There’s a moment relatively early on in Elden Ring where you have the opportunity to stumble upon an elevator that, if you decide to take it, will take you on what feels like a trip to the center of the earth. The ride takes minutes. The further you go, the more you start to feel like you’ve probably made a mistake — especially as the elevator shaft opens to reveal an entire night sky and vast ruins in the distance. It’s beautiful. It’s scary. If you’re anything like me, you probably ran into this part of the game on your first day with it and were immediately overwhelmed with the feeling of “I shouldn’t be here, I did something wrong”.
But that’s the beauty of a game like Elden Ring. Even if your suspicions are “confirmed” by the video game logic of running headlong into a monster that can kill you just by looking at you wrong, the game never forces you to stop or turn around. You have a horse that you can call almost anywhere, and there is plenty of room to maneuver or just run. You just can he continued, even though you know, absolutely, that you took a wrong turn somewhere. You feel like you’re getting away with something, which makes the next few discoveries hit all the harder because that minute-long elevator ride was just the beginning. The ruins spiral into more ruins which spiral into more ruins opening into ancient cities. Nothing is going to stop you. It’s a dizzying feeling to be both completely in control and completely out of it. It is, simply put, “immersive”.
This is an experience that is almost entirely unique to video games. Places like theme parks have certainly tried, with varying degrees of success, to capture this–“immersive” hotels such as the Star Wars Hotel at Disney World are a high-profile example–but even with one of the wealthiest corporations in Funding globally such an experience, the vast majority of these projects have run into problems such as logistics or price points. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully recreate that off-the-rail “Am I allowed to do this?” you feel when you worry about things like creating an experience that’s reliably pleasant, yet predictable, for each client embarking on their writing adventure.
You can imagine my surprise when, on a trip to New York, I had the opportunity to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a riveting theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (combined with a generous helping of Hitchcock’s filmography) and, the my first coherent thought upon entering the vast building was a question: Why does it seem so familiar to you? And then, absurdly, an answer: This looks exactly like the Elden Ring.
It sounds silly to put it so bluntly, but let me explain. Sleep No More’s biggest conceit, what makes it “immersive,” is the fact that it doesn’t take place on any kind of stage. Instead of a theater, the production company Punchdrunk bought and renovated a huge warehouse. Spanning five floors (plus a secret floor that few will ever stumble upon), the venue is called The McKittrick Hotel, and each floor is a dreamlike movie set. One floor is the hotel lobby, another is a section of the Macduff residence, bedrooms and foyers and offices. but it pours into a graveyard that funnels into a kind of greenhouse in the middle of a maze. Another floor is a completely recreated downtown street, populated by tiny shops and businesses. One of the highest floors is an asylum containing a labyrinth made of birch trees. There is a cathedral and a crypt and a ballroom with a mezzanine balcony.
The play, if it can be called a play, features the hotel’s “residents” – actors in full 1930s regalia – who perform their roles almost entirely through dance. There is virtually no dialogue and the audience is not allowed to speak. Instead, they’re expected to chase – yes literally – different characters as they run through the hotel and advance their own story. But you don’t actually have to follow anyone or anything – in fact, for large chunks of the show, you’ll be completely alone and able to wander to your heart’s content.
After about 30 minutes of wandering, I realized I had no idea where I was or how I got there. I had no idea how much time had actually passed. I was alone in the sick ward of the asylum and it was so dark that I could not see. I accidentally kicked a pan on the ground and it hit a bed frame. I almost jumped out of my skin. No one was quick to shut me down or reset the prop. Later, I found a narrow empty corridor that led me to the clerks side of the hotel check-in desk. An actor was there playing a scene to the crowd who were all on the client’s side. “I shouldn’t be here,” I thought, watching the artist dance and contort and finally jump over the counter to land on the other side of the lobby, “I’m missing something.”
These kinds of experiences were never unexpected, but they became relatively common. The way Sleep No More works, technically, is based on a series of “loops”, not unlike the pre-programmed routes and stories that NPCs take in video games. The characters move throughout the hotel, performing their scenes regardless of the presence of the audience, and it’s your job as a showgoer to find them.
At another point during the night, I saw a woman dressed as a maid slip out of a room through a door I hadn’t noticed before. I hesitated for maybe two minutes, suddenly unsure whether or not I was allowed to follow her. It was like I noticed something I shouldn’t have noticed — a background moment in an otherwise crucial scene between two other characters in the show. But again, no one was stopping me, so I very casually walked to the door and slipped in, part of me expecting to be greeted by a backstage area or a group of guards ready to usher me out.
Instead, I found a secret staircase decorated with a huge stained glass window. On landing, another actor–one I hadn’t seen but slowly realized was playing Macbeth himself–stumbled while I was disembarking. He was covered in blood. Somehow, quite unintentionally, I would meet him in his part of the story right after the King of Scotland was murdered and he was leaving the scene.
These moments kept happening and slowly the rules of the show started to solidify in my head. That was the river Siofra. Well, I see. This was the secret entrance to Volcano Manor. That was the first time I heard Bock’s voice calling me from the side of the road. I had felt all of this before, from the safety of my couch at home, and now I was living it.
During my trip, I returned to Sleep No More two more times, each time armed with a little more knowledge about how the loops worked and what the hotel layout was like. However, despite this preparation, I was still lost. I kept meeting characters I hadn’t seen before and uncovering moments I didn’t know existed. During my last performance, three different actors took me by the hand – something I didn’t know they could do – and pulled me into private rooms where they acted, for the first time with dialogue, scenes just for me before starting me back in the masses of other audience members, sometimes through the door we’d entered, sometimes through hidden trap doors.
By the end of each show, I felt like I’d seen three completely different stories, despite knowing that every character I’d followed was just running the same pre-programmed path over and over again. I’m sure I could go another dozen times and find new things. The human element allows actors to spontaneously react to their environment, ensuring that each loop is the same, yet different. Absolutely nothing about this experience was off the rails. About halfway through the second time I realized that if I wanted to, I could have sat on one of the asylum beds or pulled up a chair in the hotel lobby and just stayed there for the rest of the night. Nothing would stop me. Some characters’ loops would probably get them through the room, but others wouldn’t. Every choice I made throughout the show was a gamble and every payoff was a surprise.
Sure, it won’t be for everyone. The show – like the plot of the Elden Ring – is internal at its best, and is largely left up to personal interpretation. You can put it together if you want, the rooms will have notes scrawled on paper or punched into typewriters. Some characters will pass you letters that you can read or, alternatively, deliver to other characters for a chance at special interactions. There are optional events that look like side quests that you can trigger by being in the right place at the right time and catching the eye of the right actor. Or, you can experience none of these things at all and be left with only several hours of performance dancing and silent acting to try and pass puzzles as you stumble back down the road. It’s very much the type of show where you’ll get as much out of it as you put in, and with tickets ranging from $100-160 depending on the day of the week and time, it may or may not be worth it.
But, if you’re anything like me, you’ve chased that feeling–the one that feels almost dangerous about how closely you’re touching the line until you’re completely out of control, the one that says, “Do I really have to do this? Am I allowed to see this? ” that you’ve probably only experienced from the safety of your living room couch — this show is for you.
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