Live Experience Company Swamp Motel Builds an Online World in Plymouth Point
Company co-founder Ollie Jones discusses the new venture, which is part theater experience, part interactive puzzle game.
When Covid shut all theaters down, among the arts professionals that instantaneously pivoted to digital content were the members of the UK-based live experience company Swamp Motel. Co-founders Ollie Jones and Clem Garrity initially began developing an interactive online show called Plymouth Point as a proof of concept, a literal "here's what we can do for you." But this mystery game, where players must figure out the circumstances behind a woman's disappearance, and the strange corporation that may have caused it, took off.
Running for a year, and now with two follow-up sequels, Plymouth Point has just made its American debut, and it's addictively enjoyable. Here, Jones tells us about its development, and how Swamp Motel plans to use the skills they've gathered in future live productions.
Can you give me an overview of Plymouth Point and its two sequels?
Plymouth Point starts with you joining a video call at the Plymouth Point Residents Watch. You meet a woman called Kath, and she tells you that a girl named Ivy has gone missing. Ivy was getting very panicked and very worried in the past few days, and now she's gone and Kath is worried. She says, "Do you think you could help me find her?" and that's all you're given. The rest is down to your instincts as to what to do next. As you start to dig into clues that we've littered throughout the internet, through real and fake websites, you start to uncover more and more of this story that Ivy's got herself involved in.
It ties in real-world stories, real-world history, as well as fiction, to create this kind of immersive narrative that you explore as part of a team, either together or apart. You gradually dig into this dark conspiracy and start to learn that all is not as it seems as, and then we build on that story in The Mermaid's Tongue, which is the second one, and The Kindling Hour, which is the third. They're based around the same conspiracy, and it's the same bad guys and good guys, but the story expands and different things are needed.
How did your team develop the concept?
Swamp Motel, the company at which I am co-founder, traditionally made live experiences, until March 2020, when that was all made impossible. All our work for the year was canceled, and so we were kind of sitting there worried, wondering what to do, and we just thought that we need to show people that our work was still valid, we just can't do it in person. We needed to think of a way that we can do an immersive experience that has all the excitement of what we do live, but within these restrictions. And everyone's on Zoom, so why don't we try and do it on Zoom? One of the first ideas we had was, "It'd be cool if you could go on Facebook and, just through someone's ambient life information, you can guess their email password, and then get into their emails and see what was in there." It all kind of spiraled out from there.
We spent about a month working on it and the idea was to run it for three weeks, try and get some people to go through it, and be like, "See, we can do this for you, if you wanted to work on something like that." It started out just as Plymouth Point and then the reception was good and the lockdown was still going. There was a bit of debate internally about whether we're going to do a brand-new story or carry on, but it was cool to have a fan base for this story so we kept building on it. We worked on that over the summer and launched [the two others] in early October. We've had over 50,000 people now go through the trilogy.
Plymouth Point felt like it ended on a cliffhanger, so I'm excited to see where it goes in this strange world of...witchcraft and Britishness, which is what I like about it.
It's definitely very British, isn't it? There's a lot of like weird, old-world stuff in it. And there's a lot more of that. I'm a bit of a history geek, so it was really fun to dive in and see what weird stuff has happened in this country over the past few hundred years. It just makes everything more immersive. It makes everything feel like it's really happening because you stumble across this missing girl and this odd company, and then if you start cross-referencing what you're learning about that company, it seems like there's real history to back it up and real people that seem to have interacted with it. All of a sudden, you start to wonder which bits are real and which bits fake, and how much of this is a made up conspiracy, and how much of it is a real conspiracy.
How is this creation process going to impact the work that your company does in the future?
If you compare projects that we did live before all this, the audience would be moved on [from scene to scene] by a character. They'd be like, "Hey, let's go this way," or "Why didn't you go through that door?" I mean, it was better than that, but that was the essence of it. What has been really cool about this is that it's all down to you. You're not really given too much, just the slightest inkling as to what you're supposed to do, and it's up to you to try things out and see what leads you somewhere. There's a really exciting quality in that as a participant, as an audience member, to be much more pivotal in what's happening. There's also a lot of tech-based stuff that can complement live things. Plymouth Point, at it's heart, is about finding passwords and cracking into things and using real-world tools to do that. That's something we can bring in live, as well.
Where do you go from here?
We're doing a scheme called Room 21, which is an open call for submissions from people who think they've got a cool idea for an online immersive experience. People can pitch ideas to us and we're going to work to find one that we think is really great, and then we're going to work with the writer to develop and hopefully ultimately produce their idea. It's a funded, paid thing, a proper project with fees, so it's not an unpaid work opportunity. Everything is on our website!