What Never Lived Cannot Die: Alienation, Architecture, and NaissanceE

There’s a moment in NaissanceE, the 2014 game by Limasse Five, in which the words “This is not the Way” appear at the top of the screen in front of a hallway. Proceeding down this hallway causes the game to shut down. There is no cute narration, nor even a “soft quit” to the game’s main menu. It just kills the program entirely. It’s just one opaque moment in an aggressively avant garde piece of art. It’s also a neat little microcosm for the entire experience.

NaissanceE is a world that’s not meant to be inhabited.

I remember once going to an evening event at my elementary school. A couple friends and I broke free of the crowd in the gym and ran wildly down the dim halls of the building, free to jump and yell and do all the other things we couldn’t do during the day. Like many childhood experiences, our mania was tinged with fear. We could be dragged back to the gym of course, but more unnerving was the feeling of the building itself.

The purpose of the structure was to house hundreds of us for hours a day, to compartmentalize and maintain order with separate rooms and neat lines. Without kids or teachers, the size of the school felt purposeless and unsettling. Why were these hallways so wide? Why were all the doors closed? Why did the bathroom have ten stalls, if I was the only one using it?

Awe and terror are never far from each other in NaissanceE. The game’s environments often go straight from suffocatingly claustrophobic to impossibly big. Most places are dimly lit, some are blinding. Stairs and walls twist around each other, defying anyone who would try to map their surroundings.

As a result, any sense of play feels secondary to the world itself. The game has platforming and puzzles, but the space hardly feels designed for it. Jumps are awkward and often in near pitch-black, with little direction or guide. I often solved the puzzles by accident. Once, in a giant area with no obvious exit, I found myself in a room filled with what appeared to be graves, brutalist concrete mounds with blazing white light shining from underneath. The room turned out to be irrelevant to my progress, but it looked like it stretched for miles.

Part of what NaissanceE gets across is that being dwarfed by architecture feels fundamentally different than being alone in nature. Nature, at least, isn’t designed with a singular purpose in mind. Being lost in nature has a strange sense of solidarity that comes with it; I didn’t plan on being there, but neither did the trees or grass around me. I, and everything else, are collectively alive and shaped by only the most general of plans.

There is no “collective,” in NaissanceE, only extreme alienation. The world feels massive and entirely designed, and yet I had no place in it; all other life seemed to have been assimilated into the architecture itself. It was like I missed the ascension. Everyone else had left their bodies behind, and so there was no reason for anything to be designed for the organic. The game trafficks in existential dread. I felt like an outlier on a graph that didn’t even have any other data points. There was nothing but axes left.

I was hiking with a friend recently when we came into a long strip of open air, all the trees cleared to make a path for power lines to run through. Looking at the towers, we couldn’t help but chuckle at the implication of a ladder built into it: just a few thin metal rods sticking out far enough to wrap one’s hand around. Who would ever actually climb this? It seemed like a joke.

Blame!, the 1998 manga that NaissanceE draws from heavily, is a world made of these false concessions to usability. The comic is full of walkways without handrails over bottomless pits, and unlit tunnels just tall enough to fit a person inside. Most directly reminiscent of the “ladder” my friend and I laughed at is this set of stairs, built inches out of the wall. What human would design a world like this? In NaissanceE, of course, those stairs are present. You have to climb up them to proceed.

Naissance is the french word for birth. Fittingly, “NaissanceE” is a weird, palindromic distortion. It adds a letter and an unexpected capitalization, making the word more symmetrically pleasing while simultaneously stripping it of meaning. That design philosophy continues through the entirety of the game and its world. It is architecture for architecture’s sake, endless and beautiful and built with only a passing thought to its own practicality.

NaissanceE is challenging. It’s a hard game, and it resists classification as any sort of “story.” But its harshness is necessary for a vital question: what happens when we design ourselves out of the world? Whether by algorithm gone mad or some calamitous necessity, NaissanceE has so over-designed itself that there’s no room for us anymore. Sci-fi cities in the Blade Runner tradition are often hellish, but at least that 50-story Coke ad is a reminder that they’re built for habitation. There are no advertisements, no capitalist plots, no people present anywhere in the game. I don’t know what sort of techno-eldritch horror resides in the buildings of NaissanceE, but it seems inevitable that any humanity has simply fallen through the cracks.

 

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Shadow of the Past

Some of my earliest memories are packing up all the winter clothes I owned and making the long trek north to my Grandma’s house for the holidays. She lived in rural Minnesota, in a town called Chokio. In the 2010 census, Chokio had 400 residents; undoubtedly, it’s even less today. But when I was there, I didn’t really think about the town’s wilting industry or its aging population. Chokio felt like a magical, isolated little village. All I really remember are the great expanses of snow and empty roads, warm fires and my grandma’s fresh baked bread. It felt like it only existed for us to visit, once a year.

I didn’t get Shadow of the Colossus the same day it released, or even the same year. I was still in elementary school. But I read gaming magazines, and I heard rumblings, and over time I became obsessed with the idea of the game and its majestic quest to save a lost love by slaying beasts the size of mountains. Once, I was hospitalized with a sort of brain-destroying series of migraines called “thunderclap headaches.” The room I was sleeping in had a PS2, and between MRIs and spinal taps I remember asking a nurse if they had a copy of Shadow of the Colossus. They did not.

I got out of the hospital and bought myself the console. The original release has a reputation for technical difficulties, finicky controls and single-digit frame rates. But my relative inexperience with the medium, and general awe of the subject matter, meant that these issues barely registered for me. I have sense-memories of my first experiences of the game, triggered by some sort of emotional snapshot instead of a critiquing mind. I remember falling, maybe a hundred feet, onto the belly of the great climbing lizard. I remember being blinded by the faux-HDR sky.

Much of the midwest, for those who haven’t been or seen Fargo, is remarkably barren. Minnesota was included in a great glacial scrape some thousands of years ago, which ground down hills and filled in rivers and left ten thousand little holes that have since become lakes. It’s a place that lends itself to staring out car windows, watching thunderstorms form a dozen miles away and wondering about the silo with the caved-in roof that was visible on the horizon for ages before passing it.

As I returned, year after year, I slowly filled in my mental map of the surroundings. A train stopped on its tracks, the baseball field on the far edge, the massive grain elevator that was Chokio’s major visual landmark. I climbed up the elevator one year, looked out farther than I had ever been able to before, and still saw almost nothing. The endless farmland matches the sky in the midwest; vast and open and empty.

