In the Game
Finding Félix Carcone on the streets of Paris’s 18th arrondissement is not dissimilar to how his clients find his game, The Live Thriller.“ I have my computer bag on the side, brown shoes, and coffee creamy pantalon. With a blue beanie hat,” his message said.
A message to one of his clients might read: “You’ll recognize me easily. Dressed in black. Nothing but black.”
The client, who in receiving the message becomes a player, doesn’t have an exact address for the game, but rather is told to show up at a certain intersection and try to find Inspector Gambale, played by an actor. Once they connect, Gambale (named after the guitarist Frank Gambale) gives the next instruction: “Come with me.”
“There is no ‘Hey, welcome to The Live Thriller, your name is this, my name is blah-blah-blah, do you want something to drink?” Carcone M.M. ‘15 says. “No, no. It’s live on the spot. When they come here, the adventure has already started.”
That adventure, a criminal-case game, is the top-ranked fun-and-games experience in Paris, according to TripAdvisor. It’s a spot the game has enjoyed since opening last May. Nearly every one of its 400 (and counting) reviewers has given it five stars.
Watch the trailer for The Live Thriller:
Live-experience shows and games, often in the form of escape rooms, have been booming in popularity over the past several years. And spending in the so-called “experience economy”—which also includes theater, live music, restaurants, and vacations—is growing four times faster than spending on goods, according to a 2017 McKinsey & Company report.
In fact, Carcone says, about 50 physical immersive games have opened in Paris in the past year alone. It’s a trend he believes will grow as people tire of digital interactions and seek something they can touch, feel, and smell. “I can see now that thousands of people have come here to play, and I see them having so much fun. Today, they need that. With all that digital stuff—marketing and devices—they need real things. So I think that’s the future.”
Carcone compares The Live Thriller to a real-life video game. Over the course of two and a half hours, groups of two to six people follow clues to try to find a serial killer. The game—which Carcone and his partners, brothers Remí and Joris Aufray, created and copyrighted—features a fully formed orchestral soundtrack, several locations, and a rotating cast of 20 actors. It’s complex: Players need to study case files and to watch a series of video-game-inspired cinematic sequences, running nearly 40 minutes in total and interspersed over the course of the game. (The entire experience is available in French and in English.)
In developing The Live Thriller, Carcone not only had to compose music for an experience that’s constantly shifting and adapting to its players, but he had to write, shoot, and score these short movies. Prior to making them, he had no background in filmmaking, notwithstanding his childhood endeavors in a type of homespun cinéma vérité. “When I was younger I was crazy about cinema… I had a little camera, a (crappy) one, just a simple little thing, but it was great. And I was making bad little movies with my cousins and stuff,” he says.
His lack of experience meant that he had to learn everything from scratch: how to write and storyboard a script, work the cameras, light the set, secure locations, find and direct actors, and edit the final product. It took a year and a half to produce the short movies. The process was hard, and the strain of pouring himself into the project—in addition to the financial risk he was incurring if it didn’t take off—resulted in night terrors in the months leading up to the game’s opening.
One thing he didn’t have to worry about, however, was how to score the films, having recently earned his master’s degree from Berklee’s Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games program in Valencia, Spain.
What’s in Your Heart, Félix?
The one-year Berklee program came after a dozen years studying music. Carcone got a relatively late start in music and knew he had to work hard because of it. He began learning his first instrument, the guitar, when he was 15 years old. In the summertime, he’d busk in front of restaurants and bars, and by the time he graduated high school he was mostly a self-taught musician.
Afterward, he went to the now-closed Pro Musica, a private music school near his hometown of Avignon, to learn music theory. He stayed there for a year before enrolling in the musicology program at Aix-Marseille Université in Aix-en-Provence. He loved the music of Arnold Schoenberg and other classical composers, and yearned to study the theory that underpinned their work. He also wanted to delve into the literature and philosophy of music.
In parallel with the university program, he took classes at the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, studying harmony and counterpoint. “I did that work religiously because I wanted that knowledge. I didn’t want to be ‘just’ the guitar player, or the modern producer, I wanted the traditional knowledge,” he says.
In 2014, he submitted his thesis, L’oeuvre de John Williams: entre musique de film et musique de concert, to the university and graduated with a master’s degree in musicology. (Carcone had loved Williams since childhood, when the Home Alone movies came out.) Then he asked himself, “What do you want to do, Félix, in your heart?” The answer came right away: Go to Berklee to study film scoring.
He had first learned of the program a couple years prior, when he was a semi-finalist at Six String Theory, an international jazz guitar competition in Montana that Berklee cosponsored. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” he says.
Budapest to Budapest
The year at Berklee was pivotal. Without it, he says, it would have been very difficult to release The Live Thriller. In addition to learning the organizational skills needed to produce a long-term, wide-scope project, Carcone took in critical information about the latest software, about working effectively in a studio environment, and about to how to prepare scores and conduct an orchestra.
