The Games Of Christmas ’10: Day 16

By RPS on December 16th, 2010 at 2:24 pm.


Will games be perfect when the AI is perfect? Possibly, but it’s only half the battle, as the thing which lurks behind the sixteenth window so amply illustrates. It doesn’t matter how smart the entities in your game are, the real power is in the tools they have to change things in the world… What manner of cryptic yammering is this?

It’s…. Sleep is Death!

Jim: When I finally understood what Sleep Is Death was, I felt a little envious of its creator, Jason Rohrer. He’s already been an extremely inventive creator with his previous, smaller projects, but Sleep Is Death is one of those inventions that feels so obvious, so logical, so right, that you can scarcely believe that it hadn’t existed before. Hell, I can’t help feeling a little bit like I am a stupid for not coming up with it myself. The idea: which is to create a toolset for one player to manage what another sees on screen, is a kind of digital leg-up from pen and paper role-playing. The gamesmaster here isn’t simply conjuring in the ether of imagination, he’s got something more concrete: a lo-res world in which any kinds of visuals or text can be introduced, turn by turn.

One of the default things I find myself talking about when we do reviews or these sort of game round up things are the range of “tools” that any given game provides its players. I don’t mean the modding or mapping tools, or anything like that, but the range of mechanisms and features that are available within play: how you can interact with the world, how you can express yourself in there. The range of interaction for any given game feels, to me, a bit like a toolkit. You have these things which are only good for certain purposes, and they are the limit of what you can do in that game: this is super-true of Sleep Is Death, where the player and the story-teller have quite different experiences, thanks to the different tools available to them. The player can move about, speaking and attempting to perform actions, while the teller frantically rushes about behind the scenes making the world react and producing responses from the environment the character is in. The teller can drawn anything, within the low-res templates, and potentially cause radical changes in the world as he works.

What is most extraordinary about the level of freedom these tools provide (you are, as the teller person, against the clock, of course, so there is a serious limitation on what can be achieved per-turn) is the way in which Sleep Is Death becomes purely about improvisation. From that improvisation you start to see how good you are are predicting what might happen. Just as when you have a conversation with someone you can often vaguely see where the conversation is going, so as you play more and more Sleep Is Death, you begin to see the possible shape of people’s actions and events. It doesn’t always work out, of course, because people are prone to randomness, and the escalations and twists of story-telling that take place on the fly have been some of the most extraordinarily inventive things I have ever seen in game. Much of it is being literate with the tools, of course, and as I got more proficient, the experience for the player improved dramatically. (I can imagine people becoming astonishing auteurs just within this framework, able to orchestrate near-magical story-telling in an instant.)

In short, then, play this. If you haven’t then you are missing out on something unique and fresh and wonderful. It’s a shiny new toolkit, familiar enough to get to grips with and use in moments, and unusual enough to spawn some utterly unprecedented experiences. I realise we should have said more about this game over the year. We’re saying it now: Sleep Is Death is brilliant.

Alec: “The story’s rubbish” is perhaps one of the most common complaints levelled at any given videogame, and it’s a legitimate worry: too often, the mechanics come first and the tale comes later, leaving us with bland idiocy, unsatisfying resolutions or incoherent riffing that abandons fascinating ideas and characters in favour of quick time events and big blue men.

Sleep Is Death was (is) our chance to prove that we all knew better. I don’t know how many people took that chance, how many were put off by the arch title or the breathless superlatives uttered by critics (myself included), how many just played stories and how many went the whole wonderful hog and made stories.

In all the talk of its cleverness, what perhaps wasn’t covered enough was its simplicity. It’s a Lego toybox of parts, dropped in and assembled with similar ease and similarly evocative blockiness. Not that it had to be the cheerfully crude thing it was best known as: a dedicated artist could turn it to flat-out amazing scenes. That’s the thing: this is the infinite game, a smart halfway point between dev tools and something ready-made.

Most importantly, for me, Sleep Is Death combined one of the very oldest forms of entertainment with essentially the newest, within a deceptive frame of something older and cruder than its thoroughly high-tech heart.

I hope it’s been successful, and I’m sorry that it’s not a game we had to the time to huddle around for longer.

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38 Comments »

  1. Auspex says:

    I bought this but never played it. Nonetheless I’m very glad it exists.

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      Same same. My next door neighbour and I own it, one day we plan to play it together, make a story for one another.
      My question is the story telling as fun as playing the part of the character who is in the world?

