It started when I came to on the floor of a public restroom, naked and dazed. I'd had my share of late nights, lost weekends and unrepeatable adventures throughout this year's Game Developers Conference (you're doing it wrong if you don't), but this was a new one. There was an unidentifiable ringing coming from the next room — a telephone? an alarm? was it just my ears? — and I clambered upright and tested my surroundings. Ran the sink taps, flushed the toilet, scrambled to get my head straight.

I stumbled out of the bathroom into a locker room — how did I get here? — and checked a locker in blind hopes that my clothes might be inside. That's when the girl showed up. Covering my shame, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "Have you seen my clothes?"

She shrieked in response and called for her friends. I ran back into the safety of the bathroom only to find that I'd been in the women's room the whole time, and there were more girls here now. I tried to hide in a stall as a small mob gathered — everyone angry, taunting — wondering how I might escape.

One girl took pity and yelled for me to follow her. We made a fast exit. She pulled me toward an adjacent restroom, and told me to come close so she could tell me a secret. Feeling like this could easily be a trap, but too stunned and confused to object, I inched closer. "Banana bread," she whispered. I stared blankly back — was this some sort of joke? I thought I heard the soft echo of a man's laughter in the distance. "You need to wake up," she said.

I look up and realize I wasn't wrong about the laughter. Across the table is Jason Rohrer — creator of Passage, 2007's five-minute memento mori metaphor that caused most to think more deeply about videogames' potential for deeper artistic meaning. He's smiling because he knows he's got me right where he wants me.

With only two laptops and a single ethernet cable between us, we're knee deep in his latest and most ambitious game, Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer), and I know now what I have to do. To this point, I've been playing as you would any other point and click adventure game: trying to "use" objects, "open" doors, searching for mouse-over menus for things in the world, only to find that they don't exist. I've been thinking too linearly, reacting too straightforwardly to the things in front of me. It's now that I realize I have as much control over him as he does over me.

Each game screen in Sleep is Death allows you 30 seconds to make a move before being transmitted back. Point an arrow at an object and indicate what you'd like to do with it. Open a bubble and make your character speak a short phrase. It's only now that I realize that Rohrer, as the game's storytelling host, only has that same 30 seconds to either custom create a new scene — or, hopefully, have one already prepared — to show how my actions played out. I think I can use this to my advantage.

When I wake up, I'm a bald middle-aged man lying in bed. I stand up, again naked, and make my way into what I'm assuming is — or perhaps conjure without speaking as — a closet. I use my speech bubbles not to communicate to another character (though my "wife" is currently yelling at me from the kitchen to get to work) but in soliloquy, to show Rohrer that I'm not going to let him be the sole author of this story. "Every night it's the same dream," my character laments, pathos in half-reference to Molleindustria's own art-game, a line I know Rohrer will appreciate.

When I finally make it outside, at my wife's pointed nagging, I see that he has. Waiting for me are a squat two-door coupe commuter's car and a near-leafless tree, both seemingly in homage to Molleindustria's work. I know Rohrer wants me to get in that car. I know he was up the night before constructing places he wants that car to go, for me to experience the story he's created, but I want to subvert him and keep him on his toes. I point my action-arrow at the pink petals fallen from the tree, instruct my character to "gather", and hit "submit" before my timer runs out. I hear Rohrer laugh again, because he and I both know he hasn't anticipated this and now has 30 seconds to scramble with the game's image editor to paint the petals into my character's hands.

We go on like this for another 30 rounds, me trying to sway Rohrer from the path he's laid before me, and him always finding (or, in a pinch, brute forcing) ways to rope me back in when he know he doesn't have the time to properly accommodate my demands. The story ends — as no videogame has before — with a nationally televised meltdown in the vein of Network, or Jimmy Gator's own in Magnolia, which is by my intention, but more accurately of both Rohrer's and my design.

One thing's for certain: I had a fantastic introduction to Sleep is Death — felt the kind of discomfort that can only be felt when naked in the proverbial ladies' room, again, something that no game has done to me before — because Rohrer himself was my co-storyteller. It's for that reason that Rohrer's put limitations on the game's scope. Primarily, Sleep is not an online game. With WiFi solutions still being hammered out in anticipation of the game's April 8th release, it can only be played as we did, with two laptops and an ethernet cable. No online play, no web warehouse of downloadable stories (though it does provide an easily uploadable slideshow view of exactly how the story played out for everyone to share).

