The Space Between In-Character and Out-Of-Character in “Ask Again Later”

In looking back on the “Ask Again Later” LARP, one aspect of the experience that I find particularly interesting is the dynamics of interaction prior to the start of actual gameplay. While the storytellers seemed to construct a clear magic circle contained between our in-character introductions and out-of-character introductions, there was still a degree to which play began prior to the game’s actual start. Before we were given any instructions, we were primarily out of character, but even then the boundaries between in-character and out-of-character began to blend. At the table I was sitting at, for instance, we all introduced ourselves with both real names and character names, and for the players who didn’t know each other, there were several moments of clarifying which name was which. This blending of in-character and out-of-character became more pronounced once we were told to look for people we might have relationships with in the game, as players approached this task with differing degrees of in-character behavior. During that time, I spoke about my character in the first person, but I wasn’t fully acting in character: I was more likely to say “I am an angsty teenager” than to actually act angsty like I did once gameplay began.

These gradual increments of in-character behavior suggest a blurring of the magic circle, specifically in the form of what Montola describes as a “temporal expansion” (14). Interestingly, the game was temporally defined within a clear “game session” (14). But on the edges of that session, there remained elements of play. And there were similar ways in which the game contained slight “spatial expansion” (12). For instance, the building’s entrance room was defined as an out-of-character space, but if we were just passing through it between places, we tended to stay in character. While this might seem like a mere technicality, it shows the difficulty of fully containing the gameplay within the bounds of a magic circle. A circle was clearly defined, but play seeped outside of it. And similarly, non-play seeped into it: My mom texted me at one point, and I understandably replied out-of-character.

I think this blurring was ultimately helpful in making the experience more comfortable for the players. Spolin writes about the value of players not having authority imposed upon them, instead letting “each player freely [choose] self-discipline” (6). And the allowance of some leeway in choosing when to be in character or out of character allowed for this. It was more of a “yes, and” approach, allowing us to choose who we wanted to be and respond to others on their own terms. I think having a strict boundary would make the act of performing more intimidating, suggesting a need to get the performance right. The ability to blur the lines of the circle, on the other hand, allowed for a more open and comfortable experience.

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