In Jason Rohrer there's a fascinating schism between the tone of the work and that of the designer.
He's known primarily for enigmatic, vaguely dark-toned single-player game vignettes – which is why it's a surprise when at every encounter, the man is ineffably cheerful, boundlessly energetic and chatty. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Rohrer is no chin-stroking, vague artist stereotype, but a pragmatist. He sees the unexplored applications of video games as a problem to be solved, simple as that.
From the short, surprisingly poignant Passage to one of his latest projects, an upcoming DS turn-based strategy title called Diamond Trust of London, which relies on two players' lack of awareness of what each knows, Rohrer's focus on pushing the video game medium has never failed to intrigue me. That's why I was excited to be among the first writers to get an early look at his next game, Sleep is Death.
It continues a recent trend Rohrer began with 2008's Between that sees him focused on two-player games, based on the philosophy that no artificial intelligence in interactive entertainment can top a real human player. Sleep is Death takes this principle even further – because a game can't possibly react intuitively to its individual player, why not let the designer react in real-time, making gameplay more like collaborative storytelling?
It's a Friday afternoon and I'm expecting Rohrer's phone call. He says he's designed a story just for me, and I have no idea what to expect. I've downloaded and installed the game client as he instructed, and when he calls me to talk me through connecting up to him via the game's online server, he sounds excited to get right to it.
We hang up so that we can play Sleep is Death. When the game begins, I'm looking at a sprite of an elderly man standing in a room with several doors. I'm aware that everything I'm looking at, and everything with which I'm about to interact, was created by him just for me to see and to play with. It feels strange, and I'm self-conscious – instead of playing within the boundaries of a faceless game system, I'm playing within Rohrer's expectations of me. What if I do it "wrong"?
Of course, one of the principles that makes Sleep is Death engaging for both the creator and the player is that one can't possibly predict what the other wants to happen next. Rohrer has planned a story for me, and he's built the environments and characters ahead of time that are intended to support it – but if I respond to them differently than he expects, he'll have to adapt. And fast – I quickly learn I have 30 seconds to decide on my move, and Rohrer has 30 seconds to make the game world respond.
The game allows me to move, speak, or to indicate an action, and that's about it. It shows me my character, the elderly man, is named Joe, and some quick exploration lets me know I'm in his home. Everything else is up to me to find out – it's exciting and intimidating all at once, and it takes me a while to get the hang of submitting my moves. I wander around the house, into the kitchen, through a living room and into a desert garden of fruit trees, trying to figure out where I am. I know Rohrer can see my confusion.
That's when the phone rings in Joe's kitchen. I know I'm a participant in a story, and so I try to play along, parlaying my initial confusion into a character trait. When speech bubbles reveal it's Joe's wife Mary calling to let him know she's on her way home, I have Joe tell Mary that he's feeling a little lost and out of sorts. She suggests Joe take a rest.
On my way to find the house's bedroom, the phone rings again. When it's a long-distance phone service salesman, I decide to have Joe get crotchety.
I feel a little giggly – I don't know who, exactly, I'm supposed to be or what I'm supposed to be doing. Am I at liberty to make it up, or is there something Rohrer wants me to do with Joe's personality? I can't see or speak to him. There's only the game world facing me, and the strangely ominous minor chords of the game's music. It sounds procedural, but Rohrer is orchestrating that, too. As I play, I'm continually aware that I'm not just interacting with a game world, but with a human being.
I'm still giggly when I have my crotchety old man find the bedroom and lie down. That's when things stop being funny. The next frame finds Joe lying on the floor looking awful, surrounded by slow-spreading blotches of red, orange, pink. Has he died? Have I failed, did I screw up the story? Can I start again?
In comes a sprite that must be Joe's wife, Mary. She finds Joe on the bedroom carpet and promises to call an ambulance. I'm horrified and praying I can revive him, but nothing I try works. In the end, I can only lie still, until the next scene finds my character on an operating table. I type in shouts for my wife, and I shout for them not to give up on me, but no one seems to hear me. The music chimes in minor key, imitating the sound of the alarm on the machinery heralding the end of my life. I wonder what Rohrer is trying to do to me.
As the doctors realize there's no hope left for Joe, I realize it's a lot more poignant to experience dying in a game when you feel you've mishandled something you're directly aware was made for you by a real person. I am interacting with Rohrer's live creation, and he is watching me do it – I can't simply toss it all away and restart because I don't like the outcome. It matters.
That's when a pair of pale little child-ghosts appear at the perimeter of the operating room, and I realize that one of them is me. Is Joe.
