Variant 31 Review & Interview

Variant 31 bills itself as a ‘live action videogame’, and like many games it seems to have been trapped in development for some time.

The creative director had high ambitions for this escape game meets immersive theatre hybrid, and in the interview below you can see his intentions for the game. The reality of Variant 31 falls way short of those intentions. And yet.. we had a lot of fun playing. Which makes this a really tough review to write.

Game and story spoilers ahead. If you want to skip that 3/5 – worth a go if you don’t mind paying £60 for a unique and fun experience, though it’s probably worth waiting to see how things develop and going in a few months time.

The full review. Spoilers ahead.

Zombies. From 2.4 Hours Later to The Generation of Z, London has been awash with zombies for years. Variant 31 promises something new; a mix of tech, immersive theatre, and escape room elements combine to create a real world live action video game. With impressive effects and 1-2-1 experiences much touted ahead of launch, we headed along on the opening night to check it out.

After signing a waiver and showing official government ID (which seems a bit excessive), we handed over our coats, bags, phones, keys, everything to some unwell looking people in lab coats.  Hospital bracelets attached, with RFID tags enclosed, and rave glow bracelet on the other wrist (to denote our group), we then donned our packs and guns, which looked like a cross between laser tag and military chic, and received our briefing – note, you don’t get the goggles as shown in the press shots.

Don’t touch the actors. Don’t kick any doors down. Scan your tag on the glowing pucks in each room to get points. Get too close to an infected and your pack goes yellow, you have 90 seconds to find a heal point to stand in front of and replenish your health. Don’t make it, go red, die; find a respawn point to get back in the game. Aim for the head. And that was pretty much it.

Into the first room for some story; 24 years ago Toxico Labs was doing experiments with a number of variants of the serum. We’re administered a shot, some drama happens, and into Toxico Labs we go. Meeting characters, including soldiers who’ve apparently been trapped in there for 24 years, doctors running experiments, and of course, zombies.

Zombies. You’ll soon encounter zombies, hiding in rooms, behind doors, around corners. There are lots of zombies. Aim for the head, squeeze the trigger and they go down. Let them get too close and you’re infected; better find that heal point and hope someone else hasn’t used it as they’re on a 60 second cooldown.

You quickly realize that the guns are just toys, there’s no tech involved to disable the zombies which leads to some frustrating times getting infected from around corners, or when the zombie had been shot.

Characters send you off to find others, and with characters roaming the facility it can be another exercise in frustration. Many of the players didn’t realize there was a trail of clues and interactions to be had and this is something that could be better explained in the briefing. It’s also unclear if you’ve reached the end of a trail of clues, because it’s never really explained what it is that you’re looking for, other than ‘a way out’. I still don’t know if reciting a rhyme we found in front of a mirror will do anything; were we doing it wrong or is that a red herring?

Despite all this, wandering the beautifully dressed darkened building was a great time. As the story elements began to come together, sharing what we’d learned with other players, we had a lot of fun.

Variant 31 doesn’t deliver on its promise. Players have very little impact on the world around them, the much-touted 1-2-1 experiences don’t appear to have been implemented (at least not yet) and the tech is pretty basic. It suffers from not knowing what it wants to be – the ‘videogame’ elements of tapping hidden pucks in rooms isn’t linked to the puzzle-solving elements, and these are not explained well enough. A better briefing would solve this part.

It’s creepy without being scary, and by the end of the experience, the zombies are more of an annoyance than anything else. Getting ‘got’ and having to run all the way up the bloody stars again, around a one-way system even though there’s a heal point JUST OVER THERE. The balance isn’t quite right.

AND YET… it’s a really fun time. Teaming up with strangers, exploring for clues, making your way through darkened corridors. It has the feeling of being in a Resident Evil game, with all the schlocky, hammy, nonsense that goes with it. Lower your expectations from the interview below, go hunting for clues in the rooms, and you’ll have a great time.

Variant 31 could be something amazing, and I strongly suspect more elements will be implemented over time. Is it worth £60? Right now? Maybe.

It’s amazing that we have something like this in central London but right now, I recommend waiting and seeing how things develop at Toxico Laboratories. Variant 31 is a fun time and there’s nothing else quite like it,

3/5  or 6/10 if you prefer bigger numbers.

Variant 31

Robin Bates

Summary

A fun experience that falls way short of the expectations set by the game’s marketing. You’ll have fun exploring Toxico Labs, and teh more you throw yourself into it, the more you’ll get out of it.

