Impressions: Ruins

By John Walker on September 19th, 2011 at 5:03 pm.

And I don't even like dogs.

Cardboard Computer, the indie developer behind A House In California, has created Ruins, a short, desolate game in which you play a dog. Chasing some rabbits. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Ruins certainly falls under the usual use of the label, “art game”. An unhelpful label, certainly, and one I’d prefer we do without. It only encourages people to start discussing the subject of art, and that’s always a tedious affair. Instead, I’d like to call them “ideas games”, which is equally as unhelpful and ludicrous. Because Ruins, like other short, esoteric games, is about engaging with ideas, rather than solving puzzles or winning fights.

The game is essentially about three things. Chopin, memories, and sadness. And the three intertwine. However, what the sadness is actually about is something revealed as you play, so discussion of it here seems inappropriate. And of course you play as a dog. A dog that chases rabbits, and upon meeting them, listens to what they have to say.

What stands out first is quite what a realistic dog it is you play. The game’s sparse world glows gorgeously, a dream-like ethereal desert, dotted with trees and shapes. And you, a shadowed dog, trot about it splendidly. A simple-appearing animation captures dog movement perfectly, adding a peculiar dose of real-world into its fantasy.

That movement speed is essential too. This is a busy week for me, amongst an insanely busy month, and Jim’s been away on holiday, Alec’s at a studio looking at a game, and it’s just Adam and me working this afternoon. That puts on the pressure, the need to get through a thing so I can get onto the next thing, make sure the site’s flowing, that we’re keeping up with any big news, stopping writing this to make sure the Deus Ex story gets up… A game that moves at a trot feels like an affront to the pace at which I need to be moving to keep on top of everything. Which is also something I needed. Rather than sitting hunched over my keyboard, fingers flying frantically, I found myself slumped back in my chair, one hand lazily on the left side of my keyboard, exploring at its sedentary pace. Which isn’t exactly hindered by the beauty of Chopin’s Prelude In A Major playing over the title screen, and Prelude #2 In A Minor during the game.

In fact, if you look at the game’s instructions, point 5 instructs you that if you feel sleepy, you should go to sleep.

Lasting no more than around 20 minutes, the encounters with rabbits tell a story. Whose the rabbits’ voice is is yours to discover, and that relationship between you and the voice is very much the core of the game. During the brief, thoughtful conversations, you can occasionally choose how to respond, which will steer things. Quite how much it steers things is surprising. A second play through can reveal a very different angle on the events being explored, concentrating more deeply on different themes. For instance, in my first play sculpture was never mentioned, while in the second it was a recurring topic. It certainly gives motivation to keep chasing rabbits.

It’s an emotional game, and the choice of music is not simply for decoration. It’s integral to the elusive plot, as well as playing a vital role in the mise en scène. But it’s also a smart game, well made. The camera drifts intelligently, never rushing to keep up with you, but making sure it eventually swoops into the right place, the right angle, to appreciate the scenery as well as see what you’re doing. A very small play area is carefully littered with shadowed sculptures, and perhaps most importantly, the black shape of a piano. The contrast with this red/black world of the glowing white bunnies is stark, and I’d suggest crucial to interpreting the dream.

Completely free, this is a gorgeous experience, and leaves me feeling far more relaxed. And sleepy.

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53 Comments »

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  1. Fiwer says:

    Is this A Game That Matters?

    • John Walker says:

      I think there are only Games That Matter To You. Give it a try to find out.

    • Rii says:

      That’s ‘Games Wot Matter’, surely.

      Downloading.

    • Ian says:

      Stop telling us that you’re not going to tell us what to think and tell us what to think, Walker!

    • disperse says:

      Would this be an appropriate game to play with my 3 1/2-year-old? I’m always on the lookout for games we’d enjoy together.

    • bluebogle says:

      disperse: Though there is nothing offensive for children in the game, the subject matter is still mature in nature (in that a 3 year old won’t understand the subtleties of the storyline). Give it a try on your own first to see if it’s something she’ll be able to get. It’s rather short, and worth multiple plays.

    • disperse says:

      @bluebogle

      Thanks for the tip, I’ll give it a try first.

      My son has a remarkable amount of patience for his age. We’ve been working through the various configurations of a Lego set (suggested age 7+) with me helping him interpret the instructions and him placing all the blocks. I’m always amazed by his level of concentration.

