Friday, April 23, 2010


Sleep is Death

(So now I've slipped into buying downloadable games with real money. Maybe I was wrong 22 days ago?)

This isn't a review of Sleep is Death because I haven't yet used it for its stated purpose, and I doubt I ever will.

It's a magnificent thing, truly. I completely appreciate what's been done here. Jason Rohrer has taken the idea of the graphical adventure game and replaced the stupid parser with an intelligent human being who understands the English language natively and who can adapt the game world on the fly to meet the needs of the player. Or, if you prefer, it's MS Paint Adventures in real time. This is a terrific sort of idea that really excites me.

But there are some barriers that prevent me from appreciating it as much as I should.

The first problem is that the controller interface is incredibly intimidating. The whole thing has the feel of a tool that a game designer would write for himself to facilitate level design in a game he's working on. It's inscrutable at first glance, and it's often tough to find the thing you want when you want it. And that's forgivable when you're designing an environment, I suppose, but when you're controlling a game for someone, you're given thirty seconds to react to what the player has just tried to do. Every second spent wrestling with the interface is a second wasted.

During a demonstration, Rohrer seems to suggest that this was done intentionally to put the user in a certain frame of mind:

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.

Well, congratulations on intentionally making something I don't want to use, I guess.

I can't help comparing it to Wario Ware DIY, which I've been playing with for the last month. In that game, there's a Mario Paint-esque drawing interface where you draw a background and objects. It's incredibly simple; it works exactly the way you would expect a drawing program to work. In Sleep is Death, environments are created by painting tiles onto a grid. And the game comes pre-built with some tiles, and you can make your own tiles in the tile editor, and that's fine, but it makes you think in a different way than something that would just let you paint a background.

And then there's the object editor. Instead of just giving you a simple drawing interface to draw an object, you put together these little 16x16 sprites, and then you use the sprites to assemble your objects. Again, that's fine, but it adds another layer of complexity to something that the user expects to be relatively simple. I went in to try and make my first custom object, and I just felt paralyzed. I had no idea where to begin. It doesn't help that the game defaults to a black background, so if you're used to doing black line art and filling it in in any other drawing program, you're kind of screwed. I tried outlining a head, and I botched it so badly that I just thought "fuck it" and shut it down.

The game comes with some canned rooms and objects that you can play around with immediately, but these were all objects that Rohrer created for his demonstration games that he showed the press, and you can tell by reading the previews. And I can appreciate the thought, but all of the objects feel like they were designed to tell a particular story. I'm almost tempted to clean out the database and start from scratch with my own stuff because I don't like the way he's colored my perception of this game with naked altar boys and blood sprays.

And I can totally appreciate the design choices that he's made. The game is modular, so it can be built up from smaller pieces, and it probably saves memory, and that's all great. The problem is, it just makes the experience difficult to get into. I feel like I'm so stuck in the minutia that maybe I'll never manage to get an environment put together.

And besides all that, I'm not sure if the experience is going to be worth the bother.

You can go to the game's homepage, and it'll link you to all of these glowing previews that talk about how awesome it is to do this storytelling thing in real time with another human being, but the thing is, I've been doing this shit for years. I've been playing MUCKs pretty regularly for almost ten years now, and they offer a very similar sort of idea -- collaborative storytelling in real time. Sure, it's all text-based, but that's an advantage. If you're in the middle of a roleplaying session and you decide you're going to go swimming, you don't have to have a pre-created underwater environment ready; you just tell the player, "Okay, here's where you are now."

For a couple months, I ran a game of Toon for three of my friends online. And with all the insane shit these guys pulled, I doubt Rohrer's system would be sufficient to contain them. All of a sudden, someone would go down a garbage chute, so I'd need an underground waste disposal unit. Then they'd jump into a bottomless chasm, so I'd need an underground catacomb. All sorts of weird creatures and characters would come and go out of nowhere.

So when I approach Sleep is Death, it's as if the game is telling me, "Here's a way to do what you've already been doing, but you need to pre-build everything beforehand with this aggravating interface, and also you can only play with one other person at a time. You get one free copy of the game to give to a friend so that you can play together, but if you want to play with anyone else, they have to buy a copy."

So... yeah. I really think it's a great thing, and I can understand why it appeals to some people, and I'm really, really glad that this sort of thing is being made. I think it's a direction that we should be moving in, but at the same time, I see lots of room for improvement.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?