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. Lewis says:

    Dracko: Whatever the intended reading, there are some pretty obvious connotations to consider when you call someone “limp-wristed”.

    Nobody Important: Yeah, kind of. Instead of getting caught up in worries about whether her game was art or not, Short crafted a game in which the player was invited to consider a piece of art that existed within the fiction. It’s sort of taking the art-game idea and reversing it.

    It’s game-art.

  2. Wallace says:

    I also ended it prematurely by wondering what the leave command would do. Interesting stuff while it lasted, though.

    Short-form games, but with a breadth of experiences and methods of interaction for the player, is something I’d like to see explored more in the RPG genre. They always seem to lean a bit too heavily on binary choices (and some players have an odd facination with total hours of gameplay).

  3. jim says:

    methinks the lady doth protest too much,

    can we call you limp wristed lewis from now on?

    /immaturity mode off

  4. SanguineLobster says:

    More than anything, I’d say the game itself is very feminine. The game is very much focused on the topic of powerful emotion and imbues some semblance of overwhelming beauty in everything, even when it doesn’t really call for it. I think that if this game wasn’t about art, the descriptions would seem very strange indeed.

    It does seem that the restrictive qualities of IF are very appropriate for this kind of story. It gives the player choice, but rules out the choices which don’t fit in this illusory world.

    Whenever it told me that it didn’t understand my verb, or that I couldn’t word a question, it felt like that girl on the playground telling me I didn’t know how to play house correctly.

  5. Bobic says:

    …..
    >a artist life
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a artists money
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a money
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a value
    You can’t form your question into words.

  6. Adventurous Putty says:

    Um, OK, incredibly stupid question — to play/open the game you apparently need a z-machine download or something. So, uh, where can I find one?

    Sorry, I’m horribly n00bish when it comes to text adventures.

  7. Bobic says:

    I’m clearly at the end of my rope

    >a politics
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a weather
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a the weather
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a anything
    You can’t form your question into words.

    >a golf
    You can’t form your question into words.

  8. aoanla says:

    @Bobic:
    I had precisely the same problem.
    Try : a artist, a waking, a carving – try them more than once, and try “waiting” for more response with a “z” as your next action. You can also ask about “art” and “life”, and using prominent nouns from responses works.
    Doing anything really clever or metaphysical breaks the parser, as I discovered. Also, ,you can tell Galatea about stuff as well, which I found worked when she expresses lack of interest or understanding.

  9. aoanla says:

    @adventurous putty:
    You probably want to look for Frotz, which is the best known z-code interpreter. IIRC, there’s versions for basically every platform.

  10. Bobic says:

    @aoanla

    I’ve tried those, only carving gave me something new. I fell as if I have exhausted the parser. The game tricks you into believing that it can recognize only really big concepts like love and death, then you try one like time, and the illusion disappears.

  11. Bobic says:

    Well actually I guess I had exhausted the parser. SPOILERSSPOILERSSPOILERSSPOILERSSPOILERSSPOILERS

    “you strongly need a drink”

    I’ve never agreed more.

  12. Blain says:

    Much like Bobic, I found the process of exploring the space largely unrewarding and somewhat nonsensical. I can’t even ask her about comments she’s just made. It’s not much like conversation. It’s like Deadly Towers: IF Edition.

    I’m certain there’s a beautiful, poignant, life affirming discussion to be had in there somewhere, but the mechanics of accessing it haven’t improved much in thirty years. And people call FPS a stagnant genre! :)

    If the author truly believes “Nothing in gaming is this good”, the author might be happier leaving RPS for an IF focused site, or turning RPS into an IF focused site. My understanding is that there are many more experiences like Galatea in IF, and not so many in the type of gaming RPS more frequently covers.

  13. aoanla says:

    @Bobic:
    Yeah, I found it very hard to have a conversation about the difference between Galatea’s sense of sensation and pseudolife and my character’s experience of living. It’s all about the keywords – in the end, I ended up having a conversation about Greek gods instead (and then got unexpectedly hit by parser limitations again – there’s only one word you can use to trigger the expected response at one point in that tree, apparently). I later realised that the game seems to also track your own internal state – thinking about topic sometimes seems to enable you to ask questions differently…

    Personally, I think I found Spider and Web more rewarding – it still has the best “James Bond” moment in any IF (the kind of moment where, in a Bond film, the orchestra would suddenly surge into a rousing sting of the theme tune while Bond does something outlandish and cool). Plus, the “failure” states are, at least initially, amusing rather than fatal, which is good – indeed, you have to fail to actually learn more about what’s going on.

