved the experience: early on, a search for a fictional banking firm that’s key to the game’s plot would throw up results for its namesakes instead, accidentally giving away a vital plot point. “Now, the first thing that comes up is this plush-looking banking website that charts on Google, and you’re suddenly a lot more into it,” Jones says. “What we want throughout is for people to be like, ‘Have they made this or is it real, this bit?’ Like, ‘How much am I actually stumbling upon?’”
That question is the magic of Isklander, and it has helped take the project from a “Hail Mary experiment” to the unlikely blueprint for Swamp Motel’s future. Off the back of its success, the company has grown from a headcount of four to 14. And perhaps even more importantly, Jones believes it has opened up what Swamp Motel can make. Before lockdown, its previous projects were all corporate work, whether with Capcom or Bombay Sapphire. “And now we’ve got licence to be a lot more experimental,” Jones says – whether that’s online, in-person or a new blend of the two.
PLAY’S THE THING Theatre and videogames are two artforms that have traditionally held each other at arm’s length, but in recent years immersive theatre has been bringing them closer and closer together. Still, Jones says, it’s a spectrum. “There’s some immersive theatre where you’re very much the audience, and you’re watching it in an environment that is immersive” – think something akin to the surroundings of a Secret Cinema event – while other productions make you more of an active participant in the story. Isklander is very much at the latter end, with its narrative locked away behind a series of puzzles. Parcel it all up in a .exe rather than a web browser, sell it on Steam and there’d be no question of whether this is a game – if that even matters. As Jones says, “I don’t necessarily think there
needs to be a divide.”