Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sleep Is Death: The Improviser's Playing Guide

You guys! I'm really excited right now. See, I'm not an expert on a lot of things. Sure, you could start to quote any line from the first 10 seasons of The Simpsons, and I'll most likely finish it (I actually spent a fair amount of time doing this last night), and I'm pretty sure I could review every single item/ingredient on the Chipotle menu. However, when push comes to shove, I'm spent more time on video games and improv than pretty much any other field of interest.

It's rare that this expertise crosses over, as video game improv scenes to fall flat - a problem I attribute less to the difficultly of mining humor out a mostly passive, non-personal experience and more to audience members simply not boning up enough on their Castlevania lore. But recently I discovered a little gem of a game called Sleep Is Death, that wonderfully combines these two disparate hobbies of mines, and I'd like to take some time to introduce the game (to those of you who haven't played it yet), encourage any and all of you to play it, and offer up some tips that I think will lead to a great experience for everyone involved.

Spoiler Alert: The fish did it.

Sleep Is Death is described by it's creator Jason Rohrer as a 'storytelling game'. The way it works is two players each sign on to the game (and when you purchase it, you receive two copies immediately so you and a friend are good to go) at the same time, one as 'controller' and one as 'player'. The controller has access to an entire library of characters, set pieces, objects, and locations which he can design on his own before the game starts (and if he's quick enough, during the game itself) or use from available templates. The player interacts in the world set before him, moving around, interacting with objects and speaking whenever he wants.

Once the game begins, each side has 30 seconds to make their move(s). The controller sets the player in an environment, and usually has a basic scenario in mind, i.e. you've woken up in a hotel room covered in blood with a dead body lying on the floor. And the player then decides to make a move, which can be anything from investigating the body, to answering the ringing telephone, to deciding to ignore everything going on and just making himself a cup of coffee instead (seriously Ro, who would ever do that?).

I spent the first 8 turns saying "But I don't WAANNAAAAAAAA"

From here, everything is up in the air. However much planning the controller has done, inevitably it won't be enough, and ultimately the game becomes a virtual improv scene between both player and host. Each side has only a limited amount of time to react, and as frustrating as this can be for the controller, it's actually a good thing, because it encourages spontaneity. And this is where I can start applying some of my improv expertise to my fellow gamer friends.

As an improviser on stage, you don't have the luxury of writing your scene. All you can do is react and respond to what's been set in front of you. And while the goal is most improv scenes is to get a laugh, simply trying to be funny generally gets you nowhere. It's the discoveries you and your scene partner make together that get the laughs, and move the scene forward.

Your snarky sex-bot has this really what it's come to, Master?

The first and most obvious tenet to any good improv scene is to "yes and" whatever is happening around you. Denying a character's move ("I'm not your father, I'm your principal!") is the quickest way to grind a scene to a halt. On the flip side, accepting a move that is made and letting it affect you is going down the path to discovery. There's a lot of nuance to this rule - for example, an argument scene between two improvisers, while potentially disastrous for inexperienced improvisers simply trying to find something to do in a scene, can actually be based on agreement between the actors and be incredibly hilarious.

"Show, Don't Tell" is another great rule of thumb, not just for improvisers but for writers as well. A good story generally lets it's characters speak for themselves, and reveal who they are through actions rather than pages and pages of exposition. Applying this to Sleep Is Death means to focus less on having every character talk or explain (in the case of the controller) everything, and more on simply making physical moves that are true to their character. This is actually something I myself am guilty of and am trying to work on, both in improv and in SiD. Remember: Action > Dialogue pretty much every time.

Sometimes actions lead to, well uncontrollable fires.

Finally, embrace everything, even the mistakes! I once forgot to load the dead body back into the hotel room in the aforementioned hotel murder scenario. So, what could I do? Well, one choice is to simply ignore it, pretend that mistake never happened, and if the player references it (as he did in my game), simply correct him. Alternatively, I could decide the mystery just went a little deeper - where did that body go? Who took it away so quickly, and how? Be willing to make a discovery even if it's going to seemingly drive you off a cliff. Remember that it's a game and the brilliance of it is there are no points, no set goals or path to victory and the game only has to end when one of you decides you've had enough.

I highly encourage any and all of you check it out, even you non-gamers, as on the player's side it's incredibly simple to play. And if you have a scenario or want to check out my own (I've been the player about twice as often as I've been the controller, so that's something I'd like to balance out), definitely hit me up. It's a gaming experience unlike any other I've ever encountered.


PS: Dammit! For a minute I really did think I had a wonderfully unique blog post here. Ah, well. This guy says a lot of what I've said here, and adds some good specifics of his own. Worth checking out if you're looking for even more improv-related SiD tips:

PPS: Some other reviews on the game that got me excited for it in the first place:

And of course, in case you missed it earlier, the link to the site itself:

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