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★★★☆☆ Review: WINDOW by ATTEMPTS X The Doodle People

How well do you know your co-workers?

There’s a concept known as ‘sonder’, which in short, is the profound feeling of realising that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own. Even discounting strangers, in our own daily lives at work, one realises that we often put up an invisible wall of professionalism that prevents us from ever truly knowing our colleagues. Sure, you can hang out for lunch or talk about the best kibble for your cat, but how much of yourself do you really trust your co-workers with?

Especially in the wake of the work-from-home mandate, with almost no opportunity to see or spend time with each other besides the monotone email threads, getting to know your colleagues can be next to impossible. That’s something ATTEMPTS wants you to consider, in their newest project, an online, virtual experience titled WINDOW, allowing you to take a peek into a stranger’s mind.

WINDOW is nothing short of a surreal, trippy experience. Co-designed by Rei Poh and Cheryl Tan Yun Xin, and co-created with The Doodle People, players are required to download and install a specially designed programme for the sake of the production, which, in essence, is a game-like app featuring a virtual world you can explore and interact with. Played either in the comfort of one’s own home, or in a specially-set up space at Centre 42, WINDOW then takes place across both that app, and a Zoom meeting, whose primary purpose is to ensure audience members are guided throughout their experience.

Introduced to the experience by WINDOW director Cheryl Tan, players begin by selecting a spirit animal-like guide to determine which breakout room they will join. Limited to just one person per breakout room, the resulting experience with our host is a personalised and intimate one, as we are asked to reflect on our time during lockdown. Opening the programme, we found ourselves in a bizarro version of Centre 42, as our host Vanessa Toh helped orientate ourselves to the controls, exploring the surrounding area, before transporting us to the second floor.

Finally, this is where the main event begins, as WINDOW gives us access to a colleague’s laptop. While there is no crime (though hacking into a colleague’s laptop certainly borders on it), WINDOW makes the entire experience feel like we’re trying to get to the bottom of a mystery, as we snoop around the enigmatic Sarah’s various files and social media posts to figure out what exactly is going on in her mind. Sticky notes and photos of handwritten notes feel familiar, as she reminds herself of things to say or not to say in front of ideas, crafts to-do lists, and things to buy. Sarah could be any one of us, and in turn, we wonder how others might perceive us, if all they knew of us were our notes app.

But of course, the mystery doesn’t stop here, as a little snooping gives us access to even more options to explore. Given a bevy of folders with innocuous sounding names as ‘Forest’ or ‘Ocean, these may give hints as to what we might expect, but nothing can ever prepare you for the encounter itself. Each click takes us into a surreal realm designed by The Doodle People – you might find yourself chased down by wolves, before encountering a seemingly infinite pack of them yelling ‘happy birthday’, or find yourself in a dance club operated and attended by various sea creatures. Perhaps you’re thrust into a game where you push a car up a hill, or follow a map to some buried ‘treasure’, each folder stranger than the last.

Given the 30 or so minute time limit, it’s recommended one goes straight for the folders you want, otherwise you’ll never get a chance to see them again, each one uncovering more facets of Sarah’s psyche, hinting at an inner darkness born of social anxiety, lofty expectations placed on herself, and sense of being untethered. At one point, we’re even given the option to check out some of her eclectic Instagram ‘poetry’, or find hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ in the programme, though much of what it all means remains an enigma. Host Vanessa Toh only adds to the sense of unease, as she reads off an atmospheric, dream-like script that plunge us further into the weirdness, while revealing more snippets of Sarah’s life, but never gives away the whole picture.

WINDOW is a fantastic idea that shows how theatre can be transformed into a video game, and the sheer number of possibilities it offers players is a show of ATTEMPTS and The Doodle People’s breadth of imagination. However, where it falters is in making the entire experience a more seamless one – actual games such as What Remains of Edith Finch, or the more obscure MindGym adopt a similar means of producing a narrative, but differ in that we are not as hand held by an actual person moving us from place to place. It’s a nice way of introducing a live element, but ultimately, one that prevents us from truly feeling like we’re in the midst of a seamless experience. One almost thinks of it as a Let’s Play video, where we are the ones reacting as we’re encouraged to voice our thoughts aloud, while our host responds.

For the longest time, ATTEMPTS has been pushing the limits of what it means to experience theatre. With the limitations and restrictions on live experiences, the pandemic, in particular, has been a prime opportunity for the company to innovate even further, pushing their research and development far into the digital realm to circumvent these rules and create art. What we ultimately do take away from WINDOW is the simple idea of how our psyches are transformed by social isolation, often corrupting our fears into dizzying, mind-altering perceptions of the world around us. It may not be conclusive, but by mapping out one woman’s complex thoughts and emotions via one such digital landscape, perhaps players will have a single, simple takeaway – to reach out and get to know the people around us better, before we never get the chance to again.

WINDOW ran online from 18th to 27th March 2022.

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