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When one critic hailed the company’s immersive show ‘game of the year’, founder Felix Barrett explored video games’ non-linear storytelling. Now he spies a new frontier for the stage.

Levelling up … Felix Barrett, left, and Peter Higgin from Punchdrunk. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

There is a head-scratching moment at the beginning of the popular farming simulator video game Stardew Valley, where you wonder, “What now?” Newly installed on your late grandfather’s dilapidated farm, you’re given no instructions on how to turn the business’s fortunes or what to explore in the neighbouring town.

This conundrum fills Felix Barrett with glee. As the founder and creative director of British theatre company Punchdrunk, he has spent 19 years turning warehouses into vast worlds that audiences must learn to explore alone. From Woyzeck to Faust, Punchdrunk transforms classic plays into sprawling, interactive experiences. The idea is this: traditional theatre shows are passive affairs where you watch a distant stage from the comfort of a chair - but a Punchdrunk show is active, mysterious, and places you inside a fiction you can touch, smell, and even taste. The choice of what to do and where to go is up to you.

“There’s a sort of breakthrough in Stardew Valley where you go, ‘Oh my God, I understand what I’m actually meant to be doing,’” says Barrett. “You have that satisfaction where the world makes sense – and that’s what it’s like in our shows. You can see in that first hour the audience running around like headless chickens, and then start to understand: follow a performer, and the narrative will present itself.”

This laissez-faire approach to storytelling means both Punchdrunk and developers have the freedom to experiment with a wide range of narrative devices. The games industry in particular provides a home for nearly all forms of expression: art, animation, programming, voice performance, acting, stunts, dance, photography, music, literature, poetry, audience interaction and more. No other form of entertainment or art mixes so much, and Barrett is fascinated by the rich experiences this melting pot pours out. Developers conjure worlds from polygons and code, and when he’s gaming he wants to explore every inch – without the inconvenience of a zombie bearing down on his back.

Exploring a big house … Resident Evil. Photograph:  Capcom

“[For me] the original Resident Evil was exploring a big house,” he recalls. “I didn’t like it when the zombies turned up, because then it became too much about the shooting, and that was the only thing you worried about. Shooting has no theatrical attention. But for that magical 15 minutes before it was just empty space, pregnant with atmosphere.”

Barrett had exploration in mind in 2003 when his team created Sleep No More. The production is a dreamlike retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, meshing a film noir aesthetic with dance, acting, written clues, audio effects, physical theatre, and audience interactivity across tens of rooms. During early research and development Barrett listened to music from Resident Evil and Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu – but he’s emphatic he was never directly inspired by a particular game. Instead he intended to whip the cloak off a new form of theatre; his team worked to construct a hyper-stylised yet realistic world where masked audiences could wander into Macduff’s empty bedroom and search his drawers for secrets.

Sleep No More first opened in London in 2003, and garnered such critical acclaim that it’s since opened in Boston, New York, and most recently Shanghai, where it’s been localised to Chinese culture and language. Following its success, Barrett’s team (including choreographer and Sleep No More co-director Maxine Doyle) continued to experiment with the format, creating Faust (London, 2006), The Masque of the Red Death (London, 2007), and The Drowned Man (London, 2013).

But something strange happened after Punchdrunk brought Sleep No More to New York in 2011.

“We had an amazing weird moment when the papers and blogs were doing their round ups of ‘best album of the year’, ‘best film of the year’ and so on,” Barrett remembers. “In one of them, Sleep No More got ‘best game of the year’”. The article described the show using gaming vocabulary and vernacular. Its hidden secrets were “Easter eggs,” while discovering a new floor was “levelling up”, and the choice of where to go made it an “open world”.

“When we were described as a video game I started going back to games to find out more about them, to unpack it, and learn more about game mechanics,” says Barrett. He realised while Punchdrunk wasn’t “ever directly inspired by an open-world game”, open worlds give birth to choice, which creates a new way to tell stories – similar to what he was trying to achieve in theatre.

Neither open-world games nor Punchdrunk plots are linear. Events aren’t always funnelled into “beginning, middle and end”, but can often be experienced in any order. A player could choose to eschew the central plotline of a game and wander off on series of side-quests that another person would only complete after tens of hours of play. Similarly, in Shanghai’s version of Sleep No More, you might pick up Macbeth’s story at the “out damned spot” scene, because you’d spent the first half following a subplot based on Chinese myth.

Subplots ... Sleep No More staged with Chinese twists in Shanghai. Photograph: Yuan Studio

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