Complex Interactivity, and the Future of Games

 Sleep is Death, or Geisterfahrer, as it is also known, is a game created by the incredibly talented Jason Rohrer, on his own time. And it is very unique, in a few ways. First of all, it only takes two players. And, second of all, it finally enables the sort of storytelling and free-form, ever changing plots seen in tabletop role playing games like dungeons and dragons. Bold statement, right? But this game does no less, than allow two players to create an entire story from whole cloth. Allow me to explain. In Sleep is Death, one player will play the role of “Controller,” while another plays, well, the “Player.” It’s very similar to the Dungeon or Game Master and Player roles seen in so many tabletops. The Controller will generally (but does not need to) set up a number of “Scenes.” These are maps on which a player can walk, with any number of features of them, for example, an outdoor lake with some trees. The Controller can set where the player’s sprite can and cannot walk, what their sprite looks like, and so on. As a matter of fact, the game is very much 8-bit in its artistic quality, and features a fully functioning pixel editor, so that a Controller can make any number of sprites from scratch, as well as modifying others. Anything you can create, you can add to a map. But that’s barely where the fun begins.

See, the game is entirely turn based. First, a connection is established. Following this, The Controller gets just 30 seconds to set a scene (which is why it’s recommended that a Controller makes a bunch of different sprites and maps ahead of time, much like a Game Master rolling up stats for any number of characters who may never even be encountered). Then, it is the player’s turn. Assuming they have been given a sprite (as they may just be viewing a dream sequence at first, or something, imagination being a fantastic thing), they can move anywhere in the scene where movement has not been disabled, type anything they want in a speech bubble, or create a “verb” bubble and point it at something in the scenery. They have thirty seconds to do whatever they want to do (respond to another player, light a tree on fire, dive underwater, dig for treasure, jump up and down, whatever). Then, the Controller reacts, placing a fire sprite over the tree, replacing their sprite with a swimming sprite of the same character, typing out more dialogue, whatever. You can literally create any sort of world or dynamic you want to in this game, and run with it. Because the graphics are so simple, incredibly outlandish things can be dealt with by simply quickly rotating an image, changing hues, or whatever else you can think of and execute in thirty seconds. It creates a fun and wit charged game, a storytelling experience for two that can go as far as you please to take it.

So what might this mean for game designs? At the moment, it’s hard to say. The game made some waves in the Indie community when it came out, but it still sits, with most of Rohrer’s works, as a cult classic. The game is limited by its inability to handle more than two players, and the market is choked down to indie gamers by its retro graphics and requirement for intense interactivity. Still, it’s a new and refreshing idea that hasn’t really hit video games yet, and it has a great deal of potential. Indeed, working more interactivity into multi-player games is an important concept in the indie gaming community. So I have come up with a term for this sort of game mechanic, that is, the “reactive level editor.” The ability to edit a game’s structure or layout in real time, remotely, to deal with and further challenge players, is a fascinating concept. What if, for example, you had a dungeon crawl in which floors were randomly generated (layout wise). You fill the first floor with traps, monsters, npcs, whatever. Then, while players are tangling with that floor, you receive real time notifications (both player statuses, as well as chat and dialogue so that they can provide real time feedback). And you use what you see to work on the next floor, filling it out with elements of its own. When offline, you can create more complex systems, traps, and npcs, to drop into your dungeons later. Perhaps you can even allow floors to populate themselves with your creations (monsters whose stats you have decided, npcs, etc.) and then operate on the floor the players are on, controlling npc dialogue, making up new quests, and ensuring endless interactivity. Think about it, it’s not that far off! Are game mechanics like this part of the future? You’ll decide. I’ll lock myself in my room and get to work!

McElroy, J., (2010) Hands-on: Sleep Is Death.

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