This might put off some of his potential audience, but the reasoning's deliberate and sound -- Rohrer's openly stated that the players of his last multiplayer game, Between, reported positive experiences when they played with friends, much less so when thrown open to the wild west of the web's strangers.

That doesn't mean the experience is quite as static — each player's library of selectable objects will grow every time they play through someone else's story -- but it does mean that a good majority of the world's best stories won't be at your demand, and that most won't have the pleasure of getting woven into a tale of Rohrer's own weaving.

To this point, Sleep is Death might seem so far, so dungeon-master, and any seasoned tabletop champ might instantly recognize the free-jazz / free-reign excitement of riffing off a friend, of having every boundary you've carefully constructed playfully and mischievously pushed and tested.

What's different here is that you're given a standard set of digital tools to create with, and a 30 second time limit that enforces a tighter scale and scope.

Again, that's by deliberate design, and it's not coincidentally inspired by Chris Crawford, a true videogame veteran who's been struggling to create the capacity for more meaningful in-game interactions for decades, and who spent a long night just over one year ago to the day in conversation with Rohrer on just that subject. The difference is that where Crawford has taken nearly 20 years to get to the first release of a complex computer-parsable conversation structure with Storytron, Rohrer forgoes the problem of constructing a believable artificial intelligence by replacing it with a genuine one.

That doesn't mean that Sleep limits or restricts your imagination: with editors for scenes, music scores, and sprites (placed in a searchable database with every object you've created or downloaded from another player), your stories are only as literal or abstract as you'd like, or as your player demands. In anyone else's hands, my story of mid-life on-camera ennui could have just as easily been about a sperm cell's journey to an egg, a dog's life, an orc's quest, the tragedy of an 18th century pearl diver or a hazy pink pixel field's conversational intermingling with a bright blue trapezoid, provided both parties can keep the illusion alive.

And that, ultimately, will be Sleep is Death's true test on its April release. Most of us consume media because we've lost the capacity, interest or time to construct thrilling tales of our own, and it's unproven how much an easily grasped set of pared down tools can inspire — whether they'll turn even a few of us into budding Rohrer's or whether we still need him to entertain us.

But I will say that — even having only played music as a 'band' less than a handful of times — there's a real and comparable magic to exploring 'possibility spaces' in an intimate setting, especially under pressure. Sleep is Death is the best tool I've witnessed to make that magic more accessible to everyone.

27 Comments Add a comment

SamSam #1 09:22 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

Wow, it sounds amazing. And definitely a medium worth exploring. I've played a few "interactive story" games and they always left me a little unsatisfying, and I think that's because it is always the computer who is the storyteller, and never a real person -- or a combination of two people.

Anon #2 10:15 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

I am very excited about the game, but I wish the online element were available- just because, my friends all live far away from me, and so I can't get them in the same room to play, but we could play well online!

Cormac #3 10:45 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

There are a number of game table tools for simulating tabletop RPGs already. You can do freeform rules if you want to with basically any of them, so really this is just another implementation of one of those with another (pixel-art) tile-set and a move timer...

a list of online virtual tabletops circa 2008:

I've played with Klooge, and Fantasy Grounds II myself.

RyanMcFitz #4 12:26 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

Kudos to Rohrer for the game and Brandon for the article. I'm officially more excited to try this game than anything big coming down the pipe from the AAAs!

(But yes, I too second the wishlist feature of playing online.)

Jason Rohrer #5 14:05 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

Just to clear up a bit of confusion:

You *CAN* play the game remotely with a friend.

However, there is no centralized server for matching people up or letting you play with a total stranger.

I'll be adding UPNP support, which works with most home routers to allow incoming connections for games and such. So hooking up with a remote friend will be as easy as texting them your IP address (provided to you by the game) so that they can connect to you.

All that said, I think the game is quite a bit better when you play with a dear friend in the same room. So I do encourage you to try it that way. I suppose most multiplayer games are better that way, though...

As for the tabletop RPG comparisons, those are totally fair.

I haven't tried any of those virtual tabletop games, but SiD doesn't just give you a "tileset". It allows you to make whatever you want, and edit all of that, down to the single pixel, in realtime as you play. It also allows you to edit the music in realtime. It's quite a bit more like theater or a puppet show or paper dolls than it is like an RPG.

There's no map or travel or party or any traditional RPG elements. Instead, just a stage with objects and actors on it. This game takes a much bigger page from the "interactive storytelling" world (Storytron, Facade, Masq) than it does from the RPG world.

