Monday, August 29, 2011

Sleep No More, Video Games, and the Potential of Interactive Storytelling.

 This will not be a review of Sleep No More, although it will be discussed. I'll warn you of spoilers.

On Thursday the 12th of August, I attended a performance of Sleep No More. Billed as 'indoor promenade performance', it entails being immersed in the world of the McKitterick Hotel (an impressively redecorated warehouse or three on west 27th, across the street from the back entrance of Scores) and treated to an adaptation, of a kind, of Shakespeare's famous play that shows us the nature of evil, Macbeth.  It was astounding.

Though it is not a word that can be found anywhere on the website (, Sleep No More is a highly interactive experience- though one might suppose that physical interaction is a part of any immersive experience. Still, this is important to note for the upcoming discussion: The specific difference between immersive and interactive when one or the other is the goal of an experience. In the McKitterick Hotel, almost every door, drawer and closet is unlocked. You can read anything, pick up anyway, dig through people's luggage and letters. The entire environment is touchable, if not tractable- even the performers. Though it is against the rules of the game to touch the performers, the performers may very well decide to touch you. You may be pushed gently aside, or taken by the hand and led, or- as I experienced- have a madwoman cup your face and lament at the cruelty in your eyes. The world you enter is filled with eerily familiar but ultimately alien landscapes and enough details to drown in. You can watch or play, observe or participate, that much is (largely) your choice.

The performance is interactive, but it is not changeable. Those choices I just mentioned do not effect the characters' overall arcs, their intentions or their stories. Scenes play in a loop throughout the roughly three hour performance.  Short of doing something dangerously disruptive, the audience cannot effect the outcome of the story.

The goal of Sleep No More is an immersive theatrical experience. It is not a game. It sets no goals or objectives for the audience, other than to experience. It's brilliant and freeing.

And potentially frustrating, if you're of a gamer's mindset. Over at Wired, you can read an article by @jasonschreier about his experience of the theatrical piece, which he describes in the headline as "Like a game, but more confusing." Schreier primarily decries the fact that it is impossible for an audience member to see the entire show, and that this fact makes most of what one experiences difficult to decipher or put into context: The experience is difficult to understand.

He argues that video game experiences are more rewarding because you achieve things. The game tells you so. I think this is an ineffective comparison, but the opening of an interesting discussion.

Compare Sleep No More to an open-world game like Fallout: New Vegas. While Sleep No More drops you into the middle of a performance and expects you to figure out what’s happening, New Vegas sets up the story first, then lets you loose. More importantly, New Vegas makes you feel like the things you do matter. Whether you’re shooting down raiders or discovering a pile of bones in a child’s crib, you’re always an active participant, integral to the story. Not just an observer.
 This argument is flawed in a few ways:

You can, in fact, prepare for the sort-of-plot of Sleep No More by brushing up on your Shakespeare, but the story is present in an abstract, exploratory way. The scenes, when you do find them, are not exactly straightforward. Think lyrical and interpretive dance. The story, as such, is not the most important part of the show. More important is the audience's story: What they see and experience and what it does to them. Now, if what they see and experience frustrates and bores them, more the pity, but I have to say, I'd imagine it would take a respectable amount of willful disinterest to walk away from Sleep No More wholly unmoved.

The end result(s) of both Sleep No More and any video game are predetermined. Nothing you do as an audience member or player can actually change what happens outside of a couple permutations. Schreier is absolutely correct in that video games make you feel as though your choices have weight- and they do, but a very limited amount. I will defend the unique special snowflake status of my Commander Shepard TO THE DEATH but ultimately, I am not the only FemShep Paragon with Renegade Tendencies when Faced with Ultimatums who is Bedding Garrus Vakarian aka Dinosaur Batman: The Hero Omega Deserves. No, I am but one of many; because though the Mass Effect series provides the player with thousands of choices to make over the course of the franchise, they are still choices you are being offered and have to choose from. You can't just make up your own. The ending to any work of art or entertainment created by someone other than the participant/user has a finite amount of leeway.  Sleep No More is a single event comprised of smaller, looping events. It's meant to be an immersive experience that theater-goers can explore to whatever depth they choose. It is, in fact, quite possible to see all the primary, story-centric scenes of Shakespeare's Macbeth in one evening at Sleep No More. It's not really necessary, though, nor would it be easy.  

