Letters Of Love: Galatea

By RPS on July 20th, 2009 at 9:00 am.


This week will be punctuated by some guest-posts from writer chums of RPS. The first of these is by Lewis Denby, and is about Galatea by Emily Short.

I’m writing this with a tear in my eye.

I don’t cry at games, really. I’ve been close a couple of times before – Dear Esther’s conclusion was particularly heartbreaking, and Braid’s general solemness made it somewhat emotionally draining – but I’ve just played through Galatea for probably the twentieth time, and it’s still so marvellous, so perfect and so tragic that I find it impossible to remain unmoved.

Still totally caught up in the moment, but honestly? Nothing’s this good in videogames. Nothing.

Galatea’s an expressive, forward-thinking work of interactive fiction (IF) by Emily Short. The setup? You’re an art critic, standing in a room, observing a statue. The whole experience takes place in a fixed position, as you interrogate this magical, talking piece of sculpted rock for your report. If you know anything about IF, you probably know that already. But there’ll be a huge abundance of people playing games who remain uninitiated. And, from what I can tell, there’s a huge abundance of mainstream developers who fall into the same category.

Let’s talk about narrative in games. What springs to mind when thinking about the finest examples of storytelling within the medium? Half-Life? Planescape, maybe? Probably BioShock for the younger generation. When Resolution colleague Christos Reid appeared on the Big Red Potion podcast, and was asked what he considered to be gaming narrative’s crowning achievement, he said Super Mario Bros. Crispy Gamer’s Kyle Orland, on the same show, said Space Invaders.

This is the thing. We’re often guilty of looking at it from the wrong angle. All the cinematics in the world, all the fabulous cut-scenes, high-budget voice acting, huge, expansive, conspiracy laden plots – they’re all getting tiresome, and not evolving the videogame in any meaningful way. Quizzed about their choices by a clearly bemused pair of podcast hosts, Reid and Orland both agreed: the strength of the videogame is not in telling complex, confusing stories. It’s in showing simple ones.

The depth and detail of Galatea are far from straightforward, but it still strikes me as a logical step for the discussion to take. Space Invaders, Orland argued, is superb because everything you need to know is laid out in front of you. Even by hearing the name, you’ve a pretty good idea of what it entails. Once you get to the in-game screen, with you at the bottom and the eponymous foes dropping in from above, you’ve a full understanding of what’s going on. The Earth is being attacked. You have to prevent it from happening.

In other words, it’s the old adage of showing, not telling. The result is a game you understand simply by playing it. And, through a very different set of methods, Galatea does exactly the same thing. Most obviously, it’s entirely text-based. But none of this text ever tells you what your job is, and rarely is Galatea’s emotional turmoil laid out in front of you. It’s all encoded sweetly into the subtext of what’s going on. When you touch Galatea’s marble skin, she flinches. By simply interacting in a logical manner, you learn more about this character than any cut-scene or info-dump could ever hope to convey.

What’s interesting is how Galatea strikes a masterful balance between intricacy and simplicity. Told as a linear sequence of events, the story of how Galatea came to be in this room is as basic as they come. It’s worth noting that this, the actual plot bit of the plot, is the only thing Galatea hands to you on a plate. She explains it all in an answer to one, possibly two questions. More fascinating is how the complexities of the character design – not just that of Galatea, but of peripheral characters we never meet – are presented. These are the incidental glances, the candid nuances of her dialogue, even a short pause before an answer. They all add up to create, out of what should have been an inanimate object, one of the most plausible, human characters we’re ever likely to meet in a game.

If Galatea can achieve this through pure text, it’s a mystery as to why those with the access to flashy audiovisual techniques aren’t attempting something similar. Obviously, an entire game set in a single room is unlikely to top the sales charts any time soon, but I’m yet to see even an isolated sequence in a supposedly mature role-playing game even approach the level of narrative mastery displayed in Galatea.

And in terms of approaching something akin to an art game… well, Galatea transcends that. There’s nothing particularly showy or artful about its presentation. Indeed, it’s basically straightforward literature. Heck, literature’s a pretty big word to use in connection with a computer game, but it’s the modesty of Galatea’s approach that allows the real ingenuity to stand out here. It’s not an art game; it’s /a game about art/. And through merely simulating a viewing of this fascinating creation, the art embedded within the game’s content pierces through the surface. It’s a brave approach to take, but one that proves remarkably effective.

