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Hands-on: Sleep Is Death

Justin McElroy

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A lot of game critics you talk to will tell you that, after making a career of playing games, it takes a lot to impress them. But that's not exactly the truth.

Perhaps I shouldn't speak for them, but I know for me that all it really takes for a game to knock my socks off is that smallest yet boldest of features: A single great, new idea. I'm not talking about squishing together the dual-stick shooting of Geometry Wars and RPG elements and hoping for the best. I'm talking about an innovation that takes a single step back from the whole idea of what video games are and reapproaches it in a way that feels utterly fresh.

Sleep Is Death is just such an idea.

If you know Jason Rohrer's name, it's likely thanks to his tiny game about all of life, Passage, which is basically the title that starts most any discussion about art games. Like most who've played it, I found Passage moving, but it didn't come close to firing my imagination the way that his new project has. This past weekend, time and again, whether it was at a favorite local bar or friend's wedding reception, I found myself compulsively relating the idea of Sleep Is Death, even to those who have no interest in games (I'm sure my wife could recite my spiel from memory at this point). So, I beg your forgiveness in advance if this sounds rehearsed. It totally is.

Sleep Is Death is an online game for two players, one the narrator, one the player (for our demonstration, Rohrer took the former role and I took the latter). After connecting via the IP address that Rohrer gave me I was thrust into a home with two pixel people that could have been lifted from the catalog of Sierra adventure games circa 1987. They were my wife and daughter, they were thirsty and they needed my help.

The surprising, almost scary thing was just how quickly I fell in step.

With a little experimentation I found I was able to move, speak and interact with the objects and people of the world using text commands. When a troubling news report about drought started blaring from our TV, I clicked it, typed "turn off," typed that our daughter didn't need to see that sort of thing and then clicked to confirm my decisions. A few moments later, the image on the TV disappeared and my wife thanked me, admitting that she couldn't handle more news. The game was able to react flawlessly to any speech or commands I was able to throw at it, because it wasn't a game at all. It was Rohrer.

As I played, Rohrer looked at a screen very much like my own, yet overlaid with an extensive menu system that allowed him to mold the environment and dialog of the characters in any way he chose. Rohrer was, with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, obviating the entire problem of artificial intelligence with the most obvious solution in the world: Have a person do it.

As I progressed through Rohrer's story, which had me begging at a neighbor's doorstep for more water, it very quickly and seamlessly became our story. Each of us had just 30 seconds to make our move, so there was very little time for strategy. Rorher told me later he had gone in with a skeleton of a game and many assets already created, but he was more than able to make new ones on the fly to respond to the decisions that I was making. The only limit was that 30 second rule. In short: It was improvisational theater as gameplay.

The surprising, almost scary thing was just how quickly I fell in step. Knowing that there was another person on the other end of the line, my instinct was not to try to break the A.I. (as it would have been with computer) but to play along. I understood why Rohrer later told me that Sleep Is Death is meant for friends rather than two randomly matched strangers on the internet; it was a weirdly intimate experience, both of us tacitly acknowledging that we wouldn't make fun of the other for pretending.

This is perhaps the defining characteristic that separates Sleep Is Death from the very easy and pat comparison to Dungeons & Dragons with graphics. There was no underlying math to the game, no concrete reality other than the one that Rohrer and I agreed upon. There was no real conflict, only collaborative storytelling.

At the end of each game (triggered by the narrator, of course), you're left with an easy-to-peruse flip book containing the entirety of your session. Here's mine: Be wary, it includes some highly pixelated nudity and swearing.

Gallery: Sleep Is Death | 111 Photos

Clicking rapidly through the pictures and reliving the play session, it dawned on me: I hadn't just been wasting 45 minutes of my life on simple amusement, I'd been creating something.

Later, my play session hours behind me, I looked at the shelf of games I need to review and feel a weird sort of longing for the future promised by Sleep Is Death. I had stared right into the eye of the future, and was left with nothing to do about it but wait for the rest of the industry to catch up.

Sleep Is Death is available now for pre-orders on the game's official site for $9. Those that pre-order will get the game a week early (April 9) and for $5 cheaper than its usual $14 price. All who purchase the game will receive two copies, one for them and one for a friend.

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