Sleep is Death – A Remarkable 8-Bit Storytelling Game for Two Players

sleep is death
Sleep is Death – A Remarkable 8-Bit Storytelling Game for Two Players

Platforms: Windows PC, MacOS build (10.2 and later, PPC/Intel)

Game Name: Sleep is Death

Publisher: Independent

Developer: Jason Rohrer

Genre: Role-playing, Turn-based storytelling, Experimental

Release Date: Friday, May 28, 2010

ESRB Rating: Not Rated

Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer) by Jason Rohrer will not require a top-of-the-line graphics card. It doesn’t sport a sleek, bleeding-edge interface. In fact, boasting a whopping 640×480 screen resolution, Sleep is Death is as bare bones as it gets. The graphics are reminiscent of Sierra On-Line’s earliest King’s Quest titles, and there is no real animation to speak of. Don’t let it deter you.

With it latest build v15, released Friday, May 28, 2010, being called the official stable release, Sleep Is Death is ready for prime time.

Created as a commission for the Art History of Games Conference, Sleep is Death was never meant to be a pre-fabricated blockbuster experience. It is a toy chest overloaded with simple, but well-loved toys: Police badges, Indian headdresses, magnifying glasses, and an array of disguises.

Sleep is Death does away with the notion that game must be shipped in a complete state. Extensive Q and A sessions aren’t required. Each game requires two players; one to create the game, and one to take the created world for a spin. The player has 30 seconds to make an action happen, either by speaking, or interacting with an object on screen. The ball is then tossed back to the creator, who has 30 seconds to accommodate or ignore the words or deeds of the player. The results can be awkward, hilarious, and quite often brilliant.

As the player, I found that kind of freedom to be unsettling at first. Via text box entry, you have the freedom to make your character say whatever you want, and you’ll never be met with a “does not compute” response from a canned AI. Click on any item laid out in a room, and type in what you want to do with it. Maybe you’d like to climb the tree? Maybe you’ll curl up next to it, and read a book. Maybe you’ll propose to it. Anything you choose to say or do is conveyed to the creator, and it is up to him to decide what to do with your choices. That, by itself, is a liberating notion.

Indie game Sleep Is Death custom screenshot 1

As the creator, having the freedom and the power to create a world on the fly is thrilling. Having the ability to jerk around the player in various, inappropriate ways is tempting. Having a thirty second time limit in which to bring it all to fruition is nerve-wracking! Whether you are pulling the strings, or having someone yank your chains, Sleep is Death lives up to its name – the player and the creator both need to be on their toes at all times.

Wherein Fly Fishing Naturally Leads To Kafka

In my first play through as a creator (with my wife filling the role of the player on her PC in another room), I threw together a quick setting using the preset farmhouse interior setting. I decided that my wife would play as the farm boy, and the game started simply enough: Dad asking his son if he wanted to do some fishing. She grabbed for the rod I had placed in the corner of the room, and we were off.

Once I got past the initial jitters of controlling the game world, I found switching between scenes to be quick and intuitive. Dad and son went down to the fishing hole. A young, foul-mouthed neighbor boy arrived to declare that this was HIS fishing hole and he wasn’t interested in sharing! A fishing contest ensued, and after losing, the neighbor boy left in a noticeable huff. Dad and son triumphantly headed home to cook their catch.

At this point, I decided to shake things up a bit. Rather than place the farm house interior down as before, I placed an old, run-down version of the same scene. The farmer was distraught to see what had become of his home! The boy (played by my wife) discovered a small cellar door (which I hadn’t seen upon placing the scene!) and decided to open it.

Caught off guard and fumbling with my thirty second time limit, I grabbed for the first scene I could come up with: a crowded court room. Rather than throw my hands up in disgust, I decided to run with it. Suddenly, the simple story of a boy and his dad fishing had turned into The Trial by Franz Kafka. Dad and son were charged with an unnamed crime, and had to defend themselves.

I put all of that together after watching only the first 10 minute instructional video. It is possible to create your own items, character sprites, tiles sets and background music. If you have a grand interactive story in mind, the tools give you all you need to lay out a solid framework before opening your vision to visitors. View the rest of the how-to videos on the site to fine tune your creation abilities if you are determined to be ready for any takers.

Any of your creations can be uploaded to be shared with what is quickly becoming a thriving community fan-base supported by mods (including a 16-bit version), premade stories and much more in the same way the the Linerider community developed and flourished. Though the assortment of resources that ship with the game is far from robust, a little poking around on the fan sites will reveal a treasure trove or user-created content.

Sleep Is Death Is Dungeons and Dragons + Flip Books + Music Sequencer?

Sleep is Death is revolutionary in that it is allowing an interactive storytelling experience much like paper and dice Dungeons and Dragons did between the Dungeon Master and player character and also in a way that Sims creator Will Wright always wished and encouraged of his Sims community but it is doing it very differently. By permitting almost any variable, object, setting or scenario, making it something that is not only recordable but portable, Sleep is Death serves also as a legitimate idea generation tool that whose utility extends beyond similar games; even the Sims, with its many expansion packs, somehow always feels like it is locked inside its own universe and its many conditions for survival and success restrict the possibilities for truly imaginative variation.

Indie game Sleep Is Death custom screenshot 2

Another fascinating aspect of this program is the completely self-contained music creation engine, a means to build custom soundtracks by selecting from a wide variety of instruments and timbres as well as entirely editable note sequences. This element alone is worth ten times the asking price. And I am certain that the well goes far deeper than even all that we have mentioned above.

Network Is Death

There is a caveat to all this wonderful news, however, and that is that getting the game to connect with someone over a network can be troublesome. Although it looks to be quite simple, there are many complaints of firewall and router configurations leading to problem actually hosting or joining a friend in-game. The official site does offer a variety of guides, FAQs and link resources, valiantly attempting to assist as much as possible to get things rolling, so if you have the wherewithal and determination to sort out network issues – you will be in the midst of discovering something truly remarkable. Fortunately, attempting this on a LAN proved much more reliable.

Currently, the latest build is being offered on a Pay-What-You-Want basis with a $1.75 minimum. One purchase gets you a download code that can be used infinitely on two computers. Additionally you will receive the Windows build, MacOS build (10.2 and later, PPC/Intel), full source code bundle (which can also be compiled on GNU/Linux) and several resource packs, including one by Spore artist Shannon Galvin.

There are few indie games generating as much buzz in the independent and underground gaming communities as Sleep is Death, and with good reason. It’s likely this seemingly stripped-down set of tools will entice players and game designers alike to shake off a long, comfy slumber and bring some real intimacy into the world of video games. If they can wrap their heads around it.

Get the game and join the community now at the official Sleep Is Death site.

With additional notes from Indie-Game-Freak