Thanks for the interest! A feature like this on BoingBoing... I'm still pinching myself to see if I'll wake up! :)

coldspell replied to comment from Jason Rohrer #6 14:44 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

@Jason: I think your "messaging" about SiD is a little confusing. I've read multiple forums where people thought the game matched up random players (like Chat Roulette) or had no networking capabilities. There is also confusion about what the "30 second time limit" actually means.

btw, I learned about SiD on [1], a forum for tabletop RPGs that focus more on storytelling than killing monsters. People on the Story Games forum are very excited about the creative possibilities of SiD!

[1] "[Sleep Is Death] Let's Talk About It"

princessmiwi #7 15:47 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

When I was younger, I liked to play a story game... I'd go on telling a story with words people were saying... it was fun, creative and we laughed a lot.

I couldn't help but remember that when reading about that "game" - which I see more as an amazing tool to tell stories than a game.

This is amazing. I mean, I am excited about it, really. I can't help but wonder if it's gonna help me play cool stories with my friends... and, again, if it's gonna be a better experience than just telling those stories as a tabletop RPG.

And I am glad there will be online support. There are some dear friends i'd like to play this with but don't live near me.

Let's wait and see :)

princessmiwi #8 16:05 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

I have a sugestion: why don't you make player 1 "free"? It would be easier to show the games to my friends this way... and if they liked it, they would buy the game too.

Oh, I am curious... I saw the pre-order page and it looks I get the source-code with it. Can I mess with it afterwards? xD Okay, I probably won't do that, I will just look because I am so curious xD

Aaaand I pre-ordered. Curious to see what cames

killercowdu29 #9 16:15 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

Hey Jason i preordered the game but i wanted to know if the video tutorial for the creator mode is coming soon. Before or after april 8? Thanks

Jason Rohrer #10 17:40 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

I don't know where people got the idea about Chat Roulette... but yeah, I saw that too! No random stranger pairings here. I mean, can you imagine what that would be like? P---S!

I guess that so far, I haven't really just written text explaining exactly how the game works. With my initial info release, I did it all through a slide show generated from inside the game... there wasn't much room for detail there.

Each player has up to 30 seconds, in turn, to make a move. The Controller can keep manipulating/preparing stuff behind the scenes during the Player's 30 seconds.

As is hopefully clear from the website, when you order, you get *TWO* downloads of the game, one for you, and one for a friend. There's no DRM on the downloads, so if you want to play with more than one friend, I suppose that you will.

I've thought about making a limited-functionality version for Player 1 that would be a free download... but then everyone would download that as a "demo" and be able to do nothing with it (unless they had a friend who bought the full version). That's not a very good demo of the game! Essentially, you need one Controller for each Player in the world.... handing out the Player for free would not maintain that balance.

Regarding the source code, the game is being placed in the public domain (no copyright), so you can do whatever you want with it. I'm selling downloads, not selling "licenses" or whatever else. It's a bit like buying a download of Linux (those come with the source code too).

Jason Rohrer #11 17:47 on Fri, Mar.19 Reply

Oh... forgot to answer one more question.

The video for the Controller mode will be available before the release. I already have a rough version done to help journalists out, but I want to make a more polished version for public consumption.

I'm also in the process of tweaking the UI a bit (adding drag-and-drop and some other improvements), so that rough video is a bit out-of-date already.

However, if you're REALLY itching to see the video, email me and I'll send you a link:

jasonrohrer AT fastmail DOT fm

Anon replied to comment from Cormac #12 06:17 on Sat, Mar.20 Reply

A more comprehensive list of virtual tabletop software can be found here:

And a feature comparison chart covering many VTs is available here:

brilliam #13 12:26 on Sat, Mar.20 Reply

I, and several pals of mine, have already ordered our copies. Mr. Rohrer, I hope you'll be playing now and again once it comes out, I'd love a chance to play with you! You too Mr. Boyer!

Sal Zeta #14 16:17 on Sun, Mar.21 Reply

Even between friends, where I see an ally, somebody will see an enemy.
Waiting for the first non-consensual "Duck Amuck"( reenactment. :P

straydogstrut #15 11:50 on Mon, Mar.22 Reply

I am really excited about this game now. I liked the idea of it at first but I wasn't sure it would play out that great in practice. Now i'm completely convinced!

Even if it does have a similarity to tabletop rpgs, I don't think that's a bad thing. I can't say i've played them much myself, except once in a session ran by my lecturer. What I liked about it was the sense that I could make my character do anything and he would reshape the story to fit, and that's exactly the kind of collaboration that's happening here.

