Putting the Medium in Human Hands

Posted by Ryan Kuo

sleepisdeathJason Rohrer's new game takes improvisation to the next level.

One of the central tenets of gaming is that the computer remains an active participant. Play a little and it will play back. An enemy sees you enter the room and reflexively fires his gun. Push a wooden crate off a cliffside and it shatters on the ground. The computer awaits your input.Not so in Jason Rohrer's forthcoming game Sleep is Death. In this experimental two-player game, the computer doesn't get to give any feedback. Instead, player two speaks its voice: You enter a world of player two's design. It could be abstract or figurative, a log cabin or a women's restroom. The characters and objects therein react to you according to the whims of your partner, whose interface portrays the world as a grid and provides controls for editing sprites, music, and speech bubbles. Player two pulls all the strings in this production-yet doesn't know how you, player one, will act on the stage. You can find the real game in that interplay."It's almost like you're blocking out scenery and costumes for a piece of improv theater," Rohrer says. "You think about what situation you want to explore with the other person. You spend some time cobbling together some scenery, some props, to prepare. And then you have the other person connect to you."Perhaps most interestingly, Sleep is Death sidesteps the limitations of technology altogether. Currently, no computer can be programmed to anticipate your every move. Inconsistencies-such as a window that won't break, or a non-player character who repeats herself endlessly-are common and glaring. But a human can listen to you, interpret, and improvise.Players take turns spinning out the story. Player one speaks and acts; player two decides how people and objects will respond. Each player has 30 seconds to make things work. The challenge is to keep the illusion alive, and much of the fun is in the struggle.Ideally, both Sleep is Death players sit in the same room, face to face, able to laugh at one another or sense the mutual tension. Knowing that the subject is human and not a machine is an invitation for each player to surprise and push the other. According to Rohrer, the story usually ends up different-and more interesting-than originally planned.But it's crucial that this is a meditation on videogaming, a mediated encounter between two people. The computer is still the tool, and the screen still stands between player one and player two."It takes what's going on out of the imaginations of the people, and puts it in this concrete thing that's in front of their eyes that they can focus on and poke out," Rohrer says."We can't make a game about the most interactive things in our lives, which are the people around us," he says. "It's hard for me to make a game about this important interaction I've had with my wife; or my coworkers; or at the store, where I'm trying to return something, where someone's arguing with me. An argument-that's an interactive thing!"Read more