MacBeth + Hitchcock + Bioshock = Sleep No More

The reason I play video games isn't to master the mechanics or chase a high score. For me, the most important thing a game can do is give me a chance to experience something I'd never be able to in real life and to immerse me in a world that's at once completely believable and unbelievable. And so, with that, I want to share with the Giantbomb community my experience last night which managed to both top and video game experience I've ever had, while also opening my mind to new ways that games could draw players into a story. That experience was a show in New York City called "Sleep No More".

So what is "Sleep No More?" In short, it's a retelling of MacBeth mixed with Hitchcock and film noir, told mostly without words in a six story 1940s era hotel with more than 100 rooms. Guests are dropped off, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone, by an elevator operator on various floors. They are given white masks that cover the entire face and instructed not to talk. In the words of the elevator operator as he pushed me out of the door, "This is an experience to be had alone. Things are not always what they seem, and fortune favors the bold."

Wandering off of the elevator, I found myself in a dark hallway, with little understanding of where I am or where to go. But then, I heard soft music. Following it, the hallway opened into a huge hotel ballroom where 20 or so people were dancing an intricately choreographed waltz. A young waitress walked around passing out drinks and a pair of dancers began flirting with each other. But then, the lights cut out and the music turned dark. Suddenly the young waitress was in the center of the room, illuminated by a spot light. She begins an intense, writhing dance and before our eyes, rips out her hair to reveal that she is bald and transforms from an innocent servant girl into some sort of snake like monster. This is one of MacBeth's three witches.

This was one of the less strange things I saw last night. Other highlights include

  • A woman eating raw human hearts only to then spit out a silver ring and give it to an audience member. She then began singing an old jazz song in a man's voice.
  • Stumbling into a bedroom to find Lady MacBeth greeting MacBeth as he returns from battle and both of them naked, making love before she tries to convince him to kill the king.
  • Spending time in a detective's office, reading the case files that were inside his desk when the detective comes in, motions for me to come with him. I follow him into a back room covered in black and white photos, with a work bench in the back. He opens a drawer and inside is a dead bird which he begins dissecting with tweezers.
  • Finding a graveyard and the ruins of a bombed out church with a man beating his head against a statue.
  • Discovering the witch's hut, which in this version is a ruined nightclub. This turned into a crazy techno music orgy with strobe lights and lasers where a naked man put on a bulls's head, two naked witches made out with each other, and then a bloody, dead baby was paraded around the room.

So, what does this have to do with games? Well, for one, the total freedom to see things, while still giving enough subtle clues to get you to where the action is. And then, being able to see all of these non-linear pieces and letting them form the narrative for me. I'm still sure that I only got maybe 70% of the story, but it just makes me want to go again. The thing was like being in Bioshock's Rapture for the first time, but without the combat but the same amount of fear. I would love to see this experience replicated in a game - a fully detailed, open environment with a non-combat focused story and enough clues to let the player figure out what's going on without making it feel like they were led by the hand.

Also, its just an amazing experience, if you can get down with weird and artsy. It's maybe the most unique thing I've ever been a part of.

26 Comments
27 Comments
Edited by ztiworoh

The reason I play video games isn't to master the mechanics or chase a high score. For me, the most important thing a game can do is give me a chance to experience something I'd never be able to in real life and to immerse me in a world that's at once completely believable and unbelievable. And so, with that, I want to share with the Giantbomb community my experience last night which managed to both top and video game experience I've ever had, while also opening my mind to new ways that games could draw players into a story. That experience was a show in New York City called "Sleep No More".

So what is "Sleep No More?" In short, it's a retelling of MacBeth mixed with Hitchcock and film noir, told mostly without words in a six story 1940s era hotel with more than 100 rooms. Guests are dropped off, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone, by an elevator operator on various floors. They are given white masks that cover the entire face and instructed not to talk. In the words of the elevator operator as he pushed me out of the door, "This is an experience to be had alone. Things are not always what they seem, and fortune favors the bold."

