Sleeping is a tricky thing that rarely comes easy for me. A good night usually sees me lying down for two hours before I drift away, even without looking at my phone. Insomnia: Theater in the Head understands these frustrations better than I anticipated. It understands that insomnia is a cruel thing that doesn't care for your plans. Tomorrow could bring a crucial job interview or a fun meetup with friends, and it wouldn't matter. Insomnia strikes indiscriminately.
Developed by Perfect Day Studio, my introduction couldn't be more fitting. One of the many demos available at W.A.S.D. 2023, I walked into that event with an hour's sleep and no chance of napping until late afternoon. (I should add: the game is out now.) When I saw the game tucked away in the Curios section, it felt like giant neon arrows were signalling me towards it. Theater in the Head isn't a wellbeing app or gamified sleep-tracker like Pokémon Sleep, but a puzzle game detailing a young woman's struggle for inner peace.
Across several short chapters, she faces another sleepless night with no one to comfort her. You briefly glimpse her daily routine but, after hitting the pillow, her subconscious loudly explains that 11pm is no time for rest -- a relatable feeling when I'm often still awake at 2am. Clearing your head is never straightforward, and Theater In The Head showcases that inability to "switch off" well. Your mind inevitably drifts onto other subjects and this accurately portrays mental chatter.
Each chapter's theme examines her troubles through various point-and-click puzzles. That ranges from removing objects by clicking them to creating an animal orchestra, and filling out a music sheet using animal sounds. I appreciate how these chapters poke fun at tired advice, playfully stating, "you think sheep counting helps?" Honestly? No, I did not, and such advice critically failed me before W.A.S.D. But when you're desperate for rest, what's the harm in trying?
Another hour passes, and, much like myself when bored and unable to sleep, the young woman begins checking her phone. The following sequence isn't a particularly subtle critique of online life, reflecting the endless noise of social media and modern life's anxieties. It analyses the standards we uphold ourselves to, how we present ourselves, and how the expectations of others affect this. Anxiety is a powerful driver in sleepless nights and that's evident in her fears, worrying she'll let down others if she stops to look after herself.
What stuck with me most is its sobering reflection on the silent grief many of us carry in our daily lives, subconsciously or otherwise. How often have you told someone close, "I'm doing OK," when you really aren't? Opening up doesn't always come easy, so many of us believe it's better to shoulder that burden alone. From former friendships to ex-partners, Theater in the Head explores those feelings of isolation and loss well, assessing how that stuff builds up over time if left unchecked.
While many games treat sleep as a standard mechanic or focus only on dreams, Theater in the Head's portrayal of anxiety and mental chatter captures a feeling I've never seen in games. It's a surprisingly relatable experience that encourages self-acceptance over shutting those feelings away. That is easier said than done, yet this brief adventure gave me cause for self-reflection. Weeks later, it's still on my mind.