The primary reason for my visit to Melbourne’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival yesterday was to listen to a talk on Sleep is Death, an indie two-player-only game that is being discussed virtually everywhere in the games world at the moment. My own connection to the game is a little unnerving; its name has come up in conversations I’ve participated in and articles I’ve read with startling regularity. And then I turned up yesterday afternoon, shaking raindrops from my coat, only to realise that the person giving the talk seemed very familiar. It was Mike, a tutor of mine from uni.
Mike started by telling us the basics. Sleep is Death is by Jason Rohrer, the same guy who had the games-as-art community in a tizzy with Passage back in 2007. Sleep is Death is designed for two people only. One is the ‘controller’, who works behind-the-scenes to steer the plot and furnish the game world. The other is the ‘player’, who can interact with the environment laid before him however he pleases. The two players take turns to advance the story every thirty seconds, bouncing off one another’s actions to create a truly dynamic and unpredictable gaming experience.
Mike drew special attention to the significance of the game’s name. Despite each story having the potential to branch in limitless directions – and therefore span a limitless range of emotion – Rohrer chose to title his game the unsettling Sleep is Death, a conscious decision to plant preconceived ideas about the experience the game can offer into the players’ heads. Rohrer hoped that this would steer players into creating a particularly profound story. However, Mike remarked that players, when confronted with the improvisational nature of Sleep is Death’s storytelling, often tended to veer towards comedy instead, something that I began to understand after his talk, when he was able to give me a personal demonstration of the game.
There is no escape
Mike and I each took a seat at one of two computers, set up back-to-back. After a moment, a surprisingly detailed scene appeared before me. I was Eve, dressed in traditional garb and standing in the Garden of Eden. An apple hung tantalisingly on a tree branch before me. A snake was coiled in the tree’s shade.
I was instantly set off my guard by this. I’m a 25 year old modern female, agnostic more through laziness than by educated choice; I wasn’t sure how to react to the biblical scene before me. Haltingly, I typed Eve’s thoughts into a speech bubble. “I suppose you want me to eat this apple,” she said out loud, to nobody in particular.
It was Mike’s turn. I could hear him typing furiously, and after thirty seconds, my screen had changed again. This time, the snake spoke: “I was supposed to convince you to eat the apple, but if you want to make my job easy, by all means, go ahead.”
I giggled at the snake’s cleverness, but I wasn’t about to let him win. I also had that thirty-second timer ticking down, limiting the time I had to formulate a witty response. “I’m bored,” Eve declared, wandering off-screen.
Eve was foiled; the next screen was simply filled with more trees, forming a boundary past which there seemed to be no escape. “How do I get out of here?” Eve demanded, wandering through the trees.
“If I recall right,” said the narrator’s speech bubble, “Eve was cast out of the Garden after eating the forbidden fruit.”
I took the bait. In desperation and growing tiredness of the trees that surrounded me, I had Eve go back to the first screen, where I commanded her to MUNCH on the apple.
I waited for doom to blanket the world. Instead, the screen changed completely. I was now in a room with cold stone walls and two windows. I wasn’t Eve anymore; I was now a middle-aged man, and had just been aroused from my slumber by a nun who stood at the foot of my bed. “Wake up!” she cried. “You’ve been hallucinating again!” I could sense Mike grinning on the other side of my screen; I certainly wasn’t expecting this plot twist, and I wondered where else he was going to take me.
In the reflection of my screen, I could see that a curious crowd had gathered behind me. Feeling a strange urge to please them, I had my new, male avatar step right beside the nun. He looked like a sleazebag in his wifebeater, so I filled the role accordingly. “Hey, good lookin’.”
The chuckles this elicited continued as Mike had the nun cower in a corner of the room. “Aah!” she shrieked. “Crazy person!”
The crazy man ignored her cries as he poked about the room. He turned on the television. He seated himself in a chair by the bed. He tried to leave by the room’s only exit, a door that was strangely locked from the other side. Finally, I had him ask the question again: “How do I get out of here?”
“THERE IS NO ESCAPE!” said the nun, launching herself out the window. A bit melodramatic of her, I thought, but she had just revealed a plausible exit… Without thinking twice, I directed the man to jump out of the window, too.
He landed in what appeared to be a dim courtyard. “I’m surprised I’m still intact,” he said, semi-cheerfully. My growing audience chuckled some more, but I began to wonder if the dimming scene was representative of something – my slow, painful death, perhaps. I began to feel slightly panicked. I had the man try to walk off the edge of the screen…
And suddenly found myself as Eve again, back in the Garden of Eden. The forest had darkened and the ground was charred. Eve’s clothes were aflame, and significantly, the apple had now vanished from the tree. The snake had uncoiled itself, and was looking at me intently. “You’ve doomed us all!” he said, perhaps a little gleefully.
This was a very frightening twist for me. Who was I really – Eve, or the man who had just thrown himself out a window? Was Mike playing me as if I was simply another sprite in the game? And why did that fire appear to be spreading through the Garden?
