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.

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.

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In Case of Emergency (A Door in a Wall)


I’ve been hearing about A Door in a Wall for a while, and reading the rave reviews they get from escape room and immersive theatre review blog The Logic Escapes Me. This month, we decided to hire them to run a game for the London IF Meetup — one of their smaller pieces, suitable for 15-25 players rather than being performed in a whole pre-set house. They sent out a facilitator who gave the story background, MC’d, scored and awarded prizes at the end; and a suitcase full of clue and puzzle items. Our 20-odd group divided into teams of 1-4 people apiece, and we were off.

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These Violent Delights

mv5bmteyodk5ntc2mjneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdq5ntgwotkx-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Before I’d seen a single episode of Westworld, a journalist reached out to me for comment about it. The show touches on the question of AI consciousness, narrative design, the evocation of empathy with non-player characters, and the morality of gameplay, which may be why it seemed like I might have some thoughts.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an HBO show in which rich people can visit an incredibly detailed western-styled theme-park full of AI-driven robotic characters, called hosts. The human players are called guests. It quickly becomes obvious that they come to Westworld primarily in order to misbehave: they have sex with the prostitutes at the brothel; they assault the daughters of the ranchers; they maim and murder hosts casually or with elaborate sadism. And all of these things take place within the context of storylines crafted by narrative designers and then meticulously supervised. The hosts are able to improvise slightly in response to the input of humans, but then eventually they will revert to their core loops, playing out the same narrative tracks over and over again.

Naturally, when initially asked, I said that I hadn’t watched it and so couldn’t offer much direct insight. I added that I thought full AI consciousness in the sense imagined by science fiction was some way off, and that art about that possibility is often really about something else: about groups of people who feel entitled to the labor and service of others; about the self-perpetuating, semi-human, half-programmed entities that already exist in our world in the form of governments and corporations.

I have now seen Westworld, and I still think the same. The narrative design and the AI aspects are handled competently enough to frame the story, but Westworld is by no means a master class in what interactive narrative design actually entails, or how people actually use games to explore their morality, or again in the way a sort of pseudo-personality emerges in current AI research.

To the extent there’s a thematic point here of interest, it is about the nature of human identity, the role of suffering in how we understand ourselves, and the ways we construct ourselves. I would have liked to see the show go much further, but the plot is often allowed to trump the characters.

I am now going to dig into all those assertions in more detail, with spoilers. If you are interested in watching the show yourself, you should probably do that before going forward.

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Minkette on Escape Room design; Secret Studio

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This post is a two-parter. Recently I went to Secret Studio, my third experience with room escapes; and Minkette, one of the creators of Oubliette, came to the Oxford/London IF Meetup to talk about the design and creation process.

I’d asked Minkette to come talk about the kind of storytelling she does: often location-based, often using physical props to communicate backstory or the flavor of the world you’re in.

She started us off with an overview of related projects, including Sleep No More, Wiretapper (reviewed here), and 2.8 Hours Later, a zombie chase game that runs through London. She also spoke about her own Train of Thought, an experience designed for the Underground, in which participants were able to listen to pre-recorded tracks that were meant to be the thoughts of one of the other passengers in their coach. (Here’s an audience member’s description of that experience.)

Next, Minkette took us through the process of constructing the Oubliette escape room, with lots of pictures of the various props in construction. It was fascinating to see what went into these: Oubliette featured a vacuum tube setup that (seemed to) let you pneumatically send messages to other characters, but that was actually just operated by someone pulling a magnet on a string.

But the parts of her talk that were newest to me were the ones where she talked about the psychological purpose of their design choices.

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Sleep No More (Punchdrunk)

Sleep No More is an immersive theatre and dance production based on Macbeth that has been running in New York for a number of years. Recently they extended their run to include a time I was actually going to be in the city, which meant that I could see it, finally; until now, the only Punchdrunk show I’d been able to see was Against Captain’s Orders, which I felt was fun but too controlled and linear.

The same criticism certainly can’t be applied here. Sleep No More takes place in the big, multistory “McKittrick Hotel” (not an actual hotel). The audience is masked, but free to wander. The whole place has been dressed as a complex set, with furniture and scenery features representing everything from a graveyard at night to an early 20th century mental institution. Scenes from Macbeth are staged as physical vignettes with no or almost no dialogue: these vignettes are mimed or (in some cases) danced, often in slow motion. There were some additional vignettes where it wasn’t clear to me how what I was seeing related to the plot of Macbeth, as well. Indeed, understanding a plot wasn’t really the point of the experience, as far as I could tell.

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Against Captain’s Orders (Punchdrunk / National Maritime Museum)


Against Captain’s Orders is an interactive theater experience run by Punchdrunk for the National Maritime Museum in London. It’s designed for a group of about 30 kids. Most of the productions require an adult to be accompanied at least one child between the ages of six and twelve, but they do run a special evening edition of the show for adults who are members of the museum. I’ve never been able to get to Sleep No More or any of Punchdrunk’s other work, and I was curious enough about them that I got a museum membership largely to be able to go to Against Captain’s Orders without having to obtain a child first.

The show has been reviewed as a piece of theater: the Guardian gave it ***, said it wasn’t dangerous enough; the Evening Standard an ungenerous ** and called it confused; Timeout went with ****, thought it was good but mostly for kids. The Register assures readers that the show provides value for money, which is true, but a grim sort of review of any sort of art. None of those reviews really gets into the interaction design side very deeply, though.

At the end of the show they ask you not to reveal too many of its secrets. I’m not going to give away the absolute ending, but it’s hard to analyze without spoiling a bit. So I’m not publishing this blog post until after the show finishes running. Still, if for some reason you want to avoid spoilers for a show that you can’t see now anyway, you should not read on.

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