Spy Games: The Citadel Turns Everyday Phoenicians into Covert Spies
"Who are you? What are you guys doing here?"
The blonde poking her head out of the motel bathroom door looks genuinely startled. It's almost midnight on a Tuesday, and five people just entered the room. One of them — a burly bald guy in a black suit — is scowling and holding a gun with a silencer. The four people with him, one male and three females in street clothes, look almost as puzzled as the blonde, as if they're not sure what they're doing here, either.
The room, a standard queen with gaudy yellow and maroon floral décor, is on the first floor of a seedy motel near Grand and Seventh avenues, just west of downtown Phoenix. It looks like the blonde's place of business for this mild January night. A silky brown bra has been tossed across the lampshade, and there's an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, one still smoldering. Cops is blaring on the TV. The shower's running in the bathroom.
"Where is he?" the bald guy barks.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the blonde says. She begins to walk out of the bathroom, clothed in tight denim shorts and a green and white striped shirt. Suddenly, an African-American man with long, braided dreadlocks bursts out of the bathroom and grabs her, holding a knife to her throat. "Me and the girl are getting out of here now!" he screams at the man with the gun.
The blonde flails and twists in his grip. "You dumb, lying bastard!"
Suddenly, she breaks free, and the dreadlocked man rushes at the big guy. The guy fires three shots, one of which appears to hit his adversary in the right shoulder. The man drops the knife and stumbles backwards, slumping against the wall with his hand against his shoulder. When he looks down, dark red blood is seeping through his gray dress shirt and fingers. He slides down the wall to the floor.
The four people with the shooter gasp — and giggle. What they've just witnessed is actually a scene from an elaborate, live-action role-playing game in which they are pretending to be a covert spy team. The blonde, the dreadlocked guy, and the burly bald guy are all actors. The gun and knife weren't real; nobody was shot.
But the game, a cinematic spy-adventure yarn spun by a family from Sunnyslope, creates a slick, simulated reality through the use of public locations, live actors, and cleverly hidden multi-media clues. The players are often unsure what is part of the game and what's not, which has made them both excited and slightly paranoid. They've gone down some strange and sometimes funny rabbit holes during this epic evening, in which they've spent six hours visiting various locations across Central Phoenix.
The game is called The Citadel, and it's the latest in a wave of live-action role-playing games, or LARPs. LARPs have been around in some form since the late 1960s, when groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism began enacting medieval battles with period costumes and weapons. In the '80s, they grew in popularity with games like Assassin and Vampire: The Masquerade, in which game play often extends beyond one location and players are part of a storyline. But The Citadel goes far beyond many other LARPs, incorporating hundreds of elements, high-end technology, and a large cast of actors in a bizarre virtual world that makes everyone seem suspect.
Such an immersive, complex game isn't cheap to produce — creators Greg and Sonja Shaw estimate they've spent $55,000 on the game's production so far, using funds from the sale of their home and loans from family. It isn't exactly cheap to play, either: The game requires teams of four and costs $95 per player. That, Greg says, is an "introductory price" that barely covers his per-game expenses. But those who've played the game agree it's worth the price.
Game play begins with the premise that The Citadel, an international spy organization with headquarters in downtown Phoenix, has been infiltrated by a double agent, who has infected The Citadel's computer systems with a seemingly invincible and highly destructive virus. Working in teams of four, players must try to figure out who the double agent is and who is behind the virus.
Greg and Sonja Shaw worked on the game for almost two years, pulling in family and friends, as well as people from the local film community, to help with its development. "I want to get people out from behind their gaming consoles," Greg says, "and out onto the streets."
At 48, Greg Shaw has the frenetic energy and work schedule of a 20-something insomniac. He keeps his salt-and-pepper hair short and his silver goatee thinly trimmed, but his mouth and hands seem to be constantly moving.
"Greg will talk to anyone," Sonja says, "especially about this game. Greg lives and breathes this game, and has for the last two years. It's a 24-hour thing. He keeps weird, crazy hours."
The couple is sitting on the patio of Bomberos Café in Sunnyslope on a breezy Friday morning, talking about how The Citadel has consumed their lives. The fire station turned eatery is one of their favorite places, and they seem to know everybody who walks in the door by name.
