Content Warning: LARP rambly ramble, real life mental health stuff including things that are personal to me. Don’t say I didn’t warn you
Last year I played Together Forever for the first time and I completely loved it. This weekend I signed up for the elongated three day version called Together Forever & Ever. This entry isn’t so much a recap of the game as it is a ramble (a long, long ramble) about my experience of playing it whilst managing my own mental health following the unexpected knock earlier in the week. It is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Above is the link to the Youtube playlist I made of the game, the first few tracks are my getting into character tracks, the rest track the game as my character, Aurore, felt it (from Enhypen “Hey Tayo”).
When I signed up for this game I intended to play it as I would if it was a standard Horror LARP, 24 hour time in, full on IC throughout and I thought give that I was at home (ie a safe space that I can control) I could probably do some rather good cathartic emotional roleplay. I don’t use roleplay as therapy, I have therapy for that, but I don’t see any reason not to use it to work through and properly feel emotions.
One thing that my latest rounds of therapy have shown me is that I have real difficulty, not only in recognising emotions as I am feeling them in real time but also in actually feeling them. Give me a structure in which I am feeling them at one remove or in some way having them reflected back to me and I’m bang on emotional. (Oh believe me, I have thoughts about why I find polyamory so comfortable but that is definitely a blog entry in and of itself.) LARP emotions are so reflexive that it’s basically like I’m taking LSD with Ronald Sandison in my head taking notes; “And how do you feel, Mish?”.
So my initial idea for how to play Aurore was as a traumatised shut-in who made some very full on art pieces, I was intending on doing some abstract emotional paintings during the game, I had half a mind that she might tear them up on camera when she broke up with someone or went through some kind of break down (TF is good for creating those situations)… and then last week happened.
I did not go into any big melt down last week or anything, in fact it was damn controlled and I’m rather pleased with myself, but it was very much triggered by creation and destruction and linked to art I’d made, so that idea did go out of the window. In the end I was rather glad that it had because my initial characterisation would have been lost behind two other roleplayers playing high intensity traumatised women. I’ll come back to them in a bit. The other character note I had was that she was into k-pop and that made me think about the Miyazaki vs Ito memes. If I’m going to be traumatised then the other way to go is into making sure everything around me is happy and full of colour, and that’s very much k-pop and j-pop. To be honest she ended up into a lot of Asian pop from about 2004-2006… I’m sure that’s nothing to do with my living there at the time… well, maybe a bit, but I made sure to listen to a lot of BTS and Blackpink as well and they’re modern! (Desperate justification anyone?) Also I added some perky Europop into the characterisation play list to help me get properly into her, the fact that she has a traumatic background is my excuse for the j-metal cause I wanted me some Babymetal.
The Jellicle Cat was way more around than she usually is when I’m playing online games and I am hella grateful I got to share the game with her as it was happening, because that did help, especially during the second relationship when I was playing in quite an isolating way.
I found Dorit Levinstein’s work before I ended up in game, decided that in game it was ceramic because I can bore the pants off anyone about ceramic techniques but don’t feel any personal attachment to it as the last time I fired clay I was teaching some very irritating year 9s how to do it.
I had my plan, all my slightly distancing techniques very honed and intending for some gentle, at a distance roleplay with some catharsis but nothing that was going to too directly play with the unexpected trauma response from earlier in the week (which just happened to be exactly what I’d intended to play around for catharsis), ah well, timing isn’t really my thing.
Together Forever is big on pre-planning relationship types, calibrating what you’re up for. My previous play throughs I’ve gone for very organic play where we exchange brief notes on wants and limits and what the type of relationships is or is going to be. I’ve had really good fun and great results with that and in the first relationship that’s exactly what happened. I had to tap out a bit early after some very teenage obsessive cringe but my naive little k-pop stan wasn’t really up for going to the bar afterwards. At least partly because I found the idea of multiple people a bit too much at that point. Far better to claim she was alone in the studio making love tokens for a man who had already ghosted her when they were teens.
