Elves in Shoreditch: The Live-action Witcher 2 experience

On Tuesday, I stabbed a rogue magician in the back and left him bleeding out on a roof, all in aid of The Witcher 2's release on Xbox 360. Is that, y'know, a good thing?

Games, if you’re not aware, are BIG MONEY. And as such, publishers are flinging a lot of money at PR firms to make sure that people are aware of said games via the medium of GULLIBLE JOURNALISTS. As one of those gullible journalists – one who’s been suckered in by a free beer and a fancy layout more than once – the LARP felt a bit different from normal.

A VARIETY OF PASTRIES

Witcher 2 screenshot

My removing Geralt's feet, I've made him look like A GIANT. I'm a PHOTO-WIZARD

The standard affair for games promo events, for those of you who don’t know, goes like this – a PR firm hire out a room (usually in North London because they like making me travel all the way up the Northern line) and get everyone into it. Usually, there is free tea and coffee and a variety of pastries, which young games journalists descend on veraciously and old games journalists studiously ignore in favour of their iPads. If the event takes place after lunch, there will usually be a free bar. Everyone uses the free bar.

A man – usually a tired man from America or France or that country that multiclassed in America and France, Canada – will then demonstrate the game, often whilst another man talks about what he is doing. For example: the first man will enter a wide section of the map, and the other man will encourage you to note how wide this section of the map is. Presumably some of the journalists in the room must be blind, or something.

Then, if you’re lucky and the game’s not too far off release, you’ll get to have a go on it; it’s invariably buggy, and you’re always told not to worry about the bugs. Sometimes you’ll get to have an interview with someone, but pretty much never anyone who can tell you anything worthwhile in the ten minutes you have available. Often they’ll put you with the Art Director or the Assistant Producer, who I’m sure are super interesting and I’d love to have dinner with them at some point, but can’t shed much light on what you need to know.

If you ask them any questions about the game itself, they will – almost without exception! – refuse to offer any information that is not already available in the press release. This is why I ended up speaking to most devs about their favourite swear word and getting them to draw me pictures.

MASSIVELY INCONGRUOUS

Witcher 2 Live-Action Game

Spoiler warning: That chap in blue is a dickbag

The Witcher 2 launch, though, was a bit different. Once companies have let you play the game for long enough, they generally have a bit of a party and release it – this can range from massive star-studded events hosted by Danny Wallace for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to quiet dos in the back rooms of expensive pubs, again in North London, for smaller titles.

This one for The Witcher 2, though, had a LARP – a Live-Action Roleplaying Game – stuck in it. Upon walking through a door in Shoreditch your world was “transformed” into a dimly-lit tavern where buxom waitresses served you “honey mead” (read: pear cider) and a lavish feast (read: some cheese) was laid out for you; straw was scattered on the floor and a variety of savoury types filled the bar.

All told, it was massively incongruous because we were all dressed up in normal clothing, standing around awkwardly and occasionally having a go on some Xboxes that were set up at the back of the room. But still. It was a nice effort.

“SOME KIND OF… CLEANER-ELF”

The Witcher 2 Live-Action game

This shot ruined slightly by the car in the background, I feel

The LARP itself was overlaid, taking place in three locations around Shoreditch – one of them being a park, complete with a Litter Collector (or as the NPC with us hastily claimed, “some kind of… cleaner-elf”) – and it focused around us clearing our name for the murder of the King by poison. Fun times. Five highlights:

ONE. Trying to bribe a big, thick-looking elf (with eyebrows like a pair of caterpillars on steroids) who played along with it, improvised properly, and managed to convince me that I’d pretty much brought his loyalty before his master pulled him away from me and sent us on our way

TWO. Getting scared and perhaps a little uncomfortably aroused by a mad Baroness in a pub basement, offering us the chance to bathe with her

THREE. Telling tales of the distant land of my homestead, “Tooting,” and pronouncing it “Two-TING” to make it sound old fashioned, before being soundly beaten at poker dice

FOUR. Walking through the rain to the elf camp, with my hands raised to show I had no weapons, maybe actually felt a bit tense and I started to get a little apprehensive when one appeared from behind a tree, leaving us surrounded

FIVE. Ending up in an awkward swordfight with a man on a slippery rooftop, and dual-wielding an iron (read: foam) sword and a silver dagger (read: one of those plastic knives that retracts into the handle) to knock aside his blade and best his magical defences by shanking him between the shoulderblades

A BIG X BUTTON

The Witcher 2 Live-Action Game

These guys played dice. Pretty sure I recognised the one on the left from a Cursed Crusade event

Two problems I noticed:

ONE The actors weren’t, um, the best. They were all having a go, for sure, but acting to a small group of confused games journalists is different from acting on stage – the death of the King (after a mouthful of what was clearly, according to my gobletful, Ribena mixed with residual brass polish) was the best part of his entire act. While some of the players were pretty good – including the crazy lady who swept the floor wherever you were standing, and had her Witcher fluff down pat – some of it just didn’t fly.

TWO The App that the firm had clearly gone to great lengths to design as a journal of the campaign didn’t flow as well as it could have done. What we got was a detailed history of the route we’d taken through the adventure (there were a handful of decisions and challenges to undertake, none of which mattered) which wasn’t as fast as it could be – what we needed was a big X button that we could hammer to skip our way through the dialogue bits, much in the same way we ALL DO in EVERY GAME.

We’d quite often end up standing around wondering precisely why we were talking to this elf in this particular park, where we’d come from, or where we were supposed to be going afterwards.

A MASSIVE PUBLICITY MACHINE

Witcher 2 screenshot

This is a massive killing machine, not a publicity machine, but it's basically the same

All complaints aside, it was memorable. It must have cost a fair bit – although Namco Bandai are clearly chucking a lot of cash at the launch, as the previous overnight stay and seven-course banquet (complete with saucy lute player) in Kent’s Hever Castle proves – but I guess, seeing as the Witcher 2’s already been out on PC for almost a year, they need to make sure everyone knows it’s coming again on the Xbox 360.

I love what Premier PR, the company that are handling the press events, are doing. We’ve taken in so much spiel from glossy, well-dressed professionals with fantastic teeth that we glaze over the minute it starts,* and the chance to do something a bit different, even if it’s pretty rough around the edges, is a laugh. They’ve shown themselves time and time again to be personable, approachable, flexible and – most importantly, I think – willing to take fairly sizeable risks. In a way, it reminds us that everyone involved is a person, not just part of a massive publicity machine.

It is all pretty hollow, of course, and that’s the nature of the business; they’re trying to get us to say nice things so people will buy games. But when it’s compared to your a more standard launch – for example, the infinite bar and battling celebrity DJs of the PS Vita release party – it leaves a lot more of an impression.

Oh, and the game? Yeah, it’s good, actually; it offers significantly more bang per buck than many other titles out there. But if you want a full review, I’m not your man.

The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is out on Xbox 360 on the 17th of April. I’m gonna go ahead and say you should buy it

* Not that Premier PR folks have bad teeth or anything