Wandering off of the elevator, I found myself in a dark hallway, with little understanding of where I am or where to go. But then, I heard soft music. Following it, the hallway opened into a huge hotel ballroom where 20 or so people were dancing an intricately choreographed waltz. A young waitress walked around passing out drinks and a pair of dancers began flirting with each other. But then, the lights cut out and the music turned dark. Suddenly the young waitress was in the center of the room, illuminated by a spot light. She begins an intense, writhing dance and before our eyes, rips out her hair to reveal that she is bald and transforms from an innocent servant girl into some sort of snake like monster. This is one of MacBeth's three witches.

This was one of the less strange things I saw last night. Other highlights include

  • A woman eating raw human hearts only to then spit out a silver ring and give it to an audience member. She then began singing an old jazz song in a man's voice.
  • Stumbling into a bedroom to find Lady MacBeth greeting MacBeth as he returns from battle and both of them naked, making love before she tries to convince him to kill the king.
  • Spending time in a detective's office, reading the case files that were inside his desk when the detective comes in, motions for me to come with him. I follow him into a back room covered in black and white photos, with a work bench in the back. He opens a drawer and inside is a dead bird which he begins dissecting with tweezers.
  • Finding a graveyard and the ruins of a bombed out church with a man beating his head against a statue.
  • Discovering the witch's hut, which in this version is a ruined nightclub. This turned into a crazy techno music orgy with strobe lights and lasers where a naked man put on a bulls's head, two naked witches made out with each other, and then a bloody, dead baby was paraded around the room.

So, what does this have to do with games? Well, for one, the total freedom to see things, while still giving enough subtle clues to get you to where the action is. And then, being able to see all of these non-linear pieces and letting them form the narrative for me. I'm still sure that I only got maybe 70% of the story, but it just makes me want to go again. The thing was like being in Bioshock's Rapture for the first time, but without the combat but the same amount of fear. I would love to see this experience replicated in a game - a fully detailed, open environment with a non-combat focused story and enough clues to let the player figure out what's going on without making it feel like they were led by the hand.

Also, its just an amazing experience, if you can get down with weird and artsy. It's maybe the most unique thing I've ever been a part of.

Posted by BraveToaster

Yes, that most certainly has a Bioshock vibe to it. And the creepy atmosphere is just one reason why I enjoyed Bioshock. That show sounds interesting.

Posted by beeftothetaco

I want to see this now.

Posted by Irvandus

This sounds awesome!

Posted by GoofyGoober

Sounds great.

Edited by Tiwi
Posted by ztiworoh

@Tiwi: www.sleepnomorenyc.com - I know they have tickets up through November at the moment; not sure if it's extended beyond that, but considering they just opened up a rooftop garden bar on top of the venue, and the massive amount of work that went into building it, I can't imagine it won't be there in some form or another. That said, they change up the show - adding scenes, rooms and characters - pretty consistently. The cost was $90 per person for us - prices vary depending on when you go but are usually between $70 and $125.

Edited by Tiwi

@ztiworoh: Thanks. I'll make sure I go to this when I visit new york next year. Hopefully it'll still be up

Edit: Also did you get to keep the mask?

Posted by ztiworoh

@Tiwi: Yep! You keep the mask.

Posted by MikeGosot

I want to see that! Fuck, why i don't live in NYC?

Posted by Redbullet685

This sounds so amazing. I want to see this but I don't live in NYC..

Posted by ztiworoh

@MikeGosot: @Redbullet685: Neither do I, but I'd heard good things about this and went up there for a couple days to experience this. It was well worth it.

Posted by MikeGosot
@ztiworoh: You need to be 18 years old or more, right?
Posted by ztiworoh

@MikeGosot: It's 16 and up; then they also card you because the bar in the "hotel" serves cocktails - mostly absinthe.

Posted by MikeGosot
@ztiworoh said:

@MikeGosot: It's 16 and up; then they also card you because the bar in the "hotel" serves cocktails - mostly absinthe.

That's great. I'm 16, and i'm going to try to go.
Posted by MarkWahlberg

@ztiworoh said:

@MikeGosot: It's 16 and up; then they also card you because the bar in the "hotel" serves cocktails - mostly absinthe.

16+ for a show involving simulated sexytimes? Kids have it so easy these days.

