I believe Jason Rohrer stole his new game, Sleep is Death, from me. I can't prove anything, but I've got a pretty solid theory. I believe he performed some kind of Vulcan mind meld thing on me when I wasn't looking, possibly at a recent GDC, and he extracted a fully-formed game design straight out of the fiery yearning cauldron of my Id.
How else to explain a game that fuses improvisational theatre and video games? How else to explain a game that exploits the interactive power of the medium in service of storytelling (actually, storycrafting)? I mean, seriously! What the heck have I been writing, teaching, and generally prattling on about for all these years?
I wouldn't be surprised if the game's original title was Baseball is Death, but Rohrer changed it because, COME ON, then it would just be so obvious it was all my idea!
Okay, so maybe he didn't. Maybe I should give Rohrer the benefit of the doubt. After all, he's clearly one of the brightest minds making video games today. His "Beyond Single Player" presentation at GDC 09 was one of the most thoughtful talks on games I've heard. And, of course, his game Passage is perhaps the definitive title in the art-game movement. So, yeah, Rohrer probably didn't need any help from me to make Sleep is Death.
But, in fact, he does need my help to make Sleep is Death meaningful. He needs your help too because SiD is less a game than a storycrafting device (tool? environment? engine?) for two people who collaboratively create a story, taking turns, with one person functioning as Player and the other as Controller. The Player responds to characters, environments, and objects created by the Controller, and the Controller responds to the actions or dialogue of the Player. In SiD, the intelligence on the other side of the screen isn't artificial at all; it's a person, ideally someone you know and in the same room with you.
And, actually, that Vulcan mind meld analogy isn't far off base. In a well-played game of SiD, two players join to create a 'storymind' that exists as a fusion of both players' thoughts and actions. One player hosts as the other probes, and each succeeds - so far as success can be measured in a game with no win state - by the degree to which each fuels the other's imagination. It's improv with avatars and a level/sprite editor. In the right hands, it's genius. In the wrong hands, it can be, well, less so.
In my next post, I'll offer a few thoughts on how to improve your chances of avoiding 'less so.' Before I do, however, let me explain what I won't do. I won't suggest there's a single best way to play Sleep is Death. I won't insist on any predefined approach.
Maybe you've had fun messing around with the game's Controller tools. Maybe you've waged a thrilling no-holds-barred insult hurling contest between you and a buddy. Fun is fun, and SiD can be played in all sorts of ways, so who am I to say you're doing it wrong?
What I will suggest is that SiD rewards, even insists on, a certain collaborative approach that's different from other co-op games. SiD relies, more than any video game I've played, on imaginative, improvisational actions and choices from both players. In my next post, I'll suggest a few simple things you can do to feed this dynamic process and make SiD sing.