Greg's originally from Texas and complains he can't lose his "pesky twang," but his accent is subtle. He earned a degree in choral music education from Lamar University in Beaumont, but after substitute teaching, he decided he didn't want to teach. He moved to Phoenix 16 years ago and worked various jobs in music studios and media production before starting his gaming company, Mission Lane Network.
Sonja, 38, is originally from Tennessee. She moved to Phoenix 13 years ago and earned a degree in interior design from ASU. She met Greg about eight years ago at a church function, and they married a year ago, in a small ceremony on a mountain at Pointe Tapatio Resort in Sunnyslope.
"Sonja wanted to be on a mountain, because if you did it at a church or whatever, that could change into a shopping mall," Greg says. "But a mountain will always be there."
"When the zombies come and all the annihilation happens, you can always go back," Sonja, a petite redhead with bright blue eyes, jokes. "Buildings fade away. Mountains are pretty stable."
The mountains of Phoenix are a motif in the Shaws' lives. They had their wedding on one, they named their company (Mission Lane Network) after a road that leads to one, and the idea for The Citadel was hatched while they were hiking on one.
Sonja was used to Greg's thinking out loud and bouncing ideas off her. It was routine for them to take long hikes together, chatting up and down the sides of Camelback Mountain. So she wasn't surprised when, on a hike one day in January 2008, Greg started talking about a business idea.
Greg said he was thinking about starting a company — "something like an event." Sonja said it was great that he wanted to be an entrepreneur and that "event planner" sounded great. Then Greg said, "I'm thinking a live-action adventure spy game," and Sonja said, "What?"
She now jokes that she almost fell off Camelback when he said it. Greg had recently resigned from a job as a developer for local media company ProAction Media; Sonja continues to work as an interior designer. Though they have no biological children together, they have five combined from previous marriages — Meghan, 24; Jonathan, 22; Lizzie, 16; Michael, 13; and Jaiden, 7.
Starting a live-action spy game company would cost money, and it sounded kind of crazy at first: People would pretend to be spies for 10 hours while driving all over the Valley, stopping at various places for clues to a mystery, all while communicating with imaginary intelligence liaisons through expensive laptops and high-tech gadgets. And they would want to pay hundreds of dollars to do it.
"There were a number of ideas floating around, and I fought most of them," Sonja says. "Anyone who's seen Greg and I knows I fight his ideas tooth and nail."
But the more Greg talked about it — the complex storyline he wanted to develop, the actors he wanted to hire to interact with players at public locations, the multi-media and technology he wanted to include — the better it sounded. Sonja gave Greg her full support, which sometimes included curbing his enthusiasm to keep him focused.
"Greg just kind of bull-mooses his way through. 'Let's just do it, don't need to think about it,'" she says. "Just throw it together, grab everything up, and run out the door. It's about the doing, the moving forward, the experience."
When Greg Shaw was about 12, he saw something in the 1973 film adaptation of the book The Three Musketeers that would become a metaphor for his life. The hero, d'Artagnan, is on the third floor of a building when he sees his enemy below.
"And without thinking, he jumps out the window," Greg says. "He lands on some scaffolding, so he's okay, but I can remember as a kid, going, 'Wow! Awesome!'"
"That's Greg," Sonja says. "He jumps out of windows, but there's always scaffolding. He always hits with his feet."
Greg wanted to be involved in the local independent film community. The Citadel started, he explains, with the advent of his company, Mission Lane Network, in January 2008. The company takes its name from Mission Lane, a street in Sunnsylope that leads to a mountain with four pillars.
"I don't know what they're there for, but I would always pass by these pillars, and it would help me focus," Greg says, on his own "mission," which in the beginning was to be a film production company. He admits he knew little about film and even less about live-action adventure games. He originally created The Citadel as a training project for film production, based on three things: a short spy game he created for his stepson's 10th birthday, the 1997 movie The Game, and a film titled The Man Who Knew Too Little.
