When I dream I sometimes create the story as I'm playing in it, and new scenes and characters are spun out, blurry as I meet them, crisper as we fight, dance, make love, explode, or simply have a surreal conversation. Sometimes I meet people I'd known before who have left me, or who I have left, or who I never met, knowing or at least hoping that they are, at some level, meeting met as well, in their dreams. And now Jason has turned the collective unconscious into a game.
Sleep Is Death is an experiment that puts to the test a hypothesis I had about a year ago, a hypothesis which Chris Crawford has eschewed for almost 20 years: the best way to create interactive storytelling is to allow multiple human players to bring their own humanity to the game. Instead of creating elaborate AI's which parse natural language or weigh options from a tinker-toy language, two people communicate by playing with pixel dolls and communicating in two-way natural language. I would venture that there's a reason why the Facade and Storytron technologies haven't sparked a sweeping revolution and attracted the millions of dollars in investment needed to get them moving fast enough, and that shit like Farmville has, it isn't terribly complicated: people need to get turned on and motivated by a game if it's going to ripple through the mass cultural consciousness, and only one out of those three really did that. Don't get me wrong, I've screened Crawford's and Matias/Stern's work for girls, suits, old people - you name it, I've had them test it out; there was magic in their eyes, for a little while. There was something genuinely new, a force more powerful, found with the drama engines, something that can scarcely be found in a "viral" social game (though in some players, you will find it there too). The difference is that the social games, for all their relative lack of socialization, closed the loop, and Jason's work is the closet thing I've seen to that level of stick in the realm of experimental, dramatic, storytelling-oriented play.
It is however, not without its flaws. The time limit creates a tension so that your own creativity in real-time, the percolative power of your own brain cycles, becomes a more potent constraint than any quantity of in-game money or magic points, this is good, to be clear. However in the process there are fraid edges that come out: the stress tests to break the fiction, the out-of-character quips, the overt (as opposed to subtle) tug-of-war between player and author, they are a symptom of a certain apathy that arises perhaps around the mid-point. I have to agree with Destructoid's Anthony Birch that these moments look much better than retrospect, raising a new perspective on the gameplay vs. story debate that should be puzzled over in a hundred more playthroughs. Is there still that damned assymmetry between user expectations and the possibilities of the game, where I kept trying to take the story in ridiculous or surreal directions and Jason had to enforce a foldback? Could it be that since I don't know Jason as well as he knows his wife, the meaningful potency of our story was diminished? Or maybe I was just unfocused, trying to curtail the length so my loud typing wouldn't bother my sleeping, live-in girlfriend.
I do know that the story he had in mind, some kind of platonic structure about fathers and sons, about first love, resonated with me in unexpected and interesting ways: my Catholic upbringing, my difficulties with my baby's mother and my yearning to have more of a role in his life, my grandmother being racist, these all rippled through. If Jason knew me better these would have been threads to pull on, and I think that perhaps him knowing me a bit better than he knows other journalists who have previewed the game lead him to choose a more Faulkner-esque literary theme instead of mystery, surrealism, or something more generally known. There was this bit near the end where I, half role-playing a country kid, half just being a crazy fuck-head, used a racist slur, and Jason was simply too flabbergasted to respond. But there were also moments of stark contrast, human isolation, real emotions that I suppress into the background of my daily life being roused as I typed. There is potential here to unleash the naked truth of our innermost feelings and let them loose on the ones we love. I'll have to try playing it with my girlfriend, maybe it'll be good for us.
(I'm looking into getting my flipbook uploaded and link it in an update so you folks can see just what the hell I'm talking about.)