Variant 31: A live-action videogame on a massive scale
I was, to be completely honest, surprised that Variant 31 actually happened.
Near the beginning of the year, a sign in a disused building near Seven Dials led me to a web address that promised the world’s largest immersive theatre experience, complete with hundreds of rooms, hundreds of actors, and a live entertainment concept involving a bar with moving walls and trapeze artists. It was something of a joke between myself and other reviewers just how painfully overambitious this project was, and its postponement for five months until September (where it was promptly postponed again till October) seemed a good indication that it was never going to see the light of day. In fact, when we went to see Ghost Stories a few months ago, the post-show Q&A was interrupted by representatives from Space 18 (the venue for Variant 31) trying to pitch their venture to Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, who promptly shut them down in front of a live audience.
Imagine my surprise then, when walking past that same abandoned stretch of buildings last week, to see billows of emerald green mist shooting out of vents and open doorways labelled Toxico Technologies and emblazoned with the Variant 31 logo. It actually happened.
Well, not quite. First thing’s first, we have to revise our expectations. Variant 31 doesn’t have a moving bar or trapeze artists or any of the silly, excessive things it proclaimed to have all those months ago. It also doesn’t seem to be set over a vast complex of seven buildings – although I admit the definition of ‘building’ is likely flexible. To me, it seems to take place over 2 large abandoned buildings that were, at one point, filled with townhouses. Each building is four floors tall and has a basement – so that’s still a shit-ton of rooms and apparently makes it the ‘World’s largest live-action immersive experience’. I have doubts as to whether this is really the case, but whatever you believe, Variant 31 is still absolutely massive. And it looks beautiful too – from the moment you step through the darkened doorway into the briefing room until the moment you stumble out onto the street a whole block away, everything is immaculately themed.
There are also not hundreds of actors. Although there are titanic levels of staffing – a bouncer on the door, two security personnel inside, two people to check you in, three to kit you out, one to brief you, and three to do the pre-show story before this thing even begins – and countless security personnel inside the show itself (yep, for some legal reason there’s a burly bouncer on every corner), there are only maybe 15-20 zombies in the vast warehouse and five or so story-driven actors.
At this point, we should probably tell you what Variant 31 is – the best way of describing it would probably be a ‘live videogame’. Before going into the event (which is 18+ and hugely hyped up as terrifying), we’re given a vest with glowing blue spots on it and a gun, as well as an armband. We’re told that we’re to be thrust into a building overrun with zombies, and that we have to scan our wristband on various hidden beacons to amass points. The person with the highest points after 90-minutes is the winner. Although this is a fun idea, it doesn’t really make any sense with the cliched story set up about a mad scientist and his dangerous serums – why are we being sent into this place to collect virtual points?
In any case, before long we’re in the space, split-up, and sent off on our journey. At first it’s incredibly fun: I’m on my own, it’s pitch black, and the theming is beautiful. The building looks genuinely abandoned, and climbing up and down the narrow, thrillingly steep staircases I encounter rotting dining-rooms, secret passageways and blood-splattered labs. Zombies pop from supremely well-hidden spots and I have to shoot them before they ‘kill’ me (at which point my vest will turn orange and I’ll have to do some random shit to make it blue again). All the while, I’m collecting points.
But 90 minutes is a long time, and two buildings is hardly an infinitely large space, so before long the narrow corridors and crawlspaces are clogged up with members of the group traversing and re-traversing the same paths trying to find beacons that they’ve already scanned. Because there are no rooms that are really empty, the zombies have no opportunity to jump out at visitors before they’re swiftly killed. There are, which makes it worse, around three groups in the space at any one time – that means around 45 audience members in the two buildings, which can make it very hard to move around a tight environment that feels around 30 degrees Celsius in temperature.