In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, whose younger brother buys him an interesting gift for his 48th birthday — participation in a mysterious game that invades his everyday life. The multi-layered game is staged by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, and it takes Van Orton on an intense psychological ride that sends him from San Francisco to Mexico to the tops of skyscrapers as it chips away at his sanity. The 1997 espionage comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little stars Bill Murray as a participant in a dinner party spy game who unwittingly gets wrapped up in a real mission.
Greg Shaw wanted game play for The Citadel to feel cinematic for the players, as though they were the stars of a spy-adventure movie. He got a filmmaker's take when a friend from the Phoenix Independent Filmmakers Group (and an actor in The Citadel), Gino Calabro, introduced him to Webb Pickersgill at a restaurant one night.
Pickersgill, a stout, bald fellow with glasses and a thick goatee, was named 2009 Arizona Filmmaker of the Year at the Phoenix Film Festival and won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award last year for cinematography. His film credits include the 2009 thriller Match.Dead (a.k.a. The Abducted) and the 2007 comedy short Room 602.
"As soon as he started talking about it, I don't know why, but I got to the edge of my seat," Pickersgill says. "I thought it was the coolest concept I've ever heard of. It's an immersion-based film. It's kind of a new form of entertainment that's just coming out."
Pickersgill volunteered for a test game and spent the next several months working with the Shaws on game development, donating his time and feedback. Greg Shaw also brought his daughter, Meghan Rehm, on board to write most of the game's storyline. Rehm works in retail — "in fine fragrance," she deadpans — but has written several screenplays.
Rehm volunteered 40 hours a week for a year to work on the storyline and help develop computer animation. "I got locked into trying to impose any kind of continuity on this story, but it happened eventually," Rehm says. "It was a great experience, but there is that sort of Russian-submarine flashback. But it was definitely worth it."
Greg had all sorts of things crammed into the original story, from a dead body in the back of a U-Haul to a simulated assassination on a Phoenix street that actually got them questioned by the cops during a test game. (Now, fake fight scenes take place in controlled environments.)
In its early stages, there was so much in the game that test runs were lasting 10 to 12 hours. "People were dropping like flies," Greg says. "It was just not realistic."
So Sonja, Meghan Rehm, and local screenwriter Sean Lee started streamlining the story. "Everything had to relate to the story and move the story along," Lee says. "So if something didn't work story-wise, it was out."
"No matter how cool or eye-candy it was," Sonja adds.
Greg uses the phrase "one of the challenges is . . ." a lot when referring to The Citadel. For starters, once players have played a chapter, they know the secrets of the game. But Shaw plans for The Citadel to be an ongoing story with multiple games (or chapters), and even a single chapter can be a little different each time it's played.
But the biggest challenge, now that the game is finished, is getting people to pay for it. The game requires four players and costs $95 per player, or $380 per team. Paying almost a hundred bucks to invest six hours of their night to play a game doesn't immediately appeal to a lot of people, but when they play the game, it's obvious where that money has gone: the equipment players use, the meal they eat, paychecks for the actors they encounter, and, in some cases, location rentals, like "Citadel headquarters," which Shaw rents from Regis Business Centers in the evenings.
"We've gone to the edge with this. We've definitely taken this to the point of insanity, believing in this," Shaw says. "A big part of me hopes you won't quote me on this, but it's what keeps me going internally: I want to be the next Walt Disney, with a new kind of entertainment experience."
As soon as he says this, Shaw scoffs and sits back. "That sounds so pretentious when it comes out of my mouth. Like, forget it. Walt Disney's the king. But that's been my internal drive and goal."
The team originally considered Old Town Scottsdale for the game location but found that, "with all the trolleys and fake breasts," it had more of an Austin Powers-type spy vibe than the James Bond feel they were going for. But downtown Phoenix at night, with its juxtaposition of brightly lit, towering high-rises and empty warehouses and dark alleys, would be perfect.
"I've always loved downtown Phoenix," Greg Shaw says. "I have a picture of the Phoenix skyline at home, and the more I looked at it, I said, 'The game's got to take place there.'"
Most kids pretend to be cowboys, doctors, or soldiers; some grow up and pretend to be medieval warriors, space pirates, or dungeon masters.