“Oh, please,” I said to the snake, determined not to let my horror show. “This plotline is setting feminism back a couple of thousand years.” As if to show him what I thought of him, I instructed Eve to DANCE.
“You appear to be on fire,” he said pointedly.
Tiring of his attitude, I directed Eve to perform an action on him: BODY SLAM. He did not die.
“There is no escape,” he said simply, oblivious to the amusement of my audience. “Sleep is death.”
The scene dimmed to black, and then it was The End, and Mike had gotten up to see what I had thought of the story he had tailored for me.
The urgency and unplanned humour in Sleep is Death
I had trouble relating to Mike how his story had resonated with me, in spite of some of my flippant actions in the game. The brief interlude with the nun and the man in the wifebeater had upended my experience of the story, and then being returned to the now-flaming Garden of Eden had completely shattered it. I actually felt a little broken.
For what felt like such a cleverly composed story, it was surprising to hear how much Mike had been forced to improvise. “I hadn’t planned the scene with the nun at all,” he told me, “but you had done some things that I wasn’t expecting and felt that the change of pace was necessary.”
What was he expecting, then?
“Eve, the apple, the snake – it’s a very familiar scene, everyone knows how the story goes. I’ve played this particular scene with a few people, wondering if maybe someone would sit down with the snake, get into some philosophical discussion about what eating the apple could mean… but nobody has, yet.”
I thought of the crowd that had gathered during my playthrough, peering over my shoulder. I’d had a weird desire to play for them, as if I was using humour to evade my fear of playing the game the ‘wrong’ way in front of an audience. This seemed to be a recurring theme, something I noted as Mike sat down to host a game for the next player.
This next game also followed a comedic route, more so than mine. I was watching this game from Mike’s “behind the scenes” point of view this time, and I could see that the urgency of creating the next move within thirty seconds was certainly amplified here.
When playing as Eve, I had thought my experience to be tightly orchestrated, with Mike quickly setting me back on track whenever I tried to veer off the expected route. Watching over Mike’s shoulder now, I realised that this probably wasn’t the case. When confronted with an unanticipated plot twist, there was little Mike could do about it but adapt – fast. Perhaps, when we played our version of Eve’s story together, he had merely chosen the premise, and through my actions I was really having as much say in the outcome of the plot as he did. In any case, thirty seconds is a very, very short amount of time for one to decide their next move, and I realised that Mike couldn’t possibly be sitting here thinking up extremely profound turns of plot every second – there was barely time to think, let alone react. That I reacted so deeply to parts of the story was probably not specifically engineered for such a response.
Mike had a huge library of resources at his disposal to create the scene – tiles, objects, people – and at one point, in his rush to meet the timer, accidentally placed a severed human head into the hands of other player’s character, forcing some quick improvisation on his own planned story.
“Aah!” the character cried, “It’s a human head!”
Mike used his next turn to correct the error, replacing the head with a handgun. “No, not a head at all,” said the narrator’s speech bubble casually. “Just a gun. Say, where’d that come from?”
Sleep is Death is intimacy
I had now witnessed another story that incorporated wisecracks and purposeful deviation from the story’s intended destination. I remembered what Mike had said about hoping someone would initiate a philosophical discussion within the game, and I felt bad for being what was probably yet another player steering a potentially deep story towards zany comedy.
“With all the people around me, um, I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I needed to be funny, I guess.”
“You felt that you needed to be funny, yes,” said Mike, correctly. He conceded that it seemed to be a common theme with those he had played the game with at this public event. “But it’s supposed to be a two-player-only game – having a dozen extra people watching might affect the way you choose to play it.”
This was something I continued to think on, even hours after the festival had concluded and I’d returned home. Would I have attempted a more serious plot had that crowd not been watching? I felt there was more to it than that. For instance, the fact that I just didn’t know Mike that well. I wouldn’t typically get involved in a heavy topic of discussion with an acquaintance, and letting such discussion unfurl in a game probably wouldn’t change that. If I had been playing with a close friend, would our story have unfolded in a more serious manner? A lot of my humourous interjections acted as a sort of cover-up for my typos, or fear that my lack of biblical knowledge would be exposed, so I figured not. On the other hand, I wondered if anonymity might’ve affected the game’s outcome, much like our interactions on the internet. If I’d played with someone I’d never seen or met before, would my inhibitions have dissolved, allowing for a deeper story?
As night fell, I realised I still felt a sort of desolation from how our story had ended. Mike felt that the game we played together was comedic, and he was correct. But at the same time, I had been incredibly moved by it, a slowly settling realisation. There was a profundity there, perhaps not in the philosophical discussion with the snake that Mike had intended, but instead in the players themselves – the way I had subverted Mike’s goal, and his comeback with the hallucination scene. My experience of the game was defined not by its outcome, but how we played off each other to get there.
At its essence, Sleep is Death is not so much a game about storytelling as it is about the people who play it, and everybody has the potential to surprise you. I felt an odd connection with Mike through our rendition of Eve and the apple; now I wonder what I can learn from others I play the game with.