That alone would have garnered a sniffle, especially considering how deeply upsetting Galatea’s story turns out to be. Her personification was an unhappy one, and the existence thrust upon her as tragic as they come. But the tear came from somewhere else. The tear’s personal.

Because as fascinating, courageous and beautiful a creation as Galatea is, she’s not what resonates with me the most. That award goes to the player’s character, the critic, as he embarks on a subtle journey of discovery without ever leaving the room.

From this perspective, it’s all about growing up and learning to understand what’s alien. It’s about dropping pretenses, egos and prejudices. It’s about realising the value of others’ creations, and never losing sight of your own role relating to them. It’s about learning to accept criticism, even as a critic. It’s about becoming more measured, but also understanding that wearing your heart on your sleeve is okay. It is, in essence, the same journey I’m having to embark on, as I take my first steps into this scary world of writing about videogames.

I started doing this on a hobbyist basis as a precocious teenager in the early 2000s. I matured, thinking my way into the industry would be to remain stern, formal and enormously critical. But I grew up realising otherwise. My first two articles to catch the eyes of respected editors were, effectively, unashamed love letters to tremendous games. And if you let him, during the mere fifteen-or-so minutes Galatea takes to play, your critic will learn to love a spectacular marble lady with the deepest and warmest of souls.

So in an odd way, though I wasn’t really aware at the time, I think Galatea was probably something of a guru to me. For a game to have such a profound effect on your own life, be it personally or professionally, is a wonderful thing – and if I’ve done it even the slightest speck of justice here, I can sleep soundly tonight. It’s a spellbinding piece of moment-capturing character work, one that a lot of people in positions of industry power would do well to pay more attention to. It’s a piece of literature that positions Emily Short as some sort of godlike figure in my mind, for absolutely defining the potential of interactive storytelling. It’s exquisite and wonderful. It’s difficult to stop enthusing.

I will stop. But I’ll stop with a shameless plea that those who haven’t already played this do so. At worst you’ll find it interesting to observe how Short slowly builds the relationship between critic and critiqued, or how subtly a sense of place is conveyed. Better, you’ll find it life-affirmingly brilliant, as I did. But if it truly strikes that magical chord, you could find yourself moved beyond any other game around. At best, you could really learn something, and that’s just marvelous.

You can read/play Galatea online here. (Type > for the command prompt.)

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96 Comments »

  1. Larington says:

    Just don’t go looking for information on the alternative endings, as it could damage the experience for you. At the very least, play it through once before falling to that temptation.
    In a sense, the game also appears to try and be a reflection of the player, so the resulting experience can be quite personal in a curious way.

  2. Heliocentric says:

    I’ve even gone into nvidia’s control panel but i can’t force anti aliasing. I should probably wait until it gets patched in natively, i can’t stand all the rough edges.

    If you are having trouble leaving the room try using no-clip.

  3. Nighthood says:

    @Heliocentric: Are you sure you’re playing the right game here? As a text adventure, I think the rough edges and lack of anti-aliasing are pretty subtle.

    Made me laugh though.

  4. Bear says:

    @Nighthood: He was joking, I’m sure.

    I hope.

    Anyway:
    A TEXT ADVENTURE!
    Man, I might need to pick this up.

    Good article, guest weeks should be more common :P

  5. Bob says:

    These things always p me off as you have to type set keywords, you can’t just type “why”. So it always feels like a crappy game, you spend most of the time working out the keywords or trying to remember them. My memory is crap for stuff like this, so I’m going to pass on this lol

  6. Lewis says:

    A quick addition, then: Galatea has about the most expansive set of recoginsed words and phrases in any of these. There’s a stunning amount you can do.

  7. Bob says:

    Don’t seem to be getting anywhere lol I’m going to go try that Dear Esther, as I’m fed up seeing “That’s not a verb I recognize.” lol

  8. roBurky says:

    Galatea really is special.

  9. PC Monster says:

    @roBurky: Special as in ‘Special olympics’? Sounds like a weird game…

  10. Martin says:

    I really wanted this to be good but when I after 5 minutes of play accidentally left the exhibition by typing “go” I was in no way inclined to return.

    It’s nice that the author loved this but I can not for the life of me fathom why. I guess I’m not “artsy” enough…

  11. Eidolon says:

    It’s wonderfully written, but so frustrating when you want to ask her something or do something, yet can’t due to the inflexibility of commands. I have a feeling that has more to do with my inexperience with IF games.

