3 minutes in to playing The Mermaid’s Tongue by Swamp Motel, I was hooked. Following on I told everyone I knew about it – “it’s a cross between an ARG, an escape room and a zoom call, play it, you’ll LOVE IT!”
But I didn’t know much else about Swamp Motel.
I could see they were selling tickets, but I didn’t know they’d sold 65,000.
I had figured out they had their own tech system, but I didn’t know they started their shows on Zoom.
I knew they were doing something different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made their interactive experiences so much fun and so compelling.
So I got in touch with them to ask for an interview, and I got to chat with Ollie Jones from Swamp Motel about how it all started, what’s happening now and where the hell they’re going with all this.
Here’s the interview…
One of the early jumping off points was we were on someone’s Facebook for some reason, and we thought, it’d be very cool if you could, just through taking in information about this person’s life, work out what their password might be. Not that it’s something that’s given to you directly, but if you use your head, you realise there’s something that the character’s particularly into. And then there’s another clue in there. And if you put them together and think about what a password looks like, you can crack into the character’s email inbox. We thought that would be fun. And so we knew we had a character who had a Facebook page, and then in the second step we researched loads of conspiracy theories and I found out about one that’s to do with the month of April which is quite fitting because we were in the throws of the first wave of Covid in April 2020. There’s this conspiracy theory that in ancient times, people used to make blood sacrifices to this old God in order to secure good harvest. And there are some people that believe that this still goes on today. And that any tragedy that happens in April is governments or the new world order orchestrating it. So if there’s a bus crash and people are killed, some people think that the government’s organised it because they’re still making this blood sacrifice to ensure that the year is profitable. We did some digging into that and it took on the shape of a company and then we tied in this whole big backstory to do with witch hunters. A guy called Matthew Hopkins and someone called John Stern notoriously spent the 1640s going around Norfolk and Suffolk accusing people of being witches and executing them with no official appointment whatsoever. They just decided they were in charge of that element of governance.
We started stitching all these stories together and we had some real history and we had some conspiracy theories and then we put a load of fiction around it and tied it into this new story. So it grew quite organically from things we were finding that we thought would complement each other well.
It’s serious, but also a bit silly in a way. It’s a bit bombastic and the end of The Kindling Hour especially, goes very off the reservation, the realism slips away as things start exploding and magic comes into it. So we’ve always liked stories that are purely entertaining more than anything else. And that was an interesting balance to try and get, to make sure that the puzzles you’re solving and the narratives you’re exploring are always fun and never too much like a job.
Originally, when Clem and I were up in Edinburgh with our theatre company, we got asked to write a script for a brand activation, which we’d never done before. And we thought, yeah, we can write a script. “Is it paid?” we asked naively, being people who work in the theatre. We were told that it was paid and it was paid more than we were getting for the entire month of doing two shows a day at Edinburgh.
We started looking into experiential marketing and immersive marketing, which is just doing theatre shows essentially – it’s audiences coming to a thing, performers talk to them, or they go through an environment and interact with things. There seemed to be a lot of marketing companies doing it. But we knew loads of theatre people who’d be really excellent at it.
So we started Swamp Motel and it was originally just two of us sending decks out to people and saying, would you like to hire us? It took some time but someone from Dishoom, a UK-wide group of Indian restaurants gave us a job, to launch their Kensington branch. And from there we just started doing these big immersive projects for corporate clients.
Then we joined up with another friend of ours from University, Dan Hemsley who was a business consultant. He helped us run as a business and then a production manager we knew came on full time as well.
So we operated as four people for about a year and a half. Doing interesting and varied jobs with different clients of different sizes, doing launches for Dishoom, Verizon Lad Bible and Resident Evil. It was ticking along, it wasn’t hugely successful and it wasn’t a failure either. It was steady.
The pandemic happened and we ran out of contracts. Everyone cancelled all the work we had. So we took this punt – trying to make an immersive story experience online on Zoom. We thought everyone’s using Zoom, maybe there’s a way? It would be good to show clients that you don’t need to pay loads of money to hire a warehouse and get loads of people in because that’s not on the cards for now. Let’s see if we can do it online. And we’d always wanted to make our own thing anyway, outside the confines of a brief so we made Plymouth Point, which is the first part of what is now the Isklander trilogy.
