You know the drill when attending a theatrical performance – you attend a show, you’d better switch off your mobile phone. Metaverse of Magic is that rare exception, where you spend your time pre-show setting up a local wireless LAN connection and then, on multiple occasions, are asked to whip out your device to support the story. Many sectors over the years have attempted to embrace digital gamification to enrich their experiences, but this never really happened on a grand scale. I was curious about the integration of magic and gaming, so finding myself in Brisbane on other business earlier this week, I grabbed myself a last-minute ticket to Metaverse of Magic. Gotta say, while there were a few rough edges, as a “beta test” for something that could be workable in the future, JONES Theatrical Group has something magical on its hands.
Never Work With Children, Animals… or Wi-Fi?
Getting a thousand people of different ages, device types and technical literacy connected to the local intranet pre-show honestly sounds like a nightmare on paper. Thankfully, the process to get involved with the show is relatively straightforward. Upon entering the theatre, each guest is handed a QR code with simple instructions: Connect to the Wi-Fi Network ‘Metaverse’, scan the QR Code, and enter your details to participate. This worked without a hitch, at least at first. A couple of minutes in I was sitting with a player account activated, assigned one of four teams (courage), and ready to participate in what would unfold.
Unfortunately, two minutes before the show commenced, I lost connection. Located in the centre of the theatre and with no way of getting any support, it took me a solid 10 minutes trying to get back on (never have I been so thankful for some technical issues at the start of a performance), and even then it saw my Chrome browser unable to access the game website, having to resort to making a new player account haphazardly on the Firefox browser. This was, pretty much, the only hiccup I had.
Enter the Metaverse
The premise behind Metaverse of Magic is that you follow a ‘magic’ social media influencer by the name of Lenoxx, who in the first few minutes of the show through faux Tiktok segments, investigates and eventually finds his way into the ‘Metaverse of Magic’. Within this virtual world, guided by the virtual interface of DIGI, he traverses four levels (Legacy, Wisdom, Creativity and Courage) – each home to a different illusionist / Master of Magic. However, not everything goes to plan, and he along with the audience, must work to save this realm and the existence of all within it.
Putting aside what I perceive as the cringy, overly-hyped influencer vibes that Lenoxx puts forward, granted authentically and genuinely reflecting that influencer type, the narrative delivered in Metaverse of Magic is solid. This is meant to be a theatrical experience aimed at families first and foremost, and they deliver an experience that kids will relate to, humour that families will enjoy, and a few jokes that will fly over the heads of kids and have the adults chuckling.
The narrative is simple and approachable, and while it likely won’t win any awards for writing, it does what it is meant to do – providing a creative backdrop for all the magicians, supporting the gamification element, and keeping audiences entertained. On those accounts… ✅, ✅ and ✅.
Show Me the Magic!
At the end of the day, Metaverse of Magic is a show about magic and illusionists, with some big names to back it up. So, how do the performances fare when incorporating a less traditional style of show? The main magical acts are split between four ‘levels’, with an intermission act between each of them, with each level featuring a different magician and a different style of magic. Three of the five magicians only appear on stage once – with these three reflecting traditional magic (Charli Ashby), card tricks (Horret Wu) and what I would best describe as creative showmanship (HARA). The other two, reflecting more physical acts with whips and crossbows (Sabine van Diemen) and audience participation within the interval segments (Jarred Fell) received a bit more attention, with Fell receiving the most time on stage. Ash Hodgkinson (Aka. Ash Magic) as Lenoxx was not only involved in a couple of the acts across the levels (often filling in an assistant-type role) but also got a few tricks of his own at the beginning of the show. More classic tricks, but executed perfectly
Each performer was exceptional at their craft and worked within the unique limitations and boons of how Metaverse of Magic was set up to put on a show that left audience members in surprise and awe. The tricks were not necessarily those you would see on Penn and Teller’s Fool Us where they are unique one-of-a-kind acts you haven’t seen done before, but the showmanship and mastery of their craft are clear to see, further fostered by the creative environments they were performing in.
However, I had a couple of qualms. Firstly, I want to emphasise that this has nothing to do with the skills of Horret Wu as his tricks were incredible. However, I feel his act, performed live but displayed on-screen due to the close-up nature of card tricks, might cause some audience members to lose track, especially if their attention wanes, as there’s no verbal engagement. Secondly, is that I would have loved to have seen a few more acts from each of the flagship magicians, even if it meant a longer runtime.
There were a few tricks that were easy to spot, and I am pretty sure there was some working the crowd pre-show for one maybe two of the tricks, but overall, an impressive array of on-stage personalities, stagecraft and acts of magic and illusion.
