The Mortality Machine [Review]

90% feels

Location:  New York City

Date Played: January 26, 2019

Team size: up to 20 people

Duration: 120 minutes

Price: $125 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Restraints

REA Reaction

The Mortality Machine was something different. It was strange, profound, and heartfelt. It’s deep enough that I am not sure how far down one would have to dive to find the bottom.

In-experience: 4 players looking over something with intense facial expressions.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Sinking Ship Creations describes their experience as “an immersive theatre experience that combines live-action roleplay and site specific dance to allow you, the participants, to become the protagonists of the story. ”

I think that a more accurate description is: “The Mortality Machine is a live-action roleplay (LARP) that combines elements of immersive theatre, escape rooms, and site specific dance to allow you, the participants, to become the protagonists of the story.”

The Mortality Machine was mostly about playing a character in extraordinary circumstances and finding human moments with the other characters. The puzzles were straightforward and would get solved. Game mechanics would inevitably be triggered. It was up to each individual player to create their own moments.

With the story and emotional stage set, each of us had to step out of ourselves and into our characters.

A number of small improvements to game mechanics could make it easier for every player to comfortably focus on what matters most. Sinking Ship Creations has been rapidly iterating on the production, so I assume they will continue to make improvements.

Lisa and I had incredible experiences in The Mortality Machine. Your mileage will vary based on the gameplay and character decisions that you and the rest of the players make.

If you’re looking for a puzzle-focused, goal-oriented game, skip The Mortality Machine and book an escape room.

If you want to be a passive observer and take in a meticulously scripted performance, skip The Mortality Machine.

If you’re willing to explore humanity and emotions by embracing a little bit of roleplay, and you’re happy to occasionally solve a puzzle and take in a beautifully scripted moment, then The Mortality Machine is a must-play. The catch is: you have to commit. The best moments will be born of your willingness to embrace your character and be that person.

In-experience: show co-creator Ryan Hart speaking to the players.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Best for people open to an emotional experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every interaction
  • It’s playable by people with any experience level, but the more experience you have with roleplaying, improvisation, and acting, the easier you’ll find it to get into character.
  • Players who are ok with having to work for their moments

Why play?

  • If you embrace the experience fully, there are some serious feels to find
  • The story and characters are surprisingly impactful
  • It’s an amazing introductory LARP

Story

In 2014, 5 people died in an underground medical experiment. After years of litigation, the loved ones of the deceased were granted access to the illegal lab.

Setting

The Mortality Machine was built into New York City’s immersive stage Wildrence. It spanned their entire basement set.

Each room within Wildrence was adapted to represent a new environment within the game. It was a good location for the game. Having visited multiple experiences in the space, I think that this was one of the more extensive and effective adaptations that we’ve seen.

In-experience: A player strapped to a gurney.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Gameplay

The Mortality Machine was a LARP that blended elements of escape room and immersive theatre into the fabric of its gameplay and script.

Core gameplay revolved around conversing, improvising in character, and emotionally connecting with other players and non-player characters.

There were additional escape room gameplay elements that involved searching, puzzling, observing, and making connections. These elements were decidedly secondary. Focusing on them at the expense of the emotional component was thoroughly detrimental.

Analysis

➕ Every player was cast into their role at the door. Rita, the greeter, was impressively talented at this.

➕ Our character descriptions on the back of our name tags were short, yet potent. We weren’t overburdened with tons of lore and backstory, but we had enough to figure out our motivations, our connection to the deceased, and our relationship to the other people from our “family.”

➖ It felt like there was a missing step in our on-boarding process. We needed just a few minutes to get acquainted with the descriptions on our character cards before we had to be those characters. My character card lacked critical relational information that another character had. The gap really put me in a bind at the onset of the experience. (I made it work.) Finally, our character cards had bolded names on them. It would have been helpful if we were explicitly told that bolded names were player characters.

➕/➖ The day before attending The Mortality Machine, we received an email with a few short articles and letters and an FAQ to help frame the experience. We read these on the train to the venue. While these weren’t required reading, it was immediately apparent who had or hadn’t read the materials based on whether they knew the disease that all of the victims had. A lot of folks didn’t read it.

➕ The introduction was well structured to add little bits of additional information and complexity at a time.

In-experience: 4 players looking at a computer with intense facial expressions.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

➕ There were some light puzzles that seemed to play cleanly.

➖ I don’t think that everyone playing understood that this was neither a puzzle game nor a show. LARPs aren’t a mainstream thing. Unlike escape rooms or most immersive theatre, LARPs aren’t easy to enter cold and experience fully. You have commit to your role to earn your own moments through emotional connections, conversation, and action. It felt like a lot of people needed more on-boarding with regards to emotional play… but it was far too easy to just hyper-focus on the puzzles in the beginning of the experience.

➖ One of the puzzles pertaining to Lisa’s character’s loved one failed. Either the component wasn’t there at the start of the experience or someone deliberately or inadvertently misplaced it early on. Her group struggled to fully immerse themselves in the character moments because they had this unfinished task and they didn’t know how important it was. The failure here wasn’t the missing prop, but the lack of a failsafe to seamlessly assist the group through the mishap.

➕ There were some amazing shared moments, experienced with most of the group. These scenes surprised and confounded us while launching the next act.

➖ One critical moment involved a device with insufficient speakers, given the amount of commotion going on in the game. I couldn’t hear most of what should have been a powerful establishing moment for me.

➖ We didn’t fully understand how to operate a critical game mechanic… and we didn’t really need to… but there came a point where the nature of this interaction changed and that wasn’t clear enough to be satisfying.

➖ At the end of the experience, the players were rushed out of the space. Depending on where we’d experienced the last scene, we were rushed out more or less quickly, which was also confusing. There was an opportunity to go upstairs to a bar for conversation… but not everyone found out that this was an option. The rushing also juxtaposed sourly against the warmth of the experience.

❓The decisions that we made mattered, some more than others. It was possible to take actions early on that profoundly and permanently impacted an individual’s path and experience. This wasn’t inherently good or bad; it just was. Because of this, you really ought to act as your character, not as a gamer or theater goer seeking thrills, secrets, or private moments.

❓ The Mortality Machine came with a ton of variability. Each individual player’s experience was the direct result of how they were spot cast, how much they committed to their role, and how well their relations played and committed to their roles.

Was she playing a believable sister? Did she open up and let you connect with her? Was she fumbling around with searching the space for 90 minutes? I focused on having conversations and moments with the people who were engaged and that paid off for me.

❓ Yes, there were a number of different possible endings. It would be possible to actively strive for a particular ending. I suspect that others saw it differently, but I felt like focusing on a desired outcome would be counterproductive. I think that I had a better experience because I remained focused on my character’s motivations and relationships.

➕ I enjoyed the poetry and calmness of the ending that we earned.

➕ Lisa and I experienced so many emotional moments in The Mortality Machine. Our feels ran the gamut, including anger, compassion, joy, and sorrow, among others.

In one of my most genuine character moments of the evening, I found myself screaming at a non-player character (which was breaking a rule, a fact that I forgot in the moment) and he went right there with me.

Lisa’s most profound moment was a meaningful gesture that filled her with both joy and sorrow. She teared up.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking: It’s Manhattan, maybe don’t drive? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Food: The venue is in Chinatown. You’ll have no problems finding food and drink.
  • Accessibility: You’ll need to be able to ascend/ descend one stairway to enter/ exit the venue.

Book your session with Sinking Ship Creations’ The Mortality Machine, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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