Sleep is Death is only sort of a game. It’s as much a game as a conversation, a “what would happen if” taken to the extreme.
Two people play. One of them controls a single, lonely, pixelated avatar. Well, maybe he’s not lonely. Maybe he has a family, or a close group of friends, or a squad of criminals, or some horrible reality-bending dog that controls all things. Dog controls your destiny. You never know. The reason you never know is that the other person playing controls everything else. Literally everything else.
Here’s how it works: the player controlling Everything Else sets up a scene. This guy’s name from now on is Nick. The game’s simple graphics and tile-based construction allow you to quickly build fairly detailed set pieces, complete with background, scenery, buildings and other characters.
A lot of pieces are already put together, such as trees, doors or people, and anything you create is saved and can be accessed later in the game. This allows you to quickly react and rebuild the setting as necessary, as the player’s interaction with it will, no doubt, mess everything up. Nick’s got a story in mind that he wants to tell, and he sets things up accordingly. It’ll be a crime drama that starts in an office building.
So the scene is built. Now it’s the One Person player’s turn, henceforth to be referred to as Douglas. Douglas sees everything that Nick has put together, and has thirty seconds to take in his surroundings, move his avatar around, and either say something (presumably to another character) or to make a verb. That’s a weird sentence.
The way verbing works is that it’s simply a speech bubble with an arrow attached, to indicate what it is you want to verb. Pick up, inspect, punch, lick… whatever. Any action you can manage to get from brain to keyboard, you can “do.”
So Douglas does a thing, and then it’s back to Nick. Now, Nick is back in control of everything, but it’s his job to make sure that whatever Douglas tried to do actually happens. Douglas pointed “Pick up” at a flashlight or a mug of coffee or something, then Nick can simply attach that to his avatar, and then pass the turn to Douglas again.
Douglas now exits the office and goes to make small talk with some poor confused soul in the middle of the street. Now, Nick’s job gets tricky and far more interesting when Douglas decides to do something a little more, well, extreme. Like leaving his office building and going to the zoo. Now Nick has to build an entirely new set for the zoo. In 30 seconds.
Perhaps Douglas, instead of picking up a coffee cup, instead tries to pick up the moon. One would reasonably expect this to fail, but hey, it’s up to Nick.
Anything Douglas does could start a chain of events that drastically alters the story—from talking to one character instead of another to burning down his workplace or inspiring a group of revolutionaries to take over a small, inexplicably explosive South Pacific island—as long as Nick makes it so.
This goes back and forth, with Douglas doing things and Nick responding, the 30 second time limit for turns begins to seem shorter and shorter. And then it’s gone from attaching objects to Douglas’s character to how do I even build a burning library staffed entirely by alligators.
The panic that comes with the turn length forces both players to act quickly and decisively, not letting either hem or haw about any decision. They’ve gotta work, now. For the sake of the story.
Now this is a pretty important idea, but it’s one that’s been around for Forever-and-a-Half. Having one person act and the other one react is a simple improvisation exercise, as well as the premise for countless board games.
However, it’s the purity of the implementation here that makes Sleep is Death really shine. It’s no-frills creativity. A conversation between two people working together to tell a story, even if they’re trying to do completely separate things within that story.
Douglas and Nick can tell whatever story they want. Heck, they probably will end up doing something that neither of them really expected, given the back-and-forth nature of the game.
Whatever the outcome, any new objects or scenes can be uploaded to an online database so that in case anyone else ever needs quick access to a burning alligator library, the in-game search function might be able to provide them with one. This means that as time goes on, it becomes easier and easier to tell more elaborate and affecting stories about anything the players can imagine.
This two-person narrative is an incredible experience, often hilarious and absurd, but equally often something real and profound. Because with a practiced manager like Nick, literally anything can happen. It’s a wonderful thing, and made entirely by one person with an impressive-as-ducks creative streak.
Between all the half-hearted cash-ins on Call of Duty’s success and all the miserably meaningless games out there, it’s reassuring to find something like Sleep is Death. It’s an inspiring experiment, bursting with hope for the medium. It’s this sort of thing that make games worth it.