Mike, the fellow departed, and I watch the doctors bring in – and lose – another victim, whose ghost also becomes bound to the room. When the next victim, a five-year-old girl, is about to die on the table, I can't quite stand it, and I come up with an idea to try and offer some of Joe's spirit to her. It actually works, making me wonder: Am I here to save others? I feel connected to Joe, and personally responsible for his actions in the world in a way I have never felt before in a video game.
The next victim is Mary, Joe's wife. Seeing the sprite lying on the operating room bed is strangely wrenching. Could I save her, too? When the doctors say she has inoperable, terminal cancer, I wonder, should I?
Immediately after Mary passes on, a girl-child ghost appears in the hospital room and calls for "Little Joey." I run to her. Now that they're together, holding hands, they can cross over as a pair; the other spirits must stay behind to await their wives, too. Joe and Mary escape together through a hole in the floor, and find a safe dark where they can sleep at last, and the strange story ends.
"People have been trying to do interactive storytelling for a long time in the world of video games, something like 30 years or so," Rohrer tells me, when we talk afterward. I still feel a little stricken and breathless at the experience I've just played through, but he sounds as affable and talkative as ever. "There have been things like Façade, Masque… but if you sit down with a game like Façade, as good as it is and as cutting-edge as the AI is and as much work as they spent – five years, working on it, tons of voice acting and the best intelligence research has to offer… it breaks a lot."
Sleep is Death isn't trying to make me self-conscious, or attempting directly to elevate my experience through the collaboration with a real human being – it's simply a pragmatic designer's attempt to solve the problem of imperfect artificial intelligence. Sleep is Death is something of a celebration of the idea that no artificial intelligence is as good or as smart as real intelligence.
When the game hits April 9, Rohrer hopes anyone and everyone will be able to craft stories for one another and interact with them. Its simple editor tool is aimed even at those without design abilities, and the low-resolution sprites mean anyone can create simple objects. Once you've played someone's story, you have access to the library of assets they built and can reuse them in stories of your own.
"The task of controlling one of these story words is really, really engaging," says Rohrer. "It reminds me of a jazz solo… where you're right on the edge of failing all the time. You just barely get the scene done, or something happening that you want to happen and riffing off what the other player has done."
Rohrer had never planned to let Joe revive the girl child in the hospital room, but he liked my idea enough to let me carry on with it. That created the spontaneous choice moment with Mary, where I believed I was making the choice to preserve her life with cancer or let her pass on and join Joe where he was inexplicably stuck in the hotel room.
"I didn't even have a sprite ready for that little girl with open eyes," he laughs. "That was really kind of a cool moment, where I was originally going to have one of the ghost-characters say you can't do that. But that kinda sucks…"
Last-minute adaptations are part of the strength of cooperative gameplay, Rohrer asserts. "Up until about a year and a half ago all my games were single-player... It felt like I was sort of running out of steam. I was trying to push boundaries and use games in ways they haven't been used before, and I felt like I was kind of running out of fundamental ways to do that."
But with Sleep is Death, he's outdone himself. "This is something that someone could play for the rest of their life," Rohrer says. Perhaps that has something to do with why this title is the first one that the designer, who's given away all of his games for free, has ever charged for. The game is $9 as a pre-order, if purchased before the release date, and $14 thereafter. Both prices include two downloads – one for you and one for a friend to play with – and the game's full source code.
The title — Sleep is Death — is certainly an odd name for a collaborative story tool. But Rohrer suggests he wants players to push one another's boundaries, too." I gave it a specific title for aesthetic reasons," he says." I wanted to color people's preconceptions about it a bit. When you sit down with a friend to play something called Sleep Is Death you are primed for a somewhat different experience than when you sit down with something called ‘GameMaker' or ‘Storytron.'"
"Similarly, the music editor forces you into a minor key, instead of letting you pick your own key, and the UI for editing things is generally rather bleak in appearance (instead of being colorful, pretty, or comforting). So this is a general-purpose tool that I've guided slightly toward creating a certain kind of experience," he says.
"I guess I sort of approach a lot of things in my life as problems to be solved, and as technical challenges, in a way," he says. "But I even approach the games as art problem that way – there's an answer, and there's a formula. A work of art in any medium should be expressive in ways that are unique to that medium. If at the end of the day we just have something that looks like a movie, that's not going to excite anyone. We already have movies."
Throughout playing Sleep is Death, I felt deeply that I was handling people and things an individual had created, built, maybe even loved. Rohrer tells me the pair in the story he made for me were based on his grandparents, who retired to Arizona. The house he created in the game was a replica of theirs, and the tightness in my throat that came from learning this just after the proximity of one-on-one play told me one thing for sure: We already have movies, yes. We already even have plenty of video games. We've never had anything like this.
Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.