Compared to the 2005 release, 2018’s remake of Shadow of the Colossus is shockingly un-empty. Blank rock faces have been filled with gigabytes of bump-mapping, plains are dotted with acres of grass and shrubbery. The game’s world stretches far into the distance, farther than would have ever been possible on the PS2’s hardware. But for all its technical wizardry, what remains is an overpowering sense of loneliness. Standing on the top of a shrine, Wander can see from ocean coast to desert wall, and all the good it does is to drive home that he is absolutely, devastatingly alone.

Everything is sharper in 2018’s remake. The point of Wander’s sword, frequently engulfed in a geyser of black blood. The swell of water under a giant stone wing. The fear in a colossus’s eyes as it runs from a blazing torch. I’ve watched the game’s original opening more than a dozen times, and yet I was gobsmacked to see the blanket-covered Mono, already long dead, cradled in Wander’s arms as he made the long trek into the forbidden land. The original’s murky colors obscured this story beat that I should have intuited, but never reckoned with; before the game even started, he had traveled for weeks with only his horse and a corpse for company.

Gareth Damian Martin compared the original to Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog,” a painting which leaves virtually all of its world up to interpretation. 2005’s original, bound by technical restraints, found art in an impressionist style. It implied reality instead of emulating it. The pursuit of realism, he says, is a quest that may end in player alienation.

“The more that is described, the more that is defined about an image, the more settled it is. If everything is cleanly detailed, fully visible, and in its proper, well composed place, then what space is there for us to inhabit?”

And I don’t disagree. But, uniquely among video games, Shadow of the Colossus’ world actively defies habitation. It’s hard-edged and cold, with an everpresent wind that cuts through its virtual canyons. It’s maybe because of this sharpness that the forbidden lands, though as beautiful as a game world has been, are more inhospitable than ever. Breath of the Wild showed us how a world could be designed to lure a player in every direction, but Colossus takes the opposite approach. Every part of the world is striking, and yet none beckon. Even the most picturesque, unexpected waterfall is framed by sheer stone cliffs and falls into a bottomless basin.

My favorite part of the forbidden lands is right on the coast; there’s an open expanse of ocean and a rock to watch it from, framed by an enormous dead tree. The only part of the game that doesn’t feel actively hostile is the part where I can almost envision what lays beyond.

I haven’t been back to Minnesota since my Grandma’s death. Her funeral was in a small cemetery, surrounded by a couple trees. Almost every tree in Chokio was planted by hand. They’re each a tiny human act of resistance, fighting back against a flat and uncaring expanse.

I’m sure I’ll return at some point. I still have extended family there, and I love the landscape and the sky too much to stay away forever. But I don’t know which version of the state I’ll really be returning to. Is it possible to get back to the magical Christmas village, the town that only existed for me? Maybe all that remains is the reality of that world: cold winters and harsh roads and run-down buildings.

With Shadow of the Colossus, I now have both. I have the effortlessly beautiful impressionist masterpiece from 2005, and I’ve also got the cold realism of 2018. I can’t say which I prefer. Truthfully, I’ll never get the game back that I played as a kid, slack-jawed and awe-filled, just after leaving the hospital. But as I’ve grown, Shadow of the Colossus has grown with me. Each time I play it, I draw a little more out of its inhospitality. Each time I play it, I understand the pain of its world and its characters a little more.

One night, when my grandma had already been moved from her house into a retirement home, I read a report that the northern lights would be just visible from parts of the northern US. I walked down the empty streets of Chokio into an off-season cornfield, the dirt hard and uneven beneath my feet. Even at the time, I was aware that this moment, this silliness, was toeing the line between the fantasy of where I grew up and the weight of almost-adulthood.

I couldn’t see the northern lights. But I stood out in that field for a long time, the wind howling in my ears.

Jacob Geller has written about Shadow of the Colossus several times, and will likely continue to do so until he dies. He can be found on twitter, @yacobg42

Jessica Curry and the Walking Simulator

When I first played Dear Esther, I didn’t know it was groundbreaking. The experience- a prose-filled hike around an island- was slower and more contemplative than any of my other games. But I just figured that this “walking simulator” was a subset of gaming I hadn’t ever looked into, and the title benefitted from the same kind of refinement and iteration that had been improving shooters and RPGs for decades.

I later learned that Dear Esther wasn’t just a first for myself- it represented several steps forward for gaming as a whole. It was the first fully formed game in what would become known as the “walking simulator” genre, it was the first title from the The Chinese Room studio (who would later go on to develop Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs), and it was the first time Jessica Curry wrote music for a game.

The fact that Dear Esther was a success, both critically and commercially, makes it a landmark in the modern history of games. It indicated that gamers were seeking experiences more than just “fun,” and would indeed forego many conventions of their hobby if presented with something emotionally resonant. All of Dear Esther’s design decisions are, therefore, in pursuit of evoking an emotional response from the player. Its themes are melancholy and profound, and its locale is striking.

However, in the pursuit of emotionality, no single aspect of the game is more effective than the score. Jessica Curry’s compositions work as a tonal compass, a pace-setting tool, and even the voice of the game’s more enigmatic characters. Her score binds the many aspects of Dear Esther’s together. Her work’s influence extends far beyond this single title though. Without the soundtrack, it’s unlikely Dear Esther would exist as it does today, as a proof-of-concept for a completely new genre.

The landscape of modern gaming may look very different if not for the contributions of Jessica Curry.

Dear Esther’s story is difficult to write about, largely because one of the goals of the title was to have each player experience a slightly different chain of events. In the game’s new commentary track, even the creators all have slightly different interpretations of the story and meaning. As such, Curry’s score isn’t designed around specific plot occurrences; instead, she’s writing for tone. The narrative is obtuse, intentionally including plot holes and contradictions. The soundtrack of the game has to therefore work as a grounding force for the player, letting them feel the emotional beats of the story even while not understanding every detail.

The game starts slowly and without explanation. Placing the player on the shores of an island, it offers no assistance other than a man’s voice:

Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis…

While there’s little to contextualize the narrator’s prose, his words immediately throw the landscape into doubt. From the first steps forward, the island doesn’t ask to be taken literally. Instead of trying to figure out the specific chronology of the events- a car crash, a death, disease, alcoholism, and depression- I was able to let the words wash over me, understanding their tone without pulling apart their explicit details.