    • James G says:

      Same here. I wan’t to play it, but finding someone to play with where I don’t feel overly pressured seems a bit daunting. (Few of my real life friends are PC gamers, and those who would be interested in SiD are even fewer in number)

    • Auspex says:

      Ok I’ve downloaded it and I’m going to mess about with it for a bit and then try and make up a game. If anyone else who’s never played it (or just anyone) fancies a game with someone who’ll be largely incompetent keep an eye on the forums!

    • Lambchops says:

      Same here. The guy I sent my other copy to turned out to not really be interested in it. i did try to play at one of the sites with a matchmaker but unfortunately found that people wanting to experience stories far outnumbered those willing to tell them and I didn’t have the time or patience to wait for a game.

      Guess I was part of the problem, but I didn’t really want to jump in and tell a story straight away.

      It is a nice idea though, I read some pretty cool stories that were made in it and I’m glad it’s there for people to enjoy.

  2. Srekel says:

    It’s a very cool idea, and quite fun the few times I played it. But it does unfortunately suffer from a pretty bad UI. I understand why the main game is so low-res/fi, but the UI could’ve definitely been better.

    • Wilson says:

      It wasn’t just me who found it a bit bleh then (the UI).

    • Oozo says:

      My thoughts exactly. I gave it a few tries, playing with a friend who’s all into story telling in all forms. But just then, I had issues with my internet connection, and our stories where all forced to an early end. (And hey, I even staged a play based on Sartre’s “Huis clos” – ideal setting, only having one room…)

      Unfortunately, I never could get myself to get back after the connection was fixed – mostly because the UI on the mastermind’s side makes creating stuff way more fumbly and difficult than necessary.

      As you say, there’s a reason why it’s low-res, but it wasn’t the smartest of ideas to keep the art style this consistent…

      Well, thanks for reminding me of its existence. I might give it another try during the holidays.

    • AndrewC says:

      Yes, I’m sorry, I got caught out by the UI too. An hour in and i still fumbled with the most basic stuff, making me too stupid or the game too awkward but probably both.

      Lovely idea though.

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      I had UI and internet problems. I think it was silly doing this game as its own program, it should have been done through the web – then people could upload resources automatically as well.

  3. Wilson says:

    I have this, but was put off a bit by the editing system. It didn’t seem as intuitive as I would like. Just felt a bit clunky to me, and considering it’s possibly the most important part of the game, I haven’t felt any desire to make a real effort with it yet.

  4. CMaster says:

    It’s an idea I have had for a while, in many ways. Though my vision was a little different, but the core idea of bringing the tabletop idea of a GM into a game really appeals. I think there’s a lot more space for this kind of thing, without necessarily being the same.

    That said, I’ve never played a pen and paper RPG, nor have I played this, so maybe it actually sucks. I doubt it though.

  5. Tyshalle says:

    Despite all you’ve had to say about it in this article, I still don’t exactly get what the hell it is. Is it literally just a D&D-esque toolkit that you create on the fly?

    • Tyshalle says:

      Having read previous articles, I get it now. Sounds awesome.

      So when you fire it up, is there like, any kind of matchmaking or lobby room or way to hook up with people you don’t know? This sounds awesome but I’m not sure I know anybody who’d be interested in this.

    • Xercies says:

      You get two different files i think, one for storytelling and one for playing and you give the one for playing or whatever to your friend and you have the other one if i remember rightly.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      I played with a bunch of different friends over several weeks. I’ve not been demoed this by the developer, and figured out the UI for myself.

      I’m genuinely surprised people found it so challenging. I am not particular good with obscure controls, and am completely non-technical, and I was fine after half an hour of messing about.

    • JB says:

      @ Tyshalle – Despite what frightlever says, you might well enjoy the game, a lot of people do. As for matchmaking, SiDTube has a good community in my experience, and a matchmaking system to boot!

      (Edit – I see protobob beat me to the punch regarding the tube. That’ll teach me to post before finishing reading the comments!)

  6. Gehrschrein says:

    When will this be ported to 360?

  7. protobob says:

    Sidtube.com is a nice place to find games, though it doesn’t seem as popular as when the game first came out.

    I hosted a bunch of games with sidtube people that formed a larger story. It happened by accident, really. I collected them here:

    http://splitsoulscomic.blogspot.com/

    • Futurecast says:

      Heya Protobob,
      I played one of those stories with you. :)
      Any chance of you posting the backgrounds and characters as a resource pak on http://www.sidtube.com ?
      Would be much appreciated if possible.
      FC

  8. Devenger says:

    Like others, I bought it, but I never got to play it. I’m not that good at dealing with confusing UIs – while also trying to think of interesting places for players’ actions to lead – quickly, so I wouldn’t have been able to keep up playing the story-teller side (at least, I’d never have reached the heights of storytelling I’d want to). And I never found anyone else willing to run a game.