Though not geared toward producing live events, the program teaches skills that can easily be adapted to these types of experiences. “As more and more of our interactions are digitally mediated in one form or another, the tools and techniques of video game development are becoming increasingly relevant outside of the game industry,” says Ben Houge, an associate professor of electronic production and design, and one of Carcone’s teachers at the Valencia campus. “I try to teach video game audio in a way that allows students to be able to make the leap to live performance,” he says. The applications are endless. Another one of Houge’s former students, Thomas Olivier-Beuf ‘18, uses video-game music techniques to score food tastings.
Other experiences that directly affected the making of The Live Thriller were those Carcone and his classmates had in Budapest, where they would record the works they created throughout the year. When it came time to record the score for The Live Thriller, Carcone went with the same orchestra in Budapest, because he felt comfortable there. He worked for an hour and a half with the 30-piece orchestra, laying down the main theme as well as cues and sound effects he would need to score the game itself. “It turned out really well, which would have been impossible without the Berklee training,” he says.
But the time between those two Budapest sessions—the one as a Berklee student and the one as an entrepreneur—wasn’t easy. After graduating, Carcone says, “I came back [to Paris] with no money at all. I had to find jobs.” To support himself, he began giving private guitar lessons and teaching guitar, piano/harmony, and music production (and later, video game music and film scoring) at the Université catholique de l’Ouest in Angers. But he wasn’t in Paris long before he met up with his old friends, the Aufray brothers, who asked him about a fuzzy idea the three of them had kicked around a decade prior: to build an immersive game.
“They told me, ‘Do you want to do this with us?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t have anything else, so, okay, let’s do it,’” Carcone says. Under the aegis of a new company they called Borderlive Concepts, the three of them came up with the game’s scenario, took a loan from a bank, and got to work.
Carcone started to draw movie storyboards, to write the scenario, and to compose the music. Later, he reached out to Berklee classmate Manuel Jose Gordillo M.M. ’15, who now runs La Tina Sonido studio in Bogotá, Colombia, to mix the score and do foley work, which is the recording of everyday sounds to be added to films.
The entire time, from the game’s conception to its opening, Carcone continued to work his other jobs. When not teaching, he would work on developing The Live Thriller, often sleeping in one of the control rooms.
Carcone no longer spends long hours in the control rooms; instead, he’s got a team there monitoring every player’s movements through an extensive camera network. The need for surveillance are manifold.
Firstly, the staff needs to ensure that players are safely navigating dimly lit spaces packed with props, and that they are not getting lost. But moreover, after spending some time on eerie game sets and listening to ominous music while awaiting the next jump scare, players are on edge and are interacting with actors who are themselves improvising. Though it’s rare, actors have been attacked when a player’s fight-or-flight response goes into overdrive. (Actors, however, are instructed not to touch the players.)
“It’s really intense for the people. The adrenaline, the amount of immersive power, is really strong,” Carcone says. Recalling his early days occasionally acting in The Live Thriller’s various roles, he says that being an actor is also “quite scary” because they need to wait in the dark for players.
And where they are waiting could be described as among the more disturbing places in Paris. Carcone and his team spent two and a half years collecting some of the creepiest curios the city has to offer. They wanted something that imparted the vibe of the movie Seven and the video games Heavy Rain and Resident Evil. But they didn’t want to take it too far.
“The big thing of The Live Thriller is to not make it … malsain,” Carcone says, using a word that lacks an exact English equivalent but is meant to convey something deviant, or on the darker edge of creepy.
Another reason for the cameras is to enhance gameplay. Much as in a video game, the music and lighting respond to player movements, such as opening a door or touching a prop. Players will even receive a loud buzzer if they make an error. Carcone says it was Houge’s class on software for simulating video game music and assets that gave him the know-how to create an audio-visual system that responds to these movements.
“Unlike film and television, video games are all about what’s happening in real time, responding to live interactions between players, so it’s a natural leap from what we talked about in my video game audio classes to the kind of work that Félix is doing,” Houge says.
Encouraged by the success of The Live Thriller, Carcone is looking to open the game elsewhere, possibly in the U.S., Australia, or somewhere in Asia. “If you succeed in Paris, I think you can succeed anywhere. It’s not really a party city,” he says. Despite that, he’s looking at opening new adventures there, too.
In addition to running the Paris project and looking at opportunities to expand, Carcone is working on a 20-song Live Thriller soundtrack for internet release and making time for his personal projects. He recently finished outfitting his home studio and is working on releasing his own music, on building up his sample library, and on “recording weird sounds and mixing them with amazing tools.”
At the same time, he’s planning to reinvigorate his YouTube channel to help him make connections with other producers and to share his music.
But, mostly, he can be found plotting the next move in Borderlive Concept’s own adventure: where to go next. Carcone doesn’t yet have an exact address, but he’s in the game.