Pervasive games are a text book example of life imitating art. Or games imitating art. There is a special relationship between pervasive games and films: often a cool activity has been depicted in a film and later viewers have decided to recreate this activity (or a non-lethal version of it) in real life. During the process of writing Pervasive Games we encountered numerous such films. Unfortunately there was not enough room in the book to dwell into each and every one of them. In this blog we’ll take a look at some of our favorites. (The first part of this series was about La decima vittima.)
The Last of Sheila, 1973
The Last of Sheila is an interesting example of the interplay between films and games. The film for both inspired by a game and in turn inspired games. Musical maestro Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame used to stage elaborate high society treasure hunts in New York in the 1960’s. Sondheim later recalled this period of his life in an interview with The New Yorker:
“Stephen Sondheim’s most famous game took place in Manhattan on
Halloween, 1968. It required twenty people (preferably young theatre
Turks like Herbert Ross, Nora Kaye, Lee Remick, Mary Rodgers, and
Roddy McDowall), four limousines, complicated maps full of numbers and
arrows, and a sack of perplexing props: scissors, bits of string,
pins. Each team of five had to drive to a spot designated on the map,
and there they would find a clue telling them where to go next; the
trouble was, the clues were numbers, and there was no way of knowing
how they might be revealed. One destination was a bustling bowling
alley in which the last lane was curiously empty; there stood a single
enigmatic pin, which you had to bowl over in such a way that you
glimpsed the number written on the side. Another site proved to be
nothing but a nondescript door with a mail slot. But if you stuck your
ear near the slot, you could hear the faint voice of Frank Sinatra
singing “One for My Baby” – which might still have stumped you unless
you recognized that the lyric begins, “It’s a quarter to three.” A
quarter to three: the number was 245. Then there was the vestibule of
a brownstone, where a small elderly woman (actually, the mother of
Anthony Perkins, Sondheim’s fellow game designer) would beckon you
upstairs for some coffee and a slice of cake. Those who actually ate
the cake stood no chance of winning: the clue was drawn in the icing.”
From Deconstructing Sondheim, The New Yorker, March 8, 1993, by
Later Sondheim and Perkins wrote The Last of Sheila, which recycled many of elements of the games. In the film a multi-millionaire invites a group of his friends to his yatcht. He insists that they play a game where each participant is dealt a secret crime and the other are supposed to try to match the crime with the participant. Naturally the games get a bit out of hand and of course it is connected to the myterious hit-and-run death of the millionaire’s wife the previous year.
Though the game depicted in the film progresses unrealistically, as these mystery games on film always do, there are numerous moments which make is clear that at least some of the people involved have actually staged games. The game in Sheila is a little less slick than most games on film. Game paraphernalia that is shown is actually used and especially the game master is quite believable.
It is also interesting to note how some motifs keep popping up in films that depict pervasive gaming. One of these is the doll. In David Fincher’s The Game, which seems to be the most common touchstone for pervasive games, it was even featured on the film poster. Still, there is a fairly similar doll already in The Last of Sheila. (The pic on the left is from Sheila, the one on the right is from The Game.)
Donald Luskin and his friends saw the movie in 1973 in Los Angeles. It made an impression on them and inspired them to create puzzle hunts of their own. They created four Games during the 1970’s. In yet another weird sequence of events Luskin’s games were the inspiration for yet another film about a pervasive game, Disney’s Midnight Madness.
The Last of Sheila is available on DVD. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but at least game masters will get a kick out of it.