Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Geisterfahrer: Rubber Meets the Road

After writing about it several times, I finally had a chance to actually play Sleep is Death this afternoon. I was the Controller (having never been a Player), with another local game designer being the Player. Unsurprisingly, it was nerve-wracking feeling like I had to juggle so many things at once. It wasn't a bust though; we definitely created a cogent story and the experience itself was very interesting. The story actually ended up kind of clever and went places I didn't expect at all. That's successful in my book.

(As an aside, the above photo is from an abandoned prison farm near Atlanta, GA. Yikes.)

I'm going to withhold posting a description of the story itself for now, as I'm very curious about using the same initial setup with other Players and see what things change. I did want to write some thoughts on how the experience went functionally. This could bleed into some more meta/structural ideas as well. Without further ado:

0) The default turn time of 30 seconds isn't nearly enough for new players.

Go to your Sleep is Death install directory, look for a folder called settings. Inside there will be a file called timeLimit.ini, which has only a single value in it that is the length of a turn in seconds. Open it up in Notepad or another text editor and change it. We doubled it to 60 and that seemed far more manageable. This seemed more important for a novice Controller like me. More familiarity with the tools and I probably could have handled 30 seconds, even with a novice player.

1) The available assets will drive where the story goes.

Even with turn time doubled to one minute, this still isn't nearly enough time to create significant new assets on-the-fly. I'm sure the fact that my art skills are rubbish doesn't help, but I couldn't improvise anything but the simplest objects. New characters? New rooms? Forget about it. The story went to a courtroom and a graveyard because, well, there were assets for those rooms available. I didn't plan going there beforehand, but when the locale had to change, the possibilities were pretty limited.

I had created two starting rooms and figured I'd just let the story flow from there. But I didn't realize there weren't many places for it to flow to. The number of locales available in SiD by default are quite limited. I was expecting a handful of "stock" rooms, like an apartment or a store. Not quite the case. The scenes available seem like they were used in other stories and come prepopulated with characters and objects. Should you want only the space, you have to clear out the rooms in dwindling seconds.

My recommendation is that if you want a more freeform story, find or modify a number of generic locations that can be quickly repurposed.

2) Searching for assets could be much better.

The only search functionality for assets in SiD is searching over the titles of objects/rooms. These titles are not unique (multiple objects can have the same name) and have a 10-character limit. Searching for "person," "guy" or "lady" results in nothing. Characters are titled by fictional names.

Tag-based taxonomies are a bit fad-ish, but having some kind of lightweight attribute system would make finding specific types of objects much easier. Even being able to filter by people, animals, interior objects and exterior objects would reduce the time-pressure felt by Controllers needing to find an unexpected object.

3) Adding assets from the community is difficult.

Sleep is Death facilitates adding assets created by the community members. Adding the assets is quite easy, but due to the above challenge with searching, actually utilizing them is less simple. The main community site, SiDTube, has a resource page whose searching is basically the above. It can't be filtered by music/objects/rooms. The scale of some objects varies wildly from the stock SiD assets. There is a rating system, but it's not that useful when assets like this have five-star ratings.

The framework of Sleep is Death means just about any style of sprite-based art can be easily used. The stock resources for SiD use a very basic 8-bit style. Unfortunately, many of the community resources do not. Shannon Galvin created a fantastic world-building tutorial that looks gorgeous, but his resources are unusable unless you're willing to create more assets of the same fidelity (which is well beyond my talents and spare time).

I very much appreciate that Rohrer has structured SiD to easily incorporate community-generated assets. But it seems that, like the in-game asset manager, better tools for searching and organizing assets would make adding community assets much easier. If you're expecting to use community content to expand your story, expect to spend quite a lot of time searching for assets that match your aesthetic. And even then, they will be a baseline for modifications rather than drag-and-drop additions.

4) Clarify expectations with the Player beforehand.

I didn't confer with the Player about our story at all before we began. As such, I think we had different ideas of how the game should progress. I had two initial scenes vaguely planned, but had not (intentionally) structured much beyond that. I did not setup any kind of goal or motivation beyond a vague time limit within the narrative itself.

Coming from a tabletop background, I was very leery of "railroading" the Player. I wanted to provide as much freedom as I could feasibly support. However, the Player was initially expecting more direction from me (we had a little debrief afterward). He kept his statements a bit vague, concerned that he'd say something that would upset or derail the story I had planned. Little did he know there was no planned story to derail! I was hoping he'd commit to concrete details, allow me to play off those in ways he wouldn't necessarily expect. About halfway through he took control of the story, which is what I had expected all along.

