Sunday, April 20, 2008

Night Game

Just outside the official border of Tallinn, there is a sideroad leading up to a handful of old, wrecked houses. They look vaguely military, one-floor brick jobs, long - like troop quarters. There isn't anything inside now, just the shell; except for the one that has a low stone border in the middle of the floor. Look inside this border, and you will see steps, leading down to a hatch. Go inside, and you may be surprised that the cellar doesn't end quite where you'd expect it to. In fact, the corridor keeps going. And going. Before you know it, you're three or four staircases down into the ground. Take the right route, and you'll eventually see the walls change from concrete to brickwork - progressively older. Some of these tunnels may just have been here since the time of Peter the Great.

They say there's a right tunnel you can find, but it's easier to head back out and walk a little out into the fields, where large mounds appear somewhat uncharacteristic of the Estonian countryside. Here and there you will find entrances, low doors framed in massive concrete. Go inside one of these, and you will find yourself inside more passages. Go far enough, and you will find a massive hall, semi-cylindrical, with gigantic reinforced ribs maintaining the curvature. This hall is easily tens of meters tall - three floors at least, with plenty of headroom on each one. There is nothing there now but dirt and rubbish and the occasional faded stencil on the wall - but a few decades ago, this was the secondary command post for the air defense forces of the Soviet Union's northwest corner. As impressive as this bunker may be, it was designed as the light alternative - built to withstand only relatively simple airborne attacks. They say the real control bunker, built for far more serious ordnance, is elsewhere.

On at least one of the hatches leading down into the bunker, you will find an arrow, with the letters DR next to it. Inside, if you look hard enough, you will find six sequences of digits, all starting with the same number - I think it was 13 - and all with the letters D and R in them.

You'll find these sequences all over the forlorn industrial sites of Tallinn.

The Dozor Night Game came from Russia, and the its name has the same roots as the Nochnoi Dozor activist group - a fantasy book by a prominent contemporary Russian author. But it has nothing to do with the Night Watch.

The Dozor Night Game and other similar projects have grown out of games that have been played for centuries; and certainly after the fall of the Soviet Union every young boy (and a surprising share of girls) all over its former territory went crawling around crumbling industrial parks. But the advent of modern technology - mobile phones, GPS, and the ubiquity of information on the Internet - has taken a pastime and turned it into a sport.

Every other Saturday night, a dozen or so people gather in a cafe in downtown Tallinn. They are there to hand over a piece of paper and a wad of cash to the host; the man who is entrusted by Dozor's central powers to run the game in this city. A few hours later, each of these visitors will be at the head of a crew of between five and fifty, with multiple cars positioned strategically throughout the city. Somewhere in an apartment or an all-night coffee shop with good WiFi, a handful of people per team are assembled around their computers. Their job is to put their minds to work, figuring out the riddles that conceal the location of the codes. Once a location has been found and confirmed, the closest car speeds through the night, full of people with ridiculously good flashlights. They know from the riddle if they'll need to look for the code at ground level or if it's concealed, but most of them hoping for Danger Level 3+. That means they can get seriously hurt trying to get to the code. But it also means they are heading somewhere really cool.

I'd heard about Dozor-style games in Russia, but it was through a friend that I started playing. Did a stint in the field, and decided I was far more use at the HQ - solving the riddles and talking to the host via IM, trying to squeeze out any clue or confirmation I can. The good thing is that I can do it from Tartu; all I need is a computer, a phone, and an Internet connection. And a brain.

I first started playing in the late fall, and have barely missed a game since. Between Tallinn and then Tartu, I play most weekends. This is significant, because normally there would be no way anything would hold my attention for that long. My team in Tartu is ranked top, but the team I play with in Tallinn - where the competition is far more difficult - doesn't win often. I don't do this for achievement, and I don't do this for money - although the winner does get a significant chunk of the entry fees. I do it because this combination of scavenger hunt, orienteering, geocashing, and the occasional downtown LARP to entertain a random audience, is in many ways the ultimate game. We don't break into private property; in fact a core rule of all these games is that all tasks can be performed within the boundaries of both the criminal and the traffic laws. But otherwise, this is a combination of GTA, Stalker, and a good few Spiderman games (plus a bitchin' IQ test for the headquarters), played out in real life.

Next weekend, on the anniversary of the Bronze Soldier riots, I will be in Tallinn. My team is finally getting to put a game together, find the right locations, make up the riddles, and create the performances. The theme is Dumas-style France; so if you see some random people in feathered hats and Musketeer cloaks running around town, don't be alarmed.

It's only the best game in town.


Kristopher said...

Reminded me of these guys, though their game sounds less imaginative and like asking for a lot more trouble on the backdrop of current events.

Sharon said...

Sounds like a blast - although it also sounds like the kind of reality TV show that would be better if it had scripts and actors...

It's the sort of thing I'd love to take a crack at, if I already knew a few other people who have played it before. It wouldn't work in North Queensland, though. We don't really have that many "hidden places". Maybe further south, or in a state like Tasmania.

antyx said...

Well, the game is run in Russian, but I think it's viable to have non-Russian-speakers in the field. Except for the agent tasks (the LARP bits where you have to find a particular person in a public place somewhere), it's just about finding the code sequence.

And of course, this reality show doesn't need to make good television. ;) Most attempts to film the game have been quite boring, but it's a lot more exciting for the players.

Anonymous said...

We played a game like this in college:


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