Alternate Reality Gaming Gets Scary
Darren Lynn Bousman's immersive horror project the Tension Experience
Darren Lynn Bousman won't settle for the standard ways of storytelling. First, he pioneered a new wave of extreme horror with Saw II-IV. Next, he threw himself into the modern midnight musical with neo-Goth cult favorite Repo! The Genetic Opera, followed by his touring, singing, cinematic cycle The Devil’s Carnival. Now he's embraced alternate reality gaming with his massive, immersive horror project the Tension Experience. After all, he says, "Gone are the days when you could just go into a movie theatre and watch a film."
Bousman describes the Tension Experience as "a story about a cult, and nefarious people doing horrible things." More personally, it was "my answer to the frustrations I feel as a filmmaker." His original motivation to become a director was an urge to tell stories that affect an audience, but that's becoming increasingly tough. "People are on their cell phones, they're Facebooking, they're doing 10 other things when they're watching the movie." He admits that he's as guilty as anyone, confessing, "I'm a new dad, and so I'm watching my kid, and I'm making Pop-Tarts, and I'm updating Twitter, and I'm watching a movie. That just upsets me, and so I just wanted to do something to force the audience to pay attention, and forced them to present, and so we came up with the Tension Experience."
The most common criticism of ARGs is that they felt like elaborate promotional tools. Bousman said, "What made them fascinating is you felt like you were in the center of a universe, only to see that universe end. It ended with the movie, it ended with the album. We wanted the universe to be ever-consuming and ever-changing."
The thinking is simple: If audiences demand a thousand diverse stimuli in their lives, that's what you give them. That's why it's called the Tension Experience, not the Tension Rail Runner. Bousman explained, "The story is fractured into a thousand pieces, and you have to put it back together, by researching, by communicating with actors, by watching things, by reading things." Audience members could just skim over the surface of the story, but, Bousman said, "If you immersed yourself in it, you would uncover 20 storylines and 50 characters, and it would send you all over Los Angeles, and places in Kansas City, and Sacramento." Or, in simpler terms, "nine months of fucking with people." Taking on their own roles as active participants, audience members swapped details and theories on forums, before the story culminated in the Tension Experience: Ascension, a 45,000 square-foot, 24-room extreme psychological horror environment/exhibit in downtown Los Angeles where (far from coincidentally) the participants are stripped of their phones before they enter. "We bring you back to your most primal self, the body moving through space and time."
Which also translated into a lot of motion for the team, which started as just Bousman, writer Clint Sears, and producer Gordon Bijelonic. Months before Ascension, he and his collaborators were tracking the responses of hundreds of players, making late-night phone calls, sending emails, delivering mysterious parcels and sneaking away without being discovered. "Looking back," he said, "it was hard and it was huge, and I don't know how we pulled it off."
Underneath it all was a 600-page, multi-tracked script/encyclopedia that would branch out depending on what questions the audience asked the characters, or even how they asked them. Bousman said, "These weren't actors acting. These were real people in real worlds, and it made the horror all that much more intense when we start killing off characters that you had dinner with two nights ago, or you were on the phone with that morning."