Carrying me in this mental state was Curry’s score, which leans heavily on repeated musical motifs with varied instrumentation. Sometimes, a track is played using the “traditional scottish” method- that is, unaccompanied strings with no vibrato- producing a frigid, lonely feeling. Later, the same theme may reappear full-bodied, warm violin alongside ghostly vocals and Curry’s piano accompaniment. The simple track that opens the game gradually warps, with electronic distortion and the always-somber violins holding familiar notes for an agonizing long time. Her music drove my emotional trip through the game; songs grow more disturbing as the narrator’s mind and body began to deteriorate, only to re-find its clarity and beauty in the potentially redemptive ending. Even without Dan Pinchbeck’s written word, Dear Esther’s score makes it an enormously moving journey.

Offering more than just raw emotionality, Curry’s music fits seamlessly into the world of Dear Esther. Although I’ve played the game more times than I can remember, it’s hard for me to pinpoint any specific musical cues. Instead, the songs are worked into the world itself and become as important of a voice as any of the spoken dialogue. Curry says that while writing this game, she “suddenly realized…the most important character is the island itself…The music populates the island.” Although Dear Esther may have only one speaking character, many of the scenes in the game read as a conversation; Pinchbeck’s writing is the voice of a man, and Curry’s music is what lets the island talk back.

Simply telling a story is difficult enough, but Curry also undertook the massive challenge of acclimating players to the pace of a walking simulator. Dear Esther is remarkably bold for the first in its genre, offering no accommodations to twitchy players used to the breakneck pace of mainstream gaming. In a world where the longest most gamers had gone without “gameplay” was the opening section of Half-Life, the prospect of walking forward for two hours with no running, jumping or shooting may have been hard to swallow. And yet, despite the bevy of criticism towards the idea of such a minimal game, Dear Esther never actually feels slow.

Curry overcomes this apparent contradiction by using music to subconsciously influence the player’s expectations. On the commentary, she mentions “entrainment”- literally controlling one’s heartbeat with the pace of her music. It’s this pace-setting that makes Dear Esther feel organic, not plodding. The tracks breathe in and out, written not to the beat of a metronome but seemingly in time with the player’s thoughts. Curry says that one of the most important things her score could do is leave space for the player’s imagination. The game has some moments totally absent of music, but each individual track is also absolute deliberate in its pace. Her score doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it shifts the body’s rhythms- “entrainment”- into a state most conducive to taking in the game as a complete experience.

When the pace of the player’s footsteps, the wind on the island, the rustling of the grasses and Curry’s unforgettable score combine, a speedier Dear Esther is just unimaginable. The player simply moves at the pace of the world, and that pace has been expertly set by the soundtrack of the game.

Saying that Dear Esther sent shockwaves through the medium is probably too violent a metaphor for such a contemplative genre, but the “walking simulator” is one of the most important developments for games in the past decade. Games like Gone Home and Firewatch have achieved widespread success and recognition beyond the usual gaming circles, with their intimate stories and broadly accessible controls. The Stanley Parable, The Disappearance of Ethan Carter, and Proteus have all iterated on the formula, while even mainstream titles like The Last of Us and Wolfenstein have taken notes from this so-called “barely interactive” subset of games.

All of the title’s excellent writing, and all of its striking visual design wouldn’t succeed if Jessica Curry’s score wasn’t so effective at connecting the player to the game’s world, and intimately linking that world right back into the game’s story. “Because they’re so simple, everything is exposed,” Dan Pinchbeck says on creating walking simulators. “Everything has to work.”

The complexity of the genre doesn’t come from the countless moving systems behind the scenes, but the same challenge that artists have faced for centuries- conveying intensely personal feelings to a world full of millions of unique experiences. Dear Esther’s specific details may change, but Jessica Curry’s score lets it tap into the timeless universality of emotion.

 

More of Jacob Geller’s writing can be found on his author page at Cane & Rinse, and more of his scattered thoughts are on his twitter, @yacobg42. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Mathew Dyason, creator of the excellent youtube channel “Game Score Fanfare”

Interactivity, Agency, and Institutional Oppression: Virginia’s Relationship with Control

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It was minutes from the end of Virginia, a game that I had until that point adored, and I was frustrated. I had just watched the apparent climax of the story, an emotional montage tracking the life and career of the game’s protagonist. The music was pitch-perfect, the editing was effective, and the final beats of the story were unexpected and melancholy. But it felt wrong.

Although Virginia had never given me true choices in how to continue, it had always let me drive the action of the story. I walked to my FBI superior’s desk to receive my orders, I clicked on a lock to pick it, and I sat quietly and drank with my partner.

Then the game took all this from me. It showed me a movie of my character, a cutscene in a game that had let me hold control every step of the way. To add salt to the wound, the cutscene was devastating. It was a cruel narrative twist, and a betrayal of the person I thought I had been controlling…and then the game kept going.

Virginia, as it turns out, has two endings. And unlike an RPG where your actions determine if you receive the “good” or “bad” finale, Virginia lets you experience both. The first, you watch. The second, you play.

Significant story spoilers for the game Virginia start here

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The story of Virginia is a deceptively simple one. As a new FBI agent, Anne Tarver (the player’s character) is tasked to accompany senior detective Maria Halperin on an investigation into a missing boy. However, Anne is given a second task: to spy and report on Maria. Over an effective mid-game, I worked, learned, and bonded with Maria. She took me to a wonderful little dive bar, she made me breakfast, and I eventually abandoned my secondary directive. Maria was my friend, and if the FBI wanted me to turn her in they could lock me in jail.

As it turns out, they did. The final day of the game opens with Anne waking to the police at her door, and subsequently being thrown behind bars for refusing to comply with her mission. After she languished in a cell for a while though, Anne did something I didn’t want- she gave in. She went to her director’s office and turned over everything she knew about Maria, her unorthodox experiments, and her unsanctioned relationships.

More than simply freeing her, this betrayal got Anne promoted. And over the next several minutes I watched it happen again and again. Anne rose the ranks of the FBI, informing on coworkers, colleagues, and friends. Anne didn’t adjust easily to her new role either; I watched the toll it took on her emotionally, unable to develop a single personal connection before being assigned to get them fired. Finally, with no more friends to betray, Anne is given the desk of her own boss. She welcomes a new young woman into the bureau, presumably about to set her on the same course of deceit and alienation.

And then I opened my eyes in the jail cell. And the game started to finale, again.