And originally that was only meant to run for three weeks, but people really liked it and it spiraled out a bit. A friend of ours who was on furlough, did some free press for us and we got a review in the Guardian which was really positive and in The Stage as well. Tickets started selling and then from there it’s just not stopped. That was last April, 2020. And it’s been running every day since, and we’ve made two sequels off the back of it which now form the trilogy and it’s just been crazy really.
It’s completely changed how we work. We’ve got clients through it. And we got some bigger brand briefs than anything we’d had before from clients like Amazon and Deloitte and we’re also currently working with Twitter. So it’s been mad. It’s catapulted us into this weird online space where there are lots of limitations, but it’s also a lot more free, you know?
Someone early on said, “Oh, I’d love to play Plymouth Point. How long is it running for?” And I replied, “I don’t know, kind of forever, I guess.” Because we don’t have a venue that we have to get out of in a week and props to store away. We just need to be hosted on a server somewhere. And so that’s where we are now. We’re a team of 14. And we are now working on our first independent live project, called The Drop, which we’re hoping will open in a couple months, we’re just negotiating a few final venue things. And there’s a couple of other independent online things we’re working on as well as some brand stuff. So it’s gone from four people doing a job at a time to 14 people balancing lots of different projects at once.
Once we started selling tickets the first thing we started spending money on was marketing and we bought in in Cat, as Marketing & Strategy Director, who is now full-time, then also Lauren, who’s our Senior Marketing Manager. And they setup the Facebook campaigns, so the ads tracked through to the right people. That’s basically how we sold tickets. And I think it has been our most successful method, Facebook advertising. They’ve been in charge of all of that. The things I’ve learned are that, refreshing the creative, making sure that people have something new to look at, and social proof which is things like four stars and the Guardian quotes, play a big part in making it work. I think the Facebook marketing campaign in particular was a huge part in how many tickets we’ve ended up selling.
We’ve now had 65,000 people play the trilogy. Which is mad when you think about that first three week plan. Also what’s been cool is that occasionally a stage manager will log on to their game and a famous face will pop up. We’ve had Jonathan Ross, Jane Goldman, Ed Gamble, Andy Nyman, Charlie Brooker, Adam Buxton and various west end actors.
We’re doing The Drop live and we’re also doing The Drop online. Actually in association with the Lowry in Manchester, which is going to be much more like a theatrical release/show. They wanted to do a season of online work. They liked the Isklander shows and we have a preexisting relationship with them. What’s going to be interesting that The Drop live and The Drop online, they’re going to tell the same story from different perspectives. So if you do The Drop live, you’ll be able to do The Drop online and you’ll see the story you were part of, but from the view of another character, I don’t want to give too much away because it’s got to hang on secrecy, but I think it will be quite fun.
The live show in London will be a proof of concept for us and then we fully intend to take it other places. Definitely. And I think Manchester will probably be next on our list because we’ve got the relationship there with the Lowry. So yeah, it should be touring or multiplying… With the theatre model, it’s interesting to find ways to do it differently because it’s hard slog touring a show – building it, running it for a few weeks, taking it down, finding a new venue. So I think we might look at trying to find a way to make it more of an attraction rather than a show, if that makes sense. So put it up long, haul in several places at once. Possibly. We’ll see how it goes. No one might like it! Ha!
It’s insane really. Clem and I both independently and with our previous company pitched shows for TV before and have worked on shows for TV. And the timescales are just crazy long. But with the Gaumont deal (to bring Isklander to episodic TV), it went from Gaumont playing it one day, to signing the contract within a month. Normally, you’re desperately taking ideas to a TV company and they’re thinking about it. And then it goes to contract for ages and then blah, blah, blah. But we’ve been greatly heartened by the prospect of creating more of our own IP like this because then it’s not just an idea you’re pitching. We’re not saying, “it’s a story about a girl she’s gone missing and she’s been abducted by her own company”. People can play the whole thing. They can see all the story, all the potential, all the twists and turns and wider world. So it’s a much easier buy, for those looking to acquire IP.