Seriously though, this sounds absolutely insane in the best way possible. Funhouse taken to it's weirdest extent. Really wish I could see it.

Posted by ztiworoh

@MarkWahlberg: Yeah, I'm not 100% sure but I think that's the age limit for nudity if it's in a play vs being at a strip club. But yeah, the whole things fucks with your psychology in a way - like you're in a mask and anonymous, and then people are just going about their business, including getting naked like 2 inches from you.

They also encourage you to like go through people's drawers, eat food that's around (there's a room FILLED with candy for some reason), and basically do anything except talk or touch the actors - unless they touch you first, which happes pretty often.

Posted by MikeGosot
@ztiworoh said:

@MarkWahlberg: Yeah, I'm not 100% sure but I think that's the age limit for nudity if it's in a play vs being at a strip club. But yeah, the whole things fucks with your psychology in a way - like you're in a mask and anonymous, and then people are just going about their business, including getting naked like 2 inches from you.

They also encourage you to like go through people's drawers, eat food that's around (there's a room FILLED with candy for some reason), and basically do anything except talk or touch the actors - unless they touch you first, which happes pretty often.

I bet an horror play made in this style would be amaaaaaaazing.
Posted by ztiworoh

@MikeGosot: Well, it kind of is horror - just not of the jump scare kind. A lot of just making you feel completely uneasy and afraid that something is around every corner and making you confront some seriously fucked up imagery.

Posted by MikeGosot
@ztiworoh said:

@MikeGosot: Well, it kind of is horror - just not of the jump scare kind. A lot of just making you feel completely uneasy and afraid that something is around every corner and making you confront some seriously fucked up imagery.

Also, did you read/watched MacBeth before going into the play? I wanted to know how this would hold up if you never were exposed to MAcBeth before.
Posted by ztiworoh

@MikeGosot: Yes - I'd read it in high school but that was 10+ years ago, so I decided to give myself a refresher. There's a great version of it on Netflix Instant starring Patrick Stewart from 2010. Worth watching even if you don't go to this. Macbeth could easily be a modern story. The play also heavily references Hitchcock's Rebecca and Vertigo, both of which are also worth seeing in their own right. There are some great "preparation guides" that others have put together.

Now, if you didn't have a familiarity with those things, you would probably be lost but could probably enjoy it for the crazy attention to detail of the set and the insane physical things that the actors are doing. But, the whole thing is mostly wordless and a lot is left open to interpretation, so knowing the source material definitely makes it make way more sense.

Posted by AssInAss

I've heard of this before in relation to Brainy Gamer's blogand that it's a play that feels like a video game, your story was great too.

Like a Haunted Mansion though, I'd feel weird fucking around with the "actors", because then the veil might be lifted if I poke at it too much and the dude might be an asshole to me. Next time I visit NYC, I'll seek this out though! :D

For a very recent non-linear story-focused game, check out Thirty Flights of Loving (subject matter is crime caper set in 60s Argentina).

Posted by ztiworoh

@AssInAss: Well, you're explicitly told not to mess with the actors - though if you're in their way, they do a good job of letting you know you should move without breaking the illusion (often times by just ignoring your presence and making it clear that they're going to walk into you unless you move) but there are specific, scripted sequences where they will involve audience members. For instance, Lady Macbeth was changing from her ball gown made a man in room help her unzip her dress.

Posted by Laiv162560asse

Joe Cornish, of Adam & Joe and Attack the Block directorial fame, once talked about a similar (or the same?) experience on the Adam & Joe radio show. He had nothing but praise for it and it sounded fascinating.

Sounds like the actors break their side of the no-touching pact pretty often and enthusiastically, which must make it all the more bewildering and overwhelming.
Posted by ztiworoh

@Laivasse: It's not the same show but it's the same theater company - Sleep No More is sort of the next level version of the Masque of the Red Death that they did in London.

Posted by Little_Socrates

I would be into going to this someday soon.

Posted by Regular_Kirk

I went to Sleep No More last night and Bioshock was definitely on my mind as I worked my way through the haunted, bizarre "hotel" surrounded by people wearing masks and actors wearing early 20th century clothing while warped versions of big band jazz music played in the background.

Truly a great time.