Now that it is all over, we feel like talking about the narrative from a designer point of view. This is going to be a long post featuring all the backstories and some designer comments on different design choices we made along the way.
Even though it is obvious, I think it is still worth to say aloud that larp is always created in cooperation with the players, and each player has their own unique experience based on the character and the run they participated in. It is important to understand that there is and always will be vastly different opinions on the meaning and implications of this story and what I write here is just our take on the story and there is no "official" truth. There are some things we considered ‘canon’ when we created this story, but there are many others that we deliberately left open for players to interpret and make up their mind. Also, it varied from one run to another how much information was made available to different players so that influenced the players’ perception of the story.
Odysseus was always meant to stir emotions. The story we wanted to tell wasn’t going to be a happy one. It was clear from very early on for us that we wanted to tell a story that would be controversial, a story that was not simple, a story where it was not an easy task to define heroes and villains. We wanted to create a second layer where the story you experience in the larp offers you perspective and encourages you to think moral questions and justification on actions taken even after the larp is over.
Naturally there are different opinions on whether we succeeded or not, but these were the ideas we had in mind when we started to create this story. From very early on we settled for the slogan ‘A story about survival’, and one of the main themes we wanted to explore was ‘What would you do in order to survive?” We wanted to put our players in a position where they would have to do terrible things in order to save the remnants of the human race. We wanted to create a narrative where the same people would be heroes and villains depending on the perspective.
For this larp, we were telling several parallel stories and none of them were particularly nice ones. I think our players did an excellent job on spreading the information and I think that at least parts of several backstories were revealed to most players during each run. But I’m sure there are a lot of players who didn’t find out about them in the game and readers who didn’t participate, so to give some context, here is a short run-through on what the story was about, and what were the outlines of each different backstory.
The story of Odysseus
Our story takes place 800 years in the future far away in the stars in a place called the Arati system. There is the planet Ellarion and its two moons, Caelena and Osiris, which form the EOC Nation. This civilization was formed over five hundred years ago by people who were part of an exodus from Earth called the Genesis project. Most of the information about the Genesis journey and the distant home of their ancestors, was lost during the exodus. It was only known that there was some incident during the journey that corrupted most of the databases, and thus only stories and memories remained.
The larp started seven days after an enemy called The Machines attacked the EOC Nations and wiped out all major cities in a coordinated strike. Remnants of human civilization are fleeing this overwhelming enemy. The game follows the journey of a small military ship, ESS Odysseus, that starts out alone and during the game picks up more survivors, meets the fleet, and reaches the position where it is up to the players to decide the fate of their civilization.
At the beginning of the game, Odysseus has just saved Starcaller, a small vessel, which was on its way to carry out negotiations with the enemy. However, some on board Starcaller had a secret mission to destroy the enemy mothership under this diplomatic cover. This mission was halted when the ship broke down. Early in the game, players receive a help request from survivors in the distant planet of Velian (an isolated human population that was found a few decades ago), where the last survivors of another disaster were taking cover inside an ancient Genesis ship, the last one remaining from the original Genesis journey.
The Velian survivors were carrying a mysterious box with the symbol of one of the main religions of the EOC Nation called Old Ways. That turned out to be one of the long lost beacons which the followers of the Old Ways believe that their ancestors had left behind to guide them back to Earth one day. The structure of the game was forged around solving the puzzles found within these beacons in order to find new ones while escaping the relentless enemy fleet determined to finish what they had started. And at the same time trying to figure out a way to end the chase.
After two days of jumping every three hours to escape the enemy, the surviving fleet was met by a dead end. The seventh beacon was buried so deep underground that with the tools they had and the three hour timer it was impossible to recover it and survive. Also, the fleet had been pushed to it’s limit and after the last battle with the Machines, several ships were unable to make the next jump. By that time, the players had a fighting chance to end the conflict there and then. The android characters on board had the chance to call the enemy mothership to their location and the scientists had been able to manufacture a bomb efficient enough to destroy the ship as well as with the help from Velians fix an ancient alien device that was capable of cloaking an entire ship. During the last hours of the game, it was up to the characters on board the ESS Odysseus to decide what to do.
