Arts Review Theatre

Review: Changeling by Void Deck Games

The hardest battles are with your own inner demons.

Often thought of as a time of innocence, exploration and freedom, childhood is one of the most precious things a person can possess. But for Singaporeans at least, childhood is also incredibly fragile, with one of the biggest threats to it being the dreaded national examinations.

A single misstep is all it takes to fall behind, and could well lead to one ending up becoming a massive failure. It’s no surprise that anyone would want to run away and leave it all behind. In their latest production, immersive roleplaying and entertainment company Void Deck Games have decided to explore what if it was possible to escape the stress of Singapore, with their work Changeling.

In a shift away from their usual adult-oriented work, Changeling instead is aimed specifically at young, Primary School-age children, as they embark on an adventure to the Bunian Kingdom to rescue a missing boy. From meeting fantastical denizens, to training in the mystic arts, to finally vanquishing a ferocious beast, Changeling is likely to be an experience that leaves many of these first time LARP-ers with joy and wonder.

Changeling begins with a briefing and a fun vocal/physical warm-up, to prime the audience for the adventure ahead. Void Deck Games co-founder Raihan Harun himself leads this briefing (assisted by co-founder Joanne Lim), and with a big, bombastic personality, the kids easily take to him, with even the more shy ones deciding to participate. The rules are generally simple and easy enough for them to understand: allow the facilitators to lead them, don’t hit anyone unless explicitly told to do so, and be enthusiastic.

The children seem to get it, and before long, the experience starts proper, as they enter an innocuous-looking bedroom, no doubt belonging to a fantasy geek, with figurines laid out on a board, bookshelves filled with tales of magic and swordplay, and imaginary lands depicted on maps stuck on walls. One thing isn’t quite like the others however, and a black-and-white report on a missing 12-year old suggests not all is as it seems. The young adventurers are tasked to scour the bedroom for clues, and end up finding gold coins, which may well prove useful in their journey.

While there is some awkwardness moving from one place to another, the dedication to decor and design makes up for it in the main play area, as we arrive at the Bunian Kingdom. Welcomed with a pathway of candles and floral arrangements, there is something ritualistic and otherworldly about the walk, and it does indeed feel like we’re entering a completely different space. The ‘throne room’ is as detailed as the child’s room that came before, glittering gold and with plenty of Easter eggs that hint at Bunian culture.

Played by Farez Najid, the Bunian king is a fantastic character to introduce us to the Bunian kingdom, eccentric and full of high spirits as he tells us of how the missing child came to his kingdom, while laughing off our attempts to rescue him. There’s only one solution – to go on a perilous quest to prove our worth and gain the Bunians’ trust. Split into two groups, the adventurers are given a choice as to which side quest to pursue.

While the side quests themselves are mostly simple, they are redeemed by entertaining characters, from a giant ondeh-ondeh to a green soldier leading our way, to requisite fantasy characters such as goblins and orcs. The latter two characters are particularly interesting, with Void Deck Games using them to subtly propel deeper messages about the world we live in, such as our attitudes towards migrant workers or going through difficult transitions. The mask work for these characters is brilliantly done, and feels straight out of a film.

Following the side quest however, this is where the energy dips somewhat, as the adventurers go through somewhat repetitive training to hone their skills in defence, swordplay and spellcasting. But once this training montage and narration ends is when Changeling reaches its climactic high point and all the training has been building towards – an epic battle against a massive ‘gloomdragon’ (done via well-constructed papier-mâché and puppetry) that crashes into the arena, as they lob fireballs and smack it with their swords, all while defending against its fiery breath.

There’s a huge sense of satisfaction in defeating the gloomdragon and watching it fall. In the wake of the battle, as the lights come on, we realise that the remnants of the ‘fire’ are actually paper slips with PSLE questions printed on them, and it becomes crystal clear what the dragon represents – the missing boy’s own failures, and the shame that prevents him from returning home.

The final lesson here is far more complicated than how to be a good warrior – it comes back to the idea of facing up to shame and failure, and more than that, for the parents and guardians in the audience to see how important it is to embrace a child regardless of their grades. As we watch the screen and see the missing boy finally returning home to his mother, the audience breaks into applause and their adventure draws to a close at last.

While Void Deck Games are better known for their more mature games, Changeling represents a new direction and untapped potential for the immersive LARP-ing company to explore. There is something disarmingly charming about the makeshift approach towards the set-up, and so much sincerity and heart that goes into both design and performance that shows how much the team loves what they do. At its core, Changeling is an accessible and fun entry point into LARP-ing for younger audience members, with a poignant and well-intentioned message about how we cannot define ourselves by our achievements alone.

Changeling ran from 10th to 19th March 2023 as part of the Esplanade’s March On programme. More information available here

March On ran from 9th to 19th March 2023 at the Esplanade. More information and full programme available here

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