Some Stuff In A Box: Vanitas

By John Walker on August 26th, 2010 at 1:42 pm.

Yup, there sure is some stuff in that box.
I enjoy when a game experience creates moods or emotions, rather than coherent narrative sense. And Tale Of Tales have certainly done that for me in the past. But with Vanitas I hold up my hands and admit defeat. It’s a box with some stuff in. I haven’t been able to interpret any more than that, despite the explanations on the site. Previously an iPhone game, it’s now available for free to play with Unity on PC (look for tiny text saying “Try free web version”). So for once I’m going to be negative about the experience, and others can correct me where I’ve missed the point.

You have a wooden box. Sliding the lid open reveals three objects. Perhaps a coin, ladybird and key. You can move those objects around to a limited, glitchy extent. You then close the lid, wait for a clunk, and open it again. There will be three other objects. In between, the game occasionally offers you slightly glum quotes.

According to their site,

“Vanitas presents you with a gorgeously rendered 3D box filled with intriguing objects. Close the box and open it again to see new objects. You can move the objects by tilting your iPhone or pushing and dragging the objects with your fingers [or mouse for the PC version]. To create pleasant arrangements that inspire and enchant. Some objects decay. A flower blooms. A bubble pops. Life like an empty dream flits by.”

Apparently the “subtle cello music” that plays is by Zoė Keating, who may be an extremely adept musician. However, short random notes, or maybe a pluck, followed by acres of silence possibly don’t show her at her best. I adore the cello. The strange, clipped sounds here offer nothing, not even discordance. I cannot imagine a more beautiful backing for a game than peculiar, discordant cello strains, but these sound like someone spilt a cello lesson into a wood chipper.

It is, they say, a “memento mori” for your hands. Intended to, apparently, depress you slightly. They say,

To lift you up when you’re feeling down. And drag you down when you’re up too high.

Sometimes, when you’re depressed, it’s good to see something depressing. A contemplation of the fleetingness of life. To help appreciate what you have. A meditative experience. A spiritual toy. A reminder of the preciousness of life.

Perhaps I’m far too thick-headed, but I found little to meditate upon when seeing an acorn, a nail and a matchstick. Apparently if you get three objects the same you get a gold star. After opening and closing the box 44 times I instead got a flapping fish, a padlock and a molar. The further you get, the more the objects seem to resemble death, which is presumably the point of this nihilistic experiment. But to expect you to open it 54 times before this becomes apparent seems a little unrealistic. On my 100th opening I get a mouldy cherry, broken key, and scrap of paper. And that’s that. I did really try.

Here’s a video for the iTunes version:

And here’s Mischa Maisky playing Bach’s Cello Suite No.2 i-Prelude

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53 Comments »

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  1. phuzz says:

    I think it works a bit better on the iphone, it’s more like holding a physical object (abit a TARDIS-like one with more depth on screen than the phone it’s self).
    Basically, it’s of a similar vein to Tale of Tales other stuff.

    • dadioflex says:

      It might be art, but how is it a game?

    • Salt says:

      @dadioflex
      “It might be art, but how is it a game?”

      Tale of Tales were (are?) quite instrumental in the creation of the Notgame genre. If you could call it a genre.

      As chance has it, I played this just after reading through that “Make love Notgames” piece. It reminded me of how in many games, especially when I was younger, I preferred to play with the game engine rather than the game-mandated activity of slaughtering Pfhor or whatever. That used to mean spending more time in the level editor than the game itself, but in more complex modern games just interacting with game objects for the sake of that interaction serves the same purpose. Playing with fire in Farcry2; building a collection of interesting artefacts in Morrowind.

  2. Delusibeta says:

    Confirmation that video games can be art. Admittedly it’s not very good art, but it’s art nonetheless. Largely because that’s the only word I can think of to describe it.

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      Okami says:

      I know another word: Trite.

