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Let the Games Begin: Here’s How The Stanley Film Festival Immerses Audiences in Horror

Let the Games Begin: Here's How The Stanley Film Festival Immerses Audiences in Horror

A child went missing at last year’s Stanley Film Festival. Posters around town held clues to the young boy’s disappearance and festival attendees helped to solve the mystery of what happened to him.

Happily, no real child was missing. The posters were just part of an immersive horror game that participants had signed on to play.

This year, a new “immersive horror game” is planned during the second annual festival, which is held at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado and runs from April 30 to May 3. The all-new interactive story is a real life horror-mystery narrative which uses the horror-themed festival itself as its medium. But because the game creators want to maintain an element of surprise, they won’t reveal any additional details about this year’s premise.

Participants will follow the clues and become the protagonists in a creepy thriller featuring original characters and events. The event is free and open to the public. In fact, the game has already begun in advance of the festival (but it’s not too late to participate by signing up here).

Dylan Reiff is the Portland, Oregon-based creator responsible for designing the game. Reiff, who has a background in experiential marketing, previously created the live-adventure game “The Futureshock: a Three-Year Cross-country Adventure to Save the World.” 

Indiewire recently met up with Reiff to discuss his process of creating immersive games and then e-mailed with him to find out more about immersive horror games. Read an edited version of the conversation below.

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What exactly is an immersive horror game?

An immersive game is, at its core, a type of storytelling. But unlike a book or a film where you read through to the end, or share the experience in a theater with other audience members, an immersive game invites you to be an active participant in a story that is physically happening around you, layered on top of real life. It allows its players to be the protagonist, interact with its characters, problem solve with other participants, and ultimately, live the story as a one of its characters.

How does it fit in with the festival?

With the Stanley Film Festival we have this amazing canvas to work with in the genre of horror. We know horror fans are excited to push themselves and are looking for a uniquely terrifying experience that compliments the all-around general creepiness of the festival. Between the films, art, performances and other rad programming, it’s the perfect atmosphere to immerse players in a story happening concurrently with the festivities. You may not see it at first, but just beneath the surface of everyday life you can find the signs to play, and if you follow them you open the door to a pretty ominous and horrifying story you get to be an active participant in. 

How long does it take you to plan and map out the game?

It depends on the type of game, the length, the amount of players and my budget and staff, but I like to have a two to three month head-start before production. I have a couple phases of the planning process and it seems to always take me around that long for a multi-day game. Once I have the kernel for the idea, maybe an experience from real life that elicited a really strong emotion or visceral reaction, or some art that really gets me thinking about a darker theme I start spit-balling ideas.

What then?

Once I have the premise it’s time for research, I try to learn as much about the topic as I can. It’s really important to layer the narrative on a solid backbone of truth, accurate history and reality. That way when it comes to what the immersive story is versus what is simply happening in real life it’s much more blurry. That confusion leads to a more exciting player experience — the idea that anyone they meet could be another player, an actor in the game, or someone not even playing at all is a powerful ally to what makes immersive games unique. It makes you really second guess everything and lets your imagination fill in the gaps in exciting and personal ways.

READ MORE: Stanley Film Festival Announces ‘Cooties’ As Opening Night Film

Do people have to consent to participate? How involved do they have to be?

Anyone can play the game and have a great time, but to get the full experience we do require you to opt-in and let the game lightly permeate your reality and personal space at the festival. Some elements of the game can be invasive, which is awesome and often terrifying. But we don’t want to force that on anyone who isn’t ready to commit to it. There’s plenty to do and experience at a base level, but for players who want to dig deeper and are really invested in the full horror experience of the game you’ll want to take the plunge and opt-in

Is the game different for every participant? 

I definitely think it is. You can have shared experiences as you play, but how you interpret the clues, or process what is happening to you within the game is very personal and unique. Each individual has to decide what they believe the truth to be. Each player may also have wildly different interactions, as there is no way any two players have the exact same experience because it’s happening in real time. You may have an intense one-on-one with a frightening character that no one else has seen yet. You may find yourself in a disturbing room no one else been to. Whatever it is, your brain is constantly trying to make connections and make sense of it all, trying to solve the mystery. There is no wrong way to play.

Last year’s game involved a narrative of a missing child. Was there any concern that people would panic and think a child was really in danger? 

I made sure as best I could that the hotel and authorities were aware of the central premise of last year’s game to avoid too much confusion, but yeah, it’s definitely a tense and frightening subject. How we dealt with it was to make the surface looked authentic — such as the missing kid posters our main actor was handing out and posting around, but once you dug beneath the surface and read the print on the posters, visited the website, etc…it was obvious these were clues leading you to a larger mystery. That being said, I’m not afraid of a little panic here and there. That’s the kind of thing that draws people in to the game. One thing we’ve included this year for opt-in players is a safe word to use if the game is getting too intense. We don’t want people to ever feel trapped unless that’s an emotion they actively want to feel while playing.

How do you measure the game’s success? What is your ultimate goal?

The game is a success in my eyes if its players leave feeling like something terrifying, satisfying and inexplicable has happened: something that they need to talk with others about because they just can’t shake it. I want them scared and hungry for more.

READ MORE: Stanley Film Festival Announces Chilling Special Events

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