I really enjoyed the guy’s facial expressions as he discovered that Aurore hadn’t realised he had ghosted her because that was the week that the earthquake made Aurore’s happy life in Japan come to a tragic end. He was a really great roleplayer and I kind of regret that I made the choice to avoid the hell out of him in character. In her backstory I went with dead parents, and an older sister who’s previously close relationship with Aurore was destroyed by having been suddenly thrust into the parental role. Not only that but the sister had moved them to the UK specifically so she could join the Together Forever programme herself when Aurore turned sixteen, leaving the girl who had only just relearnt to walk (her lower body being crushed in the earthquake) completely on her own for the next ten years. And somewhat traumatically associating Together Forever with being left alone.
Another nuance that came up between Aurore and her cousin, Aloy (TF also frequently gives you one solid relationship who you’re not going to date, so far every single TF game I’ve had my cousin be my rock) was the idea that in their early teens gentle Aurore had been confident and social where shy and awkward Aloy had not, but that when they reconnected as adults the roles had switched. I love these organic creations of relationships that come about in the week before the game; one of my main loves in all kinds of roleplay is the shared narrative creation and Together Forever is particularly good for it. I mean, to be honest if Karolina Soltys announces a game at this point my reflex feeling is a bit; “shut up and take my money”, actuality leads it into obsessive checking of what my work shifts are likely to be.
In any case, much teenage cringe was exhausting and then the next day, the ending of the relationship. (The conceit of TF is that this is the future and the virus means that you have to be careful about being around other people so you specifically enter a program where you can have three relationships, one 24 hours and two nine months.) So we ended the relationship promising to meet in an MMO under our usernames silvaknight35 and AuroreSunElf13. And out of character I saw a chance to have some breaks from people whilst still being in the game. I took great pleasure in changing my nickname on the server to that of my username and just being in the MMO channel.
The whole game takes place on a Discord Server and I am rather in love with it’s organisation – VR chat channels, IRL locations, text channels as ic ‘facebook’ pages, it was a lovely bit of logistical management and it’s evolved since the last time I played.
I didn’t feel like explaining my personal out of character mental health stuff to people I was playing with. There was a player in game who had a rough idea of where I was at, but to be honest unless it was an extreme emergency I didn’t feel like abusing his friendship too much. In the end I did talk to him a lot more out of character than I likely would have done had I been completely fine, I’m not sure if he was keeping an eye on me or just enjoying chatting but it was a nice solid grounding either way.
I did spend a while agonising over what my responsibilities were to the people I was playing with and going back and forth over to play, not to play, to ask for any additional boundaries or not. In the end I had my nice comfortable nest in front of the camera and my actual girlfriend in the house so I figured I was in a pretty solid place.
Ironically someone did have a boundary regarding suicide which was annoying for me but then I wasn’t expecting my usual reaction to come up. Of course, obviously that meant that during the game there was a point at which I’d have repped a suicide attempt (and failed) which was a surprise to me, this would have been quite close to the end as poor Aurore was beginning to feel quite unlovable.
The second relationship was great on paper. But I rather failed at making out of character contact with the player to really establish what we were doing and what we were doing did make me wobble a bit more than out and out trauma would have done. I had a conversation with another player after time out, someone else who does a lot of internal play (and who gave me the gratification? relief? of noticing some of the less obvious stuff I had put out there) and that was a bit of a relief. There is nothing like playing someone not really getting other people, especially when you’re a bit fragile, to make any leftover childhood anxieties about feeling left out get rubbed raw.
He was a geek and into superheroes and I was entirely the wrong type of geek. I’ve been irritated before now at the seeing geeks criticise other geeks simply because one is basically otaku for american movies and the other is weebing out over 90s anime. So I figured that was the disconnect in the relationship, a complete lack of understanding cultural references and having things be misunderstood. Which was great because thanks to hanging out with DS Luke and talking an awful lot about the MCU over the years I’m really good at knowing what the bad thing to say is!
