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.