SleepNoMore-DD.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time -- an interactive theater production and how it might inform games.]

When I finally got to live in a video game, I found it wasn’t that much different from playing one.

On Wednesday, October the 14th, I played (which I think is a more appropriate verb than saw) Sleep No More in high-resolution reality. Sleep No More was created by British theater company Punchdrunk, which aims to create “a theatrical environment in which the audience are free to choose what they watch and where they go,” according to their website.

The experience is a videogame stripped down to atmosphere and exploration, like a Silent Hill without monsters where the puzzles have no solution and no purpose.

The set of Sleep No More is a four story high school in Boston transformed beyond recognition. There’s a schoolroom full of cut hair, a ballroom filled with pine trees, rooms with bathtubs, rooms with hospital beds, trophy rooms, darkrooms, and rooms wallpapered in playing cards. Through theses rooms stumbles a cast of actors who wordlessly act out an Alfred Hitchcock-themed production of Macbeth.

To experience the show patrons wander through these rooms, following and observing actors or exploring the rooms on their own. Interaction with the actors is forbidden but exploration and nosing through the shelves and drawers of the building is encouraged. The themes of problem solving and exploration are very reminiscent of certain genres of games.

What makes the experience of Sleep No More so much like a video game, and also a very relevant example for the issues of game design, is the production’s symbolism. The whole production is drenched in symbols, some obvious, some obscure, but Sleep No More uses these symbols as a way to define the rules of the production for the patrons in exactly the same way that symbols are used in video games to teach players about the game world and their relationship with it.

Invisible Walls

Defining boundaries is one of the most frustrating and eternal problems of game design. Barriers need to be both believable and clearly indicated for a smooth game experience, and are often neither. In the case of Sleep No More, there are numerous doors that lead behind the scenes to areas that the audience isn’t meant to go through. The easiest solution is to lock them, but this presents a new problem: If the point of the experience is to explore, how do you stop the audience from trying to find a way in?

The solution is a symbol to mark what is and isn’t off limits. The locked doors in Sleep No More have books bound in black cloth wrapped in a cross pattern hanging from them. The bound book is closed and impossible to open, much like the door. Sleep No More is full of abstract imagery, so it's easy for the audience to make the metaphorical connection that closed book=closed door.

It only takes a few tries to understand the meaning and stop wasting one’s time. Because the landscape of Sleep No More is already so metaphorical, it’s easy to accept the presence of the book as the explanation for why the door can’t be opened. In the same way that games with magic use mystic barriers to prevent players from leaving areas, the expectations of the player are matched to the context.

Invisible Audience

This system is clever, but the most important way in which Sleep No More defines audience experience and expectations is through the use of masks. Upon entering the theater space, audience members get a mask and instructions that they are to under no circumstances remove it for the duration of their stay. The intention is for the audience to explore on their own, uninhibited by the presence of others (talking is especially discouraged).

The masks help accomplish this in a number of ways. First, they blank your identity, sealing your appearance and reactions. This is important for preventing audience members from talking with each other so they won't be more focused on each other than the unmasked actors. It clearly defines your role as a silent observer. Finally, on a purely practical note, it prevents audience members from bumping into each other in the extremely dark corridors.

Actors don’t have masks, which allows you to see their expressions as well as distinguishes them from the rest. The participant’s eyes should be on the actors, and only the actors. The masks are there to simulate the feeling of exploring the set by yourself. Ushers have black masks, which makes them more or less invisible, as they should be as unobtrusive as possible.

Art Imitates Life

The most striking thing about Punchdrunk’s production is how much it feels like a video game, which should be taken as a compliment to the industry. It’s amazing how close we’ve come to creating games that feel like reality, to the point where I can compare a more or less real life experience to one.

This is because games, like other mediums, are very dependant on symbols and metaphors to convey meaning. Without getting too far into semiotic, we could go all the way and just say that games, like books or any other form of art, are constructed of symbols and metaphor alone. Even the most realistic graphics are just a stand in for reality.

It’s all about creating a new world, but what works for Sleep No More doesn’t necessarily work for everything. Sleep No More is helped substantially by its abstraction, which is one of the reason why this problem has actually gotten worse as videogames have made technological leaps forward. When it was just pixels, things were simpler.

The Tone of the World

So how can Sleep No More inform future game design? First of all, it’s okay to be abstract. It is better to be clear and abstract than to try and hide the problem with a realistic but implausible solution. Another important point is that defining context can help stop players from encountering these barriers.

This is why the masks are so important, just like the identity of your character in a video game. So despite the fact that a patron might be able to knock down a locked door, in the context of the play it would certainly not be something a patron would try.

The biggest problem with this is that the landscapes of most videogames are free from limiting context. The average protagonist is completely unhindered by the barriers, both mental and physical, that limit real humans. The GTA series is great example, because the biggest part of that game’s charm is that you can run through the world almost invincible with little to no consequences for your actions. There’s almost no limit on what you can do or think you should be able to do. Creating a context through player identity can be the most important way of keeping players within boundaries and helping them to understand the way a game world works.

Context is even more important, in some ways, than in-game consequences. To continue with GTA, the penalty for messing around is being attacked by police. Since these games typically cast the player as an amoral, violent criminal (Vice City in particular) the game explicitly gives license for the player to whatever they want, damn the consequences. If the game had cast the player as a cop trying to clean up the city, it would have drastically changed the way the players thought about the game even if all the elements of gameplay had stayed the same.

Punchdrunk gives its patrons masks to help them see, to tell them what's important, and to focus their attention on what they created. So many games have same the level of attention and detail in them that Sleep No more has, but not many actually encourage players to take a deep long look at the world they are now inhabiting. Which may, as the production proves, be a joy in and of itself.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which will discuss video games eventually, I swear, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com.]