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The Perils of Too Much Choice

Katharine Coldiron | 15 Nov 2011 13:00
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I could tell you a hundred more things about this experience, but it was three hours of trooping up and down the stairs and trying to catch sight of the performers as they led each other through the labyrinth. No description compares to being there. It resembled BioShock's Rapture as imagineered by David Lynch.

I never did decipher the plot that involved the performers. I never read every piece of paper in the building. I felt mournful that I was missing so much, both awed and frustrated by the enormous complexity of this place. The problem that I had was a lack of markers. I never felt thoroughly drawn in by the experience; I never quite connected to the performances or understood my purpose as an audience member, because there was nothing obvious to tell me what the performance, or my purpose, was. I was spellbound, but uncertain.

I never quite connected to the performances or understood my purpose as an audience member, because there was nothing obvious to tell me what the performance, or my purpose, was.

Let's go back to Rapture for a moment. You go into the bathysphere and drop under the sea, and very soon after you land, Atlas tunes in to tell you where you should go and what you should do to stay alive. The lighting, and the tips on the screen, let you know how to keep moving forward in the game, and usable objects shimmer to notify you of their availability. Virtually anyone who's ever played a videogame before can follow this trail of breadcrumbs and figure out how to proceed - and, moreover, how to get the most valuable experience out of the gameplay. The gamer can obsessively seek audio diaries, or he can pick up every possible bottle of Old Tom Whiskey, or he can read all the messages scrawled on Rapture's decaying walls to learn more about the world. He can discover the game's intricacies to his pleasure, because they've been laid out for him, and there are clues and hints woven into the game's design. Nothing is there by accident, and it's difficult to miss the important stuff.

Not so in Sleep No More. It all seemed deliberate, certainly, but there were no clues distinguishing the melody from the (ample) noise. There was nothing in the McKittrick that called out "Pick me up! Read me! I'm essential to understanding this maze." There was no indication of what floor or which rooms we should visit first so as to be aware of where the performers were or where they were headed. Nothing shimmered. It was all equally enticing, or equally alienating. My husband and I witnessed two of the eleven key scenes twice, but entirely missed most of the others.

Even in sandbox games, there will always be a point where you can't go into the mountains any further, where you reach the limits of the world. There will be scrub grass that you can't dig up and turn into potions. There will be drawers you can't open and doors that are just dressing. Inactive sets, in other words. There are designers who have created the paths you're treading, who have put that toy car and that bag of potato chips and that round of ammo in the rubble of the house. The designer wants you to make your own choices, but only in the context of the path he has designed for you; he wants to lead you around by the hand, not set you free completely.

I didn't feel the benevolent hand of a designer who wants me to figure out what the hell is going on during my three hours in Sleep No More. I could tell that it was an enormous amount of effort to create this intricate world, and I never lost the sense that it was theater, even if it was theater I was involved in instead of passively observing. It was a satisfying and fascinating and unforgettable experience, but I am pretty sure I missed most of it, because I was never sure that I was going in the right direction and seeing the things I ought to see.

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