Thursday, October 4, 2012

'Sleep No More' and Storytelling in Games

Image from PopMatters
My latest PopMatters column was inspired by a podcast about a play. How's that for abstractions?

I'm a regular listener of the Freakonomics podcast. A recent episode dedicated to exploring the way our social environments dictate our behavior introduced me to an experimental theater project called Sleep No More. In this production, audience members are given masks and then asked to explore a multi-room warehouse in which actors play out various storylines. As you might expect, the combination of anonymity and unfamiliar circumstances causes people to act a little...weird.

Anyway, I couldn't help but feel a little irked while listening: the show is undoubtedly bold, but conceptually it's very similar to what video games do. Yet, despite all the references to interactive storytelling, presenting people with challenging rules, and allowing them to create a temporary avatar in a new environment, video games were never mentioned. Again, I know this probably had more to do with making sure the podcasts segments and run time remained snappy (it's something I struggle with every week!). Even so, I wanted to draw attention to the close relationship between theater and games.

Thanks to their visual spectacle, games are often compared to movies, but I've always argued that they are closer in spirit to theater. After all, every time you play a game you're taking part in a performance. Even the most tightly scripted games vary slightly from player to player and from session to session, just as staged performances do. Every time you pick up a controller to participate in some mixture of directorial and role-playing creation that has the potential for spontaneity. No two audience members will experience Sleep No More the same way, just as no two players will have exactly the same experience in Red Dead Redemption, or Geometry Wars, or The Walking Dead.

I'd definitely be interested in seeing Sleep No More if I had the chance. It sounds extremely ambitious and artfully executed. It's just that the concept of taking on another identity and piecing together a story by interacting with a strange environment doesn't strike me as that "far out." I've been doing the same thing in a digital form for years now.


  1. Agh! Curses! You made the connection too! I thought I was such a cool dude for thinking the same thing.

    I've actually be thinking about this particular topic A LOT.

    In Berlin there was another interactive theater piece called The Labyrinth. An interactive art installation journey.

    And last Spring I was in London doing study abroad at the Slade School of Fine Arts, where there's a lot of conceptual art installation and stuff. And while watching a particular piece (the kind of fancy pants art piece most gamers would loathe), I drew the connection between the two. BAM! This is such exciting stuff.

    Additionally I was recently researching the history of the conceptual art movement and I came across this nugget. Lawerence Weiner specifically argued that his works could basically be boiled down to written instructions that the viewer had to self implement. That conceptual art was not really about materials (such as paint or canvas) but about instructions. Which is kind of how code works....

    This is great! It gives gaming a new platform of understanding in the art world, and hopefully allows for a more systematic and humanized way of understanding conceptual art (rather than the alienating and elitist way it's often carried out).

    I'm actually applying for a grant from my school in Spring to hopefully do something like Sigh No More. I just hope I can convince the board on the idea and get enough funding and man power to make it work. I'd really really like to draw a stronger connection between my game design work and my fine art work. Plus it would be super fun.

  2. Great minds, you know? :)

    I completely agree with you in terms of how looking at systems can actually explain and humanize abstract art and concepts. My knowledge of theater history isn't the most comprehensive, so I'm glad folks like you are doing the heavy lifting in order to connect the dots.

    Let us know how your project goes; it sounds like a really cool idea. If you need any more ammo to make your case, I'm sure Michael Abbott's work at the Brainy Gamer would help.