We got a lot of applicants. We’ve only just managed to whittle down the shortlist to the final three. So they’ve been contacted and now the next stage is have a chat with each of them. And assess which idea we think is going to work best, once we understand the writer a bit more. The chosen idea, they’ll get a bursary to develop the idea with us. And if it develops into something that we think can actually work as a show, then we’ll take it into production as well. We had 180 applications, lots of different things, and the quality was really good. The top three we picked are all very interesting and in different ways, so that’ll be exciting.
We like dark narratives, that’s a big thing. Horror, folklore, and weird Englishness is a thing. So everything from the League of Gentlemen to Witch Trials to familiars and magic and stuff like that. I’m really into video games, which I didn’t realise before I met so many people who weren’t into video games. So I’ve really enjoyed working digitally because it’s actually as close to a video game as it is to a piece of immersive theatre. I like the story potential and the interaction potential because with a lot of immersive theatre, it’s immersive because of the environment you’re in, not necessarily because of the agency you have, whereas with video games, often it’s not directly happening to you, you’re playing as a character in a world, but you can directly influence everything. And I think bringing those two slightly closer together is a really cool thing. Beyond that, I like exciting stories and things that are a bit different and unexpected.
Now I’m a father, I have no time, so I’ve just been playing Call of Duty when I can. Over lockdown I played Return of the Obra Dinn, if you’ve played that? That was really good. That’s much more investigative and slow burn, but I also love all the AAA releases. Like the Last of Us pt 2 and God of War and Red Dead Redemption. I’ll give anything a go if it’s meant to be good. I think there’s different games for different moods as well. I like RPGs, but they need hundreds and hundreds of hours spare. I just downloaded Microsoft Flight Simulator. They’ve rendered the whole world. So you can fly over the Amalfi coast at whim and see it beautifully realised. But it’s also unbelievably boring at the same time, because once you’ve taken off, then it’s in real time. So if you want to fly to Iceland from London it’s just three hours of looking at clouds. I think I just need to do shorter haul flights. It’s a weird medium of game, the super lifelike simulator. There is definitely something meditative to it too.
The conspiracies and the real world stuff worked well for this, because we wanted it to feel like it’s happening to you… that you’ve joined this art class in The Mermaid’s Tongue and because you responded to Daisy in the chat, you’ve bought into it, and you can never tell 100% what’s real and what’s not. And all the way through the trilogy, it’s really important that the story is based on stuff that you can look up on the internet and anything that you learn, there’ll be something to back up the fact it might be true.
Though Panic, the online experience we did for Amazon Prime UK was purely fiction. I don’t think there was anything real in there. But with The Drop, for example, we’re trying to marry the potential of live with the thrill of this blurred edges reality that we have in the trilogy. So we’re not wedded to conspiracy theories, and we do like to trade on things that exist in the real world, because it adds that extra level of immersion.
But equally, some of the stuff we’re developing now is purely fiction.
We have actually pitched romantic comedy in response to a brief, it’s definitely on our minds because obviously Isklander is very of a tone, right? It’s dark and deadly and threatening. And we are interested in how things would work with something like romantic comedy.
We also have another idea that we’re developing very slowly which is a lot more lighthearted and a lot more weird and colourful – again a bit more comedy focused.
It’s quite improvisational. We don’t have a process as such. With the trilogy we just got stuck in and there were whole threads to it that never made it because we couldn’t figure out how to fit it in, like aborted secret plans in World War two where the Nazis and the UK were working together to fight a secret, greater evil that was going on behind the whole thing, stuff like that. And we just couldn’t fit it in. So we improvise and we work around how we can best tell the story within the medium that we’ve got.
One of the things with our Gaumont deal is that we’re getting to write the show Bible. So we’re in charge of setting out the rules of the storyworld as it moves into the TV phase. That will be a really interesting chance to dig a lot deeper into all these offshoot stories that we’ve got. Because there is a lot to it and we’re actually putting a lot more content into the games now, as they’ve kind of got time to breathe and we’ve given them more thought. We’re filling out the in-game emails with more stories and subplots and I think my dream is that one day you could spend hours not even solving the issue, but just digging into backstory after backstory, after backstory.
