Against Captain’s Orders is an interactive theater experience run by Punchdrunk for the National Maritime Museum in London. It’s designed for a group of about 30 kids. Most of the productions require an adult to be accompanied at least one child between the ages of six and twelve, but they do run a special evening edition of the show for adults who are members of the museum. I’ve never been able to get to Sleep No More or any of Punchdrunk’s other work, and I was curious enough about them that I got a museum membership largely to be able to go to Against Captain’s Orders without having to obtain a child first.
The show has been reviewed as a piece of theater: the Guardian gave it ***, said it wasn’t dangerous enough; the Evening Standard an ungenerous ** and called it confused; Timeout went with ****, thought it was good but mostly for kids. The Register assures readers that the show provides value for money, which is true, but a grim sort of review of any sort of art. None of those reviews really gets into the interaction design side very deeply, though.
At the end of the show they ask you not to reveal too many of its secrets. I’m not going to give away the absolute ending, but it’s hard to analyze without spoiling a bit. So I’m not publishing this blog post until after the show finishes running. Still, if for some reason you want to avoid spoilers for a show that you can’t see now anyway, you should not read on.
The show starts with the audience being fitted with life jackets and split into four groups. Each group is assigned an artifact to learn about and describe back to the other groups: a seemingly bland educational exercise, though even at this point there are enough light and smoke effects to differentiate the experience from any school museum tour in my childhood. Two actors play the role of curator-docents who are showing us around.
However, pretty soon someone meddles with one of the artifact cases, and this triggers a state of museum emergency. The artifacts are whisked away into storage by a high-tech museum security system, and we all need to go get them back Or Else.
At this point the story jumps the tracks into Doctor Who-like fantasy, imagining storage for the museum that are stacked higgledy-piggledy with artifacts and catalogued by a big, beautiful, utterly impractical pneumatic machine. The console of this machine strongly resembles a steampunk rendition of the Tardis console and is covered with tempting cranks and buttons and lights. Child me would have been completely beside herself with glee. Adult me was not impervious. Punchdrunk is famous for the beauty of their interactive set-dressing, and that was entirely on display here. (I’ll come back to this.)
From here, the piece follows a classic, if rather linear, puzzle-and-collect-mcguffins adventure plot. We have to find the four objects; each one is in a different room of the museum stores; each room requires figuring out some clues to find the artifact we need.
I should say that it becomes a classic puzzle-and-mcguffin adventure plot for the actors. The show runs a tight fifty minutes, so they don’t have time (and don’t try) to let the audience bumble around like players in an escape room. Where there are moments for audience participation, it’s letting the audience notice something that is not very subtly hidden, or manipulate a bit of machinery in a circumscribed way — but the actors will spell out how to find the next piece with only the most minimal amount of time for stuckness or investigation. They did some light improv in response to audience comments, but again, the audience isn’t primed for roleplaying, except in the generic role of children going to a museum.
To give this some story depth, there’s an emotional arc involving the two actors: one of their characters is a bit reckless, and the other really wants to have adventures but doesn’t have the nerve for them, and this leads to a couple of conflict scenes and emotional crises.
Overall, I found this experience both completely fascinating and lovely on one level, and a bit of a disappointment on another.
Disappointment: the experience didn’t have the energy in the room that I wished for. Any live theater has this feedback loop where the reaction of the audience is communicated and reinforced: if everyone else is riveted, it’s easier to be riveted yourself. Our audience was cooperative and interested but they weren’t enthralled, I’d say.
I strongly suspect that this was in fact because we were all adults: harder to gull; faster at finding secret doors; hesitantly polite about what we were supposed to be doing and saying. We were supposed to be children, and the production was framed as though we were children, but our group was too inhibited to shout things out the way children often do.
On the fascinating and the lovely: oh, the props. Each room of this setting was so beautifully prepared. There were display cases and machines and shelves full of nautical objects; there were rolled maps, and globes hanging from the ceiling that flickered with inner light. There were bulletin boards covered with tacked photographs each labeled mysteriously in tiny script. Doors you got to see only for a few seconds in passing had comical names indicating what was stored inside. And then on top of all that, they’d done light design, sound effects, smoke, smells, even a stirring soundtrack for the most dramatic moments.
There was a point where something catastrophic had happened in the story and things were piled up in a room– hell, the show’s not running any more, I can spoil this.
