Videogame improv

Sleep is Death puts the focus on your storytelling

When Gary Gygax one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons died in 2008 almost every major gaming website on the Internet posted regrets and kind words. Though there’s certainly some granularity between fans of pen-and-paper gaming and those of us who prefer pixels to people the connection runs deeper than that. D&D — in the sense that it’s about creating a world that organically responds to player input — is arguably more responsible for what videogames are today than anything like Pong or Spacewar! The technology that allowed gaming to develop is undeniably important but without the intellectual foundation of D&D I very much doubt games would have become more than an elaborate sort of electro-chess. Or at least they wouldn’t have done it so quickly.

Sleep is Death (SiD) is the latest game from Jason Rohrer the one-man development team responsible for critical indie darlings like Passage Gravitation and Between. Depending on how you approach it SiD is either an attempt to make some of videogames’ pen-and-paper elements more explicit or a subtle comment on the limitations of game storytelling. Either way it’s very likely the most important game you’ll play this year — insofar as you can call it a videogame at all.

SiD is like theatre improv by way of Zelda II. Two players enter each game one as the “player” and one as the “controller.” The player can interact with the world in three ways: speech movement and a comic book-style narrative box that they can enter verbs into and point at various game objects. The controller is given a surprisingly complex set of authorship tools that allows them to respond to the player by altering the environment in response to their commands. In effect the controller creates the game world on the fly. The math and carefully tested systems that typically constrain player interaction are reduced to something much simpler and more dynamic: the creativity and decision-making capacity of another human being.

In the short game I played with Fast Forward music columnist Garth Paulson I was a naked man with a talking penis trapped in an eerily mundane set of corridors populated only by nude women snakes and a boy who seemed to be riding a dog. When I found my way out of the building I came upon a pile of three dead bodies four bloody sawblades and half a dozen pissed-off cops. Assuming I was the murderer the police shot me whereupon I found myself talking to a horned demon in Canmore (Garth’s version of hell apparently).

As awesome as that is I wondered if Garth and I couldn’t have created something similar in another medium (one that didn’t require us both to learn how to use SiD’s proprietary authorship tools). Besides a charming eight-bit interface SiD doesn’t bring anything extra to the story — there are no built-in initiative checks skill trees or experience points. The game only responds to the player through the (often fumbling) inputs from the controller. In a way SiD was made redundant by improv troupes before there was ever a single line of code in Rohrer’s C++ compiler. But then maybe that’s the point.

SiD makes the inherent relationship between player and designer in all games explicit. Through choice and interaction we co-create meaning with the authors of the game even when the systems we’re manipulating are more restrictive. Because it’s a game and — importantly — because the player’s capacity for interaction is limited by the abilities of the controller SiD functions as a lesson for both players and would-be designers: Games don’t have to be won. It’s much more interesting to think of them as creative platforms for the designers and also (to a certain but lesser extent) the end-user. But in order for that to work they do have to be played. Though Sleep is Death games necessarily function within the confines of the controller’s story premise the plot itself (however nonsensical) is a collaboration.

It’s not a new idea so much as a fine old one. One I think Gary Gygax understood.


Splinter Cell Conviction Capsule Review

Stealth gaming has always been about finding a careful equilibrium between power and fragility. In the earliest Splinter Cell games this was handled clumsily at least by today’s standards. Players were forced to abide by restrictions on the number of alarms they could raise the number of times a body could be discovered or the simple fact that if they were discovered super-spy Sam Fisher just plain wasn’t very good in a straight fight. This along with pretty much everything else about the game has been revamped for Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Though the series evolved plenty on its own ( Chaos Theory being the former peak) Splinter Cell: Conviction is much more reminiscent of a recent stealth game starring a troubled billionaire in bat pajamas. Like Batman: Arkham Asylum Conviction manages to be both empowering and stressful where sneakiness is still the most useful tool in our hero’s arsenal but is far from the only one. The new design ethos lends the game a much quicker pace than its predecessors and the frantic improvisational firefights that occur when you’re discovered are terrific punctuation for the more sober skulking sequences.