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The Games Of Christmas ’10: Day 16

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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