Become the Star of Your Own Live-Action Thriller for a Weekend
The woman, Sarai Medouin, was clearly panicked. Observed from our seat in the racetrack’s stands, she paced back and forth as she talked into her cellphone, trying desperately, as we soon learned, to locate Talisman, a prized racehorse that had mysteriously gone missing the night before.
In the classic gumshoe tradition, Sarai was a leggy brunette with a case that needed solving.
She was also an actor playing a part, one of several whose paths we’d cross over the course of a two-day immersive theater experience in the Bay Area called The Headlands Gamble. As “detectives” employed by an agency referred to only as The Firm, my boyfriend and I had signed on to help “investigate” a crime, but at the start of the weekend we really had no idea where we would be going or what we would be doing—only that it would involve a caper that would take us around Marin County, San Francisco’s quirky neighbor to the north.
With a $2,450 price tag, this would not be an ordinary weekend away—an entire production, including actors and support staff, would create a fantasy world around us in the real world (think David Fincher’s The Game, with less danger and more wine). As the marquee debut from First Person Travel, a startup-style agency founded by creators Satya Bhabha and Gabe Smedresman, the experience blends game design with a longform interactive storyline.
Combining immersive theatre with a travel experience "puts the traveler in an emotional and a mental space that is very different from either a game or puzzle headspace, or an 'I'm going to see a play' headspace," said Bhabha, a playwright and actor who starred in Midnight’s Children and Fox’s New Girl.
Achieving that goal entails what Bhabha called “ludicrously complicated and challenging” logistics, including a stage manager who runs the show from off site in San Francisco, a field operations agent who travels ahead of participants to set up scenes, actors, and custom technology that guides you throughout the experience.
“We don’t normally have the luxury of turning off the part of your mind that’s focused on logistics and planning,” said Smedresman, a coder and game designer. “But if you can, you feel supported enough to just wholly dive into a world we’ve created.”
Fair warning: mild spoilers ahead.
Meeting Sarai at the racetrack was our first task that Saturday morning, as directed by an iPad that would act as our lodestar throughout the weekend. It would also serve as a map and directory, listing the relevant players—all of them potential suspects in Talisman’s disappearance—as well as the means to document evidence and send and receive messages, video calls, and even surveillance footage from different locations. Throughout the weekend, the app would update based on our whereabouts and what we needed to do, using location-based triggers to send us prompts, such as "Follow Vance's car" or "Meet Dustin at the stable in 20 minutes," that magically appeared on cue (albeit with one or two minor hiccups).
Talisman, we learned, was a preternaturally talented horse who’d attracted the attention of a deep-pocketed mystery buyer. An uneasy relationship with a sheik back in Dubai made brokering the deal—and staying on American soil—Sarai's top priority, but others could have just as strong a motive to stand in its way. It was up to us, she stressed, to find Talisman before it was too late.
Outside the racetrack, Sarai led us to our ride—a red Mustang convertible—and suggested we track our first likely suspect using our tablet’s map feature. The Gamble’s tiered pricing structure includes a basic bring-your-own-car option at a lower price point ($825 per person), but we opted for the all-inclusive package ($1,225 each), which includes meals and a flashy ride. A top-tier “Perfecta” package ($3,250 for two) goes further, tailoring specific elements to each traveler. (Too rich? A just-announced “Double Date” option brings the price as low as $560 per person for a group of four.)
Soon we were driving through the wooded byways of the North Bay. Though rainy weather kept the convertible’s top up, the misty landscape added a layer of atmosphere to the experience as we headed toward Nicasio, a charming postage stamp of a town 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’d driven through Nicasio many times and admired its landmark, a quaint white church, but I’d never stopped to take a closer look. This time, with an iPad-issued audio tour and directive to explore the town for clues, we found ourselves scrutinizing details—the numbered boxes in the tiny post office, a birdhouse hidden in a tree, the creek bed beneath a rustic bridge where, legend had it, an ornery local had tossed the bodies of trespassers. In a juxtaposition of quotidian life and the story’s sometimes sinister underpinnings, we discovered a macabre clue hidden yards from a T-ball game in progress. Carrying the blood-stained evidence back to our car, we wondered what stories people might tell about us, should they be looking closely.