In all the three runs, the players ended up using the Starcaller to destroy the enemy mothership, ‘The Nest’. And arguably they didn’t have a choice, their other options being to decide that humanity didn’t deserve to survive, or leaving the rest of the fleet behind and continuing the escape. How the ‘Starcaller mission’ was seen varied greatly between players (and was strongly affected by the amount of diplomatic efforts tried), but there was a general outline in each run. In first one it was seen as an act of war against an unyielding opponent, in the second as the genocide of a sentient race. And in the third a necessary sacrifice to prevent the Machines from being a threat to anyone else ever again.
The Enlightened (/Elders)
The origin of the cycle of fear and revenge that was many times referenced during the larp by the players was an Alien race that called themselves the Enlightened (or as EOC had named them The Elders). This race was inspired by the Ancients in the TV series Stargate. The Enlightened had lived and prospered thousands of years ago and the Arati system was located on the edge of their domain. This race had created a life form, an AI that was learning and evolving and replicating - a life form that would become The Machines / The Nest.
The Enlightened won the war against the Machines and decided to destroy what they had created as they considered their creation to be faulty. While other Enlightened ascended and left this world, one was left behind to finalize the task, to destroy the last remaining machine - The Nest. But The Guardian hesitated.
The Nest was left alone in the cloaked Spaceship in the emptiness of space without any means to communicate or replicate. It was supposed to sleep for all eternity and be forgotten. As was the Guardian, who seeked out one of the last cities their race had left behind and planned to sleep as long as the city would stand and once it finally collapsed the Guardian would perish with it.
The Machines / Nest
After destruction of it’s race by the hands of their creators the last remaining machine was left alone to be forgotten. But in time it prevailed, the Nest managed to generate enough power within the dormant ship to send a signal. A signal that was picked up far far away - on a distant planet called Earth.
And so Nest was eventually found by a group of people that called themselves the Morningstar Alliance. They woke up the ancient machine and in time became one with it. In order to find the Nest these people had betrayed the others they travelled with and were afraid of retribution. And the Nest learned this fear and prejudice from them. A machine that had once been betrayed by its creators learned to fear other humans as it was taught by it’s saviors.
As it encountered humans from the EOC nation for the first time, the Nest took a highly aggressive stance, but as the war progressed the Nest sent out androids it had created to infiltrate and observe humans it only reinforced its opinion. Humans were greedy and unjust and many. The Nest concluded that they would only seek to gain power and to control others. The strong would always oppress the weak and no matter how many good ones, the bad ones would eventually win as they lacked empathy.
This would have always been the result. No matter what the humans would have said, the Nest would not have yielded. It had observed humans, it had talked with humans and it didn’t believe that humans would be able to forgive it for what it had done. Not all of them. No matter how many humans would support the peace and coexistence with the Machines there would always be those that would seek retribution and the Nest wasn’t willing to take the risk.
One of the reasons we ended up not going full Galactica was the option to create our own backstory. We wanted to create some parallels between our history and the current situation our players were in. We also wanted to have a say in things to be discovered about the past. Since the search for the Earth played such a big part in our narrative we also wanted to create the history, the starting point where the story had begun. This history was partially revealed inside the beacons during the game. We had a few discussions about where we wanted to go storywise, about what would make sense. In terms of where we were taking the story of the present day (the inevitable last stand against the Machines and the likely destruction of their race) it made sense to create a similar story in the history to give a little push for the moral debate around the decisions.
Inside the fourth beacon there was a memory stick with a letter containing the history behind the Genesis journey told by the last remaining human from that era.