The idea of organized role-playing in a storyline really became popular in the late 1970s after the introduction of tabletop role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. In D&D, players basically sit around a table and imagine their characters doing whatever the game storyteller (known as the "Dungeon Master") says they're doing in a particular setting. The players are passive, the action imagined.
"Live-action" role playing requires players to physically participate in the game, sometimes wearing costumes, changing locations during play, or enacting battles. The idea was mentioned as early as 1905, in G.K. Chesterton's book The Club of Queer Trades, about a company that stages live-action adventures for customers' entertainment.
In the 1920s, psychodrama (role playing for therapy) was introduced, and fantasy role-playing organizations like the Society for Creative Anachronism were established in the 1960s. Theater-style live-action games, influenced by the commedia dell'arte tradition of the 1500s, were introduced in the early 1980s by groups like Harvard University's Society for Interactive Literature.
A wide variety of LARPs have sprung up internationally since the '80s, but one of the most popular incorporates a psychological slant that can make players paranoid.
The game Assassin (also known by Gotcha, Paranoia, Killer, and several other names) dates back to the late '70s and remains popular, especially on college campuses, many of which have gaming guilds (the Assassin's Guild at MIT was among the first established, in 1981).
In the game, players try to eliminate each other using mock weapons — a spoon, squirt gun, or Nerf dart — and they succeed if they can touch their target with the "weapon." In some variations of the game, players can also "poison" each other's food with Tabasco sauce or plant a harmless "bomb," which could be a cassette tape in the target's car or a letter saying, "You're dead."
Unless the game referee establishes "safe zones" where game play cannot occur (such as a school, church, or workplace), Assassin happens everywhere at all hours. Players could walk out their front door at 4 a.m. and get hit with a Nerf dart, or be ambushed with a squirt gun while grocery shopping. The goal is to be the last player left, and the game encourages a sense of paranoia.
Like Assassin, The Citadel instills a degree of paranoia in its players. Because live actors are placed as undercover agents at public locations throughout the game, players feel like anybody they encounter could be part of it. Unlike Assassin and some other live-action games, including scavenger hunts, The Citadel revolves around a very detailed storyline and has a six-hour time limit. It's not simply about tagging someone with a Styrofoam ball or getting from point A to be point B before the other teams.
There are popular LARPs that also contain distinct characters and storylines, such as White Wolf Game Studio's World of Darkness game series about vampires (Vampire: The Masquerade), werewolves (Werewolf: The Apocalypse), and magic (Mage: The Ascension). But none of them contains the multi-media components or technology of The Citadel.
"You basically get that hybrid mentality, where you're interacting with live action and moving around places," Sonja Shaw says. "You're working the story as it unfolds, you're hacking through Web sites, you're getting video feeds, getting communications, tracking, tailing."
Webb Pickersgill adds his moviemaker perspective: "You're in the film as it's happening. You're not just watching it."
On a recent Tuesday night, a test team of four people is embarking on a Citadel game from Sapna Café on 13th Avenue and Grand. The team includes a woman from Tempe named Michelle Parrent. Parrent, 28, has never played a live-action role-playing game before but was intrigued enough by The Citadel to play on a night when she had to get up at 7 a.m. the next day for her job at a warehouse. Short and genial, with bright burgundy hair and large earrings, Parrent was interested in the game because it involved solving a puzzle and talking to people, two things she says she loves to do.
Her code name is "Bellstar," and The Citadel has dubbed her team "Dragon." They're meeting with Citadel director Brendan Kern (Greg Shaw) at Sapna to go over the game rules and sign release-of-liability forms. The forms advise players of the risks, "including physical injury, death, or other consequences," and make them agree not to break any laws. Kern tells the players where their first location will be, which in this game, turns out to be an empty warehouse somewhere in Central Phoenix.
At the beginning of their "mission," the players meet with someone code-named SCOPE at the warehouse. SCOPE, which stands for "Statistical Calculations on Probable Events," is the character players interact with the most. SCOPE could be male or female, depending on the actor playing the part for a particular game.
