Point And Query: Keys Of A Gamespace

By Adam Smith on September 28th, 2011 at 1:48 pm.

That kid talks about owning an Amiga, which makes him alright with me

Who wants a free game to play? Lots of people. Who wants a free “expressive game” to play? Not quite so many. Did I also mention that it’s French? Well it is. A French expressive game about a man exploring his past to fix his future. It’s called Keys Of A Gamespace and for one glorious moment I thought it might be my new favourite point and click game, for at least today. In the end, that wasn’t the case. Let me tell you why.

I love the opening scene. I love the realism of the room, the design of the characters, rough but somehow appealing. I believe in this place and these people. Who are they? A man, almost completely obscured by his computer monitor, who is preparing to take part in a raid while his girlfriend/wife demands that he step away from the machine and make her pregnant instead. Not in so many words, you understand, but that’s the gist of it.

This was the moment when I thought this might be a game that really spoke to me. I’ve played computer games while refusing to become a father, I thought. When the woman left and the man abandoned his game, slumping to the floor in despair, I realised I had done that too and that this exploration of The Gaming Man might be a good thing.

If you are even slightly wary of my ability to avoid spoiling the game, download and play first if you so desire. It’ll only take around half an hour. I haven’t given away the story but I discuss it in an abstract fashion. If you have the linguistic knowhow, play in French. The English translation isn’t bad but there are occasional slipups.

Here’s my problem with the story: I was hoping for too little. A quiet and mundane slice of life about a relationship in a death spiral, something fun like that. Despite repeated references, Keys Of A Gamespace isn’t even about gaming really. The man trundles through a series of doors, exploring his memories and trying to put things right. This is done by clicking on people and objects, usually taking items from one memory to another.

For me, it didn’t work. The few actual choices in the game are too simple for the analysis presented to be meaningful but the biggest problem I had was with the actual content. The story covers some very unpleasant material but I felt it was doing so to force an extreme response and it never earned that response from me.

It’s like having Adolf Hitler as an endgame boss. Good, yes, we will gladly kill him. He himself is the motivation for doing so and nothing else need be said, no other supporting material need be provided. It’s easy. The dilemmas and emotions in Keys Of A Gamespace don’t require any real effort in the understanding or creation of the characters involved or their past, they only ask that you understand the concept of something terrible and the possibility of forgiveness. I didn’t feel any real connection between most of the memories and the man’s current situation, which made the choices presented seem targeted directly at me, with the game not even a filter in between.

Maybe you’ll have a different experience. For me, in such a short game, I think the characters would be far more interesting without any huge secrets, just the everyday evils of passivity, apathy and raiding.

Still, I like the art style and it’s a university project exploring a kind of interactive storytelling that’s made me sit down and write about it, so that’s something. The lesson I’d take from it is that in short-form fiction, subtlety is often the writer’s friend and moral dilemmas don’t have to be quite so extreme. The team that made this seem to be planning to make more “expressive” games and it’d be interesting to see what they learn and how they develop.

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26 Comments »

  1. Bull0 says:

    “Who wants a free game to play? Lots of people. Who wants a free “expressive game” to play? Not quite so many. Did I also mention that it’s French? Well it is.”

    and here I am laughing out loud in the office and having to stifle it like a crazy person. Good show, dude. :D

    Now to read the article

  2. Gundrea says:

    The writer must show, act, provoke engage not tell, explain, disseminate. You don’t have to be subtle, you have to engage.

    Now for the game.

  3. Berzee says:

    Can I have a free game to play?

  4. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    I avoided being a father EVEN without playing videogames at the same time. Thank God.

  5. Premium User Badge

    AlwaysRight says:

    bloop (error)

  6. SoggySilicon says:

    An interesting concept to be sure, I am personally not the biggest fan of the particular psychologist that was chosen to be framed in this way. “Game Theory” is used in all sorts of things, and is a pretty decent tool for making some difficult subject matter reduced to easier to digest forms. It is a little heavy handed, and I am also not so sure it is much of a solution for “moral choice” especially in video games. I suspect part of this may of come from a couple high profile serial “offenders” that France has had in the past couple years. Personally I have to go with Mr. Smith on this one, I wanted a-lot-less than what I was presented with. If DXHR was made by people smarter than the game came off, this one was made by people who are not quite as smart as they would like to appear to be. Just my opinion… away!