  14. aoanla says:

    (All that said, I was definitely emotionally affected by some of the endings, once I used the walkthrough to see what I was actually supposed to be doing. As with a lot of IF, the writing is brilliant, the interface less so.)

  15. Fat Zombie says:

    This is yet one more of those situations where I feel like I’m being made to feel like a rather a dim person. I have tried to get something interesting out of galatea, but half of what I ask doesn’t work and the other results in little remarks which I find quite dull.

    Perhaps this is more a reflection on myself, and my limited range of interests? (Possibly why I don’t get invited to many parties)

    …Ah, feck it. I’m going to go play videogames.

  16. WaywardBuddha says:

    It took a while for me to get past the way it reads words.
    A something = Ask her about something
    X something = Examine something, good for getting more info
    T something = Tell her about something
    Galatea, something = Politely ask her to do something

    I finally finished it my first time, and I mostly asked her things, examined her, and tried to connect. It must have gone fairly well, because she ended it by leaving with me when I finally hugged her. She is, above all, a lonely woman who has never had anyone take an interest in her.

    >hug her
    (Galatea)
    It’s a bit awkward at this angle — the best you can manage is to put your arm around her at the waist. With a sigh, she steps off the pedestal entirely and into your arms.

    No one has ever hugged her before. The certainty makes you want to weep for her. You hold her longer than you should; longer than is honest, considering the ambivalence of your feelings toward her.

    “Come on.” You disengage at last, but only enough to lead her. She comes with you, still leaning on your shoulder.

    You may not be able to mend the world for her — in fact, you may end by hurting her quite desperately, by failing to be what she needs. But you also can’t leave her standing there forever.

    Her gown hushes on the pale floor as you turn the corner, back to the main gallery. Sometimes there’s no right way to do what needs to be done.

    *** The End ***

  17. MrFake says:

    Even a bad experience seems right with this one. I spent about ten minutes just asking Galatea about herself, about her creator, about yadda yadda. Then, while trying to walk around to the other side, the parser interpreted that as walking out and ending the scenario.

    And I thought, if it were truly me in that position, and I was totally acceptant of the fact that art can come to life, I’d probably do the very same thing: “Can’t see it from all angles? Eh, there are other things I could be doing.”

    If this IF is supposed to reveal more about the player than the titular character, then it was spot on: in that position, I probably would not have cared.

  18. cjlr says:

    I pity the fool who thinks Bioshock and good narrative go together…

    Now, as for parsers… There’s a reason text-based games were superseded. It’s not like there weren’t some damn fine ones – and apparently there still are some decent ones being made – but the whole thing can degenerate into an exercise in futility pretty darn fast. In most games, you might have one or two plot-relevant choices to make. In IF, you usually have… well, one or two important choices to make. But you also get to run through a thesaurus and kill an hour trying to get your damn commands recognized.

    Also: BigJonno? Dead on, man. Gaming is a different medium. Interactive fiction may resemble a novel (you know – fiction) but it sure as hell isn’t. Most, er, non-IF games might superficially resemble movies, but they’re not…
    The interactivity of video games isn’t just a gimmick, it’s the defining element, or else we’d all be happy with sticking a few QTEs into a feature film and calling it a day.

    “Manuel… Are you in love with her?”
    “Love? Love is for the living, Sal… I’m only after her for one reason: she’s my ticket out of here.”

    Now that’s a fine narrative.

  19. DK says:

    “hese things always p me off as you have to type set keywords, you can’t just type “why”. ”
    This. If they can make programs designed to challange Turin that fool people for minutes, why can’t I just ask Galatea “why?” or “Go on” when she stops talking about I topic I want to hear more about. I really hate how the writer arbitrarily decides when she’s finished talking about something, and very rarely did the writer hit the spot that feels like a natural stopping point.

    Still great, but incredibly flawed and limited by it’s Parser.

