Games of 2011: Sleep No More

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. This is the last post in the series. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Surprise: my Game Of The Year isn’t a video game. (I never said they were all going to be electronic.) And yes, it’s Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which I’ve talked about on this blog twice before, and is perhaps the closest thing to a real life video game I’ve ever found, and perhaps ever will.

Those of you who follow me on social networks have probably missed out on the incessent gushing about the show I tend to do in person. It has become an all-consuming experience; I have made a somewhat absurd four visits to the McKittrick Hotel for performances, including one just over a week ago. Some might feel this is three times too many. (Others might argue it’s four times too many.) I am fully and well hooked on this thing, and I won’t be surprised if I notch a fifth trip sometime in 2012. The friends who have been tend to be understanding and share a desire to go back. Here’s why:

People who have played games for a significant length of time have certain behaviors become hard wired into their play style. If you grew up with Wolfenstein and Doom, you become accustomed to pressing on every wall, hoping for a secret passage to open. RPG addicts know to search every container in the hopes of finding something useful or interesting. Stealth-action gamers are used to slinking along behind characters, hoping to figure out their secrets. And so on.

These skills are generally not acceptable to use in real life; most of us don’t spend our days exploring strange spaces, investigating someone’s bedroom, or following strange people about their business. This is where Sleep No More fits in perfectly – it’s a meticulously designed playground where you can make use of these habits and skills. This is a space where you want to be looking, touching, feeling, and exploring at every turn.

There’s no way to win this game, of course – the show ends after three hours, and you are gently ushered out of the hotel space. There’s also no way to see every last thing that happens during the show in a single visit. But you may have pieced together how some characters interact, or found a secret passage, or even helped run messages between characters.

Punchdrunk has designed the show to allow the audience the freedom to indulge in anonymity and voyeurism – the masks, the mandate that there is no talking inside the space, the use of light and shadow. The experience makes it easy to detach from yourself and become your own avatar, so long as you can break down some of the psychological barriers that tend to prevent people from doing the things you should do in this world. (More on these later.) The cast has a trick up their sleeves, of course: they are fully allowed to interact with you, and will choose to do so with those that are clearly engaged and unafraid. As you are told in the elevator, fortune favors the bold.

This is not a world for the faint of heart. The company now warns that the audience may experience “intense psychological experiences”. There is violence (multiple murders), nudity (both genders), and absinthe served at the bar. There are strobe lights, smoke machines, and in one scene, some incredibly loud drum and bass music. There is running up and down flights of stairs, and the slight-but-ever-present danger of being hit by one of the staff as they perform their dances (as Katie learned when she was kicked in the arm during our last visit). The show lasts at most three hours, which may be more than those with low stamina can withstand.

But no matter how much my feet hurt when I exit back into the streets of Chelsea, there is nothing else like it I’ve ever experienced in my life. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to go as much as I have, and yet I always want to go back as soon as I can. Everyone who enjoys games as a hobby should make a point of going before the show ends its run, whenever that may be.

The remainder of this post, as some sort of twisted holiday present, are essentially my complete set of notes about the show – how it’s structured, how to plan your visits, and even a set of imaginary achievements. The information in that section is extremely spoilery, and I agree with the common wisdom that you should take in your first visit to the show essentially blind – it’s more fun that way. So save the details in the rest of this post until you’ve gone once.

Sleep No More is currently extended through February, and may continue to extend as Punchdrunk sees fit.

SPOILERS BELOW.

Understanding the Structure

Sleep No More loosely follows Macbeth, but because there are a number of characters added, it’s not exactly a 1:1 performance. It is recommended you brush up on the play before you go, but keep in mind that none of the cast members announce themselves, so you may be following someone who turns out to not be in the play. Try to detach yourself from the expectation that the show is Macbeth.

The show runs three hours (generally 7:00 – 10:00); in that time, the show will loop three complete times before hitting the final scene. Each character follows the same path over each loop; use this information to your advantage to avoid things you’ve already seen, and to get in position if there’s a scene you know you’ve missed previously. With no easy start or end to the loops, you may want to keep an ear peeled for the sound of a bell ringing, which can be heard throughout the space when a particular scene occurs.