  7. Ba5 says:

    Enjoying it, but it’s borked. There’s a little girl you run into, and I accidentally clicked on her. She screams “don’t touch me” and then the cursor doesn’t change, and I’m stuck. Now what?

    Edit: fixed, you can pick up the scissors.

  8. Sebastien Genvo says:

    Hi!

    Thanks a lot for this very interesting review! Just one thing you’ve not mentioned in your paper is that Keys of a gamespace is a kind of autobiography (more or less, you’ve got to figure it out by yourself, but if you look carefully the name of the main character is the name of the game designer ;) ).
    And if you see some slipups in the translation, please send us a mail (quoting the sentence) at info [at] expressivegame.com , it will help us a lot (all the game was made on a volunteer basis, so it may explain some mistakes, sorry for that).

    All the best,

    Sébastien.

    • Craig Stern says:

      I got the sense that this was autobiographical while playing through it, but I agree with Adam’s analysis: the anecdotes, while no doubt true to life, don’t cohere as well as they should. The game starts out about the failing relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend, then suddenly becomes almost exclusively about his father. And I get why: it’s exploring the psychological impact of discovering that one’s father is a pedophile, and the effect that that has on the protagonist’s desire to procreate.

      [BIG SPOILERS]
      But the revelation never feels like it’s tied back to the principal relationship (which is itself woefully underdeveloped). Instead of bringing back the girlfriend, the game concludes with a weird monologue delivered by a fetus. It just feels cheap and exploitative. It would have been better to conclude by bringing back the girlfriend and talking things through with her, in my opinion.
      [/BIG SPOILERS]

      But it was an interesting premise, and I quite liked the artwork and audio.

    • Gabe McGrath says:

      Craig, that’s a BIG SPOILER you’ve posted avove.

      It would have been nice if you could have ‘vagued it up’ a bit.

    • Craig Stern says:

      Sorry Gabe; I guess I figured that since I was elaborating on an article with its own spoiler warnings, that my own would be superfluous. I’ve edited the comment with spoiler tags.

    • Sumanai says:

      I have a couple of problems with this game:

      [spoilers]
      The first problem is that the first choice is presented as a figurative/symbolic choice, decided by the player character, that would translate as “forgive or don’t forgive” but ends up being treated as a literal choice, made by the player.
      The second problem is that, because of the first problem, it is a false dilemma. There are at least two other decisions that I could come up with.
      Note that I wouldn’t had thought up the other choices if it weren’t for the “no right choice” end texts and the fact that they felt heavy handed.
      [/spoilers]

      Edit: Reordering and rephrasing for clarity.

  9. El_Emmental says:

    Few precisions :

    note : I’m trying to translate french terms into english ones, so please be cool yolanda.

    This game was made by one guy (Sébastien Genvo) (apparently, I haven’t read the ingame credits yet), he’s a professor at a university in France (at the institute of technology department and at a research division on media/mediations), he worked for Ubisoft for a 2-3 years (mostly on the XIII video game), and is frequently publishing/organizing/participating in debates about the infamous “video game are art” topic.

    On the “official” website :
    “Our game wishes to show that, just like cinema or comics, video games are not a minor medium of expression. They can also deal with heavy or complex topics. For example, the following works have been sources of inspiration for our project : Mystic River, EraserHead, Twin Peaks (movies), A Town faraway, Black hole, American Splendor(comics).”

    Now it’s easier to understand why it’s so strong and not enough subtle.

    One may say “oh gosh, why this pointless debate AGAIN ?! Why can’t they keep that for the late open-debate at game design conferences ?!”. That’s 100% right.

    On the other hand, the guy is actually going to the radio, to the TV (ok, the least viewed state-owned channel, still TV !), to conferences, to sell the “games can be art too” idea to common people.

    Why you may ask ? These people (from the young kids to the elders), and they are the vast majority in France, still believe video games are “retarded toys for kids, dumbing down the youth”.

    In the street, in the newspaper, you’ll hear/read that “these kids of today, spending so much in front of monitors… they’re become incapable of a having an intelligent thought”. They cherry-pick a part of a game, and generalize it to all games, etc – same old story.

    You end up having to hide you play games, otherwise you’ll be looked as if you were the fat nerd playing WoW/LoL all days, or the crazy Call of Duty player who’s going to shoot everyone at school/university, and when they talk with you, they try to use “meme” references.

