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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Interactive Digital Narrative: History

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngInteractive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice is an academic publication from Routledge that retails for £90/$123 on Amazon, which is why even though it is completely relevant to me and my work, it took me a little while to get around to buying it. I would guess that most people who write IF as a hobby won’t buy it either, which is in some ways a shame, because improving communication between the hobbyist and academic communities would be beneficial in both directions. But a book priced for academic libraries is not the most accessible way to accomplish that.

Consequently, this is not a conventional academic book review. Instead, it’s partly meant as a high-level overview of the contents for people in the IF community who cannot afford to read the book, or who might want to know what sort of thing is in it before plunking down more than $100 for their own copy. Much of the rest is an attempt to join up what is in the book with what I know about historical and contemporary interactive fiction and narrative games.

That I spend a lot of time pointing out related IF work is not meant as a criticism or complaint about the book’s scope of coverage — which is in fact quite broad — but as an attempt to help bridge community divides and suggest points of contact between hobbyist IF and academic digital narrative.

Finally, there’s a lot of content, so I’m going to take this in chunks. This post starts with the history section.

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Enter the Oubliette Room Escape

oubliette.jpgSunday a group from the London IF Meetup got together to tackle the Enter the Oubliette escape room. This was my first contact with escape rooms, though I’ve heard about a number from friends who’ve either played or worked on creating them. (If you’re in Seattle, here’s Sam Ashwell on the work of Puzzle Break. In London, I’ve also heard good things about Time Run; in fact, here’s a whole blog about escape rooms, biased towards but not exclusively focused on London, with a review that gives Oubliette five stars.)

Enter the Oubliette was put together by project members who have Punchdrunk experience, and indeed a number of things about the props did remind me of Punchdrunk things I’ve seen: the meticulous documents with retro design, paper types, and illustration; the functioning retro technology; the inventive use of sound, film, lighting, and smoke effects as well as space and objects to create a particular experience. The room wasn’t as crammed-full-of-stuff as the setting of a Punchdrunk stage production, but that was a mercy: we already had plenty to search and already had to have some strong hints to guide our attention to some missed items.

With something like this that thrives on novelty and where each person who sees spoilers is a person who can’t realistically be a customer, it seems actively hostile to give too much away. So I want to be extra careful not to do that.

If you’re just looking for advice about whether this is worth doing: we liked it. We had a great time with a mixed group; most of us hadn’t been to any kind of escape room before. We had different degrees of self-confidence about our puzzle solving ability, but we did fine and everyone got to contribute in meaningful ways. And although you might try to place it by saying it’s a bit like a cross between immersive theatre and a graphical adventure game, in practice it is still really, really different from either of those things.

Below are some fairly general comments about how this experience worked as an interactive story experience, which I will still cordon off in case you don’t want to see even those.

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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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