The McKittrick has six floors, although you are likely only going to see five of them in your visit. Where you start is randomized and, to be honest, doesn’t matter so much. There are staircases on both ends of the floors which will help you traverse the space, as well as a few special staircases elsewhere.

Floor 1 is really a double floor, containing the Ballroom as well as a mezzanine. The ballroom houses a number of scenes (including the finish) and the “forest”. The mezzanine houses Duncan’s tent and quarters, a small chapel, and some space that overlooks the ballroom.

Floor 2 is the Hotel floor. It contains the McKittrick lobby, restaurant, staff area, and bag check. It also connects back to the Manderlay Bar – one staircase will open directly into the bar, and there’s an entrance behind a red curtain near the back offices of the hotel.

Floor 3 is the Residence floor. It contains the Macbeth’s and Macduff’s living quarters, as well as a graveyard.

Floor 4 is the Town floor. It contains multiple businesses – a funeral home, a tailor’s, a candy store, an apothecary, and a taxidermist. It has a somewhat hidden bar within a maze of boxes. A number of non-Macbeth characters have businesses on this floor. Also on this floor is Hecate’s Bar, which looks much like the Manderlay but is clearly not.

Floor 5 is the Asylum and Hospital. It features a number of spaces devoted to psychological care, as well as a large hedge maze in the middle of the floor. You will typically find the nurses here. This floor is also worth noting because it has a number of easily accessed bathrooms, down the hallway between the room of beds and the room of bathtubs.

Floor 6 is off limits, but occasionally someone will be let out of elevator onto this floor. I cannot tell you what is on it – haven’t been.

Planning Your Visits

I strongly recommend booking your tickets for 7:00, as the sooner you get into the space, the more time you have to explore. Despite this being NYC, where lines are almost always assured, the line for Sleep No More doesn’t begin to form until around 6:25 before the 7:00 show. I have been first in line for three or the four shows I’ve gone to, and being first in is strongly recommended. (Certainly makes taking advantage of the bar easier.)

At the coat check, you should check your bag and coat. Stick your watch and cell phone into your bag if you’re the sort of person who incessantly checks either, as it’s better to let time pass once the show starts than to clock watch. If you wear glasses, check those too – they don’t fit under the mask. After you get your playing card ticket and grope your way through a dark hallway, you’ll emerge in the Manderley Bar. This is safe haven, and you may stumble back into here during the show, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed. You will find two characters here who don’t appear elsewhere in the show – Calloway and Violet. Both are happy to chat with you, if you so desire.

Groups will be called to the elevator by rank of card given (Aces, then Twos, and so on up the deck). You will be given a mask; don’t put it on until you are told to. You can adjust it using the little plastic thingy in the back – try not to tighten it too much, as it will get hot and sweaty during the show.

While the first visit is still best spent blind, It may be worth structuring subsequent visits with particular focal points. There are essentially three main methods I’ve found through which I approached the show, which changed my experiences each time:

  • The Search: spend your time focused on the set and the scenery. If a scene takes place near you, watch it, but avoid tailing characters out of rooms. Explore every space. Open drawers. Read books and letters. Pick up telephones. And so on.
  • The Tail: focus on following characters through their loops. Stay close to them and help them out if they reach out. Don’t look away if they stare into your eyes. Feel free to switch characters if someone more interesting comes along, or there’s a crowd forming around your character.
  • The Swerve: remembering that you can treat this show as a game, press on the boundaries of the world and see what happens. If a character drops something, pick it up and bring it to them. If a character is stationary in a room, approach them and interact with *them*. Walk with a purpose so others follow you. Stand in empty rooms and wait for other audience members to hover around you, wondering what you’re doing (I personally do this in the Ballroom at least once every visit). In essence, become a part of the show.