  20. Wastrel says:

    I liked this game, until I figured out I could hug her (something I half-jokingly tried after breaking the news of the artist’s fate to her), then I loved it. After that all I can remember is time spent talking about the ocean, the garden of weeds outside the window, the power of the old gods and the smell of the countryside. The ending that I got, with her as my student, was pleasant but seemed slightly off. After all, I learned far more from her than she did from me.

  21. Pijama says:

    Brilliant. “fall-in-love” brilliant. Thanks mate.

    If anything, the only “issue” is the fact that you need to be fairly specific at times to catch the answers. Other than that… brilliant.

  22. Dracko says:

    [For God's Sake Dracko, it wasn't even aimed at you. - Kieron]

  23. Kyle Orland says:

    Just want to make it clear here that I stole the “Space Invaders has a great story” idea from a talk Margaret Robertson gave at GDC 2009. I mentioned it on the podcast, but I think it’s important to give the credit where it’s due here.

  24. sinister agent says:

    Hurrah! I got off with a statue. I am seriously awesome.

  25. Bret says:

    Good, and interesting and all, but…

    I’d like to be able to joke. Just a little. I mean, humor’s how people deal with life sucking a lot of the time, and having no avenues that way, at least early on, is kinda disappointing. Sure it’d be horrible at least some of the time, but I’d like the option.

  26. Matzerath says:

    Emily Short is a master of modern Interactive Fiction, and Galatea is grand.
    I would also recommend, for those new to modern IF, the game ‘Aisle’:
    http://www.wurb.com/if/game/431
    You are allowed only one action — then the game is over. The results of your singular actions, after several play-throughs, begin to reveal an underlying story. If you persist, your perception of the situation may be turned on its head. It’s an incredibly simple and surprisingly deep introduction to IF, and also manages a few jokes on the conventions of the genre. I loved it.

  27. Lewis says:

    Kyle: Ever the honourable gent. Apologies to Margaret. My ears must have turned off for that part of the podcast.

  28. Demiath says:

    As with all Emily Short’s works the game is wonderfully well-written, but I’m not a big fan of the the talking-with-one-character-in-a-room gameplay found in games such as Galatea as well as Short’s latest, collaborative effort Alabaster (play it now if you haven’t already; it even got graphics!).

    The process of extracting information from NPCs by going through a laundry list of verbs and nouns arguably constitutes some kind of “gameplay”, but I personally very much prefer the more conventional IF approach which combines world exploration, traditional adventure game puzzles and character interaction to create a more varied experience (please note that I’m not talking about game length here; the proper comparison should be between Galatea and a similarily short IF with the aforementioned variety of gameplay elements).

  29. Kamos says:

    I’m in love with Galatea. My favorite IF, but I can’t help but think that there *must* be better ways to let the player explore without having to worry about how he’s going to write something.

  30. A-Scale says:

    Just played. Quite disappointing, IMO. The scene is well set, it’s exciting and fresh, but the interaction feels awkward, forced and painful because of the poor coding. The fact that one can’t simply say “did you love him?” is a testament to the apparent laziness of the creator. The scene has exactly three people who could reasonably be discussed in detail, oneself, Galatea, and the artist. Not bothering to include things like “where are you from?” is so painfully limiting that it completely throws off the possible immersion that one could feel.

    I was also disappointed by the prudishness (and again, laziness) of the developer. This is interactive FICTION, and one should be at least capable of doing whatever action that a human could reasonably do in the presence of such a statue. For instance, I wished to kiss Galatea, squeeze her bum, or some other action which would evoke deep emotion (passion, rage, etc), yet I was totally prevented from doing so. At least leaving the player the option of completing those actions (even if it results in a slap, or a scream, followed by the end of the game) again totally limits the immersion one can feel. The actions that ARE available (smell, taste, etc) are so narrow in their use as to be almost worthless.

    And yet I’m still fascinated with it. It was indeed a very creative and interesting piece, even if critically flawed by its limited scope.

  31. aoanla says:

    @A-Scale:
    Actually, you can kiss Galatea. You just have to get her in the appropriate orientation first – she’s looking away from you at the start of the scene. And you can always (try) to hug her.

