Him: silent, stoic, patient. “OK.”
Me: jabbering, confused, hectoring. “Go there, what about that, does that look like that?”
A right pair, Jim and I. Entirely inappropriate, surely, to tackle a co-operative puzzle and exploration game together. We did it, though. We conquered At A Distance‘s abstract shape-worlds, and we did it together. And creator Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV) only had to give us big, fat hints around half a dozen times. Perhaps he was inwardly thinking “these feckless jokers run a website about videogames?”, but outwardly he was patient and understanding, so I’ll presume we weren’t quite the most pathetic pair he saw tackle his brain-teasing wonder.
Right: here’s the main problem with writing about At A Distance. You say how it works, you spoil it. I’m going to take a cowardly middle-ground and obliquely reference key elements without actually shining a direct light on them (and certainly not on how to solve the game), but if you want to go in totally blind to this 30 minute-long co-op indie game that requires two adjacent PCs to play it, stop reading now.
Still here? OK. I can’t tell you much – you may leave knowing little more than when you started, but that’s alright too.
You start alone, bathed in colour. But you are not alone – your companion is right next to you . You can talk to him, and you can see what he sees – he too is bathed in colour, but another colour, with different shapes within it. Shapes, detail, objects – it’s hard to see much of anything through the colour, until you’re right on top of it. Same for him.
You move, carefully. Nothing changes in his world. He moves. Nothing changes in your world. You explore, he explores, you can’t find each other. Alone. And yet…
Clues emerge: he is in a room of towering blocks and obstacles, you are in an enclosed room split into three tiers. He can do nothing but run and jump, you can do that but also you can pick up a set of cubes containing strange, twisting, angular shapes within. What to do, what to do? Talk. Investigate each other’s world. Experiment. Triumph.
Well, there I must curtail the hints. I’ve said too much already. For both players, the perspective is always first-person, the better to get across the initial sense of being lost and confused and to swamp the senses with the overload of near-unichrome colour each room presents.
What comes later, once the initial eureka! has arrived, is two separate journeys, but in tandem, communicating all the while (unless you’re Silent Jim Rossignol), with one player facing a test of logic – i.e. puzzles – and the other a test of spatial awareness – i.e. jumping and navigation. Colour is a vital part of At A Distance, both in terms of the calming yet sombre appearance and in terms of the pair of you besting its challenges and even identifying your own location. One player roams far and wide, the other must decipher the mysteries of an enclosed space – but one that eventually opens out into new and different types of skill and reasoning.
Eventually, the roaming player too faces an escalation, as the game’s initial core puzzle flowers into a vaster, stranger endgame that, for the first time, evokes VVVVVV – but a slower, lucid dream approach to puzzle platforming. By this point, the game’s greatest achievement – muddling out a broader puzzle together while not being able to physically work together – has been bested, and the game becomes a one-player journey to an exit, with an equally absorbed but no longer directly occupied observer egging their erstwhile companion on.
I do have a newer build of the game here that apparently alters (eases, I think) the end game, but I’ve yet to lure someone to my house and play the game on a laptop with me, so I can’t speak for that just yet. But the arc of At A Distance is, in my experience, this: Confusion, Realisation, Excitement, Industriousness, Confoundment, Struggle, Triumph.
At A Distance is a truly ingenious take on co-operation, one where each player simply cannot meaningfully progress without sustained, thoughtful engagement with their companion. It is a finely interwoven puzzle-cube, each challenge linked to the last but regularly taking dramatic u-turns at the point where a player might start to become complacent. It is also a one-time deal: once you’ve solved it, you’ve solved. Your relationship with the game probably won’t end there, however: armed with your knowledge, you will become an advisor to another pair of unknowing adventurers.
Many will fail to best At A Distance without the benefit of another’s wisdom – and that is how it should be. The dawning realisation of how it works is the game’s finest feat, and to make that obvious will bring down the whole house of dreamlike cards. Phenomenally clever, to the point of dastardliness, and a sterling example of how we haven’t even begun to see the outer limits of the experiences videogames can offer us.
At A Distance has been touring various events for the last few months, but will be publicly released on Terry Cavanagh’s website on December 7.