From the outside, it may look like just another anonymous industrial warehouse. But behind that unassuming facade, the secret utopian society of Penumbra has been percolating for nearly 30 years. Ordinary Orlandoans are finally being invited inside this hidden world offering limitless freedom to all, just as its clashing factions – the upper-caste Office, administrated by Golds and enforced by Silvers; the Bronze proletariat in the Factory; and the freaks and outcasts of the Labyrinth – have pushed Penumbra to the brink of self-destruction.
If my introduction to When Shadows Fall sounds familiar, that's because this new interactive attraction comes from Pseudonym Productions, creators of last year's The Republic, and it recycles and refines many elements from that freshman effort at fusing Sleep No More-style immersive theater with live-action role playing. As before, participants are assigned parts within the game's stratified social structure, then freed to explore 15,000 square feet of themed sets populated by a dozen-plus interactive performers. Over the course of about two and a half hours, players perform tasks and form alliances in an attempt to influence the storyline by aiding (or undermining) the actors they were initially paired with. Your collective choices determine which one of several climaxes – rebellion, repression or reconciliation? – concludes the evening.
I gave my initial encounters with The Republic an admiring write-up while acknowledging several aspects that needed improvement. While the preview rehearsal of When Shadows Fall that I attended was still a work in progress, I can already see that creator Sarah Elger and writer Nikhil Menezes have taken feedback from the first version to heart for their follow-up. Though still raw in areas, the environments designed by Nathanael White display imaginative, monumental architecture and detail-oriented prop decoration, with offices full of ephemera to rifle through and a hidden boudoir viewable by one-way mirror. The revised backstory, while still intricate, downplays the gratuitous Greek mythological allusions, focusing on a more contemporary allegory influenced by Bioshock, The Matrix and pop philosophy. And the maddening puzzles that never had obvious impact on the plot have been minimized in favor of improvisational interactions with the cast.
Much of your experience in Penumbra is preordained by the path you are initially placed on, and your willingness to follow it. For my experience, I was fortunate to be paired with Corey Volence (a fine actor I've worked with many times before) as Hawthorne, the Engineer and high priest of Penumbra's Light-worshiping religion, which resembles Catholicism mixed with Jim Jones' Peoples Temple.
My assignment cast me as the junior partner in a two-character melodrama, giving me a front-row seat to Volence's glorious scene-chewing monologues as we assembled an explosive detonator, infiltrated secure facilities using vintage walkie-talkies and engaged in other subversive tasks. I also enjoyed tense interactions with Brett Carson as Harlan, the head of surveillance, who interrogated me (I didn't give up the goods), and Michael Corinella's Tristan, the imposing Silver security supervisor. Unfortunately, a few of my favorite cast members from The Republic didn't return and their replacements aren't as strong, making the ensemble uneven in their ability to emote and enunciate the often overwrought dialogue.
Some fellow players didn't feel they had as much guidance as I did in their goals, and ended up as voyeurs bouncing randomly between scenes. Though I was largely satisfied with my through-line, it never intersected with several major characters – including the main antagonist – making the scripted finale somewhat confusing for me.
Elger explained that my confusion wasn't entirely unintentional, "because in your daily life you don't see the big picture. [Players] aren't going to know everything, and that's sort of the point. We're creating a whole world, and you can't understand everything in the whole world." While the lack of clarity leaves room for replayability, I'd appreciate getting a more comprehensive introduction to the world and its inhabitants, as well as clearer feedback on how my actions affected the outcome, without being explicitly told if I succeeded or failed.
During the development period after The Republic's closure, Elger says she and her team spent a lot of time playing video games for inspiration, especially Telltale's story-driven adventure games, like The Walking Dead. I can clearly see that influence for good and ill, both in When Shadows Fall's emphasis on character-driven narrative and moral decision-making, and in the relative underdevelopment of its gameplay elements and absence of genuine free will. Rather than an open-world RPG where you can truly forge your own tale, this is more like a choose-your-own-adventure that founders if you fail to flip to the correct page.
When Shadows Fall is currently holding previews until their July 28 official opening. Tickets are only on sale through mid-August at whenshadowsfall.com, but Elger hopes to enhance the production and extend the run: "There's so much more we can do to make this world as rich as it should be." As a fan of innovation in interactive entertainment, I hope they get the chance.
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