      He also loves sitting on my lap and directing while I play Minecraft so this might be something he’d enjoy too.

    • rei says:

      Not spoiling anything here, but regardless of his levels of patience it’s likely going to be at least another 20 years before he will have experience in the subject matter here, so my guess is he’s probably not going to get very much out of it.

  2. SoggySilicon says:

    This looks pretty interesting, but maybe it should be “Composers Wot Matter”? Chopin was the subject of the console RPG Eternal Sonata and had similar themes.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Yes, that had a surprisingly interesting plot and setting for a JRPG, and is probably the only one I’ve enjoyed in around a decade. Still, I never got around to finishing it and lost my saves when my 360s harddrive decided to pack in.

    • Ringwraith says:

      I was busy playing through the PS3 version, and really enjoying it, although it has a very slow start, with nothing happening for about 10 hours, but I picked it up again 9 months later and it really started getting quite interesting and almost kinda weird in the “just the what the heck is going on here?” kind of way.
      I also read that the PS3 version changes the plot somewhat, although it’s hard to know what it’s changed when I have experience of the original 360 version. Also, beautiful music, like the extra plot dungeon in the PS3 version whose background music is pretty much just a gentle piano piece.
      Although it has gotten put on hold due to Disgaea 4, which is far too addictive for its own good.

  3. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    Getting all pumped up about this and what do I get?

    “Unable to unarchive “Ruins_MAC.zip” into “Desktop”. (Error 1 – Operation not permitted.)”

    Anyone else have this problem? (Has nothing to do with read/write priviliges on my desktop btw, tried in other folders too.)

  4. Chizu says:

    downloading.
    Excrutiatingly slowly~
    4kbs.

    Also his site images are not loading, looks like his servers taking a bit of abuse.
    Anyone got an alternate mirror?

    • allen says:

      his poor servers must be taking a beating. I have my copy of ruins on my ge.tt folder. it is the windows version but of course not an official mirror. I hope this helps anyone having trouble accessing his site.

      http://ge.tt/8bhxXv7?c

  5. disperse says:

    I found myself slumped back in my chair, one hand lazily on the left side of my keyboard…

    Which begs the question: where was your other hand?

  6. Heliocentric says:

    Indie game website get slammed by Hivemind recommendatory, whodathunkit?

  7. BobsLawnService says:

    May I suggest you start calling them “Concept Games” kind of like the albums.

    • Mctittles says:

      I think that’s a good idea. It also fits in with how when playing these type of games I often wonder what it would be like if mixed in with a larger game. And the fact that some of the ideas in “concept games” do eventually make it into larger titles.

  8. Surgeon says:

    Dogs are awesome.
    There should be more games where you get to play as a Dog.

  9. aircool says:

    Playing as a proper dog in a game would be awesome.

    • Heliocentric says:

      an adventure game with no inventory.

      Bark at tree

      use teeth on postman

      urinate on wall

    • Hulk Handsome says:

      Well there’s this, from the creator of Elite:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog%27s_Life

      and also this little text adventure (which you can play right in your browser):

      http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=yr3y8s9k8e40hl5q

    • Luminous Nose says:

      Heliocentric: hahaha
      Make it happen.

      Actually, your inventory would be limited to one item, which you would carry in your jaws. The choice of item could be limitless–from bottle caps to bits of plywood, but you would only interact with these items three ways: ‘drop’, ‘chew’, ‘swallow’.

    • FRIENDLYUNIT says:

      WANT

      Sure you might not have a physical inventory (unless you count having a collar or harness or coat equipped or not) but I can imagine a dog trotting around collecting scents.

    • MD says:

      Friedlyunit, I’m pretty sure there’s a real game with that premise. (Player = scent-collecting dog.) From memory it was more of an average kids’ game than anything wondrous, but still, if I’m right then I’m glad it exists.

      edit: here we go! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog%27s_Life
      Looks like scent-collection was one mechanic of several.

      edit again: Looks like this exact link was posted three comments up, in this very thread! I’m an idiot.

    • aircool says:

      The sniffing mechanic sounds awesome. You could chew stuff as well to get information out of them (or just a doggy treat). You’d have a world map made up of sniffs instead of geography, and could urinate pushpins into the map.

