You enter a darkened room. With no map or HUD to assist you, navigation is a matter of trial and error. You turn aimlessly in various directions until you detect a small glimmer of light in the distance. You walk toward it and discover a small candle on the floor, lighting only the tiny spot around it.
You search for other cues, but finding none you turn 90 degrees and begin walking. "Maybe I'm in a hallway," you think to yourself. Suddenly you hear a loud thunk, as if a large object fell to the floor above you. Muffled music can be heard coming from somewhere. You suspect you're being watched.
After a series of wrong turns, guesswork finally brings you to a bright light shining at the end of corridor. The music intensifies as you approach and you hear voices, so you follow the sound and light. Finally, quite unexpectedly, you emerge from the dark into a 1930s-era nightclub full of NPCs in tuxedos and gowns mingling and dancing. A beautiful woman offers you a cocktail. You take a seat and look around. "Why am I here?” you wonder. "What am I supposed to do?"
A few minutes later a mysterious woman invites you to follow her. She leads you to an anteroom and tells you in hushed tones that she wants you to explore the building. "Something dreadful" has happened here, but she won't say more.
A curiously formal man escorts you to an elevator, and you get in. After the doors close he urgently advises you to explore each room and examine every object. "Don't be shy," he tells you. "Bold action can reap big rewards in this place. Are you willing to be bold?" The doors open, you step out, and the man disappears.
You're on you're own. No map. No instruction manual. No FAQ. What now?
We’ve devoted lots of time and ink to studying - and celebrating and bemoaning - all the ways other media have influenced video games. Narrative games clearly owe much to film, novels, folklore, and other storytelling systems, and these influences continue. I mean, who would have guessed the ancient Jewish Book of Enoch would inspire a game?
But what happens when we turn the tables? What happens when a generation of artists emerges, reared on electronic interactive entertainment, with no memory of a world without video games? What kind of art will this generation produce?
The opening paragraphs of this post do not describe a video game. They describe a theatrical production called Sleep No More, a fully-realized convergence of live theater and real-time non-linear multiplayer horror-adventure game. Quite a mouthful, eh? Convergence can be a little messy. Another, more personal way to characterize the production: Sleep No More is the first time that both strands of my life’s work - theatre and video games - have coalesced to form something that feels at once deeply familiar to me and breathtakingly new.
Sleep No More is an “immersion theatre” event in which audiences are free to roam, explore, and investigate (almost nothing is off-limits) a vast space that includes 100 rooms spread over 6 floors of a transformed abandoned warehouse in Chelsea, NYC. Scenes and apparently spontaneous situations unfold throughout the building as 21 actors move from one stylized location to another, and each room is filled with period artifacts related to the story. The production's director, Felix Barrett, puts it this way: “In our world, every single drawer, cupboard, wardrobe that can be opened, should be opened because you’ll find something inside."(1)
Sleep No More is based on Macbeth, infused with a heavy sampling of Hitchcock. Audience members arrive at the McKittrick Hotel from Vertigo; Mrs. Danvers, the diabolical housekeeper from Rebecca, appears to poison a pregnant woman; and samplings of Bernard Herrmann’s scores are woven into the complex bed of sound heard throughout the building.
It’s easy to discern the theatrical and cinematic elements mashed up to create Sleep No More, but the whole event begins to levitate when game elements are stirred into this witches’ brew.
The audience member (essentially a Player in this construction) explores the spaces of SNM, examines items, and seeks clues to explain what has happened in this place. She also responds to events that occur in real-time all around her. While her agency is limited (she cannot, for example, prevent Macbeth’s demise), she is free to go wherever she wishes and pursue her own interests, including interacting with the characters or other audience members.
In true adventure-game fashion, the joy of SNM is exploring, piecing together clues, and carefully observing the characters and environments around you. SNM is a giant puzzle to be solved by the player, with more than one possible solution. Meaning is assembled by the player, provoked by SNMs innumerable stimuli. Shakespeare's Macbeth is one possible narrative frame, but certainly not the only one.
SNM is an incredibly stimulating sandbox, chock-full of fascinating characters, artifacts, and narrative events. Throughout my time there (I saw it twice), I was struck by a familiar sense of open-world freedom, bound by intentional designer-imposed limits, but ultimately responsive to my desire to test those limits, tweak the system, and observe the results.
At the second performance, I found myself digging to figure out how the system works; looking for the seams; seeking ways to give myself an advantage over the other audience members; developing strategies to overcome the system’s rules.
In other words, I played Sleep No More like a game, and its design encouraged that behavior. SNM isn’t a sender-receiver event. Like all great games, its system responds to player actions, including those that would seem to fall outside the “acceptable” range. SNM gets more interesting the harder you play with it.
What’s the best way to play Sleep No More? Follow one character from room to room? Remain in one room and see who shows up? Take notes? Stay with a friend, or purposely separate and try to locate each other (a challenging mini-game in this vast space)? Find a hiding place?
And how will you respond when the 4th wall crumbles completely? When a visibly distraught Lady Macbeth grabs your hand, pulls you down a flight of stairs, and leads you into a graveyard, what will you do? And how will you get that blood out of your shirt?
Sleep No More’s run in New York City has been extended into early October. See it. Play it. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.