I was very glad for the out-of-character checks that kept checking we were just playing this discomfort.
My initial idea of sobbing and screaming out my trauma would in a lot of ways felt less impactful to my out of character self, I do love subtle roleplay but I think anyone who was nerdy as a kid is going to feel a bit wobbly after two days of cringe and disconnection.
The Valentines Day date is a fixed point within representing the passage of nine months via the course of an afternoon, and we knocked it out of the absolute park. First off, anyone dating Mish should absolutely assume Deadpool is a Valentines Day movie, but for sweet and nervous Aurore who had been uncomfortable throughout about oh, sex, violence, superheroes, overtly sarcastic humour… the disaster that this was going to be was just beautiful. So Aurore put up with quite how uncomfortable Deadpool made her and then took her date to watch the sunrise over Mount Fuji (yeah my general assumptions about what to do on dates are the things need to be things I don’t think about so I can do the roleplay – apparently being stuck on that mountain with a Korean tourgroup for three days was my prep for this LARP). At first it’s great, we talk about colours and then he sucks up his courage and tells her that he’s just not that into her. And she cries. I do enjoy crying in roleplay, it’s all part of my desire for catharsis.
Then they both decided to watch the live podcast…oh but I need to go back a bit. The podcast host was another player and when I listened to the pod he released before the show I realised that he was playing the character with a certain amount of ‘unhealthy’, oh excellent thinks I, if Aurore has emotional growth I can listen to a podcast and completely regress. Anyway, the live show had a competition between two couples over who had the most romantic date and of course one of the couples was made up of Aurore’s first date and he was paired with the guy who just dumped Aurore’s first date. So I got to have her go a little crazy, for her and her cousin got to encourage her to find solace in alcohol and weed.
This was a bit more towards the messy emotional roleplay that was my initial concept for the character and it was fun to do, and then I had a bit of an OOC choice, I knew that Aurore was either going to drunk message the podcast host because – her favourite podcast, or the one guy who’d said literally anything positive about her artwork. Out of character I know the podcast host’s player way better than the guy playing the kind man, literally I’ve gotten into character dancing to the kind guys setlist at another LARP and that’s about it. In terms of sensible well thought out decisions I should be claiming that I guaged this with regards to who’s going to be more comfortable roleplaying with me. But of course I’m drawing a lot from bad teenage decisions and I’m honestly not sure that the teenager in my hindbrain wasn’t saying; “gotta try and shag the DJ right?” Well, ok, Aurore was trying to smooch the DJ but you get the idea. So I messaged him, mentally thinking that if he doesn’t respond I can always try the podcast host.
Of course Aurore picked an utter sweetheart, who wasn’t up for taking advantage of a drunk and high virgin set on making terrible mistakes and I decided I’d pushed her to the point that I wanted to and put her unhealthily in the MMO again where I could recharge.
The next bit was a bit of a revelation – using gather.town for the first time. Oh that has so much potential, it was brilliant and it was especially good because it was used as a platform rather than as a platform representing some variation of reality. I think that’s what I’ve really enjoyed about a lot of the online games over the last year and a bit, they’re using the screen as the screen. The suspension of disbelief isn’t as full on, I’m LARPing being unable to leave the house and there’s the keyboard right in front of me. It’s been really good. Anyway,the mingler in gather town gave us all a chance to mix with other roleplayers and then I got my chance to dip my toes into the sort of roleplay I’d been intending for this.