On this night, SCOPE is a petite, attractive brunette sporting a black business suit and hair in a stern, tight bun. She briefs team Dragon on the mission and has each member pick a role — transport (the person who'll be driving the team everywhere), technical support (the person who handles the laptop and gadgets), communicator (the person who stays in contact with SCOPE throughout the game), and covert agent (the person who approaches people and tries to get information). Parrent chooses the role of covert agent.
SCOPE gives the team a black bag full of equipment: pens and Citadel note pads, a mini-laptop with an Internet air card, a cordless USB mouse, four ear buds, and four small, black transmitter pods called i2i that they can wear around their necks and tune to the same channel to communicate via the ear buds. Unbeknownst to the team, a GPS tracker has been placed on their vehicle, so the game organizers know where they are (with all this expensive equipment) during every step of the mission.
The team also receives an envelope of evidence for the mission, which includes photos of a dead woman the team must try to identify. The story goes that her body was found in Citadel headquarters, with a single gunshot wound to the head, the morning after a virus infiltrated the company's systems. The team must find out who the dead intruder is, who the double agent in The Citadel is, and why the virus was placed on the company's computers.
Because Citadel officials believe it was probably an "inside job," they must contract with unfamiliar faces to gather intelligence — that's where the four players come in.
Throughout the mission, the team relays information to SCOPE, who serves as both a guide, to keep the team on track, and scorekeeper. Every time the team uncovers evidence or information at a location, they score a certain number of points. They also lose points for missing something and get bonus points for uncovering more deeply buried clues.
"You will have a maximum of six hours to complete this mission," SCOPE tells them. "Your time starts the moment your first team member walks out that door."
It's almost 6:30 when team Dragon's mission starts. They will not finish until 12:30 in the morning. Along the way, they will stop at eight locations and encounter more than six actors, some disguised as everyday Phoenicians. Some of the clues they will uncover are cleverly hidden — for example, a clue could be a message embedded in a book that's sitting on the shelves of a bookstore, or hidden inside a fake advertisement video on YouTube for a fictional local taxi company, or tucked into a pack of cigarettes some unconscious bum's clutching in a park.
Because the team doesn't know what the actors look like, they believe anybody they encounter could be part of the game. As the team walks down Second Street toward Washington, Michelle Parrent (a.k.a. Agent Bellstar) looks around with suspicion.
There's an older black guy in a wheelchair begging for money and barking like a dog, a young guy wearing a backpack whizzing by on a bike, a small group of people eating quietly on a restaurant patio, a few couples walking together.
"You know, there are a lot of people in downtown Phoenix for a Tuesday night," Parrent says. "Some of them have got to be part of this game."
She knows she will have to talk to people to find their contact but isn't sure how to approach them. Walking up to a stranger while wearing an ear bud and saying something like, "Are you in on this?" or "Are you part of the game?" sounds not only conspicuous, but crazy.
One of Parrent's teammates gives a dollar to the man in the wheelchair, thinking he may be part of the game. They ask the man if he can tell them anything. He tells them he's hungry. Dead end.
It won't be the last time team Dragon engages an unsuspecting Phoenician in strange conversation. Later in the game, they ask a puzzled receptionist at the Renaissance Two tower, "Do you have anything for us?" and approach three U.S. Bank employees at the Collier Center and ask if they know anything about anything.
Not only does it seem as if everybody's part of the game, but it feels as though everything is a clue. The team finds themselves looking behind loose decorative plates on park lights, studying the signs on buildings, checking their sandwiches at the deli for notes. But SCOPE is there to help keep them on track, and any time the team starts to go too far down a rabbit hole, their cell phone rings.
At 9 p.m., team Dragon has a major breakthrough at the deli where they've been sitting for the past 90 minutes. Using a Beale code key given to her by SCOPE, Parrent begins deciphering a message hidden in a book. She's so determined she barely touches her turkey sandwich. "I've got it!" she says with a grin, showing the message she's written on a napkin to her teammates. The message reveals a name. The name leads to a fake MySpace profile, which leads to the identity of the dead intruder at The Citadel. They all pat themselves on the back.
But the game is far from over. Their mission will lead them to four more locations, including the seedy motel room where actors stage a shooting scene and, finally, to Citadel headquarters, for an exciting multi-media conclusion that includes high-tech "live" video feeds of action supposedly taking place halfway across the globe.
