Monday, April 19, 2010

Game Review: Sleep Is Death (Geisterfahrer)

sleepisdeath Bad command or file name.

This was what I saw the very first time a computer couldn't do something I wanted. By their very nature, computers must be told what to do, and they must be told in terms they can understand. Ask them to improvise, and they quickly become paperweights.

This is a limitation that computers and, by extension, video games have retained even as hardware has become exponentially more powerful. Take the biggest, most open-ended games you can think of, your Mass Effects and Fables and Fallouts, and at their core they can all be reduced to a blinking C: prompt, accepting and responding only to input to which they have been programmed to respond.

Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death aims to change that, and it wants to do it in a way that goes against decades of game and computer industry progress: what if, instead of programming complex artificial intelligence into your game, an actual person was running the show?

This opens up a world of possibility to the player - he or she can interact with any object on the game's screen in any way, and (given a certain amount of wit and speed) the human controller can make that object respond in an appropriate fashion. It's a simple premise, but full of potential - an opportunity for real, collaborative storytelling in a way that is unique to the medium of gaming.

Craig, Rob and myself pre-ordered Sleep is Death last week, and we've given it a few spins at this point. Read on for our impressions, and for some of the stories we managed to tell.

Rob - Karma is a Bitch

You might call Sleep is Death Dungeons & Dragons for the Social Realist set. Instead of crawling around a dungeon, players use a drought-stricken El Paso, Texas for scenery. Or maybe it's Tuscon, Arizona. Or maybe you use the editor and it's Nome, Alaska. Or Mars. Playing as the Narrator in Sleep is Death, your options are endless. It's possible to limit yourself to the game's stable of scenery and sprites, but it won't be long before you're shifting pixels to tell your own story.

My first trial run stories were variations of the stock plot, exhibited in a Joystiq preview: a drought is killing your desert town, and you need water. Using the resources at hand, I was able to toss together a few tales. It was like someone trying to make a salad from lettuce, gummy worms and Cheez-Its; I fumbled with the interface, but by my third go (and after a helpful tutorial narrated by Rohrer himself), I was stringing together my own Heart of Darkness set in El Paso, Texas.

The snarls of Sleep is Death's narration system hit early and persist. Chief among them is the 30-second shot clock - each party, the Narrator and the Player, has thirty seconds to make his move. For the player, this involves moving his character, talking and acting. For the Narrator, this involves moving the goddamned Earth.


The Sleep is Death narrator interface

Thirty seconds isn't nearly enough for your average narrator. In my most ambitious story, I was using my seconds to: swap out living characters with dead ones, or wounded ones; make the living ones talk, move, and act upon the environment; and shape said environment to tell my story. You must either curtail your actions or risk giving your player something half-done.

I applaud Rohrer for making players pare their plots down to the bare minimum - brevity is often the soul of effective storytelling, after all. But for everything you can do in Sleep is Death, you can't adjust the shot clock. If two players can reach some consensus on a time limit - 60 seconds for the narrator, 30 for the player, maybe - the game should accommodate.

There is, of course, another problem - the other player. From the Narrator's spot behind the god-console, their story can look as high-minded as Shakespeare; but if the other player doesn't know the lines, things can disintegrate quickly. After about three hours of shaping sprites and plotting a narrative, I was ready to unleash my Conradian adventure upon Andrew.

Water You Doing?! – Narrated by Rob, played by Andrew

He took my story - upon which I labored long and hard, going so far as to plot the scenes on a piece of paper - and turned it into a schlocky action flick starring Samuel L. Jackson. I was frustrated at first, but I knew I was getting what I deserved. Many gamers (self included) live to break games, test design philosophies to their gruesome stretching points and poke holes wherever we can. How could I expect Andrew, a rightful skeptic, to play by the rules?

Thus Sleep is Death becomes something interesting and totally unique - a game developer simulator. You're only as good as your contingency plan, and if you expect the player to be kind, you get what you deserve.

Craig - Yes, Yes, Yes

"Always say yes."  It's the first rule of improv.  Saying no shuts down the other person, the collaborator with whom you're trying to tell a (potentially meaningful, potentially silly) story. Sleep is Death gives two players - one Narrator, one Player - thirty seconds to say yes to one another, over and over again.  It's nerve-wracking, frustrating, hilarious.  It's a brave new world for Jason Rohrer.

Rohrer's previous efforts have tackled the "game" moniker head on.  Between examines communication by bridging two players' worlds with only a deceivingly dense puzzleGravitation's fluctuating platforming mechanics mimic the rollercoaster nature of being creatively manic.  An subtle time limit transforms Passage from a mere point-collecting adventure into a meditation on death and loss.