The second ending of Virginia is…messy. We jumped around in time, seeing Anne’s father, a ritual sacrifice, an alien abduction. Whereas the scene before was a logical, chronological story, this second ending is a trip. Maybe literally. It does start by taking a tab of acid…

If I had to define the two endings by styles of cinema, the first would be something grounded, a Fincher-esque crime drama, while the second would veer far into Lynchian-Twin Peaks territory. But judging them only on their visual content misses the massive difference in interactivity the two endings provide. Because the second ending, the messy, abstract, dreamscape one; in that one, I never had to give up control.

Despite walking simulators often being criticized for their lack of interactivity, there’s an undeniable difference between watching a character act and controlling them oneself, even if that control boils down to simply picking a direction to walk and look. I watched Anne turn in her closest friends, but I made the choice to chase after a UFO. Somehow, even though the UFO was far more foreign, controlling myself lent the scene a little bit of verisimilitude that was completely absent in the cutscene. I wasn’t just an onlooker in Anne’s life, I was participating in it.

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To be clear: I do not know what the UFO means at the end of Virginia. I can’t quite grasp the significance of an animal sacrifice, and I’m not sure what to make of the repeating broken key motif throughout the game. But I can guess at the importance of the differences between the ending I was shown, and the ending I played.

Although the game never makes explicit plot points out of the fact that both Anne and Maria are women of color, they stand out; they stand out in the predominantly white FBI, in the small, mostly-white town where the investigation takes place, and in the blindingly white ranks of video game protagonists. There are nods to activism in their past as well- an old SDS poster (Students for a Democratic Society) in Maria’s house hints at more radical views that she may have compartmentalized to work at an institution like the FBI.

The race of the characters are important given the first ending of the game, in which Anne narcs on her colleagues in order to climb the bureaucratic ladder. The men she gets fired are predominantly black and brown; like Anne, they’re anomalies in the FBI, and in the world of video games. And although the game never confirms that the people she’s turning in are innocent per se, they’re never shown as anything except kind, helpful, and trusting. In this ending, I watched Anne become complicit.

This ending doesn’t strip her of the humanity she’s earned throughout the rest of the story, but it does place her as a cog in a much larger machine. Her work stops serving any greater good. Anne Tarver, a black woman who made it in a monolithically white, male field, now apparently works to stop anyone else like her from achieving success.

When she opens her eyes back in the cell, it’s tempting to view the first ending as a bad dream. This is doing the narrative a disservice though. Anne’s journey through the FBI isn’t a fairytale ending, but it is an eminently believable one. It’s all too easy to find examples in real life that parallel the game. The story doesn’t even condemn Anne for her choices; although I may have been frustrated to see the character I connected with go down such a dark road, it never portrays her as evil or malicious. She’s simply going with the oppressive, institutional flow.

Perhaps because of its disconnect from reality, the second ending is definitely more hopeful. There are the supernatural events, but there’s also more of the story. We gain insight into the missing boy’s background, and his reasons for running away. I met Anne’s aging father, and learned more about where her drive and passion came from. The last scene of the game has Anne and Maria driving out of Virginia, leaving their jobs and their case behind. Just like the game let me take control back from the cutscene, it implies that Anne has made the decision to take back control in her life.

The path ahead is unknowable, but it’s a path that we chose.

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A Deeper Kind of Horror

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The first level of the game INSIDE is a terrifying gauntlet of masked men, dogs, and dark woods. A half dozen narrow escapes and near-death experiences later, the game suddenly shifts gears. The second level starts not with violence or fear, but with a dozen chicks following the protagonist around like he’s their mother hen. They chirp encouragingly and served no apparent purpose, other than a bit of unexpected companionship in the game’s lonely world.

After a cornfield and a muddy pasture, the chicks and I made our way into a barn together and were seemingly blocked from any progress. All the barn contained was a few hay bales and a mysterious machine: a machine built to suck in and churn out anything small enough to wander past it.

The chicks, apparently, served a purpose after all.

INSIDE is full of moments like this — initial confusion followed by the stomach-turning realization of what the game expects. It establishes dread. Everyone has seen a horror movie with a “Don’t go in there!” scene, like the attic in Paranormal Activity or the basement in Evil Dead, in which a character makes an ill-conceived and horrifying choice and pays the price for it. The tensest moments of those movies are in the approach, the careful creep down the stairs before discovering what monstrosity awaits.

Over and over, INSIDE confronts the player with a series of “don’t go in there!” moments. Unlike its movie counterparts, INSIDE never let me agonize while a third party did all the uncomfortable stuff. The game made me responsible. I had to turn on that machine to suck in the chicks, and I had to pull a parasite out of a horrible squealing pig, and I had to dive into the deep dark water even though I knew something awful lurked below.

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INSIDE only rarely pressured me into action. It allowed me to linger, staring uncomfortably at the screen and wondering if there was any way around what the game wanted. It has one jump scare, maybe two; it doesn’t traffic in shock. Playdead, the developer of the game, instead harnessed apprehension and anxiety to make truly unsettling gameplay without many of the horror genre’s usual tricks. Fear in INSIDE is a crawling angst, an unnerving drip of images and sounds that broke down my mental barriers and wriggled under my skin . Playdead isn’t new to this either. They’ve been doing it for years.

There’s a moment in their 2010 game Limbo when the spider that’s been chasing the player for most of the game emerges one final time, dying and missing most of its legs. It makes a few weak jabs and then collapses. Even while dead though, the spider blocks the way forward. There is no way back and no way over. The only way to progress is to approach the giant dead beast and pull its remaining limb, pull until the skin and sinew connecting it to the body snap, and push its oblong body until it forms a soft bridge across a pit of spikes. It’s sickening. I would have covered my eyes if my hands didn’t have to stay on my controller. And yet, the most powerful part of the experience wasn’t the detail in the spider’s dismemberment, or rolling its body across the ground. It was the moment I realized I would have to approach (and touch!!) the dead spider if I wanted to progress.

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The best example I’ve experienced of this ilk of preliminary dread came not from INSIDE or Limbo, but a tiny itch.io game called Anatomy (previously written about for Cane and Rinse by Alex Maskill). Anatomy’s only gameplay is walking around a dark house, finding cassette tapes, and returning to the kitchen to play them. Each audio recording details the way a room of the house resembles a part of the human body: the living room, a heart; the bedroom, an unconscious mind; etc. Anatomy gives each room an uncomfortably organic, almost sentient character before asking you to delve into that room and find the next tape. It’s a game built on apprehension, the same kind I feel when I look out a window at night and half expect to see someone looking back.