After the game, Greg and Sonja Shaw sit down with the test team at headquarters and solicit their feedback. Everybody is exhausted, but the players agree that the game was a lot of fun and very challenging. There is some criticism, however, when Greg Shaw boldly says, "Tell me five things you hated about the game."
Nobody can come up with five, but there are some complaints. Because the game takes place exclusively in central and downtown Phoenix, players need to know the area. "If you're not familiar with downtown Phoenix, you'll probably need to bring a map," Parrent says.
The technology in the game is another sticking point. Some of the devices used are advanced, and the test team found that, with the exception of the laptop and cell phone, they didn't use most of their equipment. They enjoyed the part of the game where they tracked a character's vehicle through downtown using GPS, but there were technical glitches, too — sometimes the team lost its Internet connection, and videos they were supposed to view wouldn't load.
"You need a tech-savvy person on the team. I'm totally not tech-savvy, so I couldn't do that part," Parrent says. "I still felt completely like a part of the team the whole time. I never felt like I was outside our team, but if you had a whole team of me, it would be hard because I'm not comfortable using technology all the time."
Players also felt they were slowed down at the restaurant, where they spent almost two hours. The Shaws wanted the game to include a meal, but it's been a sticking point in every test game. In earlier games, the meal was at a Mexican restaurant, which was disastrous.
"What was happening was, they were getting a couple beers and talking and having fun and getting nacho grease on the equipment," Sonja says. "SCOPE would call in and say, 'Where are you guys in the game?' and they'd come back with, 'We've discovered an agent. His name is Jack Daniel's. And we're leaving with him right now.'"
In tonight's game at the deli, it took almost 30 minutes for the team to get their food, and they'd just settled in when SCOPE began calling, trying to prompt them to the next location.
"It felt like we were there a really long time. We just relaxed, and lost that sense of urgency," Parrent says. "Maybe recommend people have a meal before they start the game and tell them coffee will be available at some point. Once I finally figured out that code thing, I didn't even really want to eat. I just wanted to keep going."
"Personally, I could do without the meal," Parrent adds. "I came to play, I didn't really come to eat."
When asked how the players felt about the action scene at the hotel, everybody says it was one of their favorite parts. Barker, one of Parrent's teammates on the mission, says, "I felt perfectly unsafe — in a great way."
Citadel headquarters is located in the Renaissance Two tower off Second Avenue and Adams Street, on the 14th floor of the tower, which is really the 13th floor that people label incorrectly out of superstition. The massive multi-office building is full of faux gold trim, green marble floors and walls, and elevators that won't work without key fobs. When receiving visitors, the Citadel sends down an "agent" to meet them in the lobby.
This is where Michelle Parrent and team Dragon find themselves at their end of their test-game mission. They've been picturing this place all night, and it's cool to finally see headquarters, with its Formica desktops and panoramic windows. Below, the red neon sign of the Hotel San Carlos glows brightly.
The team's brought its evidence, and it has put most of the puzzle together, but now there's a twist — a "ticking clock" component. SCOPE says they will cut to live satellite video and audio feeds from a small foreign country, where the urgent action's taking place.
The room goes dark, and static-filled satellite images materialize on a large projector screen. Tech dispatch agents from the foreign country communicate on loudspeaker with SCOPE, who asks for enhanced images. The camera zones in on a building; thermal imaging reveals several people moving around inside, including Citadel agents who are also patched in to SCOPE's audio. SCOPE directs the agents inside on the positions of the enemy, and what to do.
Parrent's on the edge of her seat, watching the action unfold. On the loudspeaker, agents are screaming and scuffling with the enemy. SCOPE is shouting at them through her headset. The red glow of an explosion reflects off Parrent's glasses.
When the lights come back on, her jaw is open. "That was awesome."
Before revealing the team's score, SCOPE tells Dragon's members that they did an excellent job on their first intelligence mission. They uncovered some key things, including new characters, but they missed others, and it's clear there will be more to this story.
"You are now going to become a sleeper cell," SCOPE tells them. "That means you will return to civilian life and wait for us to call upon you for future missions."
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