    Lately, you’re also a “hacker” just like the guys from Wikileaks, who can hack the FBI and get Windows 7 for free.

    It’s a little irritating.

    And when you tell/prove them you don’t play WoW nor LoL, that they understand IT culture as much as your grand-parents (funnily enough, my grand-pa never ever used a computer but still better understand IT tech and culture… I guess repairing radios for the RAF during WW2 helped him understand how interesting engineering can be), you’re being the buzzkiller.

    On the education side, no funds are available for creating video game courses, so you only have 3 small universities funded by local companies and local administration.

    And on the financial side, all tax incentives go to the old music industry and real estate, nothing for the video game industry, so all french devs (except the 3-employees indies) are moving to Canada/US.

    If the tradition-oriented society could change a little, France could be a nice place to play and make video games. That game is a poster child for Sébastien Genvo, an example, a research prototype.

    This is not exactly a game made for the gamers, it’s a game made against the way the french society perceives the video games medium.

    I think it would explains a lot.

    Now to the game ! :D

    • SoggySilicon says:

      @El_Emmental I noticed the protagonist and the guy who made this are the same guy, but I do not have enough information to say if it is an autobiography or not. No more than Hironobu Sakaguchi placing Sephiroth or Cloud in a game makes him the devil or Jesus (mind you that is a really thin argument).

      It really lost me with his “raiding as a job”. Even his real life as a game (insert job here) could not justify that claim. Maybe if he was a gold farmer? That being the case the assumption I took away was that the prior events of his life directed him into a career or escapism of video game media as opposed to dealing with his everyday life. This would be a stretch, as he is, as you said, a professor and game developer. So he has dealt with at-the-least some aspects of the real work-a-day world.

      So for me, the narrative came off a little disjointed. Sure it may pull from his real life experiences, but I missed the autobiography part.

      I get what they are trying to do, I just (personally) do not see it as particularly original. I would liable that Heavy Rain was attempting the same thing, as well as liable that from a direction standpoint, that it was a complete cluster_uck.

      As far as the debate goes, I have argued there is no debate. If there is a subject someone wants to work with, and video games are the medium they want to explore it in. Then by all means, make a game for it. No one is stopping anyone from this.

      That said, what I do take issue with is that by writing a paper stating why some piece of art, lets say “a blue square” is better than someone else’s “blue square” by virtue of it NOT having a paper, I have to question the artistic merit altogether.

      That is to say a lot of modern “art” has some paper or video made with to explain it. Good art stands on it’s own. Stuff people want to play, sells, and boring (albeit adult) content that gathers dust, is just that, a dust collection device.

      You make some valid points here but I would refine that “video game”=”social media”. That is to say that Facebook is as worthless at developing social skills as God of War… I was going to say Battlefield or WoW, but on some level these encourage team work. Many things in social media are using well known and documented psychological devices to get people in the “loop” and personally I “do” have issues with this when it comes to dealing with educating people.

      That said, the individual makes his choices, what ever happened to the choice in this game to “forget that chick” and date the guild mate you’ve been raiding with?

      See, that was another issue here, that the choices presented were on some level, the choices that this particular person saw as viable, and then he wanted to offer up some pscyho-babble as to what it all meant. That is fine, just not entirely true.

      Video game development is a bit of a hack science right now. If I pulled what some of these companies pull in aviation, I would be in jail right now. So no, I do not see funding this on any real level. If some guy wants to become a software engineer that is great, plenty of schools for that. I can count the number of “software engineers” I have met that work on games, on one hand. I have met hundreds of game developers, the percentages are staggering.

      This is a great industry to be in right now, almost no regulation, and plenty of market share. Tax incentives usually indicates some form of capitol gains on return… give something to get something and that topic would go wayyyyy past what this thing is all about. To make a game one but needs a couple bucks, a computer, and a little know how. Where is the start up cost? Does this need incentives to get people to make it? Personally I would not work for a major company, I would stay independent, lots more money to be made.

      Again, I have to kick the line about “what french society is saying about the medium” posit. I don’t think that it is saying that at all. Maybe the news media outlets are, but sales figures are what counts, and last I checked they were one of the few growth sectors, so that whole diatribe is BS. (this ain’t just you, I have seen this banner on the field plenty of times).

