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Sleep is Death: a different kind of co-op
by Parker Scott Mortensen

This week I was walking back to my apartment from the library, when a man walking fifty yards behind me began to belt out the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast. I found this quietly hilarious. He seemed to have lost all sense of appropriateness and instead relinquished himself to the swelling impulse to yell at the top of his lungs, that comes when listening to music through headphones. When I returned home, I told this story to my friends, expecting a big laugh and cheers of "awesome!", but instead no one laughed or even found the story that interesting.

I don't think it was a bad story - I just didn't tell it in the right way. I don’t have much problem at recreating stories when I write, but in extemporaneous speech it’s excitingly nerve-wracking. There are an infinite number of stories in this world based on the way we choose to tell them: depending on what we emphasise and de-emphasise, a story about a young boy on his way to football practice could have a dramatically different feel. Likewise, the way I tell a story about an overweight man screeching Disney tunes out-of-key could make it seem incredibly humdrum, or the most interesting thing that happened that week. The thrill isn’t in the range of stories to tell, but in the idea that I could have something uniquely important to share with others.

Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death builds itself from this desire to share and co-create. It is not a game where you win or lose, but a game of expression between two people who want to tell a story, an arena devoid of winners and losers, only experience. The structure of Sleep is Death asks for two players, either networked or locally connected. One tells a story and the other plays through it. Using rudimentary pixel art, the storyteller can either create or choose his or her own setting, objects, and characters for the other player to interact with.

From there, the boundaries are nearly limitless. Once the scene is set up, each player takes thirty-second turns deciding what to do. The player may move around and perform any action he likes, the effects of which must be rendered and responded to in his thirty-second turn. Thirty seconds may seem like a short time to work with in telling a meaningful story, but it’s thrilling in the same way that recounting an event to a friend extemporaneously is, with some general outline of what it is that you want to convey but with the specifics waiting to be filled in.

I first played Sleep is Death with my friend Corey Williams. Our stories were mostly exploratory, testing the game and each other. In his story, I was a man dreaming about spending time with a woman. I exploited this scene, pleading her to come to bed with me. Once she did, I woke up, and my wife asked me what I’d just been dreaming about. I nervously had no explanation. She caught on to the fact that I'd had a romping sex dream and asked if the dream woman was better in bed. I confessed, lithely, yes.

While the storyteller has the ultimate control in what happens, the player character is an agent of chaos, capable of destroying all gravity of the situation. I found myself doing this at first, knocking things over, trying to undress people, and setting things on fire. This is mostly a remnant of playing open-world games and platformers, where the joy of running around and tinkering is encouraged. Here, that still holds some novelty since the game is completely user-powered, which means every action can be compensated with art and feedback from the storyteller through the game's editing tools. But I found the experience of sabotage quickly unfulfilling. More interesting was seeing where my friends’ stories took me.

I wouldn’t know whether I could call Sleep is Death a 'hard' game, much less whether or not I’m 'good' at it. The game calls for people to react in thirty-second intervals, which isn’t always easy. Sometimes, I’d find something unexpected and take too much time considering my options to do anything really meaningful in my turn. I probably wasn’t the most interesting player to help develop the story, but maybe my storyteller wasn’t interesting either. Sometimes we were having fun, sometimes we were struggling.

I came into Sleep is Death expecting it to be a great tool to use when telling stories to other people, but I found that the ability for one character to interact with the storyteller’s work enabled more than just a frozen narrative. Sleep is Death may be a tool to empower people to share stories in a more realised way, but the addition of an active second person makes the experience ooze more. The result is something less tidy but more personal.

There’s an aspect of co-creation in Sleep is Death that is simultaneously thrilling and scary. Once I was past the point of wanting to test the system, the interaction in the game became bizarrely intimate. The exchange is different with every person, like sitting down to have a conversation with someone new. Letting your creative juices ooze onto a piece of paper is one thing, but letting them ooze directly onto another person is another, and the knowledge that everything you’re interacting with isn’t AI, but a human, only stamps the exchange with an added smack of intimacy.

And now, I wonder what else is out there for me. What stories do I have worth sharing? What stories are people waiting to tell me?

What stories will I make with other people?

Engaging in co-creation isn’t easy, and while it seldom produces the most meaningful of stories, it’s a nice way to talk to someone. I never played with anyone who had any larger vision for the result of our product, but it hardly mattered in the moment. After the game is over you’re given a book of screenshots of your experience, snapshots of each player’s turn. Despite the crude pixel-art, my impetuousness, and our weakly uncreative minds, there will always be something special about stepping away and looking at something that took the equal effort of two people to create, like a good conversation, saved forever.

If you'd like to play Sleep is Death with Parker Mortensen, you can reach him at To learn more about the game and to purchase it, visit the game's website.

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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