Sleep is Death: Initial Reactions, Thoughts, and Ideas

Posted on Apr 22, 2010

[caption id=“attachment_477” align=“alignleft” width=“300” caption=“Sleep is Death: A two player storytelling game”][][][/caption]I suppose we should all be thanking Jason Rohrer for making Sleep is Death. His work in developing games has stirred some much-needed controversy. His latest game will hopefully inspire that dialog to continue as we begin to question the very nature of narrative structures in games.

His recent work challenges the very idea of narrative in games. Instead of forcing the players to passively trudge through a pre-ordained plot interspersed with tedious gameplay elements, Sleep is Death makes the plot the game. Two players connect to one another. One is the “controller” and the other is the “player.” The each take turns developing the story. They player drives the plot ahead by exploring the scene and talking with the characters while the controller acts like the puppet master — manipulating responses to the players' actions by changing the scenery and talking through the various characters on screen. As weird as it sounds, this is actually rather entertaining.

So I basically threw this at a good gamer friend of mine last night. Without telling him what it was about, I invited him down to the pub for a beer. I told him to bring his laptop so I could show him something. Once there he downloaded the game and we jumped right in with no explanations. I played the controller since I had watched the video tutorials, but up until that point I had no practice or experience running it.

Needless to say, the experiment was a success. We had a lot of fun. There were a few snags however that did draw us back a bit. The first was and most prominent was the time-limit. Players have thirty seconds to respond to each update. Especially when you’re new to the game, being the controller can be stressful. The imposed limit resulted in more than a few responses from me being absolutely nothing like I had intended: it would be nice if the players could agree to a variable time limit. The other caveat for me as the controller was the interface: for some reason I expected that clicking and dragging on an object anchor would select and move that object. This is true if you have the select tool selected, but for some reason when I had the speech bubble tool selected I expected the behaviour regardless. It tripped me up a bit as the counter kept ticking downwards and my scenes were falling apart. However, despite these hurdles my friend had a good time and grasped the player interface rather swiftly. It was good times and we hope to try again tonight.

My initial reaction to all of this has been… “like… whoa.” It’s this powerful two-player story-telling engine. A content creation tool. And you can share it all online. It was and is a lot for my brain to churn through.

Some initial ideas:

Where can it go from here? I think persistence would be nice. Graphical MU*s were promised eons ago, but SiD could be a good framework for revisiting those possibilities. You’d need permission and link objects and perhaps an expanded player/controller object definition. I’d also like to see animated sprites: torches, lightning, rain… that sort of thing. And perhaps a context-sensitive UI so that if I have the speech tool selected and I go to move a different object, I switch to the move tool automatically.

Either way, that the game comes DRM-free and with source makes it a great investment. I highly recommend this game… if you can even call it that. I think many people will quickly discover its subtleties while messing around with it. Hopefully you’ll get to experience that same “whoa” moment I did.