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Coming to London in October comes Variant 31 – the world’s largest immersive live-action videogame. Blending immersive theatre, real-world puzzles, and a little bit of lasertag, it promises to change the game, literally.

This is not the kit you use in the game

Here’s the official Variant 31 blurb:

The future of live entertainment is here: Gamified Immersive Theatre

Jump off the couch and into the story as the world’s largest live-action video game experience, Variant 31, powers up for its West End debut.

Variant 31 is a live-action gaming experience that puts you in the shoes of your favourite action character. Finally, you’re able to choose which direction you go, what rooms to explore, and test your wits as you try to survive in this narrative-driven game where the player with the most points wins!

Variant 31 is set in the massive, brand-new, purpose-built venue, Space 18, which spans over an entire city block encompassing seven buildings, 35 floors and over 42,000 square feet of highly themed Hollywood quality sets where you, the player, are free to explore for ninety minutes in the action-packed, adrenaline-pumping immersive experience.

Space 18, which has been outfitted as the now derelict, fire ridden Toxico Technologies, is our game’s setting. The horrors and experiments conducted by a team of scientists within are at the very root of the company’s untimely demise.

Soon after rumours leaked in the early ’90s of immoral human experimentation involving nefarious chemical compounds, mutations, and reanimating the dead, a mysterious fire broke out within the compound destroying everything and everyone within. Now, twenty-five years later, the doors are opening once more: this time, you are the patient. Do you dare explore the ruins to uncover the mysteries and horrors that lie within? When fact blurs with fiction and the world turns upside down, you must use your skills to navigate the labyrinth and find your way to freedom. Survive the dark, complete objectives, gain points and defeat the creatures within. Hunt, and be hunted. The only way out is to make it through, can you beat the game?  The Doctor is in: it is time to take your medication.

Featuring a cast of more than 150 actors, there are over 1000 different routes to play through and you choose your own adventure, and traverse darkened corridors, fog-filled chambers and over 200 rooms. No player will ever have the same experience twice.

Utilising state of the art technology developed in tandem with theme park companies, players are able to interact with the world more than ever before: changing lighting, controlling the weather (experience rain, snow, and gale-force winds inside), opening secret passages and of course releasing creatures; you never know what consequence your actions will yield, but the only way to win is to engage.

We reward the brave, the more you seek the more you find. Perhaps you’ll stumble upon a crematorium and burn yourself alive, or take a ride in the horrific hellevator, audiences have never seen an experience like this before. Engaging all of your senses, you will hear, see, smell, and feel the action. This is gamified immersive theatre. This is the future of live entertainment. Bring your mates, your colleagues, and anyone else who is dying to have a good time.

Yield your weapon, brave your fear, and Aim for the Head. 

Variant 31: Creative Director – Dalton M. Dale

Sure, that sounds AMAZING, but what is it really? I met with Big Dreamer Productions’ Creative Director, Dalton M. Dale, to find out more, ahead of the press night and launch in early October. We will, of course, be attending to bring you a review.

Dalton, thanks for your time – I bet you must be short of that with the second delay to opening.

Thanks and we’re open! Kind of. We had 400 people go through it on Sunday. However… 2 people pooed their pants and 2 people had panic attacks… The delay is so we can tweak and refine it.

Crikey, nobody wants poo on their hands!

Actually we love a code brown!  There’s a code brown quota every week and if an actor hits it we give them a spa break, a trip to a show, whatever they want.

It must be pretty intense for the actors?

I’m a fan of therapy and looking after mental health, but once you spend a night making people poo themselves the world changes and you can handle anything.

You talked about changing the show to make it more suitable for your audience – but how different is it? If I came twice would I get the same experience? Would the pooing myself fear of the unknown be gone?

There are 1000 routes through.  We’ve taken over a whole city block of London. The characters you meet, the stories you get, it all changes. The audience’s decisions matter, they have immediate and long-lasting consequences for everybody in there. We’re also going to change things up, after a month – the story will change, routes will change, points will change so people can keep coming back as Variant 31 evolves over time.

That sounds great, I’ve done immersive theatre such as Punchdrunk and the story plays out no matter what you do, only a tiny number of people actually get an immersive experience.

I’ve only done Sleep No More but it’s not immersive, you put a mask on and immediately become a voyeur. It’s no different to seeing a play; I hate that so I took the concept and flipped it. Don’t get me wrong, I love what Punchdrunk do, but it’s not immersive.

Can you tell me about the tech – I took a look at the press shots and, well, is it just laser tag with zombies?