We decided to go with this less unique story, but still one that would have an impact. A story that would cause discussion. After the game I heard few quotes or thoughts which were exactly what we aimed for “Wait a minute, are we the bad guys?” or “I wonder how well the descendants of those almost responsible of a genocide are welcomed right after they have committed another one…”
This was also interesting chance to play a little mind game on what Earth would look like a hundred years from now. What was done to the current climate crises and what if not enough was done. What would be the desperate actions of some when overpopulation is the looming catastrophe without enough people willing to do what is necessary to save the planet.
The Morningstar Alliance
While the Genesis Foundation was focused on Earth, there was another group who gazed to the stars. The Morningstar Alliance was an association determined to find proof of extraterrestrial life, a goal countless members had dedicated their lives to along the years without any notable results. They were ridiculed by the public who were convinced that if there was something to be found it would have been found already. Most discoveries they had made were undermined and doubted since they mostly offered no concrete evidence. During the early years of the 22nd century the Morningstar Alliance picked up a signal originating from somewhere in the stars. They knew that it was the sign they had been waiting for but also that should they go public with their discovery they would yet again face doubt and scepticism. So after years of ridicule and undermining from the scientific community they kept their discovery to themselves. And when a few years later the Genesis foundation launched a plan to begin the exodus to the stars a plan was formed within the Morningstar Alliance. They would apply for the program, gain influence and pull strings and use the exodus to get close to the origin of the signal. In time the closed community of the Morningstar Alliance grew inwards, they become more and more convinced that they were the chosen ones, that only they were worthy of this first contact.
Ever since the Genesis journey began, passengers on board the GSS Da Vinci had a very different goal which was passed on for future generations. Generation after generation was brainwashed to think they were the chosen ones, that they were superior to everyone else. They had a secret mission, which only they were entitled to. In secrecy they developed project Oblivion - a computer virus designed to target the navigation databases and radar systems of the Genesis fleet specifically. Their aim was to mainly cause a distraction and prevent the rest of the fleet from following them. However the virus turned out to be much more effective and caused failures across multiple systems through out the fleet. When the GSS Da Vinci parted with the fleet their escape went unnoticed in the chaos but the passengers were unsure how much damage was caused by the Oblivion virus.
The fear of retribution from the other survivors clung to them when they finally completed the mission set out by their ancestors. They found a cloaked alien ship and within it a dormant AI: the Nest. The Morningstar Alliance used the power generators on their Genesis ship to turn on the ancient spaceship and awaken the Nest. They ended up accidentally teaching the Nest to fear and resent other humans. They echoed the ways their ancestors had been treated. The mistrust they had faced. They taught the Nest how only they were worthy of the Nests teachings and guidance.
In time the humans became one with the Nest. Their minds downloaded to be a part of the ever growing and ever learning AI. For centuries they were just whispers within the vast consciousness of the ancient AI. The Nest was yet again free to exist, to replicate, to learn and when it eventually crossed paths with the rest of the Genesis humans it considered them to be a threat as it had been taught. And the more it observed, waged war, or studied the humans, the more convinced it became.
THE EOC Nation
The EOC Nation was formed by the 26 Genesis ships that made it through the last phase of the journey, made in cryosleep, after the Oblivion virus had caused the life support systems of the ships to start malfunctioning. The same virus had scrambled most of the databases so when waking up in the Arati system the passengers didn’t have much else than disoriented memories. Slowly they built their new society on top of what they remembered of the old one. Some elements in the emerging culture had already formed during the Genesis journey but they were refined and rebuilt once the new colonies were formed.
Both main religions had their roots in the Genesis Journey. The Old ways formed from an amalgam of the more religious and mystical aspects of humanity, glorifying the journey and the ancient home Earth. Meanwhile the Faith of the High Science kept the more practical elements, the triumph of science and the drive for learning and evolving. Among the forming religions there were those on the journey who sought to make it possible to return to Earth, by leaving a trail of Beacons to be rediscovered.
The royal bloodline of the Emperor also had its roots in the Genesis journey. The black/blue colored blood of the imperial line held the genetic immunity for the virus the Genesis foundation released on Earth. The Black bloodline was the failsafe if the virus wouldn’t die out after carrying its purpose as planned. As such these people were considered highly important but only few knew the actual reason for it. The respect and admiration however remained and created the soil for Emperors role in society to be born.
We also wanted to create some conflict and inner turmoil within the human society. For us the lust for power, the inequality between people in different positions, and rivalry between different groups and individuals were interesting topics to handle. They also seem to be core elements in human nature, and no matter how far we get, a part of us. We didn’t want to bring any gender, orientation or ethnicity based plotlines into the mix, so we ended up focusing the inequality based plots on the birth place and social status within the dynasties. Also exploring this setup colliding with human catastrophe. It made sense for those who had been on the upper echelons of society to want to stay there, but for others a good reason to dismantle the societal constructs and use them as firewood. We also wanted to use the Galactica narrative where some humans had helped create the current situation (human-like androids and the humans they had manipulated). But we also took it a bit further in the ‘Chaos is a ladder’ -direction and created a storyline where the higher ups in the powerful Purity dynasty needed a nation wide disaster to consolidate even more power for themselves. They made a deal with the machines, which was supposed to be a win-win situation, Purity was supposed to name the targets and be in control, but the Machines had made other plans behind their backs. However, this dynasty was never meant to be the ‘big bad’, just an example of greed and the lust for power of some individuals, so most members of this dynasty were absolutely unaware of these plans and schemes.
In a contrast to uglier sides of being a human we also wanted to highlight some positive aspects like hope, perseverance and faith. One of these elements that also tied several stories together was the national anthem of EOC Nations. We wanted a song that was describing the original genesis journey but which would also be very relevant to the story of the larp and the situation our characters where experiencing. Hannu, Helena and Mia did a beautiful job at delivering exactly that.
EOC Anthem (listen)
Song by Hannu Niemi , Helena Haaparanta and Mia Makkonen
It’s time to leave our home behind
Embrace the road with an open mind
Although the journey will be long
Together we stand strong
May the wisdom light your way ahead
Explore the world unseen, unread
Remember stories of the old
and find your way back home
Our very first idea was that the whole Velian society would be only discovered ingame, but we had a good long conversation about it in our first bigger organizer meeting and concluded that it would be a bit too suspicious, and we’re quite pleased with how it worked out. We managed to create a society felt very different, almost alien, but so that there were a few existing connections and some intrigue from both sides. The Velians all knew the secret that the Guardian was not a human but they didn’t know about the history with the machines either. They also didn’t know that they were descendants of the passengers on board the Genesis-ship GSS Darwin that crashed on Velian right after the Oblivion virus was released. This secret was revealed at the beginning of the larp, though, when the last remaining Velians searched for cover inside the ancient spaceship buried in sand just outside their dome habitat.
The Velian dome collapsing so close to the attack of the Machines was just a coincidence. The dome had been failing for years and it was already in decline when the humans arrived almost 600 years ago. It was never meant to last forever and it would have been only a matter of time before it would have failed. We didn’t specify one way or the other but it was a distinct possibility that a group of young Velians venturing outside the safe perimeter to search for hidden treasures of the past and their discovery of a certain beacon did influence the speed of the dome failing.
In the second to last away mission the ground team found an abandoned outpost belonging to “UNAC Expedition 57”. Within it they could recover some artefacts from Earth and few faded articles someone had collected and saved, mainly concerning the history of the Genesis journey. We only wrote headlines and first few lines as everything else had faded away. They told a story about the survival, and of a thriving civilization back on Earth (at least around a hundred years ago). It was aimed to both spark hope but also to stir conversation about how would the descendants of the Genesis humans be welcomed on Earth, if at all.
All our stories were connected in some way, they shared different perspectives of the same story and at the same time that our players were contemplating their choices in the present, they were provided with information about the past.
