Worldbuilding in Immersive Theatre, and the Punchdrunk style

Earlier this month I took a one-day design masterclass with Punchdrunk, the immersive theatre company. I’ve previously written about seeing their work Sleep No More and Against Captain’s Orders. Their work has been a design inspiration especially for thinking about narratives where the characters are all in motion and the player is choosing which to track.

Going into this session, I was curious whether I’d learn methods of environmental storytelling that would cross over into game applications. I was also curious how they approach developing a physical space around a story concept, and what questions they ask in order to develop the character.

If you’re considering signing up for a class — I think they’re on hiatus now, but the opportunity might reopen in the future — I’ll cut to the chase and say that it was a fascinating, fun day and totally worth doing; that I enjoyed the activities and instruction and had a great time meeting the mix of other practitioners in the same space, who included museum curators, drama instructors and students, other game designers, and a few “I just love Punchdrunk and was curious” types.

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Our group decorated a space (with only paper and string) to evoke a character from a short story (being intentionally a little vague here to avoid spoilers)

At the same time, I should acknowledge the news about the harassment of actors at Sleep No More productions. This didn’t come up in the course of the workshop, and I had scheduled mine before that news item broke, but I mention it in case that information affects your desire to engage with the company’s work.

The rest of this article will be talking specifically about what we learned in the context of video game design and story-telling — some items that I found expectedly or unexpectedly useful, and also some places where I’m not sure the inspiration would successfully cross over.

Punchdrunk1First, though, a couple more images of props and setting elements fashioned by our group out of nothing but tape and paper. (I am in awe of the plants. No way am I handy enough to make something that looks like a little bush using only a roll of butcher paper.)

I’m showing these pictures because they give you a bit of a sense of what we were going for, even if you’ve never been to a Punchdrunk production, and even though we’re using paper rather than real props (as Punchdrunk generally does). The process they taught us includes layering in in-world written and visual hints, but also decisions about how to shape the space.

Punchdrunk3A good portion of the work is what you might, in another context, call level design. Deciding which objects the player should see right away, and which should be hidden, behind blockages or inside drawers. Adjusting the placement of light and shadow to draw the eye in the right direction. Narrowing space, or lowering the perceived height of the ceiling, to make a room feel cozy or oppressive as needed. Changing the affordances of the space to control how the audience was able to interact with it.

Then there was decoration and detail work. At one point they set out a series of prop boxes for us to draw from, battered books, documents, bottles and tea cups, playing cards and other signifiers. All of these were real items, the kind of thing you might collect at a charity shop, but not all the set dressing is naturalistic.

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Abstraction. We talked about the more thematic, less realistic sets they build. This is a technique especially for the spaces that are not going to be used by live performers, the side rooms and upstairs floors where audience members might go to take a pacing break from the rest of the story.

These emptier rooms are more likely to go for the uncanny or the improbable: a taxidermy deer, a three-foot heap of salt, enough photos to cover an entire wall. They showed us examples of rooms with dozens of lamps hung from the rafters, or umbrellas, or swathes of cloth and paper — places that are (self-evidently) possible in the real world, but so odd that no one would be likely to design a normal social space that way.

Some of those abstract approaches would, I think, be harder to make as game levels — or at least to work the way they work for Punchdrunk. Their uncanny quality would be less keen in a digital space; their effect on one’s sense of personal space, less acute and significant. Yes, there are games about surreal spaces, but a game with thirteen identical clocks on the wall says “reused asset,” not “something is very wrong here”.

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Clues, and not needing the audience to understand. In detail work, they talked about avoiding clues, the obtrusively placed diary page that explains everything, and that is such a video game and IF staple. This, it occurs to me, is a desirable goal but not always achievable in games. Punchdrunk has a luxury here that game designers don’t: there’s nothing specific that a Punchdrunk production must communicate to the audience. An impression, a feeling, a sense of period or personality is often sufficient. The questions they asked us to answer (or the prompts they used to get us started) were often straightforward: how many people live here? How old are they? How do they get along? What are their daily routines?

The sense of habit is important to the Punchdrunk aesthetic. Sets are dressed with used things — books and old tea cups and typewriters and broken dolls from vintage shops. The sense of narrative via damage, and simple worn-ness as an evocative romantic quality, is everywhere. Different projects gesture at different times and places, but none of the sets I’ve seen were shiny, new, or futuristic. Barometers and ships in bottles and hand-written letters, yes; cell phones and laptops, no. And definitely none of the spaceships or silvery-surfaced machinery or even mechanically responsive props one finds in some of the more ambitiously engineered escape rooms. When there are triggers or switches in a room, they’re meant for a performer to activate at the proper moment, when something new needs to happen in the story.

A lot of the time I find the vintage emphasis charming and effective. Just occasionally it feels a bit twee or lazy, or like it’s serving a purpose other than the ostensible one. We have a room full of little vintage medicine bottles, say, not because the character demands it, or because other bottles wouldn’t tell the right story, but because of the sensual pleasure of warped glass and browned labels. The gratification is not precisely dramatic or narrative. There’s something instead almost adjacent to ASMR, for the eye rather than the ear.

But all of us have our techniques that we’re comfortable with and that we reach for instinctively; tools that so often serve us well, so that we forget it might be a good idea to try something else occasionally.