After listening to them over and over, the tapes in Anatomy start to degrade. The stable monotone of the unknown lecturer turns to static. Tapes hitch and skip, and others occasionally increase or decrease their volume wildly. Late in the game, one snaps. The lecturer’s voice gets louder and louder until it’s suddenly replaced by a woman’s voice, high and cold and somehow speaking directly into the player’s ear.

I look out of the bedroom window and I see a truck approaching. A young man steps out, approaches, and enters through the front door. His body is covered in swollen ticks the size of quarters. He’s walking through the downstairs hallway and laughing… He’s moving through the first floor, breaking and upsetting things. He goes to the basement and stands at the top of the stairs. I’m angry at him, so I slam the door. He falls down. I can feel his bones snapping. The ticks are bursting, oozing cold black blood everywhere. I can feel him being ground up, dissolved and torn, splitting and shredding. I leave the door closed. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

The entire layout of the house has been built for this one moment in Anatomy. The tape recorder sits on a table in the kitchen, and the kitchen sits at the end of a long, dark hallway. There’s no way to see down this hallway while the tape is playing, and so instead I stood in the kitchen, chills running up my arms and down my body as the woman in the tape whispered about this horrible man walking directly towards me.

He didn’t come.

Instead, as she continued to speak, I forced myself to turn to the one other door in the kitchen, the one the game kept locked throughout the entire playthrough. When she finished, leaving me to imagine whatever horrible thing lay below the house, that door swung open. The door to the basement welcomed me in, and my only option was to follow it down. Anatomy.png

 

 

Five Years of Guilt with Spec Ops: The Line

It’s been five years since Spec Ops: The Line released. Soon after it make its opening waves, I started writing a piece for a friend’s local zine about the game. My angle was how it got in your head, the way the game made you the “just following orders” protagonist as he burned civilians alive, killed American soldiers, and destroyed water supplies. This wasn’t a unique take, and, as I soon realized, it was also far too disturbing content for a high school activist publication. Five years on, I remember the setpieces of the game: the burning Burj Khalifa, the helicopter crash, the white phosphorus. But it was an incidental moment of gameplay, an accident in the heat of battle, that’s cemented itself in my brain half a decade later.

Spec Ops made me into a killer, and it didn’t care.

Let’s back up a bit. Spec Ops: The Line received a huge amount of attention shortly after release, when people realized that past the generic military-veneer lay a pretty scathing critique of modern military games. The main character, a shaved head with a gun and some combat boots, insists on carrying out a series of war crimes for the sake of the greater good. You, the player, go along with these ill-conceived plans because, for the most part, you have no choice. It’s a linear game. In the white phosphorus scene, a drone-bombing segment culminates in the incineration of a bunker full of refugees. It drives home a couple of the game’s theses: war is hell, and any video game that paints war as anything but hell is doing it a gross disservice.

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It’s an important point. It’s also, forgive me, a little on the nose. As the game slow-zooms on the burnt husk of a mother holding her child (see why I couldn’t write about this in a high school zine?), it actually lessens my feeling of responsibility. The game was designed to have you do this. There’s a cutscene highlighting it. If I, as a player, wasn’t able to do anything except this horrific act, it feels a little less horrific that I carried it out.

Maybe this is part of the game’s plan too; since I was just following the orders of the gameplay, I was complicit in the slaughter of its digital citizens and yet don’t feel responsible for it, just as the hundreds of real-life soldiers who claimed they were “just following orders” have said. Honestly, I don’t think this is the case though. Spec Ops wants you to feel this moment in your gut. It wants waves of guilt to wash over you as you contemplate what you’ve done.

Spec Ops actually gave me this gut-check hours earlier though, and it did so entirely without fanfare. Soon after entering Dubai, there’s a battle amidst a tent city of sorts. Precious belongings from dozens of different families litter the ground. Most of the population has already fled from the sounds gunfire, and now there’s just a deadly maze of ambushes from enemy combatants. Pinned down by gunfire and unable to move forward, I snuck around a corner and-

I’ve played many games where shooting civilians is allowed, or even encouraged. Modern Warfare 2’s controversial “No Russian” level had you mowing down people in line at an airport. Open-world titles like GTA or Infamous give you the option to massacre digital denizens of their respective cities. What I’m saying is, I’ve killed my share of innocent bystanders. It’s part of the language of violence video games communicate in. So when a scared woman in a hijab ran out from behind a tent and I instinctively pulled the trigger, it shouldn’t really have been a unique experience. And yet, that’s the moment from Spec Ops that sticks with me.

There’s a tweet from the aggressively political comedian Hari Kondabolu that I’ve thought about almost every day for the past several months.

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There are moments in Spec Ops that have concrete consequences for the protagonist. He’s bruised, bloodied, and burned by the time he shambles into the conclusion. This murder though; there was no consequence for this. No one ever reflects on the woman he killed among the tents, the squad never finds out, the loading screens never throw it back in your face with pithy quotes. This accidental casualty, the soldiers would probably say, is just part of the job.

And unlike the white phosphorus, this truly was my fault. The game didn’t force my hand one bit; I misread a situation and an innocent person died. And it was quick, and it was easy, and in the larger context of the game it meant nothing.

There’s a temptation to make moral choices big things in games. Everything else comes to a halt, as the game presents you with a binary decision: do you give the people the food, or save it for yourself? Do you rescue the school bus, or push it into a river of acid? After the decision, the game reacts. Maybe that school bus had a really neat new outfit, and the kids give you it as a reward. Morality is “gamified,” made easily digestible and karmically perfect so it’ll fit with the rest of the game’s systems. This isn’t how real life works, let alone during the terrors of war.

Spec Ops didn’t treat my murder like that. Instead, this digital civilian was given the same respect as one of the breakable bottles littering the tables of the tent city. And I think the reason this moment has stuck in my head for so long comes from the fear that war could actually do this to a human being. To dehumanize one’s enemies so effectively that death isn’t even meaningful anymore. For the ten seconds that my encounter with that woman took place, Spec Ops seemed to dare me to stop feeling, to become completely desensitized. In fact, this is a real loading screen “tip” from later in the game:

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Spec Ops: The Line taunted me with the fact that war in gaming is often little more than a toy, something to play with and then forget. So far, I haven’t been able to do that second part.

Check out this piece on Cane and Rinse as well!