    Anyone who has been a player in a pen-and-paper RPG I have run will know how much stalling for time, or merely pausing, I’ll do to ensure things remain interesting AND consistent – in a videogame, such long waits would be considering immersion breaking, as well as boring, whereas asking a group of players to give you a few minutes to work out what’s happening next merely gives them the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to discuss the game’s events out-of-character, and ask each other interesting rules-related questions in some cases.

    I suppose my ideal ‘GMed videogame’ would be one where the GM can still stall for time using a variety of resources that can be pre-prepared to the point of automation. In some types of story, combat would be a fine way of doing this, especially if the combat was also turn-based, keeping things nice and slow. (With some of the PnP stuff I’ve run, I’ve done a lot of the metaphorical moving-props-backstage for the next scene while the players are still deciding how to fight the current scene’s antagonists.) In other games, being able to set up areas players can freely move around and search for things in without the GM’s constant supervision could allow for a detective game with very little actual downtime, just slower periods of investigation. Ideally, the mechanism for making these GM-free ‘sub-games’ would be versatile enough to not tie the overall game to any particular genre. (Perhaps programming-minded GMs could create very complex generic systems in some scripting language, then these systems could be distributed and customised by other GMs.)

    Bah, pipe dreams, they are worth nothing. I wish I’d had the time, raw brain processing speed, and access to players to get into Sleep is Death. It’s certainly something very special, and I’ve seen some wonderful story-slideshows from it.

    • Oozo says:

      Hence the time limits on side of the player as well as the Game Master. While it is, well, limiting, it’s part of the appeal. Michael Abbott wrote in detail about how “Sleep Is Death” could be considered some sort of impro theater, and I think that’s spot-on: If you’re up on the stage, you don’t have time to stall and pause and figure out your next move. You do react, sometimes even instinctily so, and while it’s a whole lot of stress, in principle, it’s splendid, because the outcome is unpredictable and surprising for both sides, no matter how much you had planned.

      In principle, I think that’s why it really is not correct to think of “Sleep Is Death” as a digitized P&P-RPG: it comes in its own medium, with certain limits and options. Much like, well, the Dogma guys or the OULIPO-group trying to work under (self-imposed) constraints, to bolster their creativity.

      In principle. In practice, though, it’s a lot harder than that, for the reasons mentioned above.

  9. Bassism says:

    I also bought this on day one and haven’t touched it since. I opened it up, took a quick look at the GM interface, and swore I’d go back to learn it, but never have. Ultimately, it seems so much easier to just run a tabletop game, and since I have people with whom I can do that, SID has never drawn me back.

    That said, if anybody has any stories they’d like to run by me, drop me a note. I still want to play it some day :P

  10. DXN says:

    At the risk of adding to the cacophony, I also bought this, and then had no luck whatsoever at getting to grips with the UI for making stories — even though it seems like such a cool idea, and I was really motivated to work it out. :L

  11. Spooner says:

    The UI really is a bit poor for this game and lets down a really interesting idea! The network issues don’t help, but it is the poorly designed UI that killed it, I feel.

    I have put in quite a lot of work on on an improved version, which I am calling Sidney, (basically a complete rewrite and redesign), but it is something of a long-term project that I pick up and put down a lot :$ I’m really focussing on making the UI the stand-out aspect of the game and although still rather at the bare-bones level, it feels 100-times less cumbersome than the original game. The more encouragement I get to finish this, the more likely I am to get my arse in gear!

    There is still a tiny bit of a community for the game over at sidtube.com (http://sidtube.com/social/irc/) but it has really died down because it is so inaccessible (ironic for a game that utterly requires to be idiot-proof). Could do with some fresh blood if anyone wants to rediscover this gem! Pop into our IRC channel some time if you want to discuss it (though I often like to rant about its shortcomings :$), but be patient since we might not notice you immediately!

    • Oozo says:

      So, move your arse then! (Hope that’s good enough for encouragement.)

      …ah, well, that’s why I’m glad Jason Rohrer did it, warts and all: People will pick up the idea. And the idea is still splendid.

    • Spooner says:

      Oh, for those interested: Although the default setting is 30s turns, don’t feel compelled to panic, fumble and bodge your way through the game with that limit just because the author says so (And, after all, he designed the UI so it is super-optimised for him alone!). Most people who’ve played the game “seriously” use 60s or longer; some even don’t bother with a limit and just play as fast as they can (without getting an ulcer :P).

  12. Out Reach says:

    Played this for a while when It came out. Story telling is a blast, here are some tips for people :)

    1- Watch the tutorials: http://www.sleepisdeath.net/videos.php yes they are dry, but you’ll learn what that little button on sub menu 3 does, and how to create some nifty special effects.

