I’ve been interested in immersive theater since I learned it existed in 2019, but I wasn’t lucky enough to live in an area where productions are widely available. When I heard Sleep No More was closing, I bought tickets as fast as I could and scheduled a trip to NYC. I was going to see a real immersive production! From everything I’d heard and learned, I was expecting to undergo an amazing, transformative experience that would feel nothing like the outside world or anything I’d ever done before.

I didn’t.

Now, I want to be clear with what I’m trying to say here. I don’t think Sleep No More is a bad show, or that it’s not worth going to see before it closes. It was clearly very well done, and it’s well-known for a reason. This post is more of an exploration of why Sleep No More and I weren’t personally compatible.

I came out of the show disappointed and confused about why I was disappointed. I’d loved every immersive thing I’d previously been involved in from every side of the process. I’d watched Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca to study up. I’d been given tips for Sleep No More by friends who’d seen it before. Why had I not liked it? Was there something wrong with me?

I spent almost all of my time inside the McKittrick either confused or frustrated. It was extremely hard to find actors. When I did find them, they were often surrounded by so many other guests that I could barely see what was going on. And when I found myself in a small enough crowd to meaningfully witness a scene, the character would inevitably pull someone not-me aside and shut the door behind them. Back to square one: me, alone again, very aware that my time is running out.

Because of this, I really struggled to follow any kind of narrative thread. I think I caught some scenes from Macbeth and Rebecca, but I was missing too much context to understand who any of the characters were. And whenever I saw something that didn’t make sense, I knew that I’d probably have gotten it if I’d just walked a little faster, or made the right decision earlier, or shoved someone out of my way. That took me out of the show like nothing else. The entire time, I couldn’t lose myself in the magic of the moment because I couldn’t shake the sense that I was doing it wrong.

Of course, there were things I loved. The actors were incredible at conveying emotion without speaking, and the timing of the whole thing was magical. The huge space was exciting, with a lot to discover during all the time I spent alone. I particularly liked reading the patients’ charts in the hospital. And I did catch some scenes I enjoyed. I managed to follow a single charming girl through a couple scenes as she flirted with her lover, stole his cash, then ran away to a hotel. I witnessed some unimaginably athletic and brutal fight scenes that took my breath away. In the moment that I found most compelling, I watched a beautiful woman struggle to choke down a meal that she hated as she waved her fork at us, gloating. (Yes, my favorite scene was just… watching a woman eat dinner. See, I’m not saying Sleep No More isn’t good.)

But fundamentally, my experience with the show was one of frustration. I struggled to figure out why, but reading Immersology’s guide to Sleep No More made it click for me.

I’ve noticed both as a designer and player of immersive experiences that players and audience members have a hard time engaging with a narrative at the same time as a puzzle or game. People go into “puzzle brain” or “story brain” mode, and it’s difficult to engage both at once1.

For Sleep No More, I’d characterize what’s needed as “challenge brain.” It’s when you go into full get-to-the-front-of-the-pack, shove-people-aside, find-characters-at-all-costs mode. I showed up to Sleep No More with full-on story brain and was surprised and disappointed to find that I would need to engage challenge brain in order to get the story rewards. But I didn’t want to show up with challenge brain. I wanted to be drawn into a story without thinking about the real-world logistics of where to go next and who to step in front of. I wanted a transformative experience without putting in all the legwork myself.

When I put it that way, it sounds a bit selfish, but I think that’s the core of it. There was no way I was going to walk out of the McKittrick that afternoon and feel transformed. I simply don’t want to combine an immersive narrative with a sense of real-world competition. If that’s your cup of tea: enjoy the show! Me? I’ll just have to comfort myself with the knowledge that not every immersive production will be structured like Sleep No More2.

  1. See Bookends and Bottlenecks, also from Immersology, for a way to address this in immersive design. 

  2. In fact, I’ve already seen an immersive show that I personally enjoyed more, but that’s a blog post for another time.