One of the most best things about New York is that there are just so many people, so many of whom are pop culture-obsessed, that it can support any fandom, no matter how niche. Where else could a year-round Tim Burton cocktail lounge, a just-Rue-McClanahan’s-character-from-Golden-Girls-themed cafe and a bar with a Tardis bathroom all coexist? And so, inevitably, New York is also home to a blossoming, underground Survivor scene. This past weekend, in a roomy third-floor apartment on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg border, was the latest installment of “Survivor Brooklyn,” a fan-made, -led and -played recreation of the CBS reality/game/competition show, and we were along for the ride.
And what a long, fun, ambitious ride it was. For the unfamiliar, Survivor is a game where, over the course of a full television season, a group of contestants must live in a remote location, compete in physical challenges and ultimately vote each other off of the island (never an inlet or a peninsula!) one-by-one until only one contestant remains. Likewise, in Survivor Brooklyn, contestants were cut off from civilization (that is, removed from their phones), to compete in challenges in and around the apartment and to vote each other out of the house until only one remained and was then awarded with $100. The only major difference between Survivor Brooklyn and Survivor Insert-Island-Here is that Survivor Brooklyn all took place in one day, substituting the island survival aspect of the game for the endurance test of back-to-back games and day-drinking. The whole thing took nearly 14 hours and it was legitimately gripping and emotional the whole way through.
Survivor Brooklyn has apparently existed underground for years, with organization duties passing from host to host. Most notably, one former host, Zeke Smith, led the game for years before going on to participate (and, as you may remember, making news when he was outed as transgender mid-game). This year the masterminds behind the event were Jeffrey Marx (a casting producer and himself a former contestant on ABC’s reality game show Glass House) and Buzzfeed’s Jason Sweeten. Marx coordinated the event and took on the role of host Jeff Probst, while Sweeten put together the challenges and took on the role of game master Jeff Probst (he’s a multifaceted man!).
“I love the dynamics of human beings in groups,” said Marx about why he puts Survivor Brooklyn together. “There’s always a wild card or two that the rest of the group talks about forever. There’s a certain magic in the layers of the game and not very many people get a chance to play it for real. Simulating the experience is as close as most people are going to get. I love to provide experiences… I strive to create a game where strangers are strangers until they become friends. Or maybe enemies.”
And so, at 10am this past Saturday morning, 20 disparate New Yorkers, almost entirely strangers to each other, arrived at the host’s apartment, as if to begin a guided Ayahuasca trip. But instead of Amazonian hallucinogens, they were fueled only by the spirit of competition and a love for the Probst. The participants, curated, as it were, by host Marx, were greeted with coffee, donuts and old episodes of Survivor playing silently and invited to meet and greet each other. As one of four non-players in the house, however, it was immediately clear that the goal was less pleasantries and Dunkin’ and more about forming potential alliances, scoping out the game space (the apartment) and gauging other players’ strengths and weaknesses.
At 11 o’clock sharp, as folks started to warm up to each other, Marx and Sweeten put the contestants’ cell phones in a closet and instructed everyone to find the one of 20 red cups taped to the wall or ceiling marked with that contestant’s name. In each cup was either a blue or rainbow lei, indicating membership to one of two initial tribes, which were then separated and given a moment to meet and plan. From there, the challenges (and a Facebook Live stream of the event) began. The first event was a building game wherein each team lined up and its members took turns collectively building a tower from blocks, paper and other objects to see who could build theirs higher. At the wire, the blue tribe’s spire came crashing town like a Jenga tower in a kitschy bar, winning immunity for the victorious rainbow tribe for that round.
Next came the part of Survivor that time remembers best, the tribal council, aka the part of the show where you vote people off of the island. The blue team had a few moments to think about their votes and hear each other out before each voting in another room, private from each other but forever immortalized on Facebook Live. Marx then gathered the tribe in a circle, surveyed the mood with a few questions, tallied the vote and asked Survivor Brooklyn’s first outcast to leave the game (or, at least, to stay and drink coffee but stop talking to the other contestants).
That was essentially the pattern for the whole game — competition, elimination, repeat — but with enough tricks and exciting enough games and dynamics to keep things interesting. Sweeten clearly put an immense amount of thought and preparation into the competitions and it paid off; after the tower game came one where two players ran downstairs to collect sticks and twine from the bottom, then run them back and hand them off to two builders who assembled them into a makeshift pole, which they then used to pick up a piece of tape on which was written the combination to a tiny lock, inside which were the pieces to a small, all-white jigsaw puzzle, which the remaining contestants then raced to complete before the other team could do the same. Next was a game where two players privately saw a picture of a small, intricate shape, then had to verbally describe that shape to their teammates, who had to successfully pick out that shape from a chart of dozens of similar shapes, based only on the description. There was a beer pong-esque bouncing game, a balloon challenge and about a dozen more, the most exciting of which was marble skee-ball, where players rolled marbles (which they’d found prior the competition hidden throughout the apartment) onto a board for points. When the rainbow team, which had found only three marbles compared to blue’s 11, ultimately won that game, the whole apartment erupted in cheers and applause.
The tribal councils heated up too, with eliminated players getting increasingly emotional as the game progressed and they came closer to their $100 prize. Where the first couple eliminated were understanding, a little extra investment and some booze (players were allowed alcohol after the first couple of rounds) caused a few folks to get properly pissed, even storm out or, in one case, throw everyone’s shoes down the stairs for revenge. Meanwhile, like the marbles, players also found personal immunity tokens hidden around, which were then used to temporarily save them from elimination once all eyes turned to them. And, after a couple of hours, the rainbow and blue tribes gave way to two new random groups and then, later, to three self-assigned teams until, finally, it was every person for themselves.
When the game came to an end, it was close to midnight, and there was still an apartment full of mostly drunk folks watching it all go down. At that point it was a collection of all but the most bitter former contestants, one loyal Facebook Live viewer who had somehow made their way into the real game and three final players (among whom was Brokelyn’s very own Bobby Hankinson). The final vote was cast by the former players, picking a winner this time rather than one player to leave the game, and the $100 went to the fan favorite (the fan being me), who had miraculously won the marble skee-ball game hours earlier. The winner spoke to Facebook Live one final time, the camera shut off, and just like that, the immensely successful, exciting, heart wrenching Survivor Brooklyn 2k17 was over.
But not to worry, Survivor Brooklyn is alive and well and ambitiously looking into the future. Said Marx of the future of Survivor Brooklyn, “I am actually going to be launching this game as an exciting networking event… There’s so many social mixers that take place in bars and have a stiff, awkward vibe… I wanna build a super cute, monthly experience for all types of people who love adventure.” If that sounds like something you’d be into, shoot an email over to survivorbrooklyn[at]gmail[dot]com with your name, age, occupation, city, some photos of yourself and links to your social media channels to be considered for the September game.