Sleep No More is not a game, it is not a puzzle. It's more like a haunting. It's like watching spectres enact their wicked follies again and again, helpless to stop themselves or break free. Sometimes the ghosts reach out for you, and you can rifle through the relics and detritus they've left behind, but the story cannot be changed.

Now let's pull a bit of a conversational one eighty. The Minnesota Fringe Festival is a breeding ground for fun, funny, original and rather ingenious theatrical experiences. One participating company, Walking Shadow, has mounted two interactive theatrical puzzle experiences. The first was entitled 1926 Pleasant, and ran in 2006. You can read a detailed account of the play/game here: it is, in fact, a walkthru, something all gamers are familiar with. Both a theatrical experience and actual game the audience had to play in order to advance the story, 1926 Pleasant (and their latest puzzle production, Saboteur, reviewed here) seems to accomplish what Schreier says Sleep No More failed to do, but the intent behind the two pieces are completely and utterly different, and so the comparison becomes useless.

Now, if the two pieces could be combined, you would have something that appeals to theater goers and gamers alike. Let's take a look at a video game property like Bioshock and think of how these two formats of theatrical experience could be applied to making Bioshock a live action interactive event. Why? Because I am goddamn obsessed with this whole freaking idea, that's why. If you're still reading this, I don't even know what to tell you. You're as sick a puppy as I am.

As a self contained environment, it could be constructed the same way as the fictional McKitterick Hotel: Six stories of immersive environments fashioned after Bioshock's more iconic levels, like Neptune's Bounty, Arcadia, Fort Frolic, the Farmer's Market, Hephaestus and Olympus Heights.

 Rapture is largely comprised of sweeping atriums and surprisingly open spaces for being an underwater city. However, as Sleep No More demonstrates nicely, constructing outdoor spaces indoors is entirely achievable on multiple floors. Also the ballroom on the lowest level sports two stories of balcony seats and vaulted ceilings. It is a huge room that could easily be transformed into any number of centerpieces from the game.

 Of course site-specific theater is just that. One could find a space more uniquely suited to Rapture's grand halls, but the space Punchdrunk created in the form of the McKitterick Hotel is smartly and very successfully constructed. With relatively few changes, Sleep No More as it stands could be turned into the site of a Rapture live action interactive gaming experience.

The next question, of course, is who would go? Who would shell out, say, $100 to be let loose in that kind of environment for three hours, not knowing before hand how it would go? You'll have adventurous types, you'll have gamers, you'll have theater goers, but the added responsibility that's placed on the audience member when they're expected to participate and actively move the game forwards as opposed to merely observing events as they unfold could potentially scare away much needed ticket sales, and come to that- how many tickets a round would have to be sold to make the endeavor even remotely feasible?  Those are the questions I don't want to think about because the other stuff is more fun, but it does make me think that the ideal place to try out an experience like this would be San Diego Comic-Con.

Your audience isn't just built in, it's swarming the grounds around where your theatrical gaming experience is held. San Diego boasts a throng of beautiful hotels, plenty of which are historic, as well as some industrial and warehouse sites that could be appropriated and converted. Passes could be given away at panels as well as purchased ahead of time to guarantee your spot.  It would be, for the logistics of running such an experience, the perfect litmus test. Branching out to other audiences, of course, would be a different ballgame, but if this sort of thing was going to be made a reality, I think SDCC is a prime opportunity to give it a test run. Not to mention, I'm sure it would be the talk of the con.

Bioshock, Dead Space, Walking Dead, Arkham Asylum, even Game of Thrones- all are properties that could utilize the concepts of mystery, clue finding, puzzle solving and even, eventually, combat to engage an audience and motivate a player, as well as blend seamless with theatrical style presentations and fully fleshed out but self contained environments. We're certainly seeing plenty of transmedia projects happening, and various properties bleeding into other mediums, so who knows- maybe this kind of thing isn't that far off. I hope it's not, because the only thing I want to do more badly than go back to Sleep No More is return to Rapture.


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