Sleep Is Death: Interview with Jason Rohrer

by Andy Kavanagh

Games are going through a pretty important transition right now. In addition to finally being embraced as a medium by generations of naysayers and skeptics, the long-term fans and aficionados are growing weary of the same old formulaic approaches to game design and storytelling. While big budget studios seem for the most part content to ride the waves of sequels, the indie development scene has flourished with bright minds and brighter ideas, and continues to produce innovative gaming experiences. Of all the independent developers to rise to prominence this generation, few are as relevant and forward-thinking as Jason Rohrer, the man behind the enigmatic experience that is Sleep is Death.

“I don’t think ‘narrative’ and ‘game’ mix very well in general, regardless of whether the narrative is linear or not. Yes, you can look at player activity in any game, even chess, and see something like a story playing out. But a narrative requires narration and that seems to require a narrator, which sounds quite like an author, someone who constructs the story ahead of time for other people to experience later. Even if you’re talking about non-linear narrative, you’re still talking about authorship. Someone authored all of those branches and stitched the whole thing together.”

“Anything pre-authored is going to fight with interactivity in the game.” This attitude towards storytelling in game design is a key element in the philosophy behind Sleep is Death, a game played by two players online where the plot is sewn together in real-time by both parties, leading to a completely unique experience every time. “Sleep is Death is a tool for telling stories, but it completely abandons the idea of pre-authoring any part of those stories. More importantly, I as the game maker did not put any story at all into the game ahead of time. An SID story unfolds completely interactively, live, with substantial input from the player or players at every turn.”

While Sleep is Death is regarded by many as the ultimate non-linear gaming experience, mainstream studios have yet to explore its design choices in any of their own frameworks, possibly for fear of alienating their audiences. Jason feels the problem is not a close-minded audience or a lack of creativity on the part of mainstream developers, but fear of a potential misuse of that creativity. “I think that people are willing to accept new things and readily embrace them, if they are good. That’s the hard part, really. The risk is not that the audience will reject any new thing. The risk is that you will be unable to figure out how to make that new thing really good before you release it to the audience. Many ideas sound great on paper but end up as a real mess once they are implemented. It’s risky for a publisher to green-light a new idea for that reason. On the other hand, we have proven formulas for making old ideas into good games. All we need to do is copy existing good games that used those ideas.”

This cycle of re-hashed ideas and gameplay mechanics has played a major role in defining games as we know them today. We recognise games the same way we recognise music and movies, by categorising the different types on offer and laying down guidelines for what we expect from each category. While this has helped games become more accessible to the uninitiated, it has also conditioned generations of players into dismissing anything that doesn’t fit with their expectations. Thus, it has become difficult to argue the case that games are an, admittedly young, artform.

“I think it’s mostly an issue of artistic merit and overall quality. When people argue that games are art, the detractors immediately ask for examples, and those examples are hard to produce, especially in the world of mainstream games. Because we don’t have examples to discuss, the argument becomes theoretical: can games be art someday? And that’s an argument that will never be settled.” But Jason does believe that games will be considered art one day, and that the cultural shift will breed a more conscientious consumer. “It seems that as we push the medium toward greater artistic merit, the results of that push will likely appeal more to the hardcore followers of that medium than they will to the casual consumers. I think you’ll need to be pretty well-versed in the language of games to be able to understand the ways in which games will have that greater artistic merit when they have it.”

Sleep is Death is available to purchase from for whatever price the customer feels is appropriate. Rohrer considers it a sign of where games are headed. “I don’t believe in intellectual property, so I don’t believe in the idea of ‘piracy’. People are paying for a service when they pay to get SID from me, they’re not paying for a copy or a license or whatever other made up things. If they don’t pay me, they can’t get SID from me, and there’s no way for them to ‘steal’ that.”