Shadows in the Mist: The Fantastical, Grounded Worlds of Fumito Ueda

(This is another one that was published on caneandrinse.com first. Go check them out, they’re wonderful)

In the somewhat unlikely event that I experience complete, debilitating amnesia and wake up separated from my friends and family, there are few things I’ll know for certain about my past life. One of those things: my infatuation with the architecture of Fumito Ueda.

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My only tattoo, stretching across my ribs like it does across the forbidden lands, is the enormous bridge from his masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus. The bridge is a perfect microcosm of the world of the game as a whole; beautiful but lonely, enigmatic and foreboding. It seems like an unnatural part of the environment, and yet somehow an indelible part of it.

Despite my love for the structures of Shadow of the Colossus though, the crowded settings of his other works – ICO and The Last Guardian – are where his Ueda’s design sensibilities truly shine. An auteur of ruin and decay, Fumito Ueda has used the unique aspects of videogames to create some of the most strangely believable worlds in recent fiction.

Ueda appears dismissive of his own architectural themes. In the recently released book on Guardian, he was asked why he sticks to the ruined-beauty style he’s famous for. In response, he states:

“I was thinking about the limitations of level design… for example, if a player wants to get to a high place, they first need to get through this narrow place, or they need a bridge. Or places where the player would want a staircase and instead it’s destroyed. I neither love those things nor hate them- it’s not that I have as strong a desire to express a ruined world as everyone thinks I do”

There are a couple ways this quote can be read. On the surface, it appears that Ueda isn’t particularly attached to the themes of his world; he destroys bridges and stairs simply to give the player an obstacle to overcome. What he’s implying though is that the worlds exist, fully formed, before he builds a ‘game’ into them. Unlike reality, there’s no need for a game to have a pre-existing staircase before destroying it. He could design a number of challenges and build the world to fit them. He could, in fact, design levels with no staircases at all. Instead, he makes games in decayed environments because it’s seemingly inconceivable for him to create structures without their own internal logic.

Level design in games sometimes feels at odds with the majestic art of the world surrounding it. Having recently played the Ringed City expansion to Dark Souls III, I was disappointed to learn that I’d only be able to walk through a handful of alleys in the grandiose city; most of the environment is a fancy, but empty, backdrop.

It’s by defying this trend that Ueda’s settings feel so distinct. Despite the fantastical nature of ICO and Guardian, their worlds feel more grounded than any other I’ve experienced. One reason for that is the absolutely exhaustive exploration of these environments.

This exhaustive map of ICO (by the excellent Nomad Colossus) shows that there is almost literally no room in the enormous castle the characters don’t encounter. Similarly, the spruced-up view of the entire game map of The Last Guardian (below) shows, again, nary a place the player hasn’t been. Gazing out the windows in BioShock is lovely, but the sprawling city of Rapture never feels like much more than a skybox. In contrast, I left both ICO and Guardian knowing that my blood, sweat, tears, and/or feathers littered every inch of their locales.

An overview of The Last Guardian by redditor CandyKillerArt

As he’s mentioned in a couple interviews, Ueda has never visited a castle. Nor, reportedly, does he want to. Real-life knowledge, he says, would get in the way of his imagination. Ueda instead cites French architect-turned-painter Gérard Trignac as a major inspiration. Trignac’s arches, waterways, and towering façades are so reminiscent of Team ICO’s games they could be mistaken for concept art.

Another source of design is Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist at the forefront of the surrealist movement. Fixated on sparse environments, unusual buildings, and yellow lighting, Chirico’s paintings have a disquieting childishness that would later define Ueda’s characters. The hand-drawn cover for the European and Japanese releases of ICO (not the god-awful one for the United States) practically screams Chirico.
Trignac, left, Chirico, center, ICO, right

And yet, Ueda’s work isn’t just a static piece on a wall. His worlds are alive, created in accordance with the laws of the game’s own universe, rich with untold backstory and ravaged by time. Guardian’s crumbling structures are intentionally anachronistic, a rusted metal gate inside a tower of cold polished marble. It’s like they’ve been built and rebuilt on top of each other in a sort of rushed architectural colonization. ICO’s castle could have once been warm and hospitable, but generations of isolation and regression has turned it into an unforgiving fortress, retrofitted only to keep its subjects in and outsiders out. None of this is said, but all of it is felt.

Anyone could feel the difference between walking the streets of Edinburgh and those of Chicago; places carry the weight of their stories. Somehow, Ueda has imbued a wordless history within his beautiful, impossible, inhospitable worlds.

Personally, the worlds of ICO and Guardian remind me of Hayao Miyazaki’s flying city, Laputa, from his 1986 film Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Enormous but abandoned, futuristic but overgrown, shockingly beautiful and dismayingly temporary. When I first saw Castle in the Sky I was seized by a profound longing for a place that never existed outside the creator’s mind. Knowing that I’d never get to wander the overgrown streets or gaze up at the vine-covered skylights caused an almost physical sense of heartache. I remember feeling similarly as a kid, when I first learned about the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and then of their subsequent destruction. Fictional or not, the commonalities between these structures that captured my imagination are clear; driven by artistic ambition and/or hubris, humans created buildings that eventually proved to be as impossible as they appeared.

Fumito Ueda’s games have a sort of reverence for nature. In ICO, all that’s visible of the outside world is trees, and the conclusion takes place on a beach- the only naturally formed location in the entire game. Shadow of the Colossus paints the player as the villain for destroying remnants of the environment, and the boy in The Last Guardian simply wants to get back to his quiet forest village.

Artificial structures get no such deference. Like Castle in the Sky or the skyscrapers of Alexandria, each one of Ueda’s creations is ultimately destroyed; the castle crumbles into the sea, the marble tower collapses in on itself, and even my beloved bridge shatters under the feet of those who trespass upon it. Everything created by man is finite in Ueda’s works, and all of that created history is eventually meaningless in the face of the unforgiving environment.

For a few brief hours though, these three games gave me something I could never have from a painting, book, or film. I was allowed to wander. To explore a world that never was, but felt like it could have been.

Ashes to Ashes

This Eurogamer article was a great help in writing this piece.

The Beginner’s Guide and the Falsification of Memory

 

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(Two things- first, Cane and Rinse, a fantastic podcast and website, were kind enough to publish this piece on their website. Check it out hereSecond, like last week, I’ll pair this blog with another musical track from the game. Check that out here.)