Less discussed — maybe for lack of time, maybe because we would have needed more skills and resources to do any hands-on exercise here — were the sorts of props not found in the real world but constructed from scratch, especially props to communicate cultural attitudes, like the Orwellian propaganda posters in the Oubliette escape room, or the evolving corporate messaging of Aperture Science, or the Park Service typography and imagery in Firewatch,

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Density and repetition. Punchdrunk sets are often dressed very very densely. One clock on a wall is not enough: there may be five, seven, a dozen clocks in different shapes and sizes to communicate the concept of Time. There are things everywhere you look, but what prevents a viewer feeling too overwhelmed is that the message is frequently unambiguous, lots of signifiers for every signified. The view is intricate but repetitive, seemingly information dense but casually legible. A cartographical room might contain dozens of nautical maps, but it is the fact of their collective map-ness, not the specific content of an individual roll, that carries most of the burden.

We are given the idea of variety, but not actual variety; the evocation and wonder of discovery, but less true knowledge-to-wonder-at than we’d find in a few feet of homely steel stacks in the basement of a university library.

Together with the point about clues above, this gets at something essential about my Punchdrunk experiences so far: that I’m always left a bit wanting, that the space excites a curiosity and eagerness that it is unable to satisfy.

I see that there is a great deal of detail on the surface, and I want that to be repeated fractally as I explore. I want every book I open to be meaningful about this dramatic world, I want every drawer to reveal more to me. (To be clear, I know this is a completely unreasonable expectation. That kind of content density is impossible in the digital space of games, let alone a real world one where all these books and maps and letters would have to be written and printed and manufactured.) Instead, I open a book and find it’s an old novel of no special relevance to the story and someone bought it at a thrift shop because it had a handsome leather binding. In consequence, I usually enter a room with a sense of awe and then explore until I conclude, a little disappointed, that I’m not going to get much more out of it, and wander off again. Yes, sometimes there “secrets”, an interesting object around a corner or in a desk drawer, but I’m trying to read the space more deeply than it’s usually designed for.

I find these spaces intriguing and pleasurable. I enjoy wondering at, and about, the sets I see. As an audience member, I can learn — as part of literacy about this type of experience — what to look for, and how much time I should expect to invest in any element.

As a creator, though, it’s not quite the effect I’m usually going for myself. I need other methods to make sure that an experience rewards exploration, and that it cues only as much exploration as is going to be rewarding. That’s hard, and to do at the level I want, often requires procedural generation at some level. Punchdrunk have to do everything without benefit of AI.

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People in the space. This is a workshop on set design, not acting, so we talk less about the performances that bring the space to life. Those performances are plainly vital, of course, and not just as acting but as experience management. It is up to the performers to notice who is lost or disengaged and bring them into some small interaction or give them a little task. Enrichment events for children are designed with variable levels of challenge to be assigned to differently skilled players.

In this regard, I was reminded of how games use AI characters, and the discussions we have in the industry about how to use them more in the future. I could easily have listened to a long talk specifically about how Punchdrunk deploy actors and experience managers to recognize when someone needs to be directed, and what kinds of direction they rely on. No doubt at least 50% of the answer would be inapplicable in a game, but the rest might be gold.

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The uses of atmosphere. The workshop presenters mentioned that some audience members come and just sit for the whole time in one spot. I feel I can understand that impulse, especially when I have run out of the urge to look in every drawer for more narrative detail, to use these strangely evocative spaces for their meditative effect instead. The bar at the McKittrick was in fact one of my favorite aspects of Sleep No More, a slightly uncanny and otherworldly place to be.

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Recurring themes. I haven’t seen every Punchdrunk production or been to every room even of the productions I’ve seen. But it seems to me that they have a recognizable iconographical and conceptual palette: historical-magical human spaces, with the natural world occasionally and surreally encroaching; one where religiosity is typically suspect, and where altered mental states and mental illness are a common subject matter for horror. Of course, Sleep No More, being a retelling of Macbeth, requires its Lady Macbeth, its woods and witches and stories of varying sanity. But the abstractions and repetitions are also ways to talk about obsession and distortion, to bring inner spaces and convictions into the physical world.

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Design for epiphany. Ultimately, the workshop was as much about an aesthetic as about technique — naturally, because craft and aesthetic are inextricable. There is an art to placing smart candles and guiding the eye, to putting your most significant props in an isolated pool of light, to inviting curiosity and apprehension, suggesting what is terrible and arcane, secret and transcendent.

The idea reminded me of a lecture I once heard about the architecture of Greek Orthodox churches: that unlike your classic Gothic cathedral suffused with colored light, the structure of the Orthodox churches was designed to be epiphanic, to draw the viewer through darkness towards the isolated and precious revelation of the Gospel and the Eucharist. It is the visual language of mystery religions, and it goes back before Christianity to the sanctuary at Eleusis, and many other places. (And oh yes, I would love a Punchdrunk take on the Bacchae, or on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.)

At that point the only question is: do you have something good enough to put in that pool of light? (There’s a reason Pulp Fiction never showed us what was in the briefcase.)

But here again we venture out of the pure set design element. Sleep No More does have its ecstatic revelations, but they’re locked by time and performance; you don’t find them in a closet or under a sharp downlight. Instead you wander into a room already half through a liturgy you can barely comprehend; a death scene, definitely; a culmination you can revisit later in the performance because (liturgically) every event repeats itself three times an evening.

 

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