    • BooleanBob says:

      I know a third word: saxophone. Admittedly it’s not very good saxophone, but it’s saxophone nonetheless.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Art? Doesn’t look like it. They do seem to want to sell it as such or some kind of game inspiring deep thought or the like.

      They’re ‘trying too hard’ and a lot of ‘pretentiousness’ do come to mind.

    • Kommissar Nicko says:

      Okami on the other hand always knows the right thing to say at the right time.

    • sana says:

      Also, Okami (the game) is closer to “games as art” than this thing is.

  3. deneb says:

    Seems utterly pointless to me, but we do live in an era of new-age mysticism and self-help obsession. The flowery description will be all it takes for this to find its audience of several hundred artsies and hapless.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Tunips says:

    Zoe Keating is indeed an excellent cellist. And this, indeed, is not her best work. She uses layers, loops and distortion on a single cello to create a rather beautiful and certainly novel soundscape.
    Behold: http://www.zoekeating.com/projects.html

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      She is brilliant. I’ve linked her from the Sunday Papers before.

      KG

    • sfury says:

      I should buy this album, I’ve been listening to it on and off since you linked it some months ago, the awful freeloader that I am. Also blends nicely with Braid’s music.

    • Kefren says:

      I bought the ‘One Cello x 16: Natoma’ CD ages ago – great stuff. Her music was my favourite thing about ‘The Devil’s Chair’ film.

  5. bill says:

    The only thing I know connected to cellos is this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IliwQImJrYE

    But that’s more than I know about this game. But for cellos, it’s pretty awesome.

  6. fabamatic says:

    Count zero?

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      Harlander says:

      Yeah, you’re right, it was Count Zero. In my defence, the trilogy kind of smeared into one big metabook in my mind..

      This excuse-making is probably going to appear above my post which triggered it…

    • Corporate Dog says:

      Actually, the “art box AI” was in Mona Lisa Overdrive, I think.

      And then he did something similar in ‘Pattern Recognition’.

    • Corporate Dog says:

      Nope. I just did it too. Definitely ‘Count Zero’.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    The idea kind of reminds me of Neuromancer, with the robot arm randomly snagging the objects that floated by it in zero gravity and arranging them in boxes that filled pseuds artistic types with feelings of wistful longing.

  8. a grue says:

    This is clearly a ladybug death-box simulator with snail, flapping fish et al addons. Shyeah duh.

  9. battles_atlas says:

    This is what kicking people in the dick was invented for.

  10. Muzman says:

    So it’s not really a game, it’s sort of virtual contemplative art. How peculiar.
    Has someone made a Japanese rock garden for the iPhone yet?

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    stahlwerk says:

    The idea is to adapt vanitas still life paintings to an interactive medium. I don’t know, I never “got” them as visual art, so I guess the ability to manipulate them isn’t as much of a compelling aspect to me as it could be to those more familiar to the original art form.

    They get my respek for doing it, though.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Oh my, visual art tangent: If somehow someone took the kind of anamorphic mind fuckery of this painting and somehow incorporated it into a game’s “visual narrative”… let’s say I would be totally down with that.

  12. Saucy says:

    Videogames can be art, Cho Aniki proves this.

    This is not Cho Aniki. This isn’t Cho Aniki at all.

    I don’t think it’s a video game either. It’s a box. If anyone wants they could make a real life Vanitas for free by just getting a box and foraging around in a skip for a while. And having a homeless man shout meaningless bullshit at you.

    What is it with devs and putting in random “depressing” quotes for no reason. Entire Indie Platformers have been based around the concept and now this box does it. Why?

    It doesn’t work. You can’t just say “life is fleeting IS THAT NOT DEPRESSING THIS SHIT BE ART YEAH BRO” and expect a reaction. There’s no context.

    No, opening a box or jumping over a pit does not count as context.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Yeah, the context is totally lost in this late/post modern age of ours. Vanitas paintings were the common renaissance artist’s reaction to having their family and circle of friends reduced by up to two thirds, thanks to the black plague, wars and general hygenic issues, which mere most of the times identified as god’s punishments for having acted vain.