    2- Be prepared: Have some basic characters,items and locations ready. Also Have a basic plan of the storyline. Theres nothing worse then the story going along the lines of you going “HELP HOW DO I DO THIS! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!” You can practice, and prepare in single-player, before you host that multi-player game. http://sidtube.com/ has some pre-made resources you can download and import into the game :)

    3- Don’t Railroad: If the players wants to do something, let them do it. You should suggests things that might lead to the amazing story you have prepared, but if the player just wants to stay in the starting area and talk to “Bob” Keep Bob talking till the player wants to leave.

    4 – Remember what’s happened: I’ve had stories that go on for over an hour. Don’t forget the little things players do throughout the story. They may want to use the glass of water they picked up 1/2 an hour ago, and your going to annoy them if you’ve forgotten they have one. Also it’s fun to make elements from earlier in the story have repercussions latter on :)

    5- Know when to end: It’s all fun and games but don’t make it drag on. Have a plan to finish the story, but accept if a player is trying to kill themselves they are more then likely trying to politely leave the game without leaving character (nothing ruins a good flip book story like the player saying “can we finish this off i need to go feed the cat”). Give them a chance to save themselves to make sure, but if they want to die let them :)

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      6. If the player starts to dick around, then you as the story-teller should dick around with him in the game. When Frodo the player started attacking Gandalf the NPC (in an original story, hey :), then I had Gandalf shout “VAS FLAM” and set him on fire. Frodo the player then ran towards the lake, but in my next turn I made him die just short of the water. We both had a good laugh out of that one.

  13. blind_boy_grunt says:

    For me this is somehow the segway of gaming: neat idea bordering on great. Some hype before release and than… nothing

  14. dr.castle says:

    Unfortunately, “the story’s rubbish” is something I found myself saying often when playing SID, too. Relying on the online matchmaking to find a partner can be quite painful.

    Also, while the timer is necessary to keep things moving, it leads to a LOT of immersion-breaking gaffes. At least when I’m trying to work it.

    • Spooner says:

      The online matchmaker is a pretty bad idea for a lot of people, I think, unless you both just want a pretty random game (“I can’t think what to say this turn, so I’ll make a llama appear! Haha!”). I still think you can play a good game with people you don’t know, as long as you make very sure you both are interested in the same style of game (playing SiD is a bit like playing a universal first person game, where each player decides _independently_ which game rules they want to use from Minecraft, TF2, CODBLOPS or Arma 2! Really important that everyone is playing the same game…).

      Jason Rohrer refused to make a match-maker in the game specifically because he believed that playing with random people really doesn’t work.

  15. lurkalisk says:

    “too often, the mechanics come first and the tale comes later”

    Isn’t that what a videogame is supposed to be? Or have we decided interactive books and/or movies are better?

    Not that this complaint has anything specifically to do with SiD, but I’d choose a rubbish story and excellent mechanics over the opposite any day. That’s why I play videogames, after all.

    • Falcon says:

      Which is why I wouldn’t say this is much of a game per se. Games have observable and consistent rules I.e. I shoot him, he dies. I move here, I collect resource x, etc. This is more if a virtual story experience. The mechanics exist *only* so the players can create this story with some basic visual elements. Taken as a game it doesn’t hold, but I admire it for what it actually is.

    • bill says:

      That’s why the name VIDEO GAME is so limiting. I rarely play video games for the game – i play it for the experience, the story, the setting and the immersion. As long as the gameplay does’t get in the way of that, i’m happy. If the gameplay actually enhances that, that’s super-awesome.

  16. Vinraith says:

    SID, like a lot of things, is a great idea foiled by humans being humans.

  17. Fergus says:

    Sadly, last time I checked a few months ago, the Sleep Is Death community had completely died. I entered the IRC room which was thriving shortly after release to find only one or two people in it. At first I thought I’d gone to the wrong chatroom by mistake. Of course, if you’ve got someone else to play with who you know, all fine and dandy.

    It’s really a beautiful thing, is SiD. It gets what role-playing gaming is about; imagination. No scores, no levels, no game mechanics … just a story that you can play in like two kids holding a torch to their faces and talking in funny voices.

  18. dbspin says:

    Just purchased this as a Christmas present for myself (after discovering the game had gone ‘name your price’), only to discover the game doesn’t have any equivalent of a server browser, and the main 3rd party site for game matching (sidtube.com) is down. If anyone finds themselves in the same position over the holidays, hit me up (I’m willing to either host or play a game), @dbspin on twitter.

    I don’t find the controls too cumbersome, but if we do play, bare in mind it’ll be my first time hosting.