    I’m going to persist, however, as it really intrigues me.

  12. Tei says:

    I think the problem with games is that “action” is the antitesis of drama. Drama charge “something”, and action is a catarsis… it uncharge “something”. If you manage to have action withouth catarsis, you can have some drama.

    I have played 2 games with this.

    That one about spys, made with the HL engine, with big box heads.
    And another one, about a trip on a mountain.. .on that other game whats a skull, and you was unable to exit, and forced to talk with the skull ( much like a IF game).

    But, again, I could be wrong. Maybe tomorrow a dude will release a Galaga-clone with drama, and emotional. For some people Darwinia was somewhat emotional.
    We have tons of emotions in games. God of War 2 is visceral. Turrican 2 for c64 is epic. Alien 8 for spectrum is supposedly terrorfull.

  13. roBurky says:

    PC Monster: No.

  14. Carra says:

    Text adventures, the last one I played was Starship Titanic back in the nineties. I remember I was pleasantly surprised to get a decent answer when I asked “do you like nirvana?”.

    I’ll give this one a go.

  15. Bob says:

    @Carra don’t expect the same from this lol

  16. pzykozis says:

    Eh…? Maybe I’m just terrible at this but.. I finally managed to greet her.. and then spent another 5 or so minutes trying to say anything she understood at all and failed…

  17. Wilson says:

    Very interesting. I’ve played it twice just now. I’ll play it again after having a break. I must say it does suffer somewhat from the ‘find the keyword’ problem that almost all IF suffers, but in this case it’s partly because the game invites you to think of so many potential topics rather than just having poor word detection.

    I must say, I would have like a little more guidance at the beginning. You’re a critic, but what are you trying to do? Just something to get me started down an avenue of discussion. Once you’ve played it once you have plenty of things you want to talk about, but at first I felt a little lost (and not because I had too many options, but because I couldn’t find the right keywords to start conversations about what I wanted to discuss).

    It’s certainly a fascinating experience though.

  18. EyeMessiah says:

    Yes, Galatea is lovely. Like a lot of lovely IF you really need to spend a bit of time getting your head around the parser to get the most out of it.

    Its a bit like DF I suppose, until you can get beyond the interface you will likely struggle to really get something from the experience.

    If you are interested in getting into IF (and you should be – much of it is superb!) Galatea is probably not a great place to start. Its doubtlessly lovely, but also a bit abstract & meta.
    My suggestion would be Adam Cadre’s excellent Photopia – although there is a caveat here too – its really worth playing in an interpreter that can display full-colour.

  19. Lewis says:

    Photopia being the one I almost wrote about. It too is exquisite.

  20. panik says:

    That’s not a verb I recognize

  21. Fede says:

    Remember to write “help” the first time you play, to see how to enter input.

    I really *really* like it. Every time I replay Galatea I find out something new, the ending I found out this time left me with my mouth open. Galatea can be very deep at times.

  22. BigJonno says:

    Colour me intrigued, I will be checking Galatea out later. In the meantime, I’d like to raise a point from the article that I heartily disagree with:

    “Reid and Orland both agreed: the strength of the videogame is not in telling complex, confusing stories. It’s in showing simple ones.”

    No. No, no, no, no, no. Pictures can do showing. Movies can do showing. Showing is not the strength of videogames as it’s simply pilfered from other media, although it’s often better at it than movies are. (Was anyone else reminded of Half Life or Portal when they saw the opening few minutes of Wall-E?) The strength of videogames, the element that makes them unique is doing.

  23. Corrupt_Tiki says:

    Well where do I start, I am new to these Text Adventure things, the only one I have played before was Zork.. and I hated it with righteous fury. I Would really like to get into this galatea one, but for the life of me can’t figure out how…
    I am used to playing ADHD shooters not Text adventures…

  24. Lewis says:

    Well, yeah, doing as well. I kind of lumped it all in. You’d be better listening to the podcast than my terrible paraphrasing. :-)

  25. BigJonno says:

    What, actually look at source material instead of taking a second-hand account as evidence to support my own viewpoint? Don’t be ridiculous, I’m a videogames writer! ;)

  26. Eidolon says:

    I’ve gotten about 3 differents endings now, all “bad”, and I’m hooked.

    question: Is there a way to move the critic round so that he can look her in the face?