      The whole concept and belief is so removed from our thinking (maybe not for extremely religious people), it just doesn’t work as intended.

  13. Noyb says:

    I threw a feather at a ladybug, instantly knocking it to the ground and killing it. I felt bad for a moment before reveling in the quiet absurdity of the act. The dying fish also reminded me of Envirobear 2000 way too much to contain my laughter.

    My guess is that they intended the user to open it up, play with it for a short time and return to it for more brief play sessions, over which the imagery changes and distorts to keep things unnerving. If so, I can see why they were reluctant to bring it away from the mobile platform.

    The stated goal of quiet contemplation is at odds with the more game-like goal of getting all the stars. Seems like that would cause some users to flip through each level as fast as possible in search of an event that becomes more rare as more objects are added (0.08% with 35 objects assuming each object is chosen with equal probability). Maybe it’s a satirical false goal, like the empty flower-collecting of The Path?

  14. i saw dasein says:

    Seems like a bad version of Jospeh Cornell’s boxes, which are beautiful and genuinely melancholic (sometimes also quiet creepy). I’ve linked an online gallery, but they lose much of their impact when not seen in real life.

    http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/cornell/

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      Hear, hear! I had the remarkable good fortune to stumble upon an exhibition of Cornell’s boxes during yet another otherwise forgettable trip to Houston. While you get a sense of his work in 2D, seeing them in reality is one of those rare occasions of being in the presence of genius. Vanitus looks to be akin to a John Williams to Bach sort of thing.(Though John Williams’ concerto written for a buddy to have a tuba solo is one of those WTF moments that defies anything normally associated with good music).

    • Sonic Goo says:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lAqFXiwAiA

      More Cornell derail. :)

  15. pimorte says:

    Zoe’s rather good. Almost as good as Jami Sieber!

  16. roBurky says:

    I think this loses quite a bit in the PC version. The iphone version is one of the things I was most pleased to have bought.

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    Hodge says:

    *shrugs* I thought it was OK in a robotfindskitten kind of way, for a couple of minutes anyway. It’s certainly nothing special, but I didn’t want to gouge my eyes out, either.

    I think it’s a good thing for game developers to experiment with stuff like this. Whether or not they should release the results to the public… that’s another question entirely.

  18. Brulleks says:

    I’m getting a real Magritte sense from this – i.e. ‘This is not a pipe’

    This is clearly not an egg – it doesn’t interact as an egg would. I can’t crack it no matter how hard I smash it against the side of the box.

    This is not a nail – I cannot hold it up and drive it down into the not-an-egg.

    This is not a skull – it does not crumble or splinter when I thrash it into harder, denser objects.

    Also, a sense of my own tendency for destruction.

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    Lambchops says:

    This song has some rather nice cello http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEkPxz8QP3c

    That’s about as relevant as I’m going to get here.

  20. Master of None says:

    Vanitas is a digital ‘memento mori’, meant to remind us of our own mortality. Less game, more art.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori

  21. JP says:

    Zoe Keating is indeed very talented. She joins David Bowie working with David Cage on Omikron on my list of Musicians I Greatly Respect Working With Game Designers I Do Not Respect All That Much Thank You.

    Those looking for cello music in a much more fulfilling experience are encouraged to check out Braid.

    I now leave the floor for Michael Samyn to come in and tell us all what troglodytes we are for enjoying mere interactive experiences in which a user causes things to happen.

  22. will says:

    The only thing I know of involving cellos is Apocalyptica, and I’m not sure that’s what comes to most people’s minds when they think of an instrument like the cello…

  23. DXN says:

    Pretentious, and I don’t use that word lightly. But if they did away with the trite homilies and “deep” stylings, so it was just a box and some things, then I think it’d actually be quite a nice little piece of iphone-art. (Not a game, though.)

