Monday, April 26, 2010

Sleep Is Death Review

Sleep Is Death, developed and published by Jason Rohrer.
The Good: Totally unique, simple graphics allow for open-ended development, time constraint emphasizes quick thinking, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Must know partner in advance (or use a matching website), no sound effects, more default content would be nice (plenty is on the way, though), lacks a manual or in-game tutorials
What say you? A completely original free-form real-time storytelling adventure for two players: 7/8

Adventure games are notoriously linear affairs, and, subsequently, quite boring. Once you've figured out the inane puzzles and nonsensical solutions, there is really no need to play again. But what if the story was created in real-time based on your actions? And what if it was being created by another human? Thus is the premise of Sleep Is Death: two players engage in an adventure of time-based tragedy and/or hilarity: each has thirty seconds to move the story along towards its uncertain conclusion. Does this experimental project work?

Sleep Is Death comes at an extremely low resolution: 640 by 480 pixels. The advantage of these minimalist graphics is that it is very easy to create custom content, which is the strength of the game. Anybody can draw characters or other objects that measure 20 pixels by 20 pixels, even me! The tools, which will be explained in more detail later, are powerful and flexible, although they require a bit of a learning curve. Anybody who’s used any paint application will feel right at home once they learn the nuances of the system. The included content is decent enough to get you started. As for the sound design, there are no sound effects to speak of, but there is background MIDI music that can be edited, which is a nice touch. Overall, the presentation of Sleep Is Death is on par with old 8-bit adventures, but it works because you can easily make custom creations.

Sleep Is Death requires two human players to enjoy. The easiest approach is to know someone and play over a LAN or through the Internet. There is no in-game browser of available games, but there is a fan website for matchmaking purposes if you lack real friends. Games there fill up very quickly (usually less than ten seconds) so you are never at a loss for a partner, but you must be quick in joining contests. It took some effort to get my ports forwarded correctly, but playing over a LAN was a lag-free and enjoyable experience. Sleep Is Death features an OK assortment of default objects, but it could definitely use some more content (rooms, scenes, characters). Luckily, the community has already exploded with unique assets. The $14 price tag gives you both Windows and Macintosh executables and the source code that can be compiled onto Unix-based systems, making everyone in the PC realm happy. You license grants you access to two games, one to keep and one to share with a friend (since Sleep Is Death is a two-player affair). While I would liked to have seen in-game matchmaking included with the base game, fortunately the community has stepped up to provide an interface for joining games and sharing content.

The first human is the controller, basically the director of the story that can place objects and settings for the other person to interact with. Sleep Is Death features editing software that allows for some nice effects and relatively straightforward placement of items. Objects can be added, removed, replace existing objects, given text or actions, and edited to add sprites like blood or fire or weapons. Editing an object does not overwrite the original object, thankfully. Objects can be anything that can be drawn in a 20 by 20 pixel square: people, animals, trees, whatever. This lack of restriction makes Sleep Is Death very flexible. The backgrounds can also be edited, using tiles for repeated textures and building rooms for the action to take place in. A set of objects on a background can be saved as a scene, handy for using content later or sharing it online. Additional options include changing the MIDI musical score and adding fading for spooky effects. You can search for any pre-created item quickly by typing in the name; this is a key feature since you are only given thirty seconds to craft the next scene. You can also edit things without actually playing a game (by hosting a LAN game nobody joins) to give you time to make things beforehand. While the editing options are powerful, it should be easier to quickly paint stuff on the map: instead you have to edit the object or add a sprite in a sub-menu, which takes up the precious little time you have. Sleep Is Death would also benefit from some in-game tutorials or a manual, although online video tutorials are available.

The player has only three things they can do with their single character: move, speak, or use an object. They are given thirty seconds to do their worst, hopefully advancing the story in unpredictable ways that the controller must respond to in the next thirty-second interval. The game is completely open-ended: there are no rules, allowing each side to do whatever they want. The simple editing makes it possible to create any story you desire. The best thing about Sleep Is Death is this amount of freedom: you can quite literally create any story you can draw, and since drawing is very low-resolution, an advanced art degree is not required. It’s a brilliant system that removes the shackles of the adventure genre, creating a unique experience that’s not seen anywhere else. The short time limit also imposes a great amount of stress, requiring you to think quickly and producing some entertainingly inept results. You have the ability to adjust the time limit by editing a text file in the install directory; I found that forty seconds works well. You can relive your inappropriate adventures through the automatically–generated HTML flipbooks that can be uploaded and shared, further evidence of how twisted your mind is.

Sleep Is Death is an experimental gaming experience gone very, very right. The game could have fallen apart if the editing wasn’t easy or flexible enough, but thankfully it is and it’s straightforward to create custom content and change things in real-time after you have learned the system. The game could benefit from some in-game tutorials or even a simple manual (there are online video lessons), but I found the mechanics to be easy enough to learn. The game gives you some content to start out with, but the Internet is already teeming with user-created content to fill the voids and expand your creative flexibility. The game can be played over a LAN or through the Internet; games can be found online and fill up quickly. As an added bonus, a $14 license gives you both the Windows and Macintosh executables along with the source code that can be compiled on any Unix-based system. The editors make it easy to add and change characters, items, settings, and music. The default thirty-second time limit adds to the immediacy and stress of the game. Tools are also available to add speech through text bubbles, adjust the music to change the mood, and add simple layers of fire or blood if appropriate (or, even better, if not appropriate). The search features make it easy to find objects quickly, as long as they were named properly by the author (hint: “Amy” and “April” are some the default women). The simple controls for player (move, speak, use object) means anyone can learn it quickly. The game even preserves the ineptitide of your stories in flipbooks that can be easily uploaded and shared. Sleep Is Death is the ultimate in non-linear gameplay, as the director must adapt to the player in real-time to construct a cohesive story. The extremely high replay value makes this a must-have title. To use a tired cliché, Sleep Is Death is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.