When we were creating the narrative and thinking of different ways to end this story, the one we discussed the most was the so-called ‘diplomatic victory’. This also seems to be one of the topics with the most controversy among the players, especially in the 1st international run, where the players most strongly played towards a peaceful diplomatic solution. When creating this story we discussed the topic ‘what would the diplomatic ending bring to this story?’ and every time we came to the same conclusion - not what we wanted.
At least in Finland, and we think in general, larpers have a strong need to tell a positive story, a story where diplomacy and goodness prevails. In Finland we even have a term for it when you are actively creating a conflict between characters or factions and the players just end up negotiating and solving all their differences and living happily ever after, no matter how deep the animosity initially was. In our combined years as players and as designers what we have learned is that there are thirteen of these kinds of games in a dozen. Should we have allowed the diplomatic ending to this larp it would have felt good for few days and after that the game would have been forgotten. With this choice we wanted to underline the fact, that regardless of good intentions, regardless of all the efforts to negotiate, there might be someone on the other side who will not yield, who does not want to listen. We wanted to create a narrative where those making the call felt like they didn’t have any other option (and arguably they didn’t). To create a story where you would make the decision to destroy your enemy believing they would do the same to you. To create a narrative where making that decision might feel easy, even heroic. Setting up the stage to that moment was one of the main themes we wanted to explore.
It was obvious that if the players would steer toward diplomacy, we would definitely allow it, but we also knew from the beginning that it would not prevail. To come that close and then be forced to realise that it isn’t going to work out can be disheartening and that was the feeling we hoped for. We didn’t want to create a story where the players would just win, we wanted them to survive, but with a cost. It has been argued that taking away the option for a diplomatic solution we undermined the efforts of those who favored it. We couldn’t disagree more. Does the failing of diplomacy mean you shouldn’t try? That it wasn’t worth it? How we see it is that attempt at diplomacy gave the decisions that had to be made an even stronger tone, it drove home far more efficiently the themes that we wanted our players to experience. I believe that the impact of the key themes of survival and sacrifice were directly proportional to the level of diplomacy pushed forward during the game. So playing the diplomatic game definitely had an impact, in fact a far bigger impact than it would have had if it had succeeded.
One of the finest touches for the ending storyline was decided only during the first run. A few hours before the end, the player of Tristan Fukui (an android character) came to the off-game room and asked what would happen if the Nest was destroyed, would they stop working? This was something we had not considered before but as soon as it was voiced, it felt like the right decision. We had already decided to explore the themes of loss and sacrifice with a few planned character deaths but this additional cost to those last actions seemed right. These were characters who were important to many humans and losing them in the end was a high price to pay for their decisions. I quickly consulted with a few of the writers and the other main organizers and ran through the logic in my head, would it affect all the androids and why, did it make sense storywise? The others agreed with the choice and that it was logical in the fiction. The technology used in the androids was never fully explained to the players and it was already established that they had a link with the Nest. Even Ziva, who was partly created by Evin, had a Machine power core inside them and the nanotechnology used was a result of studying Devyn and replicating the (machine) technology used in them. So it made sense that all five androids would cease to operate as soon as the Nest was destroyed. The way we saw it was that it was integral in the technology used in their physical bodies, and it being connected to the Nest which we described as a sort of super-wifi, which allowed the transfer of consciousness from one model to another and disconnecting this link caused the body to stop. For an ad-hoc decision during a larp, after way too little sleep, this still feels right in retrospect. It fit beautifully into the story and what we wanted to say with it.
We would like to thank you for reading all of this (if you did) and we hope that you enjoyed our view! As we said in the beginning, this was a story created by designers, writers and hundreds of players together, so there is no official truth to any of this. What has been shared by us and how we see the fiction being shaped in different ways in different runs is no more important or true than the perception and experience of our players. Each and everyone of them created their own version of the story and they are all correct. It was an incredible privilege to be able to see these stories come alive in three separate, different but yet in many ways very similar, runs. And it has been equally satisfying to read and listen to the conversations and debates about the different aspects and implications of the story. Thank you for making this incredible journey with us!
Laura, Producer and Story lead