In theatrical improv, players can see when other players are floundering and try to bail them out. I'd say that interplay to always keeping the scene moving is actually a vital part of theatrical improv. However, in Sleep is Death, there's no way to ascertain if the Player is struggling to keep the scene moving. Clarifying expectations with the Player and either a) letting them know they're wholly in control of the story or b) provide more specific goals/motivations should help ameliorate possible floundering.

A lot of this may sound critical, but I very much enjoyed this first foray with Sleep is Death. I just didn't realize quite how much preparation was required in terms of assets. Going forward, I'll make a point to converse with Players before the game and make sure I have a good suite of scenes (ideally, generic ones) available.

Again, I'd encourage you to check out Sleep is Death for yourself, especially now that the game costs only as much as you want to pay (and for two copies of the game). And for anyone who has spent time on the Controller side, I'd be quite curious to hear how it went for you.

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Blogger Slickriptide said...

I thought your review was a pretty fair one. I like what I've played of SiD so far, but the art assets part is something that holds me back.

However, I'm becoming less convinced that it OUGHT to hold me back. It's become evident to me as I play and as I read the flipbooks posted at SiDTube that the graphics are actually secondary to the story.

The fun of the game comes from the play acting. A high degree of realism can detract from that when it limits your creativity. Rohrer himself subscribes to this idea. When I asked him why 16-pixel resolution, his response was that 32-pixel gives you so much possible detail that you can't effectively "wing it" any more.

He's right. In basic 8-bit mode, if my player says "I pull out my pistol" and I don't have a pistol asset, I can just draw a right angle and put it in the character's hand. Voila! pistol.

In fact, you can play at a 2-bit resolution and still tell an interesting story.

I would love it if SiD used 32-pixel resolution instead of 16-pixel. There's a TON of art available for that resolution, both ripped and original.

The flip side, though, is that I know that I would probably start to rely exclusively on those art assets I could find on the net instead of treating the game as a sort of free-style doodle like it's intended to be from the controller's side of things.

You're totally correct that a controller needs to be prepared ahead of time with some basic assets. I think each of us learns that lesson the first time out.

But I think more and more that, what a controller really needs is an ability to see the whole scene as something fluid instead of something rigid.

The art assets that come with the game are deliberately "low-fi" for that very reason.

The Galvin stuff is most interesting in that Shannon designed it as a bunch of building blocks. If you take the time to follow his tutorials and see how it all fits together, you can use his foundation to do more of the same.

But, that level of detail requires that much more prep ahead of time. Maybe the middle ground will occur when someone puts together an assortment of "paper dolls" that can be dressed up as needed so that a Galvin-style of play can be had and still have a certain level of spontaneity to it.

In the meantime, I think that what really needs to happen is that people get over the idea that "my art skills are rubbish" and get on with the story-telling. A review of the gallery at SiDTube will show that some of the most compelling stories have some pretty "rubbish" art and some of the prettiest flipbooks can still have some of the stupidest stories.

In the end, the "quality" of the art is a red herring. The gameplay is really about the interaction between the players.

May 25, 2010 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Slickriptide I think that's something I realized looking back at this first game. The assets weren't holding me back per se, but it definitely closed some things off. I think structuring the story to be more drama (in a theatrical sense) and less about locale will probably have made things flow better.

May 25, 2010 at 8:57 PM  
Blogger Paul Bauman said...

As much as I want to delve into this, it just seems overwrought for what it is. I could set up a diceless RPG and pretty much achieve similar stories. Just my 2 cents.

May 26, 2010 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Paul I initially thought that, but there are actually some differences that make SiD distinct and interesting.

Unlike a tabletop RPG (diceless or whatever, whatever), control switching from Player to Controller every X seconds makes the game a lot more like theatrical improv.

Also, unlike both tabletop RPGs and theatrical improv, SiD you can only interact with the other participant indirectly. You can't see their reactions, read their body language or anything else. The game itself serves as a shim between agents and this actually ends up being more interesting that you'd initially expect.

Despite the overhead required to get really involved, I'd still recommend checking it out, especially now that it costs only what you want to pay for it. It's obviously not a substitute for tabletop RPGs or improv theatre, but it is (at least to me and the other folks I've talked to about it) a interesting thing different from either.

May 26, 2010 at 2:19 PM  

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