    • TJF588 says:

      If/When I get an iTouch, a “some stuff in a box” app would be pretty neat to have. But, from reading the comments, it could do with JUST being “some stuff in a box”, and just let the steady change of that stuff have its own effect. MY BOXES DON’T TALK TO ME, DAMMIT! *rocks back & forth*

  24. Dante says:

    Surely they’re just taking the piss now.

    I honestly worry sometimes that games will polarise into thoughtless blockbusters and deliberately incomprehensible ‘modern art’. Seize that middle ground developers, hold onto it and don’t let go, because that’s where all the art people actually care about comes from.

  25. TB says:

    What’s frustrating about this is that it could actually be kind of interesting if they got over their own aesthetic preconceptions.

    If they asked themselves “What does it mean to make a vanitas box on a mobile device or in a web browser in the 2st century?” — maybe MAKE USE OF THE MEDIUM rather than trying to recreate a wooden box in an iphone — they might come up with an interesting result. Instead of spending time carefully modeling a bird’s skull, toothpicks and whatnot, work on code that would filter images and text off the web based on certain inputs — time of day, local weather, gps location, your last 3 phone messages, recent web browsing history, etc. — data that’s available on your phone or in your browser and is personal and unique to your experience. Now that would give the user something to think about.

    Their design process misses all sorts of opportunities because it is so focused on creating an aesthetic experience that is “arty” that they miss the opportunity to create anything remotely profound. Instead they’ve just ported the aesthetics to a mobile device, introduced some randomness, and put a big sign in front of it saying “YOU SHOULD REGARD THIS AS ART”.

    Apologies if I am paraphrasing anyone above.

  26. Cooper says:

    I found that my appreciation of this game is helped with a little bit of art history background. A bit, mind you. I wasn’t very impressed to be honest.

    Vanitas is a certain form of 16th-ish Century still life. The ones with all the skulls and rotting fruit. Mostly a form of memento mori, but also some moralising about the hollowness of earthly life and personal vanity.

    Just had a peak at the Wiki article on vanitas, and I’m glad to say my minor art-A-level learnings are fairly correct. There’s some more info there.

    As an attempt at an interactive form of vanitas still life, it’s interesting. Slightly. I don’t think it’s trying to be ‘deep’ (I hope it’s not) it just seems to be updating / mimicing an older form of art subject in a contemporary medium. A vaguely interesting enterprise I guess,

    But it is just art mimicry. It hasn’t changed the themes, or even the objects much from 500 years ago.

    What’d have been impresive is really trying to contemporise the theme, explore if vanitas can be manipulated into being meaningful for contemporary audiences, and do something more with the ineractive theme to explore this. But they haven’t. Shame.

  27. Clovis says:

    This immediately made me think, “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; Of a stone, a leaf, a door.”

    Seems interesting, but wish they would have left out the words.

  28. Dozer says:

    Did anyone else think this game was somehow related to Robert Kilroy-Silk’s very own personal political party?

  29. JackShandy says:

    I think it’s best not to take this as a game. It’s a little toy, like a lot of iPhone apps. Something that you can fiddle around with when you’re bored.

    Trying to inject DEEP MEANING into it with depressing quotes was probably a mis-step, though.

  30. Santiago says:

    Will version 2.0 feature “fun”?

  31. Enshu says:

    I don’t think it’s a game. Neither it’s art. It’s just…a thing you can play (or not play) around with for some time. And then some time again. I guess they’d even make real Vanitas, if only such item randomiser could function in the world of real items.

  32. TJF588 says:

    If/When I get an iTouch, I could go for a “some stuff in a box” app. Do agree, though, that the quotes ought to be dropped. Just let me jostle around with “some stuff in a box”, and let the gradual change in said stuff give off an effect on its own. MY DRAWERS DON’T TALK TO ME, DAMMIT! *rocks back & forth*

    Cooper’s words on modernizing it make me think: Yo dawg, we herd you like iPhones, so we put an iPhone in your iPhone so you can touchscreen while you waste your life!