At one point the hull of the Cutty Sark has nosed into one of the rooms, the same Cutty Sark that you inevitably saw sitting outside while you were walking to the museum because it is too enormous to miss. Of course it’s just the nose of the ship and of course it’s fake, obviously, duh, but it’s a great visionary moment. It breaks down the fourth wall in a new way: you and the actors have been inside all along but you assumed you were inside a magic circle unconnected to the outside world. Having a chunk of the outside world intrude suddenly implies that the sphere of action has widened. And it reaches out temporally too; it makes you feel as though your walk to the museum contained a bit of prologue for the show, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
Even without that, though, the plethora of things feels wonderful; and it feels wonderful in a way that is a bit fantastical but not completely a lie. Museum storage rooms sometimes do feel like this. They were less capriciously organized, maybe, but I have been in rooms that had shelves and shelves of nothing but broken-off heads and limbs from statues; drawers of oil lamps; sliding trays containing hundreds of the coin-sized tin wreaths offered at shrines; heaps of pottery shards from cooking pots two thousand years old, which on the one hand look too boring to display and on the other hand still bear the flame marks from some peasant stew millennia ago and that kind of temporal connection will never, ever cease to be amazing to me. There’s often much more than can ever be put on display. The sets for Against Captain’s Orders got that flavor, multiplied. Even the ceilings were often hung with hundreds of objects.
So that was great. It was so great that I basically wanted to stop the show and get off: to forget the docent-guided search for McGuffins and the nominal plot; to let all the other people go on without me, and instead just hang out for half an hour in any of these rooms, poking through the drawers and reading all the signs and unfurling the furled maps and feeling the weight of the nautical instruments.
Punchdrunk’s great strength is this interactive set design, and they did the design, and then they made up a show format where exploratory interactivity is really constrained. This I felt was a pity, though maybe it is hard to do otherwise with a show designed to be suitable for six-year-olds.
There was also one real moment of what, in another medium, I would call ludonarrative dissonance. The story of Against Captain’s Orders is partly about loyalty. At the beginning of the experience, the docents explain that we’re all part of a crew and must be loyal to one another; they explain that this means not leaving anyone behind. Then halfway through, Arthur, the more nervous docent, does get frightened that we’re all about to be caught by “the custodians”, and so does leave the group behind, though he returns later. This is the main driver of character conflict, because his fellow docent is of course furious with him, and later Arthur gets a monologue in which he contemplates what he should have done instead, and so on. Then, nearly at the end, when we’re all in jeopardy, he volunteers to be the one to stay behind and deal with the dangerous machine while the rest of us escape.
From a non-interactive story perspective, this is a reasonable bit of storytelling and an appropriate crisis with which to illustrate his character development. But we’ve just all been schooled about not leaving people behind, so why should we now be so willing to abandon Arthur to his fate?
At this point in the performance, I lingered near Arthur, trying to work out if I had the option to insist on staying at his side. But the docents’ behavior and the layout of the room seemed to indicate that there was no story branch point here: they needed the audience to go on to the next room, not have a big conscience moment and hang back cluttering the set. Where did I think I was, a Nordic LARP?
So after a few moments I kept walking, and the story unfolded as it was clearly intended to unfold. But I didn’t experience this as a complicity moment. I hadn’t abandoned Arthur out of any fear about what might happen, except in the meta sense that I did not want to be a bad audience member who caused trouble and screwed up the experience for everyone.
I think, again, that this moment may have felt different than intended because I am not a six-year-old. Children are used to being protected and herded around and taken care of; if there’s a grown-up dealing with a dangerous thing, it makes sense that the children should be removed to safety while the grown-up does that work unimpeded. However, from the perspective of an adult, not helping is more of a choice and less of a default, and I felt weird about it, especially given how much of the narrative was about exactly this.
Afterward, the second docent, Glan, blames himself for Arthur being left behind. But he doesn’t blame the audience, and it’s never implied that we could have done anything differently. (And then Arthur is miraculously rescued by way of some slapstick-y business and everything is happy, hooray. It’s children’s theater, yes.)
So. That was really cool and immersive and had high production values and was infinitely more intricate than anything I remember museums doing when I was a kid.* At the same time, there was potential to do some of the other things that interactive stories are good at — the storytelling through exploration or through choice, say — and that was pretty much untapped. Maybe it had to be that way, for reasons of pacing, the number of guests they needed to deal with at a time, and the youth of the intended audience. But for me there was something missing. I’m keen to see some Punchdrunk for adults.
* Though I grew up in LA and the museum of Science and Industry** had a shaking platform you could stand on to simulate an earthquake. For some reason I loved this even though I already knew what an earthquake felt like because I lived in Southern California. Presumably the pedagogical purpose of the exhibit was more to inform any tourists who happened to have timed their California vacation just wrong and managed to miss San Andreas playing up.
** Now I look it up, I see that museum has been renamed the California Science Center sometime in the 25-odd years since I was last there. Truly you cannot step on the same fault line twice.