We did. We wrote some phone calls that happened before the trilogy starts. When you join the Plymouth Point game you’re met by Kath who at the time who was Ivy’s neighbour and she alerts you to the fact that Ivy’s gone missing. And we recorded all these phone calls that we leaked out over Twitter and Instagram of Ivy and Kath’s calls being tapped by someone, at a point where Ivy starts to realise things are going a bit odd in her life. And there’s other content that we’ve dreamt up but has never made it in just through limitations of time and also practicality. There is a timer on the games and that’s pretty much like a management tool because you’ve got a live stage manager running the games and making sure no one gets stuck, but we can’t overwhelm them.
The games have to finish within an hour and a half in order to free them up for the next slot. And maybe one day there’ll be a world where we don’t have the timer and you can just dig in and explore to your heart’s content. But at the moment it’s been a balance of logistics and pace and story to make sure people get through in an hour and 15 minutes, learn everything they need to know and don’t feel stuck or quagmired. And that the story moves on.
Yeah. There’s a lot of AI and autocue help. If you’re stuck on a section for X number of minutes, there’s a pre scripted help message that pops up that we’ve tried to ensure sounds like it’s an organic communication from the character who’s accompanying you at that time in the game. And then the stage manager is there so if you get really stuck and the AI cue doesn’t help, they can then jump in and listen to what you’re saying and give you a much more bespoke pointer.
Plymouth Point originally launched on Zoom which was fine, but we ended up pushing Zoom and a couple of other programs to their limit because Kath was beamed to Zoom via a third party software, which plays videos in the place of a caller. So if Clem or I were stage managing the show, either one of us would be in the conversation, but you wouldn’t be able to see me because my screen would be taken up by Kath who’s coming from a different platform.
And then when we started selling more tickets, we could run one game per laptop, basically. So one stage manager could run as many games as they could feasibly keep their eye on, which was two, or at the most three, but three was so difficult. Because you’ve only got two ears, right? So you’re constantly jumping between computers and seeing who’s stuck where, and trying not to give team A, the clue team C are looking for and not miss any cues, make sure the videos all play because the videos all have to be cued. You have to go out of Zoom, open this other program, press play, close that, come back to Zoom – which is as horrible as it sounds. So we started developing our own solution, which is something that we’re calling GCS, the game control system, which basically just makes it all a lot easier.
I don’t know how it works technically. But what it’s designed to do is to allow one stage manager to be assigned to five or six games. And they’ll sit in a backstage area where there’s a list of games. Games 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. And a tracker shows where each game is up to. For example it will say: “the team cracked into the inbox” and then they’ll follow the next link and it will say “on company website”, and then following the next interaction it will say “reading documents”. And like I was saying earlier, if they get stuck at any point for more than like six minutes, eight minutes, four minutes, whatever we decide a reasonable time is for those puzzles, a cue that we’ve already written will automatically fire. So you’ll be staring at these documents. You don’t know what to do. And then BLIP the thing pops up and it says, “Oh, I think I saw something at the bottom there, something about blah, blah, blah”. And that hopefully moves them on. And then if that doesn’t work, a red flag pops up and the stage manager comes into your call and they can see, you’re on the wrong page. And they can give a more bespoke prompt.
And that’s been really useful because it has made everyone’s life easier and it’s much less stressful. It’s a bit like Flight Simulator, once you’re off, the stage manager can just watch and not really do much unless something goes wrong, or you have a thunderstorm! And it’s become our own software that we are able to licence and use for other things. It is really useful. It’s like a bespoke video conferencing and chat platform that allows a lot of flexibility backstage.
We launched it to deliver The Mermaid’s Tongue and then made The Kindling Hour in it, and then we remade Plymouth Point in it as well. So now all three are housed within the system.
There were some projects that we were just hammering through, trying to hit deadlines. And I think they wouldn’t have been good enough if we’d kept up with that pace. We all agree that it’s better that the thing is good and that it’s right rather than on time.
The Drop is the next mountain on the horizon, but beyond that we’re working on something in time for Christmas – as well as another (and very new, for us) online experience in the very near future. Then next year – we do have embryonic plans which are continuing to try to narrow the gap between the real world and the digital one.
Here are links to Swamp Motel, tickets and show info: