Posted by: Stenros | March 16, 2009

Pervasive Games in Films Part II: The Last of Sheila

the-last-of-sheila-3Pervasive 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
Stephen Schiff.

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.

the-last-of-sheila-1It 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.


  1. […] Pervasive Games in Films Part III: Midnight Madness It’s again time for our semiregular series of looking at films that have influenced pervasive games. For previous parts, see La decima vittima and The Last of Sheila. […]

  2. What, you’re not going to quote me? ;)

  3. Scott, my jaw just dropped to the floor. Obviously, we have done exactly the same research you have.

    Luskin kindly provided us with copies from the newspapers, but our desperate emails to random places probably never even reached Sondheim, Fincher and Brancato etc. But we got Belfiore to contribute a case story on The Game.

    We also have Elsa Maxwell on our map, but didn’t make a leap of faith to Cecil Adams.

    You seem to have missed the tidbit that Luskin and others sued for Midnight Madness, and got compensated, and that is why their names appear in credits.

    Stupefyingly, we have been piecing these things together roughly at the same time with you. Just checked — for instance, Luskin finally answered our inquiries on the 8th of June 2008, but we probably would have accessed the newspapers sooner on your site than the letter reached us. :-)

    And kudos for the blog, I’ll add it to our blogroll right away!

    – Markus

  4. Believe me, Markus, my response was pretty much the same! I probably should have included it, but I didn’t mention anything about the lawsuit and names in the credit because my friend Larry Hosken had already mentioned it in his blog:

    In the latter link, Larry wrote about how we met Luskin at the beginning of a hunt and he talked about the lawsuit briefly.

    I think the person I got the newspaper clippings from was Patrick Carlyle, but I can’t prove it :)

    In the back of my mind, there’s been the idea that maybe I could turn my interest in this history into some sort of book, but you’ve done it all for me! I look forward to reading Pervasive Games.

    – Scott

  5. Cool, very cool. :-)

    It’s unfortunate; when we were googling for this, very little was available. If I was doing the same research now, it’d all be out there neatly for us.

    We also have another of these stories, on Killer games. The progression from Robert Sheckley and Elio Petri to Deathgame, which is then portrayed in The Saint and codified by Steve Jackson and then spread everywhere else is also amazing. Check it out!

    And… if we ever meet somewhere, let’s go have a drink over this! :-)

    – Markus

  6. Oh to add to the story BTW — Encounter also claims to be based on Fincher’s The Game.

  7. Oh, this is too good to be true. :) Thank you, Scott, I need to look up all these sources I hadn’t been aware of before. I’m especially interested in anything that predates Maxwell. (We quote her autobiography in the upcoming book; I don’t buy her claim that she “invented” scavenger hunts, but she did popularize tham.)

  8. […] sometimes those traditions are connected. Recently Scott from Puzzalot commented on my posting on The Last of Sheila: He has been tracing the steps from the Belfiore tradition of games to Midnight Madness to the […]

  9. […] are. “It’s like Fincher’s The Game, except for real.” Previous parts: I, II, III and […]

  10. […] are the ones that somehow tie into popular culture. The posting about pervasive games in films (I, II, III, IV) have always been popular, as have our commentaries of ongoing controversies (Anna Odell, […]

  11. thx so much for this article. I watched “The Last of Sheila” last night (available on netflix in the USA) and have enjoyed myself greatly. The puppets scared the heck out of me, and overall it was very suspenseful, and the game master indeed quite believable even though the ending seemed a little squeezed. :)
    The whole set up seemed pretty Miss Marplish to me (limited amount of people in a confined space being tricked into revealing their secrets) — could be worth looking into the gameish / ARGish elements of Agatha Christies work… someday.

  12. […] filmische Inspiration für pervasive Games / Alternate Reality Games wird schnell einmal David Fincher´s “The Game” genannt. […]

  13. Great post, man. I loved “The Last Of Sheila,” and I certainly wish I knew friends who staged those kinds of games.

  14. […] alone or together: Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. The plot is entirely consistent with the friends’ fondness for elaborate game-playing. Their dialog  is brisk, witty, and delightfully vicious. Except for the predictably wooden work […]

  15. Reblogged this on rosslandauer and commented:
    Watched The Last of Sheila last weekend. Enjoyed, but felt it was miscategorized as an “essential gay film”. That is, unless Bette Midler singing “Friends” over the closing credits, qualifies the film as essentially gay. I thought this blog post concerning Pervasive Games in Film was much more interesting than my take on The Last of Sheila, so I reblogged it here for your general amusement.

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