A time limit is really the only element of Sleep is Death that cries "game."  Think of it as the storytelling equivalent of high-level chess.  You've only half a minute to execute the move you were planning while your opponent acted.  But wait, he did something unexpected.  Can you reassess and adjust your strategy in the time allotted?  You can - if you're willing to say yes.

Barry’s Labyrinth – Narrated by Craig, played by Andrew

Saying yes to Andrew got me into trouble as a Narrator.  As Rob noted, the Player has only to decide where to move his sprite and what hilarious text to type this time.  Meanwhile, the Narrator sweats bullets, navigating an interface in dire need of more keyboard shortcuts, attempting to balance his desire to tell a story with his desire to interact with the person on the other side of the terminal.  To keep things moving, I said yes to Andrew at every turn.  The world would lose all appeal if his actions carried no impact.  But most of his successes became my failures.  All of my best laid plans went awry.  Whole scenes went unseen.  I could no longer tell the story I wanted to tell.  But all in all, I didn't mind.  We still got to the end.

The past few years have seen a rise in cooperative gaming.  Any retail release worth its salt features an online-enabled co-op campaign.  At the very least, you hop into matchmaking with your buddies and school some middle-schoolers in Capture the Flag.  You're either winning at someone else's expense or winning a game authored by a studio in Montreal.  Sleep is Death eschews both of those paths.  Here, the act of creation is itself victory.

So what if my tale of good vs. evil became, for a few minutes, a story about a man trying to score with a ghost?  I found a way to deliver proper comeuppance, even if it was leagues from what I'd intended.  I couldn't have told that story alone.  And neither could have Andrew.  Yes, that is Sleep is Death's triumph.

Andrew - Human After All

Sleep is Death eschews computers in favor of humans - we've already covered that in some detail. The implications of this, however, go far beyond the simple fact that your actions in a video game can finally have equal and opposite reactions.

Deus Ex Dinosaurs – Narrated by Andrew, played by Craig

For one, take Rohrer's recommendation you play the game with someone you know well, rather than with some random Internet stranger. Craig and Rob weren't quite prepared for the entropy that I introduced to their stories, but I had the end of Deus Ex Dinosaurs planned out from the start. I know Craig, and I knew that the minute I insisted that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur that he'd pick a fight about it. Playing with friends means that, to a degree, you can try to anticipate their reactions and incorporate them into your stories.

For another, you must decide who's running the show. In the context of video games, this is a completely foreign concept - the classic human/video game pairing sets You The Player at the game's mercy, and you must play it on its terms using its language. In Sleep is Death (and, I hear, in Soviet Russia) the game can just as easily play you.

This is what happened when Rob and Craig ran games for me. In Rob's, I played as an older Samuel L. Jackson, brain addled by the horrors of his everyday life. In Craig's, I played a jaded and disinterested character who only starts trying when he realizes there's booty to be had. It's role playing in the purest sense, and while it can be frustrating for narrators to see their carefully spun yarns unraveled by a potty-mouthed asshole, it's freeing to the player in an unprecedented way.

For the narrator to truly maintain his control of the story, he must steer the player less transparently. Note the beginning of Deus Ex Dinosaurs: Craig was initially reluctant to interact with the room he started in, so I just kept bombarding him with stimuli until he finally responded to one and set in motion the story I'd put together.

00007It means being a little more heavy-handed sometimes than I'd like, and breaking Craig's  "always say yes" rule in favor of keeping the show running smoothly. It's the play style I normally prefer while running stories, though, and it's the one Rohrer used when he ran the gaming press through his game a couple of weeks ago - let the player have their fun, but not to the point that it completely derails your story. And too much player improvisation will ruin your story, because of both the aforementioned time limit and necessarily cluttered narrator interface. You’ll notice typos and errors abound in our stories – one can spend one’s entire turn as narrator repositioning speech bubbles and character sprites, and it doesn’t always work as smoothly as it might.

Sleep is Death has definite limitations, but it's still a fascinating move on Rohrer's part. What remains to be seen is the game's impact on the industry. Rohrer's earlier games, particularly Passage, have been oft-lauded but rarely imitated, but the concept at the heart of Sleep is Death - that the best artificial intelligence is not artificial at all - is much easier to grasp and therefore to imitate. Time will tell. In the meantime, I wonder what would happen I made Rob be a fish?

Fish Stories – Narrated by Andrew, played by Rob

Jason Rohrer’s Sleep Is Death (Geisterfahrer) is available from the author’s Web site for $14. This review is based on v13 of the game. Rohrer notes that v14 is the “official public release” – it will include several fixes and will be available later this week.