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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.

Continue reading Games of 2011: Sleep No More

The Nurse Who Loved Me

“Please wait here”, the nurse whispers softly in my ear, having lead me by the hand to a doorway through a crowd of people. I nodded silently.

She enters the room, shoos out a person, gestures for me to wait one second, and closes the door. I stand facing it, waiting, quietly smiling to myself. Others hover around me in the tight, dark hallway of the asylum, curious as to what will transpire.

The door reopens, and she takes my hand again, pulling me inside, and closing the door behind me. We are alone. Continue reading The Nurse Who Loved Me

The Witch In The Green Dress: Thoughts on Sleep No More

Sleep No More

On Saturday night, I stepped into the McKittrick hotel with five friends. Three hours later, I found myself back on the sidewalk of 27th Street, catching my breath, my heart still racing, my mind still spinning.

If you keep an ear to what’s going on around NYC, then you may already know that the McKittrick is home to Punchdrunk’s “immersive theatre” experience, Sleep No More. Audiences are invited to don a mask and explore 100,000 square feet of a recreated abandoned hotel, while a cast of twenty-three actors stride from room to room and silently act out Macbeth by way of Hitchcock. Some audience members choose to follow one or two characters and see what happens; others opt to explore on their own, rifling through drawers and cabinets and suitcases. The choices are up to each attendee.

Much has been written about the experience, and I am loathe to rehash. You might want to heard the observations on the inherent voyeurism from Ben Brantley at the Times, or Michael Abbott’s lovely argument as to why anyone who calls themselves a gamer needs to go see it. You may be interested in the amazing set and prop design, which would lead you to this NYT slideshow. And there are plenty of other impressions around the web, almost all positive.

My normal way to talk about these sorts of experiences is to meticulously walk my way through everything that happened, trying to gather all the details so they form a single authoritative post. I am going to skip on that method for Sleep No More. I may have caught multiple scenes, I may have followed most every character at least once, I may have dug through a lot of drawers – and I may have even found an easter egg or two. But that experience was mine, and when you go, you will have your own – and it will be different, and unique, and yours. I do not want to taint that or come across as recommending a course of action.

But I will share one story from last night, after the jump. (This might constitute a spoiler, so if you’re looking to go in blind, stop reading here.)

Continue reading The Witch In The Green Dress: Thoughts on Sleep No More