'Sleep No More' and Storytelling in Games

by Scott Juster

4 October 2012

What happens when a production company stages an interactive theater experiment? It starts to resemble a video game.

Believe it or not, I do listen to podcasts about subjects other than video games.  For example, the Freakonomics podcast is one of my regularly weekly downloads.  However, this isn’t to say that I’m not still thinking about games while listening to a supposedly unrelated topic.  Case in point: the recent episode called “Fear Thy Nature”.

The show, like all Freakonomics episodes, was about trying to figure out what influences human behavior.  This particular episode looked at how our social environments impact our actions and devoted a significant chunk of time to discussing an interactive theater production called Sleep No More.  Freakonomics framed Sleep No More as a bold experiment in socialization and storytelling, and I have no doubt it is very impressive both as a piece of theater and in its relation to social science tests like the Stanford Prison Experiment.  However, as someone familiar with video games, many of the statements made in the podcast (some of which I’ve included here) sounded very familiar.
“An immersive, interactive theater piece,” - Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics Co-host

Right away, two of the most frequently used video game watchwords are invoked to describe the play.  Regardless of genre, games require active participation and attention to unfamiliar guidelines.  Sleep No More requires the same type of engagement by asking audience members to piece together a retelling of Macbeth by exploring a multi-room building.  It sounds like a logistical challenge to stage, but conceptually it is very similar to how one pieces together the story of BioShock.  Parts of the plot are obvious, but fully understanding the events and characters requires rummaging through the world’s obscure areas.

“You make your own journey; it’s very personal,” - Audience member

People may draw different conclusions from structured media like novels or films, but their journey towards those conclusions will be the same: act two will always precede act three, the epilogue will come after the final chapter.  By contrast, even the most constrained video games leave ample room for a personal journey.  Your path through level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. will almost certainly be different than mine. I may have run the entire time, chosen to jump off a different cluster of blocks, or died a dozen times before finishing. 

Individual journeys become even more unique in large open world games like Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim.  As is the case in Sleep No More, there is a central plot in these games, but it runs through a large, branching environment that allows people to customize their paths.  Such an environment undermines the author’s control and turns the experience into a collaborative project between the creator and participant.

“The mask is utterly critical and without it, it wouldn’t work or it would be something very different,” - Felix Barrett, Artistic Director and Director of Sleep No More

Sleep No More audience members are given masks to wear during the performance, which allows them to not only craft their own journeys but their own characters as well.  Throughout the podcast, both participants and performers commented on the enabling nature of the mask. Something about the anonymity emboldened people to rifle through the set dressing and push the limits of social propriety.  People experimented with being more impulsive, aggressive, or just plain silly.  In a sense, they created avatars to explore a new space with unfamiliar roles.

It’s a concept frequently discussed in the video game world.  When people create virtual identities, how do they behave?  Within the relatively consequence-free environment of a game, a mild-mannered office worker might assume the role of a frontier outlaw.  I know I’ve cast aside my adherence to social conventions (and traffic laws) while navigating Liberty City.  Sometimes games try to quantify our social experimentation with a morality system or branching story that reflects our decisions.  Add other live people to the mix, and you can experience first-hand the often disturbing and surprising consequences of visiting a space where normal social rules do not apply.  Anyone who has ever played on a public multiplayer server knows how raw things can get.  In any case, the concept of being able to don a metaphorical mask and act out different roles is just as crucial to games as it is in the play.

“We’ve fictionalized a state of tension that feels slightly unsettling and threatening when actually it’s not.” - Felix Barrett

Such a statement could just as easily describe trying to save Clementine in The Walking Dead, navigating Slender‘s creepy forest, or making galaxy-altering decisions in Mass Effect.  Games have been exploring tension and presenting us with unsettling situations since the days of text-based adventures.  On more than one occasion, people have have been shocked by their subject matter and by players’ strong devotion to their favorite games.  Government officials and academic researchers continue to examine the question of whether these unsettling, threatening situations have consequences outside of their contexts.

We may never come to a satisfying answer, but we do know that video games offer an opportunity to experience threatening or bizarre fictional events.  Drop a person into an environment where they are free to test the limits of its rules and form their own code of ethics and you’re likely to learn about them.  In Sleep No More some audience members quietly followed the actors around.  Some stole pieces of the set.  Others tried to forcefully interact with cast members. 

They sound quite a bit like the virtual tourists, action heroes, and hoarders that frequent the world of Skyrim.

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