      As I said, who cares what society thinks? Plenty of avaunt-guard artist over the past couple hundred years that were controversial but important. What makes me laugh is the candy-ass-ness of so called artist today, trying to win popular opinion before EVER making that “hard hitting game/video” complete with academic paper as to why I should like it.

      Fact is no one can teach anyone how to be John Carmack, you just have to get off your ass get into a book, sit down in front the flashing _ and make it say “hello world”.

      Opinion…. Away!!!!! ;)

    • Sumanai says:

      There was no “raiding is my job” claim. Raiding right now was the excuse why he couldn’t pay proper attention to her right now. Job with computers was his excuse for spending more time with it than her in general.

      I have problems with the game, but I thought that was obvious. Just goes to show how differently people can see the same situation when there’s ambiguities.

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  12. GenBanks says:

    Thanks for this article, you’re leading me to play/think about some games which would normally be out of my comfort zone Mr. Smith, which is awesome.

    (as an aside, I thought I’d mention again what I said at the RPS meet, you should consider giving Shogun 2 a go when you get the chance, as mainstream as it is haha.)

  13. menderslan says:

    I’m rather surprised at all of the negativity in this article. I enjoyed it quite a bit and thought the ending was great, definitely giving me the feeling that it was autobiographical. You can’t expect someone trying to tell their story to “subtle it up,” that just seems silly.

    • Sumanai says:

      [spoilers]
      Have you played through all the “endings”/combinations of choices? There are other problems in my view.
      [/spoilers]

  14. SoggySilicon says:

    @Sumanai I figured I could take it that way as well “Raiding is my job” my reference was specifically about the game being “autobiographical”. I could “see” playing a game as a part of his job, but he in no way shape or form was associated with (a raiding) game. So ergo, this was a lie (to her). That is fine from a narrative point of view, but my issue with this was that the female interest was nothing more than a plot device to drive the narrative further. Simply put, “the conflict”. The issue here is that “doesn’t she know what he does for a living?”

    Hey at least all she did was go to her parents… could of gone a different direction… such as… “I am pregnant” “I haven’t touched you in months?!” “Yeah, well it’s not yours”…. seen that. Hilarity ensues!

    My real question was, “just how much pR0n” did this guy have on his PC for him to finally ask himself if he would be “like” his father, how often did his fantasize about that conversation” This is really on his mind, and it shows. Personally it did not go far enough, there is some really nasty psychology hidden underneath the fluff here. Again, someone wants to bring out the big guns, let’s bring em out, c’mon. This comes off as a pity party, post modern… it is really pathetic.

    Also human relationships require more than one person, this demonstrates (as A LOT of existential philosophy/psychology rubbish posits) that HIS decisions alone craft his future. That by overcoming his past, he can move forward with his future, turning off one game and engaging in his own “game of life”.

    Is this some sort of Life Time after-school special? This has nothing to do with any working psychology or relationship therapy that I am familiar with. It has everything to do with it being existential and mumbo jumbo pawned off as either “art”, “informative”, “some great truth”. Which I answer as, “subjective”, “not really”, “no”.

    I do not design games for a living. I do work on mod projects and have for years. If this game took more than a weekend and some flash to make, I would not take a class from him in design. If this thing is a “professionals thesis” on video games = “art”, it comes off as a joke. Video games utilize art, sound, programming and all sorts of artistic endeavor to create. So does the BBC news… heck Top Gear is art.

    Little tip, and this is not really at anyone, but if society shits out FPS and low brow games, it is because that is society… low brow. Tv executives said this years ago… Tv would be “smarter” but dumb-ass people wouldn’t “get it”. So it is produced at in-and-around a 4th-6th grade education level. All of it. Video games are no exception. This video game, was really, no exception.

    This is also why many a successful character and narrative driven game (franchise) hires writers, and has gone away from using the “director” to write the script. Although most of these games are simply hacks of better made and written material… ala Mass Effect 2, is Babylon 5, which is Childhood’s End, which is pretty much the influence of most good sci-fi in mass media.

    If this guy really wanted to impress me he would of made “Justine” the game, for extra credit he could use real “game theory” calculus to explain it. I doubt he has ever read Justine, or knows calculus, so there we are.

    (open bomb bay doors…. opinion aWaY!)

  15. Sebastien Genvo says:

    Good news, the version 1.1 is online, translation problems are gone :)