How The Tension Experience Rewrote the Rules of Storytelling

Posted November 23rd 2016


via The Verge

The narrative of The Tension Experience dates back to February, when Bousman launched an alternate reality game dubbed Indoctrination to raise awareness ahead of the immersive show’s September debut. Participants solved riddles on the Tension website, met characters during sinister, in-person “consultations,” and answered hundreds of incredibly invasive questions as part of the experience, and over time the larger narrative began to take shape.

Tension told the story of Addison Barrow (Sabrina Kern), an aspiring actress who moved to Los Angeles only to quickly find herself seduced by an organization called The O.O.A. Institute. A sinister cult with religious overtones, The O.O.A. became the setting for a series of power plays and reversals, with different cult leaders — referred to as “Gatekeepers” — vying for control. Those playing the ARG got caught in the middle, often in extremely uncomfortable ways. One player watched in person as Addison slit a Gatekeeper’s throat just inches from her face; another was seen on-camera choking a different leader to death with their own hands. An Anonymous-style resistance group appeared, with players forced to choose sides as the intensity of the interactions increased — and all of it was strategically streamed and shared with the community, furthering the overarching storyline.

Using different mediums to tell a larger story isn’t a particularly new idea, and alternate reality games have been used to market everything from movies to albums for years. But what was consistently unique in The Tension Experience was the focus on driving one cohesive narrative; Indoctrination wasn’t a marketing tie-in, and it wasn’t backstory. It was the main story, fractured across different platforms, with each offering the audience different ways to dive in.

Inspired by immersive storytelling pioneers Punchdrunk of Sleep No More, director Darren Lynn Bousman sought to expand on alternate reality gaming and immersive theater to create a new genre on storytelling: one where the players and audience members become integral to the story, not just witnesses. The Tension Experience will be an uncomfortable endeavor for many, but also a thrilling nod to the future of entertainment for those looking to physically step inside the story.