A plague spread through EVE Fanfest. Some attendees wore disposable masks, while others simply stared as robed monks marched through the Harpa building shouting claims that they had evidence of a cure. All the while another group worked diligently in a makeshift lab, mixing cocktails of coloured liquids in search of a scientific solution to the rampant disease. No one was really sick, it was all an act, but this three-day event did spread like a contagion over Fanfest, tempting players to take part in the live-action roleplaying (LARP) game known as the Kyonoke Inquest.
The fiction of the game is that a group of mining colonists working the Kyonoke moon have been wiped out by a mysterious virus. From there, it’s spreading through the colonies of New Eden, killing everyone it infects. Players at Fanfest assume the roles of the teams trying to solve the various problems the disease creates. By performing tasks in the Harpa building they could earn tokens that counted towards votes in the Kyonoke Inquest council, giving them a say in the final outcome: that could mean sending in medical teams to try and cure the infected, or simply purging the infected colonies.
In reality, the story of the Kyonoke Inquest is the story of months of work by award-winning roleplaying game designers to build an elaborate icebreaker. It’s the best thing to happen at Fanfest in years.
The LARP scene has been around and growing for decades now, though to many people it’s still (rather unfairly) represented by a video that got shared around the web where people are in a wood dressed as wizards throwing tennis balls at each other while shouting ‘Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!’ The video has become something ugly, a way to mock people just having fun that writes off a pursuit that lets you take part in fantasies not even video games can fulfil.
To get a sense of what a LARP can be, in 2013 a LARPing company took over a disused Swedish battleship and converted its interior into the set of a ship called the Celestra, modelled after Battlestar Galactica. For three days more than 100 people came together, taking on roles as different characters, battled with cylons, solved political disputes, and tried in vain to root-out the traitors in their midst.
Andie Nordgren, EVE Online’s executive producer, has taken part in LARPs since she was 14, even for a time working for a production company that designed them. She took part in the Celestra LARP herself. “I played the Captain of the ship in one of the runs, it was a lot of fun.”
“With a dedicated LARP like that, you prepare for months,” said Nordgren. “In this case you’d get a written character and it was a little bit ‘pay-and-play’ – that’s what we call it on the LARP side – the organisers have written all the characters because they have specific connection points and plot lines [the game needs to hit].”
Other LARPs are more free-form, with players creating the characters and roleplaying them across multiple events. However, when you’re running a one-off event the structure ‘pay-and-play’ provides can be necessary to make the most of everyone’s time.
Once you bought a Celestra ticket you would be assigned a role, and sent a character pack detailing your duties and telling you a little about your relationships with other crew members. That was just a jumping-off point, though, said Nordgren. “Players were talking on forums for months in advance to build relationships with other characters before the game began.”
People took this very seriously, many of them making their own costumes up to the same quality as you would see in the television series. Players in the key roles, like the captain, were provided with costumes to make sure they looked the part. All of this preparation is so that, when the game begins, the players are able to take control.
“You learn when you make this kind of experience that you set it up to stage stories, but you don’t finish the stories,” explains Nordgren. “You just kind of set them up so that players can then, by playing the game, take the stories to conclusions that are influenced by how they play their character and how it happens.”
The organisers are on board and in-character to answer questions and direct play but it’s the players who decide how to respond to crises – like the classic Battlestar dilemma of whether they should imprison discovered cylon infiltrators or execute them.
The game that took place at Fanfest, the Kyonoke Inquest, was quite different from the Celestra because it was designed for a different purpose. EVE players fly in from all over the world for Fanfest, which is a big thing to do for anyone especially when, in many cases, these players won’t have met anyone else going to the event in real life before. It’s quite another thing to then start walking up to strangers and say hello. Part of the thinking behind events like the poker night and pub crawl CCP run every year is creating an opportunity for players to meet each other without self-consciously thinking they’re networking.
Nordgren pitched the LARP to CCP because she recognised CCP was only appealing to one slice of its attendees. “It’s easy to think that everyone’s a party animal and I think we actually have a lot of nerds at Fanfest who don’t drink and are not into the whole party thing and getting shit-faced with their alliance mates.” Driving the design of the Kyonoke Inquest was the goal of giving Fanfest attendees a reason to go up to strangers.
Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games
“The way we did it is we sliced the work into different strata and the first was that this should look good,” Christopher Sandberg founder of Company P and the Kyonoke Inquest’s designer told me. “We built these set locations. Each set location was beautiful for selfies.” The four sets were modeled after EVE Online’s factions, so you had a Minmatar lab, an Amarre temple, a Caldari gun range, and a Gallente pleasure hub. Each set was in a different part of the Harpa building and had a completely different feel. They drew people in, whether they were playing the game or not.
“The second thing was to make it fun even if you don’t participate. And then the third layer was doing things that would activate the confluence,” Sandberg explained. Each location had a different kind of activity that you could just pick up and take part in. For instance, the pleasure hub was a bar where you could sit and drink.
The beauty of this set-up is that, by drawing people to these focal points, interaction can happen more easily. Each of the stations was staffed by actors who would invite you to play the game but it was also where you could be handed a mission. These missions were the real driving force behind the Kyonoke Inquest.
On the first day of Fanfest I had someone come up to me and tell me the name of a scientist who was working on a cure. He told me that he had to tell five people about this in return for a vote token. He then took a photo with me as proof and went on his way. Sandberg tells me that other missions sent people to “‘Find someone with a black shirt’, ‘Find someone with blue hair’, and ‘Find someone who looks like a holy person from the Amarr’” – at Fanfest there are a lot of people in cosplay, making this quite an easy task.
Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games
“With these cards we tried to describe every type of Fanfest-goer, so everybody could be a celebrity.”
Other missions had players convincing people to build a human pyramid, mixing cocktails in search of a cure, and spreading disinformation. The beauty of these tasks is how they’re designed to not only get people interacting but it spreads knowledge of the game. When someone asks if they can take a selfie they’ll explain why they’re doing it, letting that person know about the game. As Sandberg explained, “so everybody got sucked into it.”
In return for completing missions, players were awarded vote tokens. This simple currency gave purpose to players. The more involved in the game you became the more tokens you could accrue meaning you’d have a greater say in the outcome of the game.
The Kyonoke Inquest was an even larger operation than this, though. A group of players called ARC shot, edited, and released in-character videos recapping each day's events from the perspective of on-the-ground reporters.
One of the Harpa’s concert halls was turned into an operations room where screens were updated with in-fiction information. The messages gained poignancy because of events in the outside world, such as the ongoing devastation in Syria and the truck attack in Stockholm on Saturday 8th April, midway through Fanfest. “We had horrible last tweets from the warzone, like we saw from Aleppo,” says Sandberg. “People saying ‘I’m here now, I don’t know what’s going on – they’re burning the house...’ [It] felt really, really real when America started bombing Syria, and – we’re from Stockholm – when I got the news about the murder in Stockholm I was here so... EVE is just a reflection of humanity.”
Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games
Very quickly players started to experiment with what they could do in the game - as you’d expect from EVE Players. Players ran tests on the prop blood that splattered a crime scene, something the designers hadn’t expected but had to make up rules for on the fly. “They came back to us and said ’We’ve concluded that this blood belongs to this person...’ – and... we were like ‘OK it does now, because that wasn’t defined so it meant that we could run with that. So instead of saying ‘No you can’t’ we say ‘Yes you can.’” The victim of the shooting was then written into the game’s lore and added to the screens in the concert hall.
As well as the Inquest’s designers knew the game, the players knew EVE’s lore better and they brought that knowledge to the roleplaying game, coming up with motivations for the scripted characters and factions. “One of the advantages of an event like this is that players can create a whole lot of it themselves, because there are unfinished layers,” explains Claus Raasted, another of the organisers and one of the founders of Dziobak LARP Studios. “You can’t say ‘We’re the new Empire’, there’s a limit to definition power, but within the small stuff you can create and that’s what draws people in.”
There were some things that Sandberg and Raasted’s team had to say no to. One player tried to steal a key prop from the lab. “We stopped that because we felt that it would be kind of tough to roleplay around,” said Raasted. But in many small ways the players made the game their own.
“You can call it ‘interactive transmedia’, you can call it ‘immersive’ but for us, the participant is what we care about,” said Sandberg. “And I can tell you, this sounds like a soundbite, but the EVE community – 90% of them have never done what we did in three days with them. They were absolutely completely on – for 72 hours, they got it, they gave over to it and they loved it, and they shared it and they respected each other like – ‘Yeah, I’m here in cosplay but I’m respecting your nerdiness.’ I thought that maybe this would be a difficult crowd. Like they would maybe have boundaries that they didn’t; they were the most friendly, inviting and inclusive group of people.”
As Fanfest drew to a close the players cast their votes to decide the fate of the victims of the Kyonoke virus. A player, acting as a journalist, travelled to the Keepstar station that hung in space above the moon, broadcasting a live feed of the moon to the screen throughout the vote:
The results of the Kyonoke Inquest were announced on stage during Fanfest’s closing ceremony. I’ll tell you what happened but, if you’d prefer, you can watch for yourself:
In a somewhat surprising move for EVE players, Fanfest’s attendees opted for mercy. Choosing to distribute the cure to the infected colonists (this choice was met with some heckling in the keynote, but then so is everything in the keynote).
Sandberg hinted that CCP plans to continue this story in EVE, and claims it will have ramifications within New Eden’s universe. Who knows, maybe Fanfest 2018 attendees will be invited to take part in another game, following the selfless heroism of the class of 2017.
It struck me that the Kyonoke Inquest encapsulates the solution to a problem EVE’s developers have been trying to solve for 20 years. EVE Online is a fascinating, unique game but one that doesn’t immediately live up to expectations. There are many stories of EVE Online, like the time a war was started over a missed rent payment on a space station, or the time a team of hunters spent two years chasing a single player, or how a player made billions on the market by buying up all the game’s janitors and selling them back at a profit.
But as a new player, it’s hard to connect the game you’re playing to the stories you’ve read. The secret has always been that you need to start talking to other players. All of EVE’s excitement comes from the interaction that comes from being part of a corporation, part of an alliance. It’s those organisations that get pulled into the politics of New Eden, bringing all their members along with them for the ride. However, getting a new player to take the leap and start talking to strangers is a challenge, like getting Fanfest attendees fresh off the plane to strike up conversations with strangers.
As it was in the Kyonoke Inquest, the solution for EVE is to give new players a reason to talk to veteran players. A task to activate them. The similarity isn’t lost on CCP.
“We had this idea as well,” says Nordgren. “You need something like that mission card, it becomes your alibi, you can show the person that you’re not just making some shit up to troll them or something. You can show them the mission card and say ‘Hey, I’m doing this for my empire, do you want to help?’”
Top image credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games
Editor's note: flights and accommodation were provided by CCP.
Correction: This article originally attributed ARC's videos to Raasted's team.