Aurore properly met Susan and Ava, the other two girls who nearly died. (No seriously, we were messed up enough to go for the tag line #GirlsWhoNearlyDiedClub) And then we discovered that the three of us had written some reasonably similar backstories; dead parents, life changing injuries resulting in all of us playing with injuries causing a variety of health problems, of the group Aurore had gone with mostly physical disabilities, Ava with mostly visual injuries and Susan full on TBI. There was unexpected bonding, there was some proximaty to traumatic roleplay that was at a distance I could manage and still feel a part of. Of course there was also tension, Ava was with Aurore’s first date and the cousin was telling Aurore she had to tell Ava that that guy was an emotional douchecanoe who only said what he thought women wanted to hear. Aurore’s cousin also got her to explain to the guy’s relative, who thought the world of him that there were some problems. It was a nice conversation to roleplay – it was not a nice conversation at all and eventually Aurore, complete with emotional maturity of having friends and realising that her first love wasn’t a good guy, stormed off, fed up of talking about it.
And she ran straight into the podcast host. See, there’s one thing for deciding that listening to player created podcasts will roll back any emotional development but it’s quite another for the player to unknowingly perfectly fulfill that role in person! Podcast host was unhealthily in love with Susan of the #GirlsWhoNearlyDiedClub and his description of needing to be chewed up and spat out by love brilliantly rolled back all emotional growth Aurore had had! Clearly this teenage infatuation with the first guy was True Love and she was destined to die alone wracked by the pain of it!
And with this cringey revelation I pretty much went to bed, first trawling my k-pop list to put things on other player’s IC facebook walls. I was particularly proud of Savage Love by Blackpink for Susan and Ava.
Now I admit, I had had some interactions with the third guy but the player had stepped in at the last minute so all my ooc calibration had been done with the other player and I was at a bit of a loss. I had my suspicions that given the second relationship with an artist had turned into colleagues collaborating that this one would too. I had plans that if that happened to get messy publicly probably with the podcast host.
Then the relationship that followed was basically two tortured artists really getting each other, and from an ooc standpoint their very intense roleplay was realistically several kink scenes if your kink was leaving the house. Because the third date was a dentist who was an artist in his spare time, he could leave his house. He offered to take Aurore outside, and she accepted. If you’re an artist trying to conqueor darkness by painting it pretty colours then you’re going to say yes to facing the biggest darkness in the setting. Weirdly enough by doing this very dangerous thing the guy made Aurore feel safe.
There was a lot of very tender roleplay between the two of them which was utterly awesome to me and unexpected. I felt slightly guilty when Aurore got a message from the podcast host saying his third date hadn’t gone so well and would she be interested in going out with him.
After all my plans? She told him she had met her soulmate!
Then in game you break up and wait for the algorithm to tell you who your Forever Match is which is all nicely dystopian. I had been gradually getting Aurore more able to socialise and get over her nerves by dint of gradually changing wardrobe, make-up and profile pics. At this point her t-shirt was black with a scallop neckline and her eyeshadow wasn’t completely pink (“Blackpink in your area”…) and so she got to be angry about a plan to bring up twenty babies in a single area (not what society is like and frankly that just sounds dangerous). And she managed to throw a strop about her friend Susan being talked over and having medical decisions made for her.
There was a lot of other drama going on as other more intense storylines were brought to their climax but the one that touched Aurore as she went to the bar to wait for her true love and of course was treated to a front row seat of her first love ditching Ava as she lay in hospital posibly having a heart attack. She couldn’t watch her friend die, she messaged goodbyes and then went to Tokyo to listen to k-pop and wait for her soulmate.
It got better of course, after the game the lass playing her final match revealed that she didn’t think Aurore and Ulysses the dentist-artist would survive very long going outside as often as they did. Oh sweet darkness in my soul, really? Not only do I get to give my sweet little k-pop stan a happy ending I get to imagine a future mutual suicide for her? Yes please, sign me right up.
And with that, the game was over and I’m riding out my emotional highs and crashes for another week. These have so far been pretty tiring so a lot of baths and laying on the sofa for me. And of course talking to the real people behind the characters which is often kind of hilarious.
I’m pretty proud of myself for recognising all my own emotional needs and setting things up to cater for them whilst still actually taking part in the game. Yes, yes obviously with many hugs and smooches from The Jellicle Cat. It was very good fun and next time I’m pretty confident that I can get into the melodrama without taking a knock myself.