Many years ago I participated in the first Alternate Reality Game (ARG). It was created to market the Spielberg film A.I. The entrance points were clues hidden in trailers and posters that led to web searches or phone numbers. It went on for months in the spring and summer of 2001, and players from all over the world collaborated online to uncover the story and solve a mystery. It didn’t just take place on the internet, though—there were meetups, staged within the world of the game, and phone calls with actual actors in character. It was as though the entire world had become a video game, and we were dropped into it, trying to solve whatever puzzle was in front of us in order to open up a path to the next piece of the story. I remember thinking—this is theatre. This is a performance that completely immerses the audience. This was theatre that I wanted to create.
It was ten years before I had another experience like this—when I attended Sleep No More in 2011. In the years since the British theatre company Punchdrunk opened this show in the United States, it has become a huge New York City attraction, selling out nearly every performance to an audience of about four hundred people each night, and triggering a discussion about the “gamification” of theatre. The term “gamification” refers to using game mechanics in non-game situations. Many believe that understanding what draws people to games can be used to draw in audiences that might not attend traditional theatre.
Sleep No More is an adaptation of Macbeth staged across six floors of a warehouse. Audience members are masked and, after being told “fortune favors the bold,” left to wander at will throughout the space. They aren’t supposed to talk throughout the piece, or remove their masks. They may encounter an actor and choose to follow her and see part of her story, or they may wander elsewhere and explore the well-designed environment. Audience members are encouraged to open drawers, flip through books, and read letters they find. Occasionally, performers will interact with members of the audience and even pull them aside for “secret” scenes. For me, it was a haunting experience, unlike any other theatre I had seen.
But what happens when an audience is removed from passively viewing a play and turned into a group of first-person players in a game? I contend there’s a difference in the behavior of gamers inside a video game and theatregoers watching a play. Both are valid ways to experience Sleep No More, but attending Sleep No More as a gamer can overshadow and disrupt audiences who have come to experience a play. Gamers are trying to achieve an objective, and Sleep No More has created a theatre experience that lends itself well to planning approaches and achieving goals. Many people see the show more than once. Some repeat attendees are intent on “collecting” scenes they missed on previous visits. Others are determined to receive an invitation into Hecate’s lair. A few become aggressive in an effort to attain their goals, getting physical with other audience members or even actors. Having objectives doesn’t have to be detrimental to the creation and appreciation of art, but it does sometimes result in unexpected consequences. It’s a little like playing a game with a friend who has beaten it several times—the friend knows where to go and what to do to trigger events, and some of the mystery and discovery are lost on the newbie as a result. Are we creating gamified theatre at the expense of the artistic experience at its core? If immersive theatre is going to become a sustainable part of the theatre ecosystem, we need to find ways to create an experience for the audience that allows everyone to enjoy the work as art.
After my visit to Sleep No More, I was brought back to my ARG experience ten years earlier. Instead of browsing for pieces of a narrative on websites and emails, I was watching fragmented scenes, reading letters from Lady M to her husband, watching half a phone call and wondering who was on the other end. A friend described it like being in the game Bioshock—a first-person shooter video game. While the audience obviously isn’t asked to be a first-person shooter, they are immersed in exploring a space any way they choose. It’s similar to playing an “open-world” game where the player is given freedom to explore and can make choices in how they approach the game. Many games ask players to explore a place and uncover the story. Other games present a central storyline to all players but include optional side quests for those who uncover them. In Sleep No More performers will occasionally choose audience members with whom to interact privately, sometimes giving them a task to perform. This, plus the sheer size of the production, makes it impossible for anyone to see the entire show in one performance—just as it’s not possible to experience all three Bioshock endings without replaying the game. Because of the “re-playability” of Sleep No More, every audience has its share of repeat attendees.
When playing a computer game, we’re often driven to find out all of its secrets. We return to rooms where we know a scene can be unlocked, or a quest can be completed. We’re able to do anything—within the programmatic limits of the game—in order to achieve a goal. With four hundred people attending each performance of Sleep No More, large numbers of audience members follow each performer, and the re-playability factor leads to people trying to be in the right spot to be chosen for the one-on-one. A friend who attended for the first time recently told me that this behavior distracted from his experience. There was no mystery when someone was going to be chosen, because people became more aggressive and bold in order to be the one selected. There was little hope in him being selected, because he wasn’t pushing to be at the front of the crowd. Each audience member is in her own first person game, and some treat other audience members like non-playable characters rather than fellow attendees at a performance.
