Last week, I played the upcoming two player indie adventure game Sleep is Death with its creator, Jason Rohrer. He’d created a custom story for me to follow, shape and/or resist. I did all three. Read this to understand what Sleep is Death is, then read below to find out what happened, and why you’re going to love it.
I am Amy. I am also Brian.
The GM’s story posits me as a police officer named Amy. I decide to be a nuisance, announcing that I am to be addressed as Brian. The story’s characters dutifully do this from hereon in.
The day commences, as days so often do, with a visit to the bathroom. I look around. I open the toilet.
The GM does not have an ‘opened toilet’ graphic in his pre-made tileset. In the space of 60 seconds, he manages to draw a blue oval on top of the existing closed toilet graphic. I am none the wiser – to me, the toilet simply appears open come my next turn.
A handsome officer – David- awaits me in the corridor outside. I tickle him, and compliment his moustache. “You fox!” he responds. “I’m a married man.” Rebuffed, I proceed to the interrogation room.
This mousatchioed man is there primarily for direction, to steer me away from visiting the men’s bathroom and get on with the story. Though the GM has the lion’s share of power, they cannot force the player to do anything. I could shilly-shally in this corridor as long as I wanted. By this point, my childish mind is stuck on a puerile course, refusing to take anything seriously. Underneath this is a gentle, slow-burning guilt that I’m not doing this properly.
There is no ‘properly’ in Sleep is Death.
A man in priestly robes stands behind a table, crying his innocence. David, another police officer and two video cameras are also present. “Admit it!” I bellow, and push the priest to the ground.
Options. Choices. Decisions. From now, I’m setting the story – looping into the pre-ordained structure the GM has in mind, but forcing him to respond on the fly to my actions. I choose to Shove the priest, simply typing the verb and setting a directional arrow. Some of these – e.g. attempting to Drink from the toilet earlier – have no apparent effect, as the GM/game lacks the tiles and animations to represent them. Pushing a guy around, though? Easy. The course is set: the priest is outraged, and I am Bad Cop. On the other hand, I have zero information about what the priest’s supposed to have done, and why I’m whaling on him. That guilt I mentioned earlier? It takes over. Finally, I roleplay.
I didn’t have to roleplay.
There’s been a murder. He didn’t do it, he says. I ask for witnesses. Just one, a page boy. Now in the company of one Sister Anne. “That’s what I’m worried about”, claims this Father Jarvis.
Options. Choices. Decisions. I could believe him, I could pin it on him, I could ignore the case completely and dick around with the people and items in this room. To a point, I do – I stand on the table, I refuse to call the characters by their proper names… The GM plays along, the characters vaguely outraged but treating me/Amy/Brian as though I’m just having an off day. The GM could have had a strop, killed me, ended the game, abused me, anything. Or he could have rewritten this story’s reality entirely to reflect my words and actions. But we find accord this time.
I believe him. He’s too pathetic to be a murderer. I demand Sister Anne’s brought in for questioning. David instead suggests I take the other officer, Frank, and pay the sister a visit. I shrug, agree, go.
Options. Choices. Decisions. I could have pressed the issue, demanding Anne was brought her – this would not have fitted the GM’s grander plan, but had I remained entrenched his hand would have been forced. I could have demanded David, not Frank, accompanied me. Even Father Jarvis. For now, I’m playing along, playing the story as intended.
‘Intended’ does not matter a jot in Sleep Is Death.
A spooky church. Frank is scared, I want to barge straight in. I have an opportunity to prepare, to seek more information. I draw my pistol and proceed. Rookie error.
I’m rushing things, keen to see where this going, unimpressed by Frank’s cowardice. This means an elaborate, gothic outdoor scene the GM has taken some time to create is all but wasted, there for a mere two turns before my demands to move inside the church are heeded.
There is no ‘wasted’ in Sleep is Death. The story is the story we both create, not the story the GM planned in advance.
I take point. Inside: a nun, a gun, an altar, a door to the cellar. “Nobody move.” I move.
What if… I’d made Frank go first? I’d shot the nun right away? I’d taken cover behind the pews? I’d said something to make her change her mind, confess her guilt, consider me a friend?
What if I’d never gone in at all?
Darkness falls. “The boy? What about the boy?” I’ll never know what’s in that cellar. If I hadn’t been such a reckless cop…
Hopsital. Blood. Beeping machines. The surgeons can’t hear me asking about my chances, about the boy, about the sister, about Frank.
No choices. No options. No decisions. Perhaps there was something I could have said to make the GM steer me from this doomed course, but by this point he seems intractable. He’s made his operating room tileset, and he wants to use it. I can lie there and die, I can scream abuse, I can beg. Maybe something would happen. But every story has to end eventually.
I can move again, but there is only blackness. I’m naked, and alone. I do the obvious, the completely, depressingly obvious. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Someone is. A green lizardman/demon, who speaks only in cryptic riddles. I’m being toyed with.
Until now, I’d felt surprisingly in control. I had options, choices and decisions. Now, I can affect the words that emanate from Amy/Brian’s mouth, but little else. At least, that’s how it feels. Could I have punched the demon? Could I have attempted to summon objects, clothing, weapons, people?
That’s for the GM to decide. This time, he wants this story to end.
Unsatisfying? A little, perhaps – the GM – the game’s developer opted in this instance for an arch, cryptic resolution, but my own unserious flailing throughout has scarcely given this narrative a logical backbone either. This I do know: I’ve experienced a tale that was genuinely unique, and which genuinely involved me, and truly reflected my actions and decisions.
Sleep is Death requires a signficant amount of preparation on the GM’s end, at least if the players are to avoid total nonsense and incoherency. With an ever-growing archive of graphics to choose from (expanded by everything you create, and everything you experience in any session of Sleep is Death), pruning it down to create entire rooms and characters on the fly within the game’s 60-second turns is an incredibly tall order. No, better to have locations and their contents ready in advance, and spend your turns on the words.
Crucial: at no point during this story did I feel as though I was playing against/with another player. It was always me and the game. A game as omniscient and omnipotent as any other, and a collection places and characters rather than a single voice challenging, encouraging or hectoring me.
This is why Sleep is Death cannot, must not be dismissed with “but why don’t I just play pen and paper roleplaying with a friend?” You can’t see the GM here. You don’t have even the slightest inkling of what he’s thinking, what he’s planning, or how he feels about your actions. The game responds to you, but it and its reality feels all-powerful and complete in a way only a game can.
You’re playing a videogame. Videogames don’t show you their faces. No other videogame, however, allows you to shape a ostensibly fixed story to anything like this degree. Sleep is Death doesn’t need able storytellers – it merely needs two people, and the story will happen by itself.
Sleep is Death is released in 40 hours. It’s $5 cheaper if you preorder it. You should.