I heard a piece on NPR once on a condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (or “HSAM”). It’s unbelievably rare, something like 50 cases in the entire world, and those afflicted remember…everything. Where they were on any given date, what they ate, what they were feeling, virtually every moment stays with them for the rest of their life. Like most real-life superpowers, the condition is also something of a curse. Relationships grow and fall apart, but the feelings involved never fade from memory; people with HSAM can perfectly remember what it felt like to love someone who left them,  or to hate someone and have to forgive them. Their lives are never-ending playbacks of the past, with all the joy and pain that brings.

Most of us, thank god, aren’t saddled with this ability. We recontextualize the emotions of our memories as time moves forward, the sting of break-ups and arguments eventually dulling to a manageable level. We are, in a way, lying to ourselves. Painting over the details with a broad brush, we reduce complex relationships to simple mental narratives. With respect to those with HSAM, this aspect of the mind isn’t a flaw; it’s a feature. Finding a way to move past a traumatic incident is necessary to keep living a happy, productive life. Simultaneously though, failing to learn from those experiences is a great way to become trapped in repeated patterns, reliving the same mistakes with different people over and over again. Maybe this is why the truth of those painful events sometimes slips past our mental defenses; it often happens to me in the middle of the night, waking me with an unexpectedly clear and agonizing memory of some long-past relationship.

 

The Stanley Parable, Davey Wreden’s extensively discussed dissection of narrative gaming, is not an experience about memory and emotional pain. His next release however, The Beginner’s Guide, tackles those topics head-on.image

Before we start, two important notes:

One, The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most impactful narrative experiences I’ve ever played. If you haven’t played through the game, I encourage you to do so before reading.

Two, a crucial element of the game’s story is the rejection of attempting to understand a person by the art they create, as detailed by Ian Danskin in this video. Therefore, it would be a betrayal of one of the game’s central principles to try to extrapolate any information about the real-life Davey Wreden, which is made significantly more challenging by the fact that the narrator of the game purports to be Davey himself. There is a separation between the real, living Davey and the character he plays in this game, and it’s important to not conflate the two. Real-life Davey’s motivations are his own. Davey the Narrator, however, has clearly experienced immense emotional trauma. The game we play exists as a response to this pain.

For the first couple “levels,” The Beginner’s Guide doesn’t appear to have much of a story at all. It’s introduced as a tour of sorts through a series of games Davey’s friend Coda created. These games are esoteric, abstract. In one, the player is required to sit for an entire hour in a jail cell before progressing. Another is a simple hallway from point to point, which turns out to be just one in a massive system of inaccessible, and normally hidden, pathways. These tricks and shortcuts to the levels are revealed our narrator, Davey, who often allows the player to bypass the more oblique sections of Coda’s creations. He tells us he’s doing this to reveal a throughline in the work, a mystery hinted at by the consistent presence of identical lampposts. While he may be making minor adjustments to the playability of the games, Davey says, it’s all in the pursuit of understanding Coda as an artist.

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When Coda’s work starts getting tonally darker, Davey tells us that he feared this was indicative of the mental health of his friend. The games represent the isolation Coda was feeling, he tells us, the fact that he was getting stuck in a rut with no way out. In an attempt at encouragement, Davey secretly sent out Coda’s levels to a variety of players and critics; he hoped that positive encouragement would help Coda snap out of his funk. Maybe then he would start making games that were, by Davey’s definition, fun and interesting again.

I used to get so much joy out of watching him create…

Davey says, explaining to us repeatedly why he showed off Coda’s work without his permission, why he felt it was the only option, why this was really the best thing for Coda to experience. His actions, he insists, were entirely based on the needs of his friend.

Coda’s final game is one directed at Davey directly. It’s a cold, hostile tower, a grueling trek through purposely unplayable obstructions. Unlike any of the other levels, it necessitates the kind of meddling that Davey has done with all Coda’s other work. The “reward” for hacking through the tower is a direct confrontation with the narrative Davey has told us all along.

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Up until this point, Davey’s voice is the only one we hear throughout the game. As such, I took his description of his relationship with Coda at face value. But in this final level, we see that Davey’s telling of their story is far from objective. In the one time we get to hear Coda’s voice unfiltered, he’s revolted by what Davey has done. One of the walls reads:

When I am around you, I feel physically ill

This is the Coda that Davey tried to block out. Throughout The Beginner’s Guide, Davey’s tour guide act implies that he knows some greater truth about Coda, one that he’ll try and impart unto us. He has no such knowledge. The Beginner’s Guide spends a long time lying to the player about the nature and purpose of these games. Misleading us is a side-effect though; the true conflict is that Davey has been lying to himself.

Would you stop changing my games? Stop adding lampposts to them?

Coda writes, revealing that Davey has been doing far more than simply making the games more convenient. He’s been (literally) gaslighting himself; changing the games in an attempt to change the reality of his relationship with Coda. His lampposts were an attempt to force an understanding where one simply didn’t exist. His tale of Coda’s self-destruction, an idea based his interpretation of Coda’s games, became absolutely necessary to Davey’s conceptualization of self. With it, he’s a detective, solving the mystery of his friend’s coded cry for help. Without it, he’s just a person who destroyed a man’s safe space through his own selfish need for approval.

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Davey’s need to fill this role of artistic interpreter made him actually manipulate the art he was so desperate to understand. He couldn’t let himself be the villain of his own narrative, and so he simply created a fictional one. Those identical lampposts, which he promised would make sense eventually, were an artificial attempt to shed some light on the story he had already told himself. In reality, he’s completely in the dark.

Davey is the villain of this story. But he’s an unbelievably sympathetic one. I’ve had friendships fall apart over the years, in ways not dissimilar to how Davey lost Coda. He reduces Coda to an idea, a sort of surrogate for all his own emotional pain. And once their friendship is over, Davey is unable to move forward without deifying or demonizing Coda. He can’t understand that both of them are just people, and there are some things that simply can’t be changed.

I know that I did an awful thing, and I’m doing it again right now…That’s how badly I need to feel something again. It’s like I’m an addict.

If I apologize, truly and deeply, will you start making games again?

Davey bargains and pleads, but ultimately runs out of fictional avenues to escape down. Coda just doesn’t come back. There’s nothing else to do except what he’s been avoiding this whole time; Davey finally has to confront himself.

If I knew that my life depended on finding something to be driven by other than external validation, what would that even be?

There is no true closure in The Beginner’s Guide. Davey trails off mid-sentence, leaving us to walk through the epilogue of the game in silence. But there’s hope in the uncertainty. In his final moments of narration, Davey doesn’t try to analyze Coda, guide the player, or make any pretensions of understanding. For the first time, he’s attempting to come to terms with himself.