  27. Corrupt_Tiki says:

    How are you supposed to reach the end?
    I am much better at CS:S

  28. Fede says:

    @Eidolon: by talking you can make her turn her face towards you

  29. pzykozis says:

    @ Fede thanks for mentioning help my conversations have gotten better exponentionally, this is definately an interesting medium though, im not sure how people have gotten these endings I just appear to be able to talk to her continuously.

  30. Eidolon says:

    Yeah, I’ve gotten her to turn half way round, but I was trying to think laterally. I guess that it’s a literary device used to symbolise how engaged she is.

    Any came that makes me type “sorry” reflexively, without even considering that I’m playing a game and I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings, must be a winner.

  31. wiper says:

    I’ve loved Galatea for many years now (Photopia too, though for almost opposite reasons: Galatea is the I, Photopia the F), and have previously stalled on trying to write love letters to the game as I simply wasn’t able to do it justice.

    As such, I’m so very glad to see it getting recognition here. A fantastic game, that it works despite the limits of its conversation system (which is an amazing system for IF, but still by its nature massively restrictive) never ceases to amaze me. A beautiful, beautiful game.

  32. Fede says:

    @pzykozis: keep talking; some endings are very short, others are pretty long.
    If you don’t know what to do next, just read again what she said and ask about topics you haven’t encountered yet. Or ask again when you think she didn’t tell you everything and your “relationship” has progressed.

  33. ghor says:

    @Eidolon
    You could try asking her to turn around.

    I love Galatea, it’s probably my favourite IF game. I love the concept of IF, but in reality I’m usually terrible at them and never manage to finish them, so it’s refreshing to play something like Galatea where there aren’t any puzzles to solve, and I actually feel motivated to explore and learn more about the world. Well, the statue in this case.

    Hint to people who struggle with the interface, you’ll spend most of the time asking and telling her about things, and the game provides shortcuts to doing this so “a topic” is the same as “ask her about about topic” and “t topic” is “tell her about topic”.

    >t interface

  34. pzykozis says:

    Yay finally I had an ending… though I’ll not really say it was a good one..

    I just stumbled upon it all of a sudden which was refreshing and disappointing at the same time, since we were starting to strike up a proper conversation but oh well there’s always next time.

  35. Eidolon says:

    Oh man, this is so sad. Poor Galatea.

    Thanks for making me play this, Lewis.

  36. Dracko says:

    Getting the joyous endings in Galatea are their own reward.

    What I’m implying is she can be one saucy customer, which is as funny as it is touching.

    Reid and Orland both agreed: the strength of the videogame is not in telling complex, confusing stories. It’s in showing simple ones.

    This bears constant repeating. Just look at the works of Jordan Mechner. Or indeed classic arcade titles.

    Someone should write about Spider and Web. It’s the closest games will ever get to an Æon Flux short – which were already pretty gamey in themselves.

  37. Taillefer says:

    “If Galatea can achieve this through pure text, it’s a mystery as to why those with the access to flashy audiovisual techniques aren’t attempting something similar.”

    I know that may have been a bit of a throwaway comment. But clearly words are better at it. The written word strikes a personal connection between what is written and the mind of the reader. It’s that exact point of images are better at showing. Words will delve deep into your mind and create a personal connection, telling you how every sense is affected. Describe every subtle thought and emotion. They can give you the history, the present, the future. Metaphors describe the empty pit of despair of somebody falling into depression, or the flood of warmth, radiating from their chest from love at first sight.

    Of course, it still requires an immense skill and talent as a writer. But showing such things through imagery is, debatably, much more difficult.

    Also, Emily Short is amazing.

  38. Kast says:

    Ah, Galatea… I remember her like a old man on his porch remembers his first love.

    The thing is, it’s alright if you don’t achieve an ‘ending’ but leave the room and go back to your peers with their champagne and canapes – you’ve still told a story.

    Sometimes just saying nothing can give results as Galatea continues a train of thought or asks a question of her own. If you anger her and don’t mean to, remember you can always apologise.

    As we’re talking of IF’s, I can’t recommend Anchorhead highly enough if you fancy Lovecraftian horror. I’ve been meaning to play Blue Laguna but that got lost in getting a new computer. Guess I’ll have to download it again.

