The Perils of Too Much Choice

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If you were to ask a gamer whether he wanted more or less choice in any given game, he would probably say he wanted more. If you were to ask him whether, in the context of a live-action video game, he wanted a completely open, totally explorable world, he would probably start salivating. But enjoying a videogame to its fullest extent involves necessary restriction of choice. I wouldn’t have known this with as much certainty as I do now without Sleep No More, a play (after a fashion) currently running in a limited engagement in New York City.

I wanted to stay in the room with the sculpture of dozens of doll bodies hung in an elaborate and deeply disquieting mobile under a lighting design and stare at it for hours.

Sleep No More is an interactive theater experience based loosely upon Macbeth, with echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. (There’s also some Eyes Wide Shut and “The Masque of the Red Death” in there, too.) Audience members are ushered into the “McKittrick Hotel” (a series of converted warehouses in the Chelsea neighborhood), given masks, told not to speak or take photographs, and unleashed for three hours to wander through six floors of immersive theater. Each of the floors has a different theme: graveyard, hospital, hotel lobby, grand ballroom, and so forth. The dozen or so performers go through their routines (there are eleven major scenes, and many smaller encounters) with or without an audience, and they often stride from room to room with a gaggle of white-masked people following close behind, or scribble something on a piece of paper as intent voyeurs attempt to read over their shoulders. The atmosphere is perhaps the most important aspect of the experience; dialogue, visibility, accessibility, and any possible method of applauding the performers for their work have all been sacrificed to it. The show has been running since March of this year, and was previously performed on a smaller scale in London and the Boston area.

I went with my husband, a videogame designer, to Sleep No More in late October. I am into cinema and literature, and he’s into games, and we thought this show would be a terrific intersection of our interests. We were simultaneously disappointed, sort of, and totally blown away, sort of.

We wandered around the six floors of the McKittrick Hotel, in the dim fog, looking for things to see, pieces of a puzzle to put together. We watched scenes unfold in front of us: a witch in a red dress cut up and ate a steak, stared at me and unnerved the hell out of me; a woman bathed a naked man who then departed the room, leaving her to freak out over an imagined stain on her short black nightgown; two men fought over cards and one killed the other. A man lip-synced “Is That All There Is?” and cried real tears. A bald woman tore off her wig and did an intense Martha Graham-like interpretive dance that was only seen by a dozen audience members. The whole time, middle-frequency noise alternated with the deafening score for Vertigo – one of the most evocative pieces of music written in the twentieth century – to bring the unease factor to 110%.

The thing that most fascinated me about this experience was that the building itself, the so-called McKittrick Hotel, is far more attention-getting than any of the living performers. It is an astonishingly detailed and richly visual world. There are items in every drawer, there are rooms behind every door, there is decipherable writing on every piece of paper. I wanted to pick up and handle all the books, and read the underlined passages. I wanted to stay in the room with the sculpture of dozens of doll bodies hung in an elaborate and deeply disquieting mobile under a lighting design and stare at it for hours. I stood in a room that contained nothing but a single chair and a swinging light fixture, mesmerized by the pattern of the chair’s moving shadow, for several minutes before my husband nudged me to move on.

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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.

What if you’d never found a single audio diary as you played through BioShock? Would your experience of the world be rich and compelling, or would the world be a pretty set for a decent first-person shooter? What if, in Portal, upon riding into the fire pit, you never realized that the walls’ appearance made them portal-able walls? What if you just got dumped in the fire, over and over again, and never got to defeat GLaDOS?

Cues, and a restriction of choice, often lead to the player’s greatest enjoyment of a videogame, and it’s in this (and this only) that Sleep No More fails. Its embarrassment of choices meant that I walked away with great appreciation and admiration, but little engagement, and for this reason, it wasn’t – as I’d believed it would be – a live-action videogame. I didn’t have enough of a sense of where I should go and what I should do to get to the final boss battle and emerge with the feeling that I’d completed the experience.

Cues, and a restriction of choice, often lead to the player’s greatest enjoyment of a videogame.

Seeing Sleep No More helped me (and my husband, who said he thought every level designer in the industry ought to witness the McKittrick) recognize that limits and signposts in videogames are bad for neither the player nor the designer. If the gamer really could read every book on every shelf, and every book had substance but not necessarily significance within the game, she would have a hard time determining which way was up. Illuminated outlines for key items are not a crutch, not a weakness of imagination, but a preservation of energy, to keep the player moving in the right direction. Would you really want to sacrifice the satisfaction of being sure you played the game as intended? (If you do, well, hack away.)

Be advised, should you decide to make your way into Sleep No More, that you may not come out with any answers. It is an experience like no other, an experience that defies the boundaries of theater, dance, gaming, and even what constitutes an audience. But you may not walk away knowing what you were supposed to get out of it. The artistic director of Sleep No More‘s theater company, Felix Barrett, notes in the show’s program that “There’s no one right way to do it.” Fair enough, but total artistic freedom doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a positive experience for the audience. Sometimes, it’s just confusing.

Game designers don’t want to restrict your freedom, or keep you from the full spectrum of experience that a videogame can provide. They want to make the world come alive for you, keep you engaged, guide you down a rewarding path. The McKittrick is already alive, by virtue of being real, but there is no easily discernable pattern to the immense detail. Too much choice, as I learned, leads ultimately to disengagement, whether the game is live or digital, and that’s exactly what those shimmering objects are trying to help you avoid.

For an immersive experience without certainty, hie thee to New York, or get yourself a copy of Myst. Otherwise, enjoy your seat on the couch, and feel free to find your way through – a benevolent creator is watching out for you.

Katharine Coldiron’s essays and fiction have appeared in various print and internet media. She lives in Maryland and blogs at The Fictator.

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