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Opinion: What games can learn from experimental theater

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I didn't realize what I want from video games until I saw experimental theater.

The first time I attended Sleep No More I realized that I had found exactly what I had always wanted video games to become, but couldn't quite articulate until I experienced it. The show, an immersive theater performance which turns the audience into ghostly voyeurs stuck in the middle of a noir-tinged retelling of Macbeth, is a masterpiece of environmental storytelling.

In the three hours spent freely exploring the seemingly endless rooms that make up Sleep No More's "stage," you are invited to open drawers and cabinets, read through letters and notes, and engross yourself in a surreal, yet thoroughly realized world. And while performers tell the main narrative through a series of danced and pantomimed vignettes, oftentimes the richest stories can be found by examining a scrap of paper, finding a stray piece of jewelry or simply observing how furniture has been arranged in a grimy foyer.

The agency given to the audience — and the trust placed in them to put the puzzle pieces together — helped me put form to something that I felt games were completely capable of doing, yet rarely took full advantage of. And when they did (BioShock comes to mind as a prime example) these moments often were overshadowed by combat and puzzle solving. Sleep No More made me realize that I wanted a game that eschewed those trappings and made exploration-based narrative its key mechanic. Last night, I played that game in Gone Home.

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There is no technology-driven reason that a game like Gone Home could not have been made years ago. The games industry's drive to create realistic first person action games means that we've become pretty talented at building large, detailed 3D environments. Of course, nearly all of this has been in the service of building the fantastic. Gone Home takes all of that knowledge and experience and applies it to the mundane. And it plays with our expectations to take a familiar setting — a family home, circa 1995 — and turn it into a world filled with as much mystery and intrigue as I can remember in a game.

I've now experienced Sleep No More twice and on my second visit I discovered a series of letters written by Lady Macduff — portrayed in the show as a pregnant woman struggling with depression. On my first time through, I thought that I had a grasp on the cause of her suffering, but these notes and some subtle clues found in her child's bedroom revealed a completely new dimension to that character. The ability for me to discover this knowledge, to play detective, is so incredibly engrossing and empowering and I longed for this kind of experience in the virtual worlds created in video games.

Like Sleep No More's riff on Macbeth, Gone Home is structured around a central story. As you progress through the house it's impossible to not experience (and I would argue, be moved by) the tale of Sam Greenbriar. But, what is left up to the player is the discovery of the smaller stories that have shaped the Greenbriar family. Like my Lady Macduff revelation, these have the ability to become some of the most extraordinary moments in the game. I encourage you to seek out Gone Home and discover these moments for yourself — and if you have finished the game, please read Austin Walker's post on putting together the puzzle pieces that make up one of the stories within the Greenbriar house.

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As I played through Gone Home, piecing together the stories of the game's unseen characters, it dawned on me that this type of storytelling not only reflects a maturity in game design, but a respect on the developer's behalf for the player. By placing key moments of character revelations on an easily bypassed, crumpled up note in a waste bin, the developers of Gone Home demonstrate a respect for the player and the story that would be invalidated by placing that same information on a pedestal or in a spotlight.

I hesitate to write anymore, lest I risk spoiling either Gone Home or Sleep No More, experiences that anyone interested in gaming and interactive narrative should seek out. But what I want to end on is the realization that, allowing a story to unfold organically, putting the clues off of the critical path, and leaving it to the player to connect the dots, can be the among the most empowering, gratifying experiences in gaming. Where Sleep No More made me realize what I wanted games to do, Gone Home showed me just how powerful it can be when a game does these things well.

Nick Horowitz is a non-games PR guy by day and an avid pop culture consumer by night. He lives outside Washington, DC with his wife and an impressively lazy one-eyed tabby cat named Baxter. You can follow him on Twitter at @ztiworoh. A version of this story originally ran on his blog, Productive Procrastination.