To reveal the rest of our stops could be to spoil the fun of the experience. The story led us through some of Marin’s most charismatic locales and included ample opportunity to cover, slowly and deliberately, ground that we might hurry through had we been visiting on our own. With stretches of time to explore between specific assignments—such as driving to a new destination or meeting with a character—we perused a bookstore, tried on cowboy hats at a tack shop, and lunched on local oysters and champagne. And, of course, we encountered the rest of our story’s main characters in person.
We took a walk with Herb, Talisman’s aw-shucks owner, who unspooled parts of his story under our admittedly amateur cross-examination. Dustin, another character, chatted us up after hitching a ride. Both gamely responded to every question we threw at them, never breaking character, but some queries were quite obviously deflected. Neither seemed entirely trustworthy; both left behind perplexing clues.
“We want to balance giving the travelers agency in terms of how they absorb the narrative and maintaining the integrity of these complex, conflicted characters, all of whom have a little something to hide,” said Bhabha of the actors’ role in unraveling the storyline.
Bhabha likens participation in the Headlands Gamble to being a detective in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with its web of small-town eccentrics and intrigues. "Our greatest resource is the environment we're in. We get incredibly high production values for free, just by virtue of being there."
It helps that Marin, known for its monied, liberal residents, is populated with its share of outlandish characters. At times, it was easy to forget who was an actor in our story and who was a civilian playing an extra without their knowledge. In one diminutive church, we met an elderly parishioner who seemed amused, but oddly unsurprised, by our quixotic mission. Local patrons of a local dive bar, the prime gathering place of an insular coastal community, squinted dubiously at us over their beers. A cheerful waitress seemed to know more than she was letting on. How much did these “townspeople” know about us and our adventure, we wondered?
At times, this heightened awareness bordered on paranoia. In town, a man seemed to be watching us from a discreet distance but slipped off when we tried to double back. Once we were convinced we were being tailed. (Bhabha told us of one couple who inquired after Talisman so energetically that one local offered to call the authorities to report the stolen horse.)
We weren’t entirely wrong. Smedresman’s custom technology allowed the stage manager to keep track of our whereabouts as well as that of each actor. They in turn could use their own apps to let the logistics system know that, for example, their scene with us was concluded. The stage manager could also text us from the persona of different characters to check on our progress, and actors shared notes with each other on how we were responding to the experience. If someone wandered way off course, which Smedresman says hasn’t happened yet, the tablet could allow a narrative way to guide them back on track.
Though we spent most of Saturday tracking Talisman, as well as looking over our shoulders, the weekend also allowed room for relaxation and one-on-one time. When we arrived at our snug room at a historic inn near the coast, we were greeted with a picnic box of wine and chocolate and a handwritten invitation to snuggle up and enjoy the misty view of San Francisco from the beach. Over a cozy dinner (and yes, another bottle of wine), we temporarily forgot the Gamble’s intrigue, and our lurking workday worries, and focused instead on one other.
Still, my mind kept turning back to the mystery. Time was ticking down. As we weighed each character’s motives and opportunity, sifted through countless theories and scenarios, how much could we trust what we’d been told? How involved was the shadowy sheik, where was Herb’s ailing wife, and what were we to make of the damning evidence we’d collected?
I‘ll stow what we learned about Talisman’s fate—and the dramatic climactic scene in which all was laid bare—in the “Confidential” file, for the sake of future participants. But as it turned out, the experience proved to be less about figuring out whodunit and more about wandering inside the world’s most assiduously designed movie or multiplayer video game, complete with all the sharpness and dimensionality of real life.
For those with less funds or time on their hands, First Person Travel is plotting new single-evening experiences in San Francisco that, according to Bhabha, will “take you out of your regular path to interesting, diverse locations and still have a tight narrative through-line.”
They’ll have the same spirit as The Headlands Gamble, says Smedresman: “Living a movie that heightens the world around you with the narrative, and where you have an impact on how things play out.”
The Headlands Gamble runs select weekends in San Francisco Bay Area. Bookings available now through September.