Gamification of Magic
What intrigued me most about Metaverse of Magic was the gamification element, and how it might reflect a future where two of my greatest loves – gaming and theatre, could be more closely united in experiences. How were they going to immerse players in the experience? Would the games be a simple gimmick, or would they deliver something that makes the show stand out from the crowd this summer? Surprisingly, the games don’t have a huge presence throughout most of the show, which is dedicated to the acts of magic and illusion. Instead, it is used more as a way of keeping the audience engaged and progressing the narrative around Lenoxx, DIGI and the future of the Metaverse itself. At four different points in the show, at the end of each ‘Level’, Lenoxx and the players would be charged with undertaking a challenge – ranging from word puzzles to memory games to more complex offerings, with players able to earn points based on how quickly they complete the challenge.
Each challenge was approachable for those of all ages, were well-programmed experiences (outside of some patchy connectivity in the final challenge) and added a layer of competitiveness to the overall game. Some of the games were possible to cheese due to elements added in to, I assume, ensure most participants could complete them in under 60 seconds, but others less so. Winning an individual game (like I did), meant you get a call out from DIGI and (in my case) a clap from the audience, while being one of the top performers overall earns you a spot on the live-updated leaderboard, the overall winners being eligible to receive a merchandise pack and the chance to win a PlayStation 5.
As mentioned above, the games are more complimentary to the experience than a pivotal element of the show. Is your phone low on battery? Don’t have enough phones for each member of your family? Your experience won’t be dampened too much by not taking part, but with the show taking place in a virtual world, it is a nice complement to the environment.
There were a few hiccups here and there, which left me sceptical about whether the next game would load on my phone, but that is the nature of working with Wi-Fi with so many people in a venue. But, what I am excited about is where this technology and concept could be adapted in future theatrical productions beyond a few small games. JONES Theatrical Group and the team at ZEBRAR have something special on their hands, and I would love to see them collaborate again in the future on something even more ambitious.
A Technologically Enriching Experience
While there is minimal set dressing throughout most of the production (with a few exceptions), given the digital world / cyberpunk-esque nature of the setting, the creative team used digital screens, forced perspective and more to put together a visually pleasing show. Each of the four levels are uniquely themed and designed to reflect the type or era of magic they reflect, from the harsher tones of ‘Courage’ to the vintage magic shop charm of ‘Legacy’. This is complemented by classic stagecraft tricks such as projection screens further enriching the viewing experience.
The role of DIGI (with facial capturing and performance by Erin Bruce) was another one where the creative’s use of technology shone. Not only does she appear in scenes as a 3D digitised floating head in a very cyberpunk style, they didn’t go halfway with her and simply pre-record her lines. It became clear almost immediately following a technical hiccup and DIGI adapting to such a hiccup, that the lines were being recorded live, and given the gamification elements was a nice touch. As mentioned above, being the first one to complete a challenge and getting a call-out from them was an extra special touch. Could they have gone pre-recorded? Probably. But this was the better approach by far.
It is a minor thing, but you can tell the creative team really embraced the technological / computer roots of the setting. Case in point, during the interval, viewers are treated to their take on the Metaverse loading, featuring much more authentic-looking (but still stylised) booting and bios screens instead of a generic ‘Loading Screen’ one might expect. Spanning several minutes and also doubling as a means of setting a strict deadline for patrons to be in their seats, the creative decision was not lost on me.
There were a few other instances of digital manipulation and alteration which I won’t mention to not ruin the surprise of mystique when they occur. However, especially considering the standard of most summer school holiday entertainment productions I have seen over the years, Metaverse of Magic really goes next level in the technological creativity department.
No mention of NFTs, Crypto, etc.
Being not only in the theatre space, but heavily engaged in the video game space as well, my main concern was that the creatives behind Metaverse of Magic might have latched onto some of the fads during its inception – such as NFTs, which have adopted the concept of the ‘metaverse’ actively in their design – despite the very high financial risks involved with them, and some influencers, not unlike Lenoxx, involved in peddling them to their fans. Thankfully if you are concerned, can happily confirm that none of these are alluded to in the show, with the term ‘Metaverse’ being used in its purest sense – an immersive virtual world.
Final Thoughts on Metaverse of Magic
The traditional magician or illusionist shows you see on stages, cruise ships and many other venues around the world won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. Metaverse of Magic is a distinct experience separate from and not competing directly against the classic magic show, showcasing not only the talents of six different magicians well versed in different takes and styles of their craft but also serving as a sort of ‘beta test’ for (hopefully) future attempts at gamifying family-friendly theatrical events. Most importantly, however, the two hours breezed by quickly, and the show proved to be an enjoyable, immersive and enriching summer school holiday activity for those young and old alike. Certainly one of the more unique and engaging shows I have ever seen on-stage!
Metaverse of Magic will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Concert Hall until 14 January 2024. No additional seasons have been announced as of writing, but keep an eye on the show’s official website for future updates.
This review was conducted on the final afternoon preview performance of Metaverse of Magic ahead of its opening night that evening.