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Dark Souls and the Consecration of a Virtual Space

(First, an experiment: try listening to this while reading. It should help.)

What makes a place feel holy? When there’s such breadth in what different people consider religious or spiritual, it’s impossible to nail down a concrete list of requirements. Holiness is entirely dependent on context; there’s a reason taking communion is a meaningful experience while eating a wheat thins is done in fistfuls while watching infomercials at 3am. As a kid in Yom Kippur services, virtually everything went over my head but I knew there was something going on beyond my comprehension. It’s not strictly necessary to understand the experience- it was just clear to me that the room full of chanting Jews was different, weightier, than a classroom full of chanting kids. A place being holy is wholly (sorry) dependent on an individual’s experience there, but a strong sense of history, power, and scale are particularly common factors. So in a video game, when the world is fake and true “history” doesn’t exist, what makes some places feel so spiritually powerful? What makes Ash Lake feel holy?

Lore is an easy thing to create. Usually in the form of interesting anecdotes, games like Destiny have stories for every gun, side character, and spaceship. These often feel inconsequential however, like they were written long after the other parts of the game were already designed. A meaningful history, on the other hand, has affected the state of the world. To use a commonly cited detail, the now-abandoned city of Anor Londo in Dark Souls was shared by humans and giants. Therefore, it has stairways designed for both.

Never is there a cutscene where a friendly human and giant walk side by side, chatting about the genius of the engineers in accommodating two species. It simply exists, without explanation, because the city’s history requires that it would. Dark Souls is often accused of relying too heavily on lore, but the world of the game is fundamentally shaped by the stories from the past.

So it establishes history, which is great but still a far cry from anything holy. Bennett Place, the location in which the civil war ended, was a couple miles from where I grew up. History-filled? For sure. But I never for a moment considered there to be anything sacred about that field; like most of Dark Souls, it’s simply an interesting place to navigate and learn about but. For it to transcend into some feeling of spirituality, the location itself- not just the activities that took place there- has to hold immense importance for the world and its residents. Often, the place is “before time,” a relic with an origin far before collective memory. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Link descends to Old Hyrule, an ancient castle that was built long before the earth was covered by an enormous sea. This place feels holy. It plays on religious tropes, with stained glass windows and tall, arching ceilings, but also has a kind of primordial power; like Stonehenge or massive statues of Buddha, its existence feels so impossible that sculpting it required the assistance of a higher power.

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Dark Souls goes a step than Zelda further by establishing a creation story early on:

“In the beginning, the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons”

Now, not only does this world have a tangible history, it has a big bang, a garden of eden. There is a concrete beginning of time in Dark Souls, but much like in real life, that beginning factors very little into how the game is played. I ran around, killed monsters, died a lot, and the metaphysics of the world faded from my mind. Which, of course, made it all the more shocking when I found out that this point of origin still existed.

Ash Lake is unbelievably well-hidden. After trudging through a toxic swamp, following a path into a tree, breaking through two illusory walls, and carefully climbing down the inside of the tree’s trunk, I emerged onto the shores of a beach. My character stood on a sandbar, somehow preserved in the middle of an endless expanse of water with hundreds of trees, just as massive as the one I emerged from, in the distance. There are only two places in Dark Souls outside of boss fights that have music. The first is firelink shrine, a home of sorts that’s revisited several times throughout the game. The second is Ash Lake. The chills I got hearing the unearthly choir and seeing the coastline stretch into the distance…Dark Souls is no stranger to impressive vistas, but Ash Lake is in a class of its own. The area does, in fact, feel infinite.

There’s a machine in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, called the “Total Perspective Vortex,” that makes a person go insane by showing them how small they are in context of the entire universe. This was effectively how I felt when I walked out of the tree trunk and into this area. The dozens of hours I had spent striving to progress, dying over and over again, ostensibly to have some impact on the world…all seemed so utterly insignificant here. Ash Lake’s power and scale feel almost incomprehensible; within the context of Dark Souls, it’s positively divine.

Made at FreeGifMaker.me

2:22AM and Emotional Abstraction

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There are several times in my life when I’ve stood in front of a piece of art, feeling a lot, without really understanding what or why I was experiencing those particular feelings. It happened once when I was in a dimly lit room full of Rothkos, dwarfed by enormous colored rectangles that I had neither the art literacy, nor the emotional maturity to come to terms with. This is how I end up interacting with a lot of modern art. The motivations and techniques of the artist, to the extent that’s even possible, comes completely secondary to the subliminal ~vibes~ of a painting or sculpture. Galleries like this make me feel like I’m communicating in a language that I don’t actually speak, but can somehow feel. Instead of consciously processing it, my body just reacts to stimuli that my mind can’t wrap itself around.

I’ve never felt this more than when playing 2:22AM.

The game is very loosely a take on late-night television, flipping through different “scenes,” intercut with grainy footage of showers, or empty intersections, or dandelions, or…

It’s a game that plays with the notion of agency. Often, there is no way to interact with a scene. Sometimes clicking performs an action, sometimes it gives full freedom of movement. The scenarios last probably around a minute each, though time is another factor freely manipulated by the game. Occasionally, progressing will actually require accomplishing a task- although this task may be as simple as opening a refrigerator- while other times, it will simply change on its own with no warning.

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The entire experience, which lasts only about fifteen minutes, has the air of thoughts barely-remembered, like waking up and not knowing if a memory stems from years ago or a dream the night before. The scenes rarely aim for a specific emotion. Some have an ominous air, like a shovel that will only dig a grave-like rectangle when clicked. Most, however, exist largely separated from any specific cultural connotations. There’s a ladder that stretches infinitely in either direction, a forest in which the trees start gently lifting off the ground, a vast and empty cityscape full of featureless buildings that stretch in long corridors towards the horizon.

2:22AM doesn’t feel crafted by human hands. Much like a Rothko, there’s something innate about this game, a sort of gravity that’s always existed and has just happened to be shaped into this form. It’s a testament to the ability of art to elicit feeling simply by being, to have resonance without tying itself to pre-existing touchstones. 2:22AM stands as a complete work that defies analysis or dissection, but still managed to elicit a viscerally emotional response from me. The hair stood up on the back of my neck for the majority of my playthrough of 2:22AM. I don’t think it’s important that I understand why.

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You can find the game here.