Hear about the first year of the Overlook Film Festival at the 12-minute mark in the audio player above.
“You could be a character in this, and I would not know.”
Bryan Bishop, a senior reporter at The Verge, and I are a few complicated turns away from a crowd at the Overlook Film festival.
Bishop is participating in one of the marquee events of the festival, the “Immersive Horror Game.” The game runs for 24 hours, four days straight and continuously pushes the boundaries between reality and fiction.
Bishop later wakes up at 6:30 a.m. There is a flashlight shining in his face and three people standing above him.
Playing The Game
The Overlook, billed as “summer camp for genre fans,” is a four-day festival bringing international horror films and immersive entertainment to the Timberline Lodge. It’s a match made in hell. The exterior of the historic hotel will always be remembered for introducing viewers to a possessed writer’s madness and wrath in “The Shining.”
The occasional skier clomping down the adjacent hallway kills the snowed-in, haunted ambiance. But Bishop says on this weekend anyone can be part of the game. Players don’t know who is a game character, fellow player or simply a skier from Denmark.
“Because of that, it makes you immediately present in every moment,” he said. “It makes it feel like this whole [festival] is a weird trippy dream.”
The “Immersive Horror Game” is part scavenger hunt, part murder mystery and part theater. The plot centers around a fictional massacre at Mount Hood 20 years ago.
The first day of the game is dedicated to figuring out what the game is actually about. As it continues, players learn of an escaped serial killer on the loose. As they hunt him down it becomes clear they’re all suspects.
Every attendee at the Overlook Festival can play — but how far down the rabbit-hole one wants to go is up to the individual. There are three levels of participation. The highest requires signing waiver and granting access to your room at the lodge. The release of control heightens the anticipation in the game.
“It’s a thing that immersive does really, really well,” Bishop said. It does not matter if someone enters your room or not — it’s that it could happen.
At 6:30 a.m. someone standing above Bishop’s bed took a sample of saliva from his mouth. They didn’t explain the reason why.
“My goal is not to just scare people,” said Portlander Dylan Reiff, the game’s architect. Although he admitted scaring people is part of the fun.
“To me, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about the social relationships we create and it’s about a sense of play. If it’s not fun, then it’s not worth doing.”
The universe of the game is now 4 years old. It was first featured in the Stanley Film Festival. When that festival got axed, the Overlook popped up in its place, and a new narrative followed.
There are some recurring characters. But Reiff’s company, Bottleneck Immersive, used its past experience to create a game that is truly one of a kind.
They plant an unknown number of characters through the festival. Depending on how the players interact with them — if they find them — determine how much information they gather. Working together, players created a Google Doc to organize clues, used ciphers to decode complex messages and followed the intricate narrative throughout the festival.
Over the course of the event, players email and text characters, find cassette tapes lodged in a mailbox, and unearth body parts on the grounds. Some even end up standing trial in front of the whole game community to defend their innocence.
“Hands down, playing that was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Rachel Walker, basking in afterglow days after the festival. Walker works in publicity for Sundance and LA Film Fest.
She had played parts of the previous game at the Stanley Festival a few years prior. At Overlook, with the new narrative, she dove into the world and didn’t come up for air until it was over. In the process of the exhausting, mind-bending four days, Walker and her teammates grew close.
“We never asked, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ We were actually bonding as human beings,” Walker said. “It eliminated social awkwardness and it created this environment where it was like, ‘You’re awesome. Let’s be friends.’”
Although she only saw one movie, Walker said it was the most fun she’s ever had at a film festival.
Bryan Bishop watched in amazement when the serial killer showed up to an after-party at the festival. Players linked arms trying to stop him, ran full-speed after him and eventually saw the killer get caught, arrested and hauled off by authorities.
“It was a scale to an immersive event that I personally haven’t ever seen before,” Bishop said.
Building Community Through Storytelling
Bryan Bishop follows the immersive entertainment beat for The Verge. That covers anything from virtual reality to a full-blown multiday immersive game. They call the arena “the next great frontier in storytelling.”
Real world immersive entertainment is having a moment. There is critically acclaimed immersive theater on both coasts, wildly successful boundary pushing extreme haunts, and there’s also Disney. The new Star Wars Land theme park is experimenting with this type of immersive content as well.
Bishop said the Overlook Festival is uniquely harnessing the possibilities of the emerging story form at their festival.
“I’ve been to primarily film festivals and they add VR to it. Here it really feels like the immersive content is as important as the film,” he said.
To Reiff, the game’s architect, the challenge is creating an environment that feels like the player is living in a horror movie, but making that experience still inclusive. He wants all the players to be moved by this game in some way.
“When you go back to the original starts [of my work], I wanted people to feel like they’re not alone. I think that’s important,” he said.
This mission is in part forged by his past as a self-described “kind of weird, nerdy kid” who wanted to feel part of a larger community. But growing up and experiencing life in 2017, that mission of connection takes on a new meaning for Reiff.
“As adults, it can be hard to create friendships the way we could when we were kids,” he said.
Reiff believes an intense, unique, shared experience is a bridge that can bring people closer together.
“You held someone’s hand through the fire and came out the other side and you have this experience that’s yours,” he said.
As for Rachel Walker and her crew of detectives from the Overlook, they’re still using the chat app they set up at the festival. Instead of sharing clues and theories, they’re organizing a night to check out an escape room in Los Angeles.