For a period time I counted myself among Sleep No More‘s “superfans,” people who almost religiously returned to the show to experience it, despite the increasing cost of the ticket over the years (which led to my eventual “retirement” when it became clear spending up to 1,000 a year wasn’t worth it). I’ve come to question what it was about the experience that attracted me to it so much, that made me return almost monthly for two years, that sometimes draws me back to it every once in a while, especially when I’m in New York on holiday. Only now, reflecting sometime later, am I recognizing it as a “gaming” experience.
In conventional theater you presumably see the whole thing in one night. At Sleep No More, it is impossible to see and experience every possible element of the McKittrick Hotel in a single night, despite the 3-hour run-time and the “time loop” element of storytelling. It becomes something of a challenge to go back and try to experience everything, especially the 1:1s where actors perform a scene just for you. I remember an interview Felix Barrett did with Eurogamer a few years ago regarding another Punchdrunk production where he understood the experience of “playing the game” of getting the 1:1s, knowing where to stand so a performer would look at you, or knowing performers reward loyalty with 1:1s or something special––I recall a night where one of the characters I was following kept looking at my T-shirt and during my 1:1 he even whispered “I love your shirt.” Moments like this expand the breadth of the number of experiences you can have in Sleep No More, because things keep changing up. Hypothetically, you could go see it for years and never have the same experience twice.
Looking at experiences like Fullbright’s Tacoma or Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, the philosophy of exploration as part of the game is there much like it is in Sleep No More: in fact, Tacoma‘s storytelling method was partially inspired by Sleep No More and even has a direct reference to the show (though I won’t say what). But Sleep No More has an element to it that Tacoma doesn’t really have and Obra Dinn sort of has but not quite: an element of replayability. Part of the joy of Sleep No More is going back to it and experiencing it over and over again. With Tacoma you can more or less get the whole story in one go without the need to play again to see if you missed anything; Obra Dinn you may have to go through the game a few times to get the complete story, but once you’ve done that there’s not really much of a point in doing it again.
I think exploratory games like Tacoma and Obra Dinn need to explore ways of making experiences that, even if you get the whole story, are still fun to go to again and again, either by having more material for the players to find or just making it an experience worth checking out again and again.