The technology, whilst it’ll ‘do’, feels a little ill-thought-out. Our gun is nothing more than a clicking plastic toy, which we point at the zombies and click in their face (at which point they mime as if being shot), the vests the corresponding laserquest clothing. Most people in our group never get close enough to a zombie to actually get ‘infected’ (it’s ultra-easy to kill the undead with one shot before they even have a chance to get close to us), and the one time I get grabbed on the head out of nowhere, nothing happens. Others aren’t touched at all, but still have their vests mysteriously turn orange – I imagine it’s because there’s a button on the back of them that the actors are supposed to press in order to ‘kill’ us, that they’ve accidentally triggered by hitting a wall or something. Often, the wristbands don’t scan properly on the beacons.
What was a little surprising, I admit, was to have my ankle grabbed and yanked by a zombie whilst I was walking up a steep flight of stairs. Personally, I’m cool with actors being rough in this sort of 18+, allegedly extreme horror experience, but I wonder whether Variant 31’s risk assessment would be so lenient. As for that 18+ rating, the experience is so psychologically tame that a member of our group who was palpably shitting themselves before we started, and who proclaimed that they would probably leave the thing after a couple of minutes (that’s an option), later remarked that they were quite relaxed for the duration of the show. Although this is sold as an interactive experience, part of me thinks that getting rid of the guns would actually make the whole thing a lot more intense – audience members would have to evade and run from the actors as opposed to just pointing a plastic gun at them then forgetting about it.
Still, look, it’s fun. It’s my job to tell you what Variant 31 is and how they’re doing it, and on reflection I’ve realised that what they’re doing is kind of silly and they’ve chosen a weird way to do it. But in the moment, it feels really awesome to be running around an abandoned building, firing at zombies and collecting points.
And it does get better. At some point it becomes apparent that there’s a padlock with a code, and that there are various tasks that we’ll have to complete in order to work out the combination. Once a narrative and a goal work their way into the experience, I found it to be much more frantic, rewarding and interesting than it had been when we were aimlessly wandering around. This was especially the case when we were given access to new areas and actors than we’d previously experienced in the last 30 minutes or so. I really felt like myself and my companion were on a mission, and that we had a purpose in the show.
Variant 31 does, though, have some problems with this story. First of all, it doesn’t prime people in the introduction for the fact that there are challenges and storylines in the show, so that by the end half of our group didn’t even know there was anything about a password at all – they just ran around aimlessly for an hour and a half collecting beacons (which must’ve been kind of boring). Secondly, a very limited amount of staff man the narrative points for the story – even with a small group of people trying to solve the riddles, it was hard to find the people we needed to find, and we almost always had to wait for them to finish dealing with other groups.
Thirdly, at the start of the quest, it’s very unclear where we’ve to go or what we’ve to get – as a result, there were large amounts of people just floating around muttering about how they couldn’t find a password anywhere. There are also hints of prospective challenges in several rooms – which presumably haven’t taken shape yet – that had people shouting rhymes at mirrors and other such strange things to no effect. Fourthly, achieving the riddle – effectively winning the game – turned out to be a complete anti-climax. Not only did the group of us working out the password end up bottom of the pile in the end scores (because we weren’t collecting beacons anymore), but the sum total of our efforts was the door being opened for us to leave when our time was up. One imagines that had we not solved the puzzle, the door would’ve still been opened – the effort ends up being for nothing. This is doubly annoying when there’s a severe lack of the undead in the upper floors where the quest actually takes place.
So what do we have in retrospect? We have a very big, very fun experience with a lot of potential to evolve and expand to become something more than it currently is. It has to be said that, with the huge premises and large numbers of staffing, having small groups experience the show for (currently) £31 a head is surely completely unsustainable, although it’s phenomenal value for audience members. Charging more per head but admitting less people, increasing the number of zombies and fear factor, and making the story-based challenges clearer would go a long way to making this a superb piece of work. Until then, we’re just happy this thing exists – and we’re looking forward to seeing what Space 18 does with the premises in the future.