  39. Carra says:

    I gave it a try this afternoon and I find it to be quite a bit of fun. I’ll have to dig deeper! Although in trying to dig her I did get an ending…

    Interactive fiction reminds me of the brilliant Masq. I must have replayed that game twenty times. Highly recommended.

  40. A-scale says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. I intend to play the game later today. However, the award for most pretentious statement I’ve ever heard in regards to a game is “it’s not an art game, it transcends that”. I intend to keep that one in my arsenal right next to the glue on neckbeard when I attempt to satarize a pompous gamer.

  41. Dracko says:

    Yeah, it’s pretty damn stupid to bring up art games in the first place. Honestly, if we want the level of discourse to improve, we really have to stop this pathetic need to justify games to our parents or art snobs or what have you.

  42. LionsPhil says:

    +5 to that, Dracko.

    Also if we, you know, want games that are actually good for the purpose of entertainment, rather than making limp-wristed types get all teary-eyed and verbose.

  43. Dracko says:

    Jordan Mechner still made the best art games anyway lol

  44. Lewis says:

    I’d defend that by saying that, if anywhere’s a good point to bring up the art debate, it’s in a game about a work of art, set in an art gallery.

    Besides, as I said, it’s not an art game. It’s pushing in exactly the opposite direction, which is why it’s transcendent. Maybe that wasn’t clear enough.

    LionsPhil: Gay jokes? Really?

  45. aoanla says:

    @Wilson:
    I agree about the limitations of the parser only being evident because of the topics you are invited to consider. I’m having a frustrating time trying to discuss metaphysical concepts, with the parser repeatedly telling me that I can’t frame the question… (but, in a less ambitious work of IF, I’d be impressed with what topics have been thought of).

  46. Wooly says:

    How do I get the rocket launcher?

  47. Dracko says:

    Lewis: It says a lot about you that you’d misconstrue that as a gay joke.

    Besides, as I said, it’s not an art game. It’s pushing in exactly the opposite direction, which is why it’s transcendent. Maybe that wasn’t clear enough.

    It still isn’t.

    Wooly: Have you looked under your seat?

  48. Tim McDonald says:

    Galatea really is something rather special. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve got to mirror a few others and add Photopia, if only because it hit me really hard at a deep and personal level. The first time I finished Photopia was about 3am: I went and sat outside with a cup of tea and stared at the sky for awhile.

    I can’t help but feel that talking about Photopia would ruin it a little, though, so I won’t. I’d just recommend everyone who liked Galatea spend an hour or two to play through Photopia.

  49. Tei says:

    “If Galatea can achieve this through pure text, it’s a mystery as to why those with the access to flashy audiovisual techniques aren’t attempting something similar”

    Is harder to make a good model, and animate it. A good witter may write something interesting in 1 hour. But a modeler may need more than 3, or days, then you need to paint the skin, animate the model, create a background, ….and you need again a writer!. In math terms:

    n + m + t + k + v > v

    Also your comment is interesting because ignore the fact “Text Is Terribly And Powerfull”. Text could be brutal, and efective. Lots of words, lots of power. A single writter (Tolkien) can make a better work than a army of artist ( LOTR movies ). Or, you can say, comparable.
    Text is that powerfull because use a existing resource on the receiver, the imagination.
    Theres one 9000 zilllions tricks on the pockets of a writter to play with you. On a text, the writter has godlike powers and is not limited by resources of time. A writter can “stop time”, read 900 books about …I don’t know… japan jokes, … and make his character make one on his next phrase.
    So you have a medium that is powerfull, and a controller that is godlike. You *can* kill people using just words. Hell… there are people in jail for it (writting post in suicide forums, making other people kill himself).

    note: Galatea itself, the greek mythos, is really interesting and relevant to cyberculture. I am going to skip writting any comment about it, since my english is just…bad.

  50. Nobody Important says:

    The whole “it’s not an art game” thing makes complete sense to me. Games tend to try too hard. Look at most “art games” these days, built around simple concepts and ideas (nothing worth considering) inside of a boring gameplay mechanic. Galatea doesn’t try at all, really, and in the end becomes a work of art because of it.

    I’ve only ever been able to puzzle out Photopia, which I enjoyed. I played Galatea briefly, and liked the concept. The IF in general is far too difficult for me. Rather than learn how it all works, I wrote my own terrible POS with Inform. Good stuff.