  32. Serondal says:

    @A-Scale I recall playing a game my brother got me when I was younger on a floppy disk from his friend at school. Was a star trek IF game (if you want to call it that) You could literally do just about anything you wanted even if it resulted in your extreme death but was focused a lot more around the S word as less on story.

  33. T. Slothrop says:

    I would prefer more games to be less self-conscious about being considered ‘art’ and out of an intrinsic desire on the part of developers/writers/artists be simply sophisticated and subtle without having to labour consciously to be ‘art’.

    You should not think ‘Is this art?’ (anything can be art), your principal focus should be whether something is sophisticated, whether something is subtle, indeed whether the summation of words or elements conveys a certain ‘beauty’ (also quite a subjective term, beauty can mean truth and the ‘accuracy’ of art to life, the aptness of a description or the rendering of the human form, it can also embody imagination and extrapolations of reality, the evocation of emotion another).

  34. Lewis says:

    I find myself genuinely surprised that people aren’t finding it to have their desired level of freedom with the interactions. How many IFs have you played that let you chat to an NPC about the nature of the universe?

  35. Serondal says:

    Lewis I think the better question would be how many IFs have they played peroid ;) You sound like you have a lot of experience with IF where as other people may not. I think the most experience I had was the mentioned Star trek pron IF and a few Zork games that I never finished. I did play a lot of Muds/muhs ect but that is a totally diffrent kind of IF that allows a much greater level of freedom when talking to other characters since they’re actaully humans.

  36. Joe says:

    More Interactive Fiction please! I was into this a year or so ago and there’s some amazing stuff out there. People have mentioned Spider and Web, and I’d add Anchorhead to that for some more traditional, adventurey-puzzley fare.

    For some reason, back then I found Galatea incredibly offputting and stopped after my first go. But since it can apparently cause an artgasm in otherwise sane games journos maybe I shall try it again ;)

  37. Serondal says:

    Where is the proof that he is sane? I don’t even gush over my wife like this and I love her more than anything in the world

  38. Lewis says:

    Yeah, assuming I’m sane is probably a bit unwise.

  39. Lewis says:

    I did decide I wanted to write about computer games as a job, after all.

  40. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just to throw my five pence in: Galatea’s amazing.

    KG

  41. Greg says:

    I’ve tried Galatea my share of times, but always find I’m too English. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘how awful’. And then I change the subject. And I can’t play any other way.

    I think metamorphoses is beautiful, one of the best games ever.

  42. cjlr says:

    Well, I played through a couple more times… Having that ol’ IF state of mind come back helped. You can’t, however, put Galatea in your pocket. Nor, as far as I could tell, could you in any way interact with the spotlight – and boy, did I spend quite some time trying. Anyway…

    Bizarre. That’s my one-word summation. Not that it’s not very interesting. After all, I wouldn’t call 2001 anything other than bizarre, and nobody’s denying that that’s brilliant. It’s difficult, to play – in first person – a character who’s not you, you know? “I was never a child,” she says, so I enter, ‘t child’, and find ‘myself’ (the PC) divulging heartfelt anecdotes from ‘my’ childhood – interesting, sure, but not really what I (the player) intended. AFGNCAAP might be taking things to extremes, but it happened for a reason.

    Lastly, much as I tried, I could not resist playing the Yes track Turn of the Century as a soundtrack. Repeatedly.

  43. malkav11 says:

    While it’s true that it can sometimes be frustrating trying to get a piece of IF to parse what you’d like to do, parsers have actually improved tremendously since the heyday of commercial IF, as will become quite obvious if you try to go back to games from back then (early Infocom titles drive me nuts). You just need to get a feel for how to approach things. Once you do that, most modern IF can be quite rewardingly interacted with. (Just don’t hope for much from the lower end of most IFComps).

  44. Στέλιος says:

    I’d love to say that I found this was amazing and all that but the parser was just getting in the way far too much for me to get to go through the experience. The two-three (short) playthroughs certainly seemed interesting though.

  45. MOOncalF says:

    Played this once several years ago and found it a charming experience I tried and failed to explain to just about everyone who would listen. I wonder how many IF authors have been picked up as writers for graphic videogames, you’d think it’d be a no-brainer place to look for them.

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