There are 3 elements to the concept; a wristband that you tap on glowing pucks in each scene. This is how you score points and cause things to happen in-game – the weather could change; we have snow, rain, and gale-force winds. The lighting could change, a secret passage might open, or of course, you might release some creatures. Each puck has a point value and you score points by pushing forward and taking action. We want to reward people who take risks and push their boundaries. And those people will also be changing the state of the game for everybody as they play.

There are no headsets/goggles in Variant 31

Let me tell you about part of it, this is a bit of a spoiler.

One room is a crematorium and it’s a 1-on-1 experience like all great immersive theatre. When you touch the puck the door opens and there’s no way back, you’re forced to crawl into this small, dark, scary space. And the door closes behind you. The fire comes on. There’s heat, smoke, the smell of burning flesh, it rattles and there’s noise and vibration and I want to hear people scream!

It’s very safe; we have emergency stops and cameras, nobody’s in any real danger at any point during a game of Variant 31. But we reward bravery, testing your limits, and that experience is worth the most points of anything in the game.

Is there player elimination in Variant 31, and is it permanent?

Yes – but not permanent. The creatures are very much, let me explain this with a rugby analogy – the creatures are the home team and they’re trying to stop the players from scoring points. If the creatures get too close then… let me finish telling you about the tech.

Your pack indicates your health, green, yellow, and red. If a creature attacks you, and gets close enough, you’ll become infected and have 90 seconds to go on a side quest. Your pack turns yellow and you receive instructions – if you can complete your side quest you’re fine and can continue.


If you don’t?

If you don’t then your pack goes red. You’re dead. But not out of the game! However, your score resets to zero. You have to head back to a respawn point and then you can begin a new run through. You have 90 minutes and you can die over and over again, but if you have the high score, and there’s a live leaderboard, and die in the final minute…

Brutal! How do we fend off the creatures in Variant 31?

Your last piece of kit is the gun. Aim for the head.

Hashtag aimforthehead?

Exactly.

Speaking of creatures, you have a huge cast.

We’re the largest employer in the west end. We had 500 crew to build the show, and 150 actors and 30 staff run the event. Variant 31 occupies a whole city block and is the world’s largest live-action game. They’re not all creatures, but I shan’t give any more away.

Why did you choose London for Variant 31, and why now?

In all honesty? I came to London for a vacation and fell in love with it. Then I accidentally missed my flight home. The train was delayed, the lift broke down, everything went wrong. and I missed the flight by seconds. There were no more flights that day and the next one was ten times the price. So I called my father and said “I’m not coming home!”, and decided to try a new adventure in my life.

The next day I opened a company, sorted out my work visa, and 2 months later, like all my ideas, a lightning bolt flashed through my mind and Variant 31 appeared.

I had to find a location, raise investment – and people loved the idea, we raised £2.5 million from 90 investors. Each time we’ve delayed opening they’ve been disappointed, but I won’t open until it’s ready, and we can give players the best experience possible.

Part of the delay has been the audience reaction. From code browns to panic attacks, and the 35k of damage caused by the audience on opening night.

Doors were kicked open, people were diving through glass windows…

Was the reaction from UK audiences a surprise? You don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface and chaos breaks through.

It really does! You Brits may be repressed but wow, when something gets unleashed… we’ve had to change the briefing and introduction and will run it through and make sure it works before we open for real.

London really loves immersive theatre, there’s a brilliant culture of it here., and the commercialization of Halloween isn’t so rampant. Your history is steeped in mysticism, spookiness, faeries, and ghost – even at Christmas, which is wild!

We’ve got the Victorians and Charles Dickens to thank for that.

Indeed, and it means we can run Variant 31 all year. In the US once Halloween is done nobody wants spooky any more. It’s Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and our Christmases aren’t spooky at all.

Coaching for Geeks is all about confidence, life skills, and geek culture – I can see this helping people push their comfort zones and indulging their geeky fantasies.

It’s amazing to see what people are capable of when nothing is real but everything matters. Pulling together, working as a team, and really pushing their boundaries; people are going to be surprised at what they’re capable of.

The guns don’t have torches. The goggles don’t exist. You DO get a glowing rave bracelet though.

Variant 31 opens in October in London’s West End. Tickets are available now.

Wield your weapon, brave your fears, and Aim for the Head… Our review of Variant 31 is coming soon.

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Robin Bates

Coaching for Geeks Overlord at Coaching for Geeks
Robin Bates is a 40 year old manchild who somehow ended up in charge of Coaching for Geeks. He has a penchant for gaming, dressing up, music festivals, and the Oxford comma. He is a terrible typist despite many hours playing Typing of the Dead.
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