I need to sleep, why don't you let me? Insomnia, in dry terms, is a vertical forced-scrolling platformer made for TIGS' Common Place Book competition from roughly a year ago. Like Eversion, a title from the same compo, Insomniais a 2D low-fi interpretation of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Your initial playthrough may seem underwhelming. Mine did. However, after a couple of playthroughs and a rereading of the introductory text I found that there is something lurking beneath the surface -- the mark of any good horror piece. What ultimately makes Insomnia compelling is its dual interlocking mechanics of sleep deprivation and the drugs the protagonist uses to combat it, and what comes across as a result.
The designer, William Saunders, got the idea for the game from Lovecraft's Common Place Book; more specifically idea 23: "The man who would not sleep -- dares not sleep -- takes drugs to keep himself awake. Finally falls asleep -- and something happens. Motto from Baudelaire p. 214". Saunders expounded upon this idea through the introductory text, which plays out as eight journal entries of an unnamed narrator. Its style is a loving pastiche, reiterating the mannerisms and themes of Mr. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The narrator, who dwells in a lighthouse, begins to have vivid and lively dreams of a city and its blueish-green inhabitants. He is enamored with everything at first, but once the narrator attempts to communicate with them, things go awry. He soon sees the city as monstrous. To avoid his hellish nightmares the narrator begins to drink copious amounts of caffeinated tea to stay awake. This doesn't keep the sandman at bay, so to stave off sleep he begins to pop Adderalls by the bottle and shoots up performance-enhancing drugs. See: amphetamines. See: Speed. See: Crank. I need to sleep why don't you let me? To quote an Elliott Smith song, he is merely fighting problems with bigger problems, as he becomes paranoid and loses his sense of reality. Which is what speed freaks are wont to do. The final entry simply says "Dear god it is here..."
This story is all fine and macabre, but what about the gameplay? Once the game actually starts you take control of this speed freak and attempt to bring him to the top of the lighthouse, where his stash of uppers is at. The lighthouse is randomly generated, and you work your way to the top through walking, jumping, and clinging on walls. Due to your sleep deprivation your field of vision, walking speed and jumping height decrease over time. To fight this you take the cold water, tea, Adderall, syringes of speed, and tazers that occasionally fall from the sky. Without them, you will be too slow to outrun the unnamed horror creeping from below. Failure results in a black and white game-over screen of the protagonist held down by the tendrils that pop up from speed intake. If you are able to accomplish your goal, you are given an afterword text that I'll elaborate on later.
Every work of horror has an underlying theme; something to tether it to our world to make the scares more real. What is Insomnia really about? Take a second look at the story and gameplay and ignore the fact that the city he dreams of is in his head. For the Gothic tradition the subconscious has always been a mirror to the 'real' world; or at least a facet of the character's interpretation of it. Let's recap: The narrator is intrigued by the people of the city until he fails to communicate with them. Once he feels that he cannot connect with them, the city becomes a place of terror, and his xenophobia (a common Lovecraft trope) kicks in. He's alienated. How does he cope? He takes speed. This temporarily alleviates his social disorder, but he's merely fighting problems with bigger problems. I need to sleep why don't you let me? He quickly becomes enveloped in amphetamine psychosis, and this is when the unspeakable terror (and the gameplay) comes in. The gameplay itself is a juggle between collecting uppers and moving upward. At this point you are shackled to your medicine; if you do not harvest enough and your movement is hindered, you lose. It's an implicit goal of the game to collect the items; you can attempt to be noble and not collect the pills and syringes, but that is extremely hard if nigh impossible. Because of this, the player has to partake in otherwise irrational behavior to keep himself afloat. In many a game I've lost while trying to jump from one side of the screen to the other, all for a bottle of Addy's. The two mechanics of sleep deprivation and drug use coalesce into the game's true message: addiction.
The insomnia is forced, a byproduct of speed withdrawal. Just as you are fighting nature by staying awake, you are also fighting nature by attempting to outrun the vertical scroll; this catches up with the player sooner or later. If the player fails to ascend the lighthouse, you are given the "bad" ending of the player being engulfed by tentacles. If you do in fact reach the end, the other ending is not very comforting. The player is still trapped by the unspeakable horror, and is said to last only as long as his supply of drugs. It's a bleak existence. Because the protagonist only sees the horror after entering his amphetamine psychosis, one can question if the many-tentacled horror actually exists. Perhaps it's a manifestation of his guilt? He does say that he is "responsible for its presence in this reality."
While Insomnia is intriguing, for some gamers it might not be as compelling because it requires a deft combination of both literary and ludic elements to work. Hopefully someone can show the whole addiction process entirely through gameplay elements at some point; till then Insomniastands as a great example of the mechanic.
If I lost you anywhere through this, I apologize. I'm fairly tired. I need to sleep.