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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea