The Burnt City. The full image has title written in Greek down the left side

The Burnt City - Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk are back after 8 years!

I’ve generally stopped writing about other immersive / interactive experiences that I’ve participated in. It’s hard enough to find time to write about my own projects! However, I absolutely have to make an exception for ‘The Burnt City’! I’ve been 3 times. Once to a preview and twice once it was officially open.

We’re incredibly fortunate in the UK to have the world leaders in large-scale immersive performance, Punchdrunk and even more fortunate that they finally have a new show: The Burnt City. It’s been 8 years since The Drowned Man (although technically they did Kabeiroi and The Third Day more recently but they are different types of experience).

Before you read any further you should go and buy tickets for it. It really is a very unique experience. Similar things scale-wise are Secret Cinema, Prison Escape and I suspect Meow Wolf has elements of it (although I’ve yet to do it). It was originally due to run until August - but it’s been extended until December (and I expect it to run much longer). I believe there is a short break planned for August where they may flesh out / extend some aspects. It’s not cheap to do - but you might be lucky and get rush tickets for £25 (each week sign up before Wednesday to get the rush link on Thursday) - sign up here or if you’re local to Woolwich you might also be eligible for £25 tickets.

BTW if you’re already heading down to Woolwich for Punchdrunk then you should also check out Dreamachine in Woolwich Market.

Dreamachine (part of the Unboxed Festival is also taking place in Woolwich

What is this post?

I wrote most of this after my first visit and was thinking it about at the time - not in a story way but structurally and practically so I wanted to put some of these thoughts down. Perhaps I’ll refer back to this when building similar (albeit it smaller things).

It turns out I’ve written lots. There’s not much of a spoilery nature in here - but I would always recommend going in as ‘cold’ as you can bare as I think you’ll have a better experience.

Useful Terminology

  • TDM - The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk’s last largescale immersive show)
  • TBC - The Burnt City
  • Audience - These are the ticket holders / participants / players. Punchdrunk use the term audience.
  • Black-masked stewards - These are the guides hiding in the background, ready to step in if something goes wrong
  • Dick Masks / Shit Ducks - Slang from hardcore players for bad players
  • Show / Game / Experience - I’ll use this interchangeably to talk about the actual thing
  • One-on-ones - Punchdrunk are famous for intimate performances between 1 actor / 1 audience

Basic, simple spoiler-ish things.

The basics:

  • Punchdrunk is promenade theatre with contemporary dance performance in a highly detailed and beautiful immersive world.
  • You are essentially a camera who can choose to watch the action anywhere you like.
  • You are wearing a mask which acts like a mobile ‘fourth-wall’ - although broken with one-on-ones.
  • The story is about the Trojan war and based on two ancient Greek plays: Agamemnon and Hecuba

These are the things I went in knowing. If you’ve read the big online reviews in mainstream press you will already know.

  • It’s smaller than TDM (half the size at 100,000 sq feet)
  • There are two cities (Troy and Mycenae)
  • You start through a museum-like experience
  • There are one-on-ones (not really seen in the previews but present now)
  • There’s a Bar area and a VIP bar area

The Punchdrunk mask. I think this is version 9 - since it was adapted for COVID mask wearing

Learning the Rules of the Gameworld

We want our audience to be immersed in our world but we want them to adhere to a certain set of rules. One of the most complicated issues in Immersive Theatre is teaching your players the rules of the game / world without having to hand them a set of rules to read. In videogames this process works by giving players smaller areas / levels to get familiar with before we get into the real experience.

But with Punchdrunk we’re in a real physical immersive environment right so anything goes right?

Well not quite. Fortunately, Punchdrunk are a known experience so there are already rules which players are expecting.

So, the rules are:

  • Wear your face covering at all times
  • Wear your Punchdrunk mask at all times (unless in the bar)
  • No talking
  • Keep your distance and generally avoid / respect other people

It’s also very much encouraged to leave who you arrived with. It’s reasonably common to see pairs going round together - but I would highly suggest you ditch your group as quickly as possible. The magic feeling of exploring, being lost and discovery is absolutely heightened on your own - and it also prevents you from being an annoying couple constantly whispering to each other.

Practical Tips

There’s a whole bunch of ways of getting there from Central London. I preferred the ThamesLink direct from Waterloo / St Pancras. But by the time you read this, the new Elizabeth line will be open.

The new Elizabeth line train. Woolwich is just now 21mins from Tottenham Court Road.

Take as little as possible into the venue. We stayed at the Premier Inn - which is absolutely perfect location (the Travelodge is also pretty close). If you do check in a bag it’s just £1. If you don’t leave it in your bag then you’ll also need to put your phone in a locked case. I left all these bits in the hotel so I could avoid the queues. Although, to be fair these are very well organised.

I was certainly warm in a TShirt & Shirt. Many people were carrying jackets, coats towards the end. In the more recent shows when the weather was pleasant I found it exceedingly warm and have now learnt the locations of the large fans and air conditioning units.

The Bar with cabaret opens around 7.30 and gets pretty busy later on. I suspect that some players have agreed to meet there later - or have followed characters into the bar and then bumped into friends. The entire experience can be quite overwhelming so the bar is a good rest point. I’ve found that going into the bar before the rush for a pit-stop worked well for me. Also, as characters can speak & perform in the bar on stage it is possible to find their names and see them perform.

The preview I found quite spacious - you can usually find a space in rooms to grab a seat. I suspect that the audience is larger now that the previews have finished. 3 hours is a long time to be running around. The preview finished in Mycenae around 9.40 and then we were pushed back to the bar and eventually back out the entrance. I don’t want to spoil the ending so I’ll say no more.

Show Introduction

When we arrived at 6.20 - we pretty much went in immediately. As mentioned above we saved ourselves a couple of minutes by skipping the coat-check and phone queues.

The entrance to The Burnt City. Building 19 is on the right (Troy). Building 17 is on the left (Mycenae)

It’s not much of a secret that TBC starts with a museum style introduction. Jumping from the outside world into an immersive experience is quite jarring so the museum works well as a way to transition people. Fortunately, people already know the rules and how to act in museums. It’s slow, steady and respectful. (BTW If you’ve done TDM it’s certainly not as exciting as the Lift scene.)

It looks like Punchdrunk have been heavily influenced by the start of Disney rides here. Where, before the ride, the audience is moved from room to room learning a bit about the world all the while transitioning into the experience. It’s the technique that Disney pioneered, essentially we’re in the show and in the queue at the same time.

The slight downside is that the museum doesn’t feel like it ties in with the later world much but I can certainly see why they have chosen it. And it’s only short. The museum introduction space is eventually reused as the bar area - so that explains why the cabaret opens after 7.30.

How do you play?

Ultimately, how you experience a Punchdrunk show is up to you.

Most players get attracted by a character and then follow them for a while. The characters that you see are on a loop. This is usually a sequence of scenes they complete that takes around an hour.

The more dedicated players may stay with them for the entire loop and piece together their entire story. This will mean small scenes involving a single or a couple of characters. And then once in a while they will join together with larger numbers of characters for a big set piece. Once the larger piece is over the characters will disperse and audience will generally go back to following their chosen character.

Alternatively, you can try and seek out the large pieces of action that take place in the open areas. These may give you better incite to overall conflict and help you to piece together the main plot points.

The only picture of the show I’m including. Photo by Julian Abrams, performer Jordan Adaji


There is a big interest in one-on-one interactions with characters. This is where a character will choose a member of audience and give them a more personal experience. This may involve being taken off into a private space. In TDM players who experienced one-on-ones were sometimes given a souvenir to go with it.

These are the moments that really stick in players memories and what they will talk about afterwards. Personally, I find them a bit too intense so I am certainly happier watching from afar :) Although, I did get a one-on-one experience during my second visit that I definitely wasn’t looking for and it did stick in my memory.

In TDM these one-on-ones were both good and bad. It kept hardcore players coming back. Particularly, as it became common knowledge where you had to be and what time to receive your one-on-one. This has a negative effect on more casual players - as some hardcore will charge forward to make sure that they get to the right place at the right time to be the lucky recipient.

It’s somewhat immersion breaking when you’ve supposedly all entered a new world at the same time and are basking in the confusion - but others are charging around like experts.

How do I play it?

So, I would describe myself as an explorer. I want to visit every room (find every secret passage) and read all the documents lying around.

I approach this by looking through documents, post cards, letters, receipts etc and see if I can find stories / characters. E.g. who lives in this apartment / hotel room? This is the Environmental Storytelling side of things.

I adopt the approach that anything that you pick up is read (usually by candle light) and then replaced back in the same location. Sometimes these objects are used by characters so it seems important to replace them. No doubt some players take souvenirs and these objects will need to be replaced before each show.

I also like to build a mental map of the entire space. Amazingly, it seems that from the early reviews many players didn’t explore enough to find both cities and thought the world was quite small. I am keen to have a good understanding of the space so I can quickly get to where I want to be.

It is also useful as you can look at the layout of the rooms and figure out where the larger set pieces will be later on. As the larger rooms get used for action pretty frequently - you can just plonk yourself down and wait for the action to come to you. It might be a bit more difficult to follow the story than if you track a single character loop.

Building 19 - which contains the city of Troy

Where exploring breaks down?

One of the issues of being an explorer is that you’re conscious of the dark masks. The dark masks are generally not present in the smaller rooms, but are present permanently in larger locations or at least appear just before a big scene.

Generally, by the characters movement, it is pretty obvious where you as the player need to stand during action sequences. However, some players are either oblivious to these gestures or just over eager to get close to the action. The dark masks step in to usher them to one side.

It does feel slightly awkward exploring spaces, particularly when it’s only you and a dark mask in the space. They’ve got nothing else to look at other than you. I’m pretty sure my exploration behaviour changes when I feel I am being watched.

The second issue is that while these rooms are rich with content and beautiful to explore - the content feels fairly disconnected. I have sat and read through all sorts of hand-written & typed notes and feel none the wiser for doing so. While this may be realistic, there is a certain expectation in games that if you invest your time there should be some kind of reward for it.

Where could exploring be more?

As a game designer / game player I would like more things to ‘do’. For example, I tried all the phones - and while some of them appeared to be wired up none seemed to work / play audio.

In one of the rooms there is a large jigsaw. Occasionally, I saw a character piecing together the jigsaw - but not much progress was made over the course of the evening. I did find jigsaw pieces in one of the apartments upstairs. If we were in a game, I might assume that one task is to work with others to piece together the jigsaw.

However, TBC is not a game and as there’s no way to communicate to other players - it’s impossible to decide to search and collect jigsaw pieces from around the environment and build it. And also there seems to be little payoff in doing it anyway.

Apparently, some of the graffiti on the walls is ‘Linear B’ an ancient form of Greek Writing - which absolutely ticks the box on attention to detail - but unless you’re a Greek History professor you’re probably not going to notice it. Certainly, there is the potential here for some kind of decoding task - providing there is a suitable reward with it.

Personally, I think I’d enjoy some delivery style tasks. Just taking items to a particular location or person (a classic in videogames - known as FedEx) would be fun in these environments. I’ll talk about this more later.

I believe Punchdrunk explored more game-like mechanics in Masque of the Red Death and also in the city-wide game Kabeiroi. So, it’s certainly something they are familiar with. Perhaps they have decided it doesn’t fit along with everything else. I suspect it’s difficult to communicate game objectives while there is so much more going on.

I want to be more than just a camera in this world and am looking for game elements and things to ‘do’ but I don’t think they are there. I didn’t find much in the way of secret spaces unlike in TDM.

A Bug in the Dream-world?

It seems that it is generally a rule in a Punchdrunk world is that you can push on any door and if it opens then you can go in then. Many doors remain locked - as these are used by characters.

A bug in the world during the preview was that I was able to get into two areas that I shouldn’t have and got moved out by black-masked stewards. This was a complete break in the immersion for me and actually quite annoyed me. It changes the rules of the world for the player. What and where am I allowed to go? Do I need to wait for an okay from a black masked steward? What am I allowed to touch?

This should have been communicated to me by the world and those doors should have been locked. Not by a physical interception with a person. From reading the forums I’m not the only one this has to while exploring the world. And while there are teething troubles of a new show. This is something that should have been prioritised.

I even walked out of the show!

So, this happened in my most recent visit - and was probably an overreaction on my part.

As usual I was avoiding the action. The large set pieces have very large crowds and I am happy to avoid them. I was exploring the sandy area in Mycenae which I’ve done before. I’ve seen characters interact with a shrine full of candles. In front of the shrine is a box, about chair size. I inspected it first to make sure it wasn’t protecting a speaker / electrical equipment and tested it for sturdiness.

So, I sat down on it so I could have a decent look at the shrine. To see if I could spot some meaning in it. However, I was interrupted by a black mask who told me to stand up. I enquired why. And it’s because you’re ‘only allowed to sit on things that are chairs or sofas’. It seems like a minor thing but this really annoyed me. As someone who is super respectful of the world, and adheres to all the rules I didn’t feel I should get told off by a black mask for something that seems reasonable to do in the world. I was able to forgive the issues during the previews as that is the point of the preview but not so in the real show.

For a company who I hold as the top immersive experience in the world to get basic rules of immersive and game design wrong is really upsetting. I’m in a room where there is nothing else happening and you’ve put a chair sized box in front of a thing you want me to observe. Sitting on that box is absolutely within the rules of the world!

You might correctly assess that I don’t deal with authority very well - but being told off for what I believe is following the rules is unacceptable. I tried to calm myself down - but was getting more annoyed and couldn’t get myself back into the experience - so I walked out with over an hour to go.

There are issues with players talking and with mask wearing and generally being annoying to other players and even using their Apple watch as a torch but I got told off for sitting on a chair-like box. Anyway - I’m sure I’ll be back but I’ll be taking a break until after August.

Game-like things

It feels like there could be more game-like things. Obviously, it’s not my experience but I would certainly be interested in building immersive experiences in these fantastic environments that are more objective-based. Some of my games are immersive but to reduce costs they are set in the real-world. An example is A Moment of Madness where players are on a live stake-out in a real car in a carpark.

Prison Escape - which I’ve talked about at great length and very much recommend - is very objective based. I mean - the title of the show is the objective. In Prison Escape players are set off on tasks and these feed into character interactions. For example, our overarching mission was to change the date of the laundry collection as it would enable our escape. There were lots of tasks that fed into this such as getting the form signed by the warden to enable this. That meant that we had to somehow get the correct form and get access to see the warden and convince him to sign it.

The bit that is clever is that in Prison Escape they don’t rely on players completing the tasks for the game to progress. They do in fact set many players off on the same task (and have a get-out for when no player has completed the task).

Prison Escape in Breda. 500 player immersive escape in a Dome Prison

So, in TBC you find keys and can figure out who lives in what rooms. These keys appear to have no use (and it seems outside of the language of the game to remove the keys for their location and carry them around) - but it would be good if they could (although perhaps difficult to get people to return them.) Personally, I’d love to see more of that - and communicating to players that this is a real quest and worth completing.

There is a locked safe and there was a briefcase used in a few scenes - I later came across it unattended and could have picked it up or tried to get into it - but that didn’t seem to be an acceptable objective in the world (Particularly, when sitting on a box is a grey area - see I’m not over it!).


Wow - the area is amazing! The combination of Elizabeth line, repurposing of Woolwich Arsenal and the building of many enormous Tower Blocks and new public realm means it’s unrecognisable even from a few years ago.

I think the location and venue is a fantastic choice by Punchdrunk for their new home. You can even travel to the venue by Uber Boat from central London if you like :) And as I mentioned before Dreamachine is also available this summer.

Punchdrunk have absolutely played their part in making this area of London more exciting and desirable.

Mixture of Woolwich Old and New


I know I’ve written lots and could definitely write lots more - particularly on the differences / similarities of games and immersive theatre environments. And I didn’t even begin to talk about the story. But, I need to stop somewhere!

There’s so many areas that deserve praise - a show of this magnitude has hundreds of people behind the scenes and I am completely in awe at the levels of production that go into something like this. Click here for complete credits.

Obviously the direction (Felix Barrett & Maxine Doyle), set design, cinematic experience, actors, dance performances and choreography are all exceptional. I think the lighting (F9 & Ben Donoghue) and sound design (by Stephen Dobbie) are also amazing; and used really well in the larger set pieces.

It’s an unbelievably magical and unique experience on an insane scale - even for someone like me who doesn’t understand the vocabulary of contemporary dance. The show is only going to get better as the run continues. Please go and play it while you have the chance and let it influence the things you build be they real-world, digital or hybrid. You can also figure out what the hell is happening and explain the overarching story and threads to me!

Bonus Addendum - SPOILERY STUFF

Seriously, you can stop reading now - unless you’ve already been to the show.

. . . . .

There are plans online of the buildings that were submittedd as part of planning applications and they have been used to map out the game environment more accurately.

Floorplan - taken from planning documents that shows now Punchdrunk will use the buildings

The door that you enter through is actually a temporary extension to connect two separate buildings together. It’s a very clever design - created by Haworth Tompkins who are long term collaborators with Punch Drunk.

Click here for more info about the link building.

A plan showing the 3 buildings which Punchdrunk now use - prior to the link building creation

The three buildings (which are now joined together as one) have a fascinating history.

Complete history of the buildings

The area as a whole has an absolutely fascinating history and you could spend much longer learning about this - than even the time spent understand The Burnt City.

Everything you ever wanted to know about The Royal Arsenal and it’s buildings are contained in this pdf. It’s a very long English Heritage Book chapter from 2012:

More recently building 17 has been the Museum of FirePower - but suffered from poor visitor numbers. It’s also been used as an exhibition space and then for a few years it became the Greenwich Heritage Centre.

There’s a fantastic 360 view of when it was the Museum of FirePower (up until 2016) here - you might recognise the staircase :)

Thanks to Alastair McKenzie for sharing this 360 image on google. Click the image to be transported to the 360 photosphere.

Click for 360 Image of FirePower (Now Mycenae)

Building 19 seems to be mostly used as warehouse storage in the recent years.

Building 19 when it doesn’t contain the city of Troy

Complete History of the Area:

This is an enormous rabbit hole and you could spend weeks of your life looking through all the rich material available on this site:

Mapping out the entire world & story

There are a number of Facebook & discord groups where every aspect of the experience is discussed. This includes mapping out the entire environment, listing the one-on-one locations, mapping of the character loops, story threads & putting names to actors and characters.

I’m not going to link to those directly here. If you care about seeing this stuff I think you won’t mind hunting for it a bit.

John Sear
Real-world Game Designer

My interests are creating games for real-spaces at the intersection of game design, theatre and technology.