The Four Psychological Barriers

I refered earlier in this piece to needing to break down some barriers. These will likely happen naturally, but they can be unnerving (and exhilirating!), so some pre-warning is warranted:

  1. Become okay with interacting with the set. Sitting in someone else’s chair and opening up all the desk drawers feels very wrong the first time you set foot in the space. You may gingerly touch parts of the set, or pick up a piece of paper to read it. This is relatively easy to get over, but can be a little bit of a sticking point. You’ll know you’re past this one the first time you check every cupboard, drawer, and container in a room.
  2. Become okay with following a few feet behind someone. Years of crime dramas have told us the right distance at which to tail someone is from afar, so they don’t pick up on you doing it. There’s no room for subtlety at the McKittrick; you will lose the person you’re tailing if you hang too far back. Stay close at all times. You’ll know you’re past this one when you chase a cast member down four floors of stairs.
  3. Be ready to interact with the cast. I’ve seen cast members look at the crowd of people around them, and a handful of people will look away. Having someone look through the mask into your eyes is a piercing reminder that you are not actually invisible. Getting past this one will mean you’re ready for a one-on-one, where the cast member hauls you off and performs privately with you.
  4. Be ready for your mask to come off. Some one-on-ones can involve the cast member removing your mask. As unnerving as them looking into your eyes can be, the mask coming off is worse, leaving you feeling naked and unprotected – they fully see you, and you fully see them. You may even have to speak. But once this has happened, you have essentially conquered all. The show is now yours.

Do’s and Don’ts

DO come with friends, but DON’T walk hand in hand with them around the space. Split up – you can share your experiences later, collectively. DO agree where you will meet after the show, be it a particular table in the bar or outside on the sidewalk – most people won’t have their cell phones on them.

DO be courteous to other audience members, especially on the narrow stairs. DON’T stand in front of another audience member during a scene and block their view.

DON’T talk while you’re in the space, and DON’T take your mask off during the show, no matter what you saw on Gossip Girl. If you absolutely have to talk to someone, head to the Manderlay bar.

DO check every door handle to see if it will open. You never know.

DO pay attention to how the stewards in the black masks move, because they often have to get in position before scenes start. But DON’T try asking them for help – unless you’re asking for directions to the bathroom or the bar, they’re unlikely to say a word.

DO feel empowered to interact with the set, but DON’T be a dick. For instance – there’s a guestbook on the front desk of the hotel space. There’s a pencil nearby. Writing your name in the guestbook is not an uncommon thing for people to do – but don’t scrawl obscenities in it, or complain about the show. Keep your interactions in the spirit of the show.

If Sleep No More Had Achievements

It would take a solid month of posts to talk about the things I’ve seen (and heard about) at the show, so in lieu of a specific tour guide for what to see, here’s some gaming-style achievements to help guide you towards certain activities. (I’m even assigning point values just to denote rarity.)

Where’d Everyone Go? (5)
Be the first person in your group out of the elevator.

I Want Candy (5)
Eat a piece of candy in the candy store.

A Toast (5)
Catch the banquet scene (not the finale).

Dirt On Your Shoes (5)
Explore the graveyard.

None Shall Pass (5)
Be blocked or ushered by a steward in a black mask.

Broken Wings (5)
Find the bird’s wing in Malcolm’s detective agency.

Wild Beast (5)
Find your way through the hedge maze.

Out, Out, Damned Spot! (5)
Hear Mrs. Macbeth ramble after she goes insane.

Now Is The Time (10)
Catch the rave scene.

Sweet Respite (10)
Duck out into the Manderlay during the show and listen to the band.

Choco? (10)
Get fake blood on you.

Killer (10)
Catch a murder scene.

Let’s Keep Dancing (10)
Catch a performance of “Is That All There Is?” by a cast member.

Out Of Place (10)
Find a prop that clearly doesn’t come from the early 20th century.

Enchanted (10)
Have any of the witches (or Hecate) touch you.

Glenn Miller Fan (10)
Watch the bellhop dance as he cleans up the lobby.

Practically Perfect (20)
Find a famous nanny in the guest registry.

Dust to Dust (20)
Hold a character’s umbrella in the graveyard.

Crack In The Wall (20)
Find the hidden AV room in the ballroom area.

May I Have This Dance? (20)
Dance with Calloway.

Hail The New Thane (20)
Watch Duncan get murdered.

Passage (20)
Go through the secret passage on the fourth floor.

Just You And Me (30)
Have a one-on-one with a cast member, with no other audience members around.

The Lady In The Red Dress (30)
Receive a note from a cast member for Hecate, and deliver it to her.

Masks Off (50)
Have a cast member take your mask off during a one-on-one.

This Will Protect You (50)
Receive a necklace from a cast member.

This Is Your Floor (100)
Find a way onto the sixth floor.