On subsequent visits to Sleep No More I was increasingly aware of the behavior of those around me. It bothered me that the gameplay mechanics had essentially overtaken the art. The danger in creating theatre that intimately involves an audience is that the audience is given a certain amount of power over it. Their actions and choices affect the piece and others trying to experience it. Mixing game mechanics with art opens up many possibilities to artists and audiences but because we can’t account for how people will interact with our work, this needs to be part of the experience. It’s a challenge for future immersive theatre artists: make the level to which an audience can affect or disrupt a performance a conscious choice, and keep the audience that isn’t re-playing the game engaged, or find ways to curate the audience’s experience while still providing the open-world exploration. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re making art for an audience and not just creating an experience for a single player.
Another immersive piece currently playing in NYC, Then She Fell, offers a different experience. A small, fifteen-member audience is split up and led to different start points on a journey through Alice in Wonderland. Everyone’s path through the show is unique, but no one is left to wander wherever they choose. This is similar to playing a game “on-rails,” where players are led from one moment to another, with a lack of choice in how the experience progresses. One of my favorite games, Dreamfall, is played on-rails, and to someone wanting the experience of freedom within a virtual world it can feel forced. What Dreamfall has going for it in story makes up for the lack of autonomy for the player; the same can be said for Then She Fell. The carefully crafted experience was satisfying, intimate, and never felt forced. I was still immersed in the show and interacting with performers, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do something completely unexpected.
At the beginning of Then She Fell, the audience gathers in one room and is introduced to the play. Just like with Sleep No More, the rules of the performance are explained. For Then She Fell that one rule is: the audience is forbidden from opening doors to other rooms. The audience is then split up, and the experience of being on-rails becomes apparent. Everyone is led from one room to another, one scene to another, each time entering a room and finding the doors closed behind. It wasn’t until the end that I started wishing I’d had more freedom, and started brainstorming ways in which more freedom could have been incorporated within such a curated experience.
The downfall to playing a game on-rails is the artificiality. As a player, I should be able to move freely, encounter characters, and not have to solve a specific puzzle before that character will give me a piece of information. The beauty of Sleep No More is its similarity to real life. I am an active participant in my experience and can change that experience at any time. Then She Fell kept me from ever missing that autonomy, but ideally I want to create immersive theatre where I’m not guided through a specific experience. Is the answer simply in having a smaller, more manageable audience than is currently the case with Sleep No More?
The Rude Mechanicals’ production Now Now Oh Now, performed in Austin, Texas in 2012, also incorporated gameplay mechanics into theatre. The first third of the show was a multi-player game: puzzles were scattered about and the audience had to work together to solve them. Players opened secret doors or discovered hidden objects that affected the narrative later on. It reminded me of my ARG experience in 2001. That game would have never been solved without a global collaboration. In Now Now Oh Now the audience wasn’t filled with individual players of a game, disconnected and anonymous. Instead, we had to look at each other’s unmasked faces, talk to each other, and work together to solve the mystery. I’m left wondering: what would Sleep No More look like with an element of collaboration in its audience?
Additionally, there was accountability that is absent in Sleep No More. The masks worn by the audience allow the wearer to act in ways they might not otherwise act. I’m normally a theatregoer who doesn’t want to be singled out, and at Sleep No More I was terrified of performers noticing me. With the mask on, I found it easier to step outside of my comfort zone. I walked into a room, was alone with Hecate, and I found the guts to take her hand when she offered it. But there’s always an audience member who hears the phrase “fortune favors the bold” and chooses to act in more disruptive ways. When Hecate put a ring on another friend’s finger in one of her scenes, the masked man standing next to her actually tried to take it off. There are stories of audience members trying to distract the actors, force their way into locked rooms, or remove parts of the set. Some multiplayer games have “griefers,” players who deliberately harass others and try to disrupt the game. In gamified theatre, is it inevitable that these audience members will exist? What would happen if you took away the masks? Punchdrunk has explored multiplayer theatre before with And Darkness Descended in which unmasked audience members became resistance fighters working together to achieve objectives. But even in something less collaborative like Sleep No More perhaps losing the masks would restore some accountability to the audience and force them to acknowledge each other, not as non-playable characters but as other people experiencing the piece.
I’m in the beginning stages of developing a piece of immersive theatre; I imagine that I’m not alone. I look at the droves of people playing Sleep No More and wonder if there is a better experience to be had for the audience. The answer might lie in the audience size—an open-world theatre performance could be enjoyable to everyone with only a fraction of the current Sleep No More attendees. It might be in removing the anonymity granted by the masks, or setting the performance on-rails to control all of the variables. The combination of games and theatre is too full of new possibilities to not explore it more. I’m interested in an exploration that respects the artistic experience as much as the gameplay involved.