May 10, 2022

Article at Sidequest

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Review: “What Happened Here” and When You Finally Step Out That Door

A woman with long dark hair, wearing a blue t-shirt and black slacks and black boots sits in an empty, white bathtub. Her hands are crossed over her abdomen and her legs are crossed over the side of the tub. She looks distantly at something off-frame and is wearing a pair of white headphones. Large, bold, white text with blue visual elements sits on top of the image, reading, "What Happened Here: An Audio Tour of Your Home As Isolation Ends". The Sidequest logo and the word "REVIEW" is superimposed on top.

Many immersive theater experiences and various LARP groups have learned how to innovate and adapt in response to the cautions and concerns created by the ongoing pandemic. Mirror World Creations offers a whole catalog of experiences that can be played remotely, while Lucid Immersive recreated the work-from-home conference call.

What Happened Here, created by Strange Bird Immersive, is described as a “[stay-at-home] special immersive experience” that can be done solo or with others you share a space with in your household. Written and designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, What Happened Here is an experience meant to commemorate your eventual leaving from your space of isolation to the outside.

I wasn’t sure what to initially expect out of What Happened Here, making loose assumptions based on other at-home LARPs that it was going to be a simple undertaking. By offering guidance and an outlet to explore and ruminate on my personal thoughts and being, what I instead discovered was an eye-opening experience that offers so much more than a simple game.

What Happened Here

Strange Bird Immersive
May 2021
A photo of a low angle view of a shower head. A shower curtains hangs on a rod adjacent to the shower head.
My view of the shower, sitting in my bathtub.

What Happened Here is an audio tour that takes you around your living quarters, asking you to recollect memories and memorialize objects associated with different rooms. It urges you to see your home from a new perspective. The tour is segmented into the various parts of your living space, and the narration takes you around to whatever you personally consider the closest to something like a “Bathroom” or a “Kitchen” area. Paired with the auditory aspect is a navigation menu you need to access through the phone. This way, you progress the narration to take you from one room to the next, and the tour does not flow on a singular, linear track. This narration is also intertwined with various vignettes shared by other people of their own memorable moments and meditations during the pandemic.

A photo of a low angle view of a ceiling fan in a dimly-lit room. Several posters hang around the surrounding walls.
My view of a ceiling fan I never use, sitting on the edge of my bed in my bedroom.

Based in Houston, Texas, Strange Bird Immersive typically hosts in-person events, and What Happened Here is their first at-home experience. What Happened Here is playable through a flexible paying scale and takes about 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Even with these recommended parameters and a task you must meet, it is an experience that urges you to not overthink it. The narrator reminds you that “This is a celebration, not a task.”

I can best compare the experience to Improv Everywhere’s annual The MP3 Experiment gatherings, in which participants must quietly follow the instructions of a provided audio file on a specific date and eventually find themselves and other players coalesced at an end location. In The MP3 Experiment, you are encouraged to keep to yourself until the instructions state otherwise, even if you do confidently recognize other players along the way to the experience’s final destination. If you bump into a fellow housemate playing What Happened Here, you simply have to keep moving along and may convene and share when everyone finishes.

The key difference with The MP3 Experiment is that What Happened Here‘s completion is based on your own terms. The biggest challenge to What Happened Here, aside from using your phone to play the narration itself, is to remain completely unplugged and immersed in the moment. The experience’s other ask is that you gather an item from each room you trek through, and one with some sort of significance especially during the pandemic. By What Happened Here‘s end, you are directed to gather those items up in a pile, neighboring other piles if you are playing it with other people.

The symbolic value of playing What Happened Here when you break out of social isolation was not lost on me. Although I came into What Happened Here long after stay-at-home policies have loosened around my neck of the woods—roughly one year later—the baggage I’m carrying and the repercussions of an ongoing pandemic were undeniable.

I can’t speak for everyone, but these past couple of years have certainly been a crossroads for me. Around one year ago I decided to take the initiative to see a therapist remotely, when I haven’t gone through treatment in years. I was growing more and more unhappy at my previous job and decided to take a leap and risk looking elsewhere, even in the midst of an awfully rocky market and economy. I learned to let go of an unhealthy form of love just as I learned to relish and welcome new love. When I played What Happened Here, the welling of all these thoughts coalesced as I had to confront them within the tight, small spaces of my apartment and the personal items that I faced them with. I sat on my kitchen counter and looked upon the disorganization of the one large table that can actually fit within my apartment. I sat in my bathtub, looking up towards my fragmented reflection around the rim of the shower head. I laid down on my bed. I did this all alone.

Towards the experience’s climax, the narrator shares their own personal experience having survived a harrowing, painful confrontation with the coronavirus itself. At that point, the items I had collected through my little apartment journey, ranging from a framed comic to a little black dress that I have yet to wear, had found their place in a pile.

Looking upon the magic of my mess, I cried. I cried at the idea that time somehow has been lost, and yet fearful of what the future may bring. I was overwhelmed with all these false expectations of the sort of person I once was within my limited-square-footage living quarters. In all the ways that What Happened Here boxes you within the bubble of your own thoughts and memories, it doesn’t falter to remind you of the reality outside, and commends when you have to eventually face it on your own terms.

What Happened Here is a cathartic experience that doesn’t require previous LARP or roleplaying abilities. Perhaps you may not be ready to go outside; this experience won’t urge you to do so. But despite being tied and crafted around specific commentary on the times, it is an experience that can open up the silence we’ve been holding within our areas of solitude. Instead, we can open that silence up to a shared, better sense of solidarity of all the pains and changes we’ve been keeping in.

A photo of a pile of miscellaneous items sitting on a wooden floor: A framed comic issue: a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a Nintendo Switch, a pair of thick, white framed glasses, and a small, white container.
The assortment of items collected throughout the experience from each room: A framed issue of Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Defender that features Ms. Marvel on the cover, a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a pair of blue-light glasses, my Nintendo Switch, and a case for a silicone swab, sitting atop a black dress.