      You could also make a cat game where you inexplicably stare at a point where the wall joins the ceiling until your human slaves become convinced they have a ghost.

      I want a dog game though. My dog always seems excited about everything, so I’d imagine it would be fun to play.

    • mejoff says:

      I want a 1st person melee/parkour game where you play a cat and the objective is to protect the humans in a big house with a big garden from the things they can’t see. You can’t die from fighting them, but when they hit you, you lose your connection to the humans and to your territory, until you’re repelled from the house, go feral, and lose, unless you replenish your connection by getting stroked and scritched by the humans.

    • Doomtrout says:

      Try Okami. That’s almost a dog anyway, and a jolly good time. Unfortunately it’s not a pc game though.

  10. The Tupper says:

    Bah. Couldn’t find the ‘fire’ button.

  11. alms says:

    I really liked Balloon Diaspora, eager to try this one.

  12. bluebogle says:

    Buddy and I got into a huge debate about this game, about whether forcing the player to move between information nodes at a slow pace was a good or bad move. I expected RPS (I realize each author has their own view) to take the other side of the argument, but am pleased to see you felt the slower pace was a good move.

  13. Jimmy says:

    Yes, but is it Game? (sorry)

    It is hardly a concept game like a concept car, as it is not trialling a radically new form of achieving X for possible mass development. Ideas game goes in the right direction, but philosophical game or art game probably works best.

  14. Heliocentric says:

    That final boss was badass.

  15. Davee says:

    Quite a moving experience. Played through it twice with very different results. I did find a bug where two of the conversations happened twice in the same playthrough, but overall this was very atmospheric and neatly done. Dreamy to say the least.

  16. athomic says:

    really cool
    its nice to play a game that isnt totally about trying to make you feel intense and powerful (those bunnies could have been trying to escape you)

    wish the dialogue was a bit more developed tho.

    describing dreams as “weird” and sculptures as “strange” isn’t really pushing the whole minimalistic feel for me, it just sounds unintentionally vague. If the visuals are going to be so parred down I wish the verbal aspects would make up for it in an illustrative way.

  17. aculle01 says:

    Well, as someone who owns two dogs, I have to admit this is one of the saddest games I have played. I was welling up after the 2nd rabbit and by halfway through I had tears running down my cheeks. I had a hunch of what the game would be about and between the visuals and the music I didn’t stand a chance. Yes, the language was rather weak but I think any emotional weight that the words missed was easily carried by the music.

  18. Amnesiac says:

    That was beautiful.

    I have a lump in my throat but I’m not entirely sure what for.

    Thanks for showing us this RPS.

  19. Snuffy the Evil says:

    As a dog owner I am now immeasurably depressed.

  20. Premium User Badge

    LTK says:

    I found out something: When you alt-tab the game, the music doesn’t stop abruptly, or continue uninterrupted. Rather, the pianist stops playing, and the last few notes struck linger on for a second or two.

    That’s… wow.

    • Bassem says:

      Then I guess the soundtrack is MIDI. Pause any MIDI file and it does that.

    • Premium User Badge

      LTK says:

      That kind of makes sense. Though it would have been nice if it was a feature rather than a side-effect, since it fits very well with the theme.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Samuel Bass says:

    That was utterly lovely…played through the entire thing while on hold on the phone. The operator was probably surprised by how emotional I sounded when he – finally – deigned to talk to me.

  22. BeamSplashX says:

    You used “mise en scène”. My inner film studies major is pleased, John.

  23. Darcangelo says:

    seo service
    Sounds great! I’m kind of disappointed that they did not leave the Japanese dubs in, but I’m definitely not deterred. Considering how easy Wii games are to hack nowadays.. (see Tales of Graces) …
    Swapping a bit of sound files would be like flicking your wrist.
    The real question is… is it worth it? Because from what I’ve seen, the voices are actually pretty good.

  24. dellphukof says:

    Sounds great! I’m kind of disappointed that they did not leave the Japanese dubs in, but I’m definitely not deterred. Considering how easy Wii games are to hack nowadays.. (see Tales of Graces) …
    Swapping a bit of sound files would be like flicking your wrist.
    The real question is… is it worth it? Because from what I’ve seen, the voices are actually pretty good.seo service