Friday, March 16, 2012

What games can learn from Sleep No More (part 1): the death of environmental storytelling.

Part 1 contains VAGUE SPOILERS, as if your friend had gone to Sleep No More and told you about it, or as if you had read a news article about it.

Although there have been many past theater productions that have done generally what it does, Sleep No More is what's going to be most prominent in history. It's basically a 5 floor tall, 100 room haunted house with dancers wordlessly performing a loose adaptation of Macbeth throughout the maze -- and you and everyone else are wearing masks, staring and shuffling silently through the halls. It transforms contemporary theater and dance into something relevant for people who'd otherwise see little value in it.

I value it mostly for its interaction model and the ways it uses architecture in specific ways; it is what happens when outsiders use level design concepts better than video games ever have. First I'd like to debunk what I consider to be the "conventional reading" of it and its relevance to video games, as argued by game critics.

Both Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer and Jason Schreier of Wired made much of the environmental storytelling: every room is filled chests and drawers, which are in turn filled with papers, letters, trinkets, and other narrative artifacts. The idea is that you'll "read" each set, and have greater insight into the plot and its characters. The 1930s setting further grounds it in a BioShockian kind of space and school of design. Abbott concludes that it's awesome, but Schreier thinks it's broken and fragmented. I think they're both wrong: this isn't how Sleep No More uses environmental storytelling. It's irrelevant. (Caveat: it's okay if you liked reading the papers, and if you're one of the 5 players in the world who read every Dragon Age codex entry -- I, personally, have little interest in lore, so I'm going to assume it's not important.)

Most people already know the plot because it's part of the pitch when an article or a friend tell you about it: it's Macbeth. There's a couple divided by a crime, dawning remorse, the supernatural, a bunch of death, tragedy... even if you have only the vaguest memory of Shakespeare, you know the trajectory of the plot. Sleep No More's plot isn't trying to be particularly original or groundbreaking, and indeed the reliance on dance obstructs literary subtlety: when someone dances like they're sad or pissed off, then they're probably sad or pissed off. Also, because of the nature of crowds and dim lighting, movements and expressions are rarely small or subtle.

Reading through the thousands of papers is unsatisfying. The light is always dim, the ink is always faint. It's extremely difficult to glean tangible details from them. The first few pages I found, I scanned with excitement -- the next few, I flipped through. After a while, I decided it was there to be clutter / to be messy. In the same way that Dear Esther uses an AAA hyperphotorealistic visual style to imply intent and effort to say "trust us," the papers are here to suggest the sheer amount of work in designing and printing all this set dressing. It is shock and awe. Dwell too long at the papers and you'll end up missing the fantastic nudity.

I think most people quickly learn not to bother. If you're still willing to shuffle through desks after 3 hours, your eyes fatigued from the strain, then don't complain that your time was wasted: you chose to waste your time. It takes a very special type of gamer to voluntarily grind and grind and grind and never change their playing strategy.

Instead, that means you should understand it all as a whole, that a messy desk might characterize the owner of that desk, and maybe it's a detective's desk. That's it. Why figure out specifics? You know that people can shuffle the props you see in rooms, or even steal or plant new props -- when I was there, I took a pencil and started defacing all the papers, and they allow it and even encourage it. You know that the audio excerpts in Dear Esther are randomized -- so why are you still trying to read meaning and intent in that literal, linear, and boring way? The details are there so that you'll ignore them. Layering more details do not create a richer narrative because at some point it's just noise.

For Sleep No More, it's okay if you don't "get it" or you never "figure out the puzzle." It doesn't matter. You already know what happened because, again, you are told it is Macbeth: a character violated their conscience, and that character and their loved ones were punished for it. Let's stop thinking of environmental storytelling in such a boring way. (Caveat: though I guess the alternative model I present is pretty reductive as well... death to all environmental storytelling then!)

I don't think narrative is the point of Sleep No More -- rather, the point is to see cool shit and enjoy the warped architecture and appreciate being messed with. The point is the atmosphere, the experience.

First, we need to step back and consider the context in which Sleep No More takes place, because no text exists in a vacuum:

It is a fictional hotel in Chelsea (a fashionable, expensive, and gay part of Manhattan) built in the hollowed-out shells of 5 different expensive night clubs; tickets are currently $85 USD per person, the doors open at night, and they sell tickets in bursts so that there are always rumors that the show will permanently close soon (though I'm told by dancer friends that the contract terms are quite long and they have the lease on the space for much longer than that.)

People spend a lot of money to go, especially if they're not used to spending money on theater, and understandably they want a good night out -- in the same way that gamers have a warped sense of entitlement as to how many hours a game of a certain price tier should last -- and the hype encourages people to have transcendent experiences, or at least convince themselves they are having one.

Sleep No More knows it needs to make itself worth your while, so it helps you... if you're willing to listen.

In Part 2, I will discuss in-detail what I think it does. It's spoiler-ific.