I see this foremost as a really wonderful storytelling device and i'm looking forward to creating my own items and environments, as well as publishing my slideshows. I know my writer girlfriend will absolutely love this.

I'll be preordering soon - an early birthday present to myself I think! - this is pure brilliance, and thank you for making it=)

Anon #16 15:23 on Mon, Mar.22 Reply

I really like the idea of this game a lot, but the one part that keeps blocking my ideas is the time limit. Don't get me wrong, I think in most cases 30 seconds should be fine with the simple artwork needed, but I've afraid that if the other player wants to do something that I think will take a minute or two to create, I'll be stuck. If there any way of having an option where the turn doesn't pass to the other player until you press a certain key?

Anon #17 13:52 on Fri, Mar.26 Reply

This is great - I love your games. They're always a genuine experience that I can share and discuss with almost anyone.

Hopefully, you'll find the time eventually to create a mechanism for sharing content without directly connecting to others. It may be something as simple as an export/import feature, so users can post content on message boards/file sharing servers.

Jason Rohrer replied to comment from Anonymous #18 16:19 on Sun, Mar.28 Reply

In fact, resource export and sharing (as "resource packs" that you can post online or email to others) is in the works, and will be done before the game s released.

I'm also thinking about commissioning custom resource packs from various game designers that I know... imagine a Derek Yu resource pack, or a Cactus pack, etc.

The time limit will be specifiable in a config file, though it will default to 30 seconds.

The PROBLEM is that time flies when you play this game... so you might think that you're making your move quickly, but with out time pressure, you'll glance at the clock and realize that several minutes have passed and the other player is sitting there bored.

So that's why you don't have as long as you want to make a move... time pressure forces you to improvise. I've actually found that the results are more interesting that way, anyway (because your brain just comes up with really cool stuff on the spot---like spoken word or stream-of-consciousness poetry or something).

However, if you really want to experiment with variable-time moves, then you can just set the config file to 5 minutes or some other high value, and then just promise each other that you will make your moves as quickly as possible (though you might take longer on certain moves if you really need it).

In fact, since each player has his/her own config file, you could leave the Player's set to 30, but extend the Controller's time as you see fit...

Anon #19 13:14 on Mon, Mar.29 Reply

This looks really interesting.

But something that grabbed me was that that password was "banana bread". I've read something in the last few weeks in which a password was "banana bread", but I can't for the life of me remember what it is.


Anon replied to comment from Jason Rohrer #20 12:10 on Tue, Apr. 6 Reply

Hey Jason, one question that sparked from your responses so far in this section: can there be more than one Player? Or for that matter, more than one Controller? That would be even greater than what it already is. :)

Anon replied to comment from Anonymous #21 08:47 on Wed, Apr. 7 Reply

You too? I have the exact same frustration, so I can't have imagined it. Someone help us out, please. Google only finds recipes.

Also, can't wait to play this after reading several story write-ups. Pre-ordered, of course.

DerBonk #22 11:40 on Thu, Apr. 8 Reply

I, for my part, pre-ordered 2 downloads ;) I am really, really excited about this game. I remember on some Ultima Online Role-Playing server, I once made a character too weak to even hold a sword (it'd just drop on his feet). He was an old man and his back story was that he had traveled a lot, looking for a place to settle down and make his living telling stories. I played him for about a year and had a lot of fun. So, it seems this game might be for me.

While I am glad that remote play will easily work, I'd still love to see a chatroulette/omegele style random pairing option. Sure, there may be a lot of bad experiences, but if we get just a few Mertons in this game...

billyboob #23 19:40 on Thu, Apr. 8 Reply

Matchmaking is now available through :)

Steam Group


This is all unofficial community stuff

Anon #24 13:50 on Fri, Apr. 9 Reply

Made a fan site for anyone that doesn't have a place to upload their stories.

Also a forum to chat it up while we wait for the release!

Anon #25 14:08 on Fri, Apr. 9 Reply

Its 10th already! Wheres my pre-ordered copy? :(

Cultivator #26 06:35 on Wed, Apr.14 Reply

This story is the main link on Berfrois today.

'The story ends - as no videogame has before - with a nationally televised meltdown in the vein of Network'

Anon #27 07:46 on Tue, Apr.20 Reply

i can't wait to download! I wish it were available this early in the day.
In the future will it be possible to have more than one player?
(1 controller, 2-3 players)

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