The first time I played Xin Liu’s game Sleepwalk, I missed a WeChat call. Hearing the familiar rising arpeggio, I got up from my desk, searching for my phone. But the screen was blank. Confused, I realized that the call was coming from my computer. I clicked on the WeChat icon in the game and heard my character — a two-dimensional stick figure in white — tell her mother in Mandarin that she was fine, she wasn’t going out, and there was nobody on the street.
Although Sleepwalk relays a specific diaspora experience — Liu is from Xinjiang and is currently based in New York — the scenes in the desktop game will be familiar to anyone self-isolating during COVID-19. Through simple text and sound, it expresses the heightened states of anxiety, consciousness, and fear within an enclosed, domestic space. Liu created the game in 120 hours in March for Onassis Foundation’s ENTER program, curated by the Queens Museum, and was particularly inspired by Albert Camus’s The Plague and Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, two stories about towns under states of emergency.
The game, which at times feels more like video art, begins innocuously, with an unnamed stick figure in a cramped studio-style apartment — based on Liu’s Brooklyn brownstone — fitted with a bed, a couch, and a bookshelf. You, as the stick figure, can move using the arrow keys on your computer, but you cannot leave the flat. As you walk around, different color-coded texts are activated: white indicates internal thoughts; blue for quoted literature (these pop up only when you walk near the bookcase); and yellow for news headlines on COVID-19, which you can’t turn off once activated, mirroring real-life doom scrolling.
It seems, at first, that the game is commenting on the banality of quarantine life, but then an important shift occurs when the character inevitably goes to sleep. (I played the game several times, and there was no way to avoid this; the stick figure always sleeps.) As sirens wail in the background, a blue quote appears on the screen: “It’s a miracle New York works at all; the whole thing is implausible. Every facility is inadequate — the hospitals and schools and playgrounds are overcrowded, the express highways are feverish, the unimproved highways and bridges are bottlenecks.”
Taken from E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York,” the text is damning in its criticism of an unequal, chaotic sociopolitical system, and points to the game character’s own anxieties around a city incapacitated in a crisis. As our stick figure dreams, a gray stick figure, encircled in a red lesion-like halo, appears and drifts listlessly around the screen like the ghost of a COVID-19 victim. Another appears; then another, clustering near our character. The replication happens slowly, but the effect is still overwhelming — soon, our stick figure is engulfed and can no longer move. When the screen fills up, all the figures also stop moving, as if embodying the numbed sense of loss and helplessness around the thousands of COVID-19 deaths.
Traditional video games often entertain us, but Sleepwalk is not one of those. Engaging in it exacerbates our primal, biological fear of viruses, as well as the perceived unreality of our current crisis. But this can, ironically, be therapeutic. We all cope in different ways, and one of them might be in not turning away from the nightmare.
Sleepwalk is available for download here.