Review: Sleep is Death (PC)
I'm six or seven years old. A friend's over. We want to have a fun time, so we arm ourselves with swords made of cardboard and tinfoil. We garb ourselves in dome-shaped helms along with thin plastic breastplates. We race over the grass in the backyard, shouting at each other, as one of us becomes Sir Phoenix Master, and the other becomes Jack Starman. We take turns becoming the enemies, the dastardly space barons or dark-hearted sorcerers, so that the other can have someone to stand against. We tell stories; weak stories, filled with plot holes and rather questionable logic. But stories, nonetheless.
Sleep is Death, the latest product from Jason Rohrer, is the closest any video game has ever come to sending me back to that state of joyous play and spontaneous invention.
Some facts: Sleep is Death is a two player, turn-based experience. One player is...um...the player, and the other is the controller. The player gets to manage a single on-screen avatar, moving it around with a flick of the mouse, putting words into its mouth just by typing. The player dictates the actions of his avatar, filling a small text box with a one or two word description of an action, like "examine" or "get gun," and then aims those actions at the intended object. Then, it's the controller's turn.
The controller's function in the game is more complex than the player's, because where the player may be the soloist in the orchestra, the controller is every other musician and the conductor, all rolled up into one. She gets to manage everything that the player doesn't, including music, setting, and every NPC. It'll be the controller who decides that this particular scene is underwater, with some seaweed and a few fish, versus being in an empty, barren field under a starry sky.
On the controller's turn, she gets to change the scene, or add NPCs and objects, or write dialogue, or swap out objects for other objects (like swapping out a man for a dead man covered in blood), or mess with the music, or decide that "Yes, this tree can talk," or...anything, really. Mostly, though, the controller is trying to react to the player's actions in an appropriate way. When the controller's done making changes, she sends her turn to the player, who then gets to take his turn again. Game play goes back and forth like that, until somebody disconnects.
But there's an important element to every single turn, player's or controller's, that changes the nature of the game. Every turn is limited to 30 seconds. Whatever you've done in those 30 seconds is what gets sent to the person on the other end. So if you haven't finished writing out a speech bubble, then your words will get truncated and sent along, for instance.
As it turns out, 30 seconds feels short. Those seconds are rife with tension, as you race to take in what the other player did on his last turn, and then formulate a proper response. It can be nerve-wracking to the controller, too, as you only have 30 seconds to answer almost any possible action a player can think of, control multiple objects in the scene, worry about music, and write dialogue. Quite the stressful situation, really, though not so much that it gets in the way of the mad euphoria of genesis.
The game has a couple of other neat features built into it, like the asset exchange function, in which any asset (images, music, scenes) used by any controller with whom you play will then be transferred into your system, so that you can use it later on. It's a nifty feature, reminiscent of the way Spore would share creations between players seamlessly. The difference is that any time an asset is used, it'll be because you, or the controller, put it there, and not because the system randomly determined to insert it. Another ingenious bonus is the flipbook that you get at the end of every full session. The game records your turns, turning them into individual .png files in the game folder, along with .html versions that'll play in your web browser, letting you page through the entire story a turn at a time.
I have something of a reservation about calling this whole shebang a game. It's more of a system of useful tools designed to allow two players to connect with each other. By connect, here, I don't mean, like, on the Internet. I mean, connect minds. Souls. Essences. Esophagi, though that last one probably less so. In that light, it's absolutely brilliant. The tools are honed and useful, and despite their apparent complexity at first glance, they're really quite manageable, especially thanks to all the great tutorial videos Jason Rohrer put up on his website for the game. It'll probably take a couple of sessions, playing through as a controller, to really master the system well enough that you don't have to worry about the interface hindering communication or narrative, but I think that's an acceptable price to pay, not least because those couple of sessions will still be pretty damn enjoyable.
Which brings me to what I see as the "game" element of Sleep is Death. When you've connected with someone on another computer, far away or even in the same room, and you're sending turns back and forth while that clock stirs you to greater and greater mad creation, the work transcends its tool set roots. It becomes something else, something more, rising out of the interaction between two imaginations. The thrilling uncertainty and anticipation of dealing with another human mind, unpredictable and skittish in its thought processes, is like nothing I've experienced in another video game. There have been some games that have done a good job of reacting to player decisions, and have successfully roped players in through compelling consequence. But they don't compare to knowing that there is somebody on the other end of the line who is scrambling to figure out how to deal with you trying to chainsaw that poor cat in half, just as you were scrambling to figure out what to do when the cat started talking to you.
To try to illustrate my point, here are a few examples from my experience with the game. In one session, I found myself confronted by a penguin. This flightless bird needed my help to get rid of the vile crocodile who had taken up residence in the penguin's cave. When I went to confront the crocodile, I discovered that the penguin might have been lying the whole time. But the real coup of this story for me was discovering that the character I was playing was apparently a rather psychotic, overly lyrical, pompous musician, who eventually chose to beat the penguin to death with his guitar. I don't know how that happened and couldn't really tell you what led me to that place, besides some unquantifiable combination of music, imagery, and scene. I mean, I was talking to a penguin about evicting a crocodile. Of course I was going to speak like an overly verbose character from an exaggerated Greek tragedy.
Another time, I played a Satanic Viking on a quest to save a princess through heavy-handed psychology. Of course, I didn't know that I was a Satanic Viking at first. I started out in a quintessential fantasy style opening, which I immediately started trying to subvert. The real change came when I chose to type the verb "kill" into the interface, and point it a guard who was barring my way. The controller on the other end, in a fit of genius, chose to make the guard suddenly become legless, covered in blood, with his eyes rolled back into his head, as he choked out some words, asking how I did that. It was brilliant, the magic of doing something utterly ridiculous, and having the system play along.
Playing this game brings those days of costumes and makeshift armaments back to me, full and fresh and vivid. I could do anything, then. There were no rules to bind me.
Likewise, there are no rules here. You are free to do as you will. There are only tools to make anything possible, and a person on the other end of the system, who is as utterly free as you are.
Play the game. Make the most of your freedom, and enjoy the shiny cardboard swords.
This review is based off a retail copy of the game.