A seagull on the roof screeched and gave me an irretrievable sense of self-loathing this morning, and I opened up Zwan, a game designed for the Bosch Art Game competition, and bellowed my whole disquiet with the world into it like some anguished moose that has just been shot by Todd Palin. I have never been so unsettled by a game, and it reminded me of what an effect mood can have on our experience of games, of music, of anything really.
We often look to games to bring us out of something, we greedily look to their systems to tell us how we feel, we feel entitled to have them do something to us , without ever really considering that we put ourselves into games as much as we get from them. We have more of a soul than games; games are just a construct that we can pour ourselves into, a container with sides and knobbles, and then we mould ourselves into those rules to see what possible reward we can glean from them. But it is hard to extract your feelings from the systems sometimes, and this game’s control systems toyed with me – only a left and right arrow can be used – gratingly so – until I didn’t know if I was sad and the game was making me sadder, or if I was just pouring myself into that mould and reading myself like a thermometer with no numbers on it.
Zwan is frustrating whilst it tries to be beautiful; metaphorical. It’s only in its early stages, but I wonder if my reaction is what they want from me, or whether I am meant to be in love with the art and work of Hieronymus Bosch from the beginning. Is his work meant to fill one with a sense of existential dread, a fear of the meaninglessness of life?
You play a swan who flies to the lulling soundtrack of something composed in cello, written and performed by Palconudo, the orchestral arrangements by Lorenzo Marmorato. This swan’s hazardous journey through the surreal works of an artist I have never been exposed to is like being a slug on treacle. The way you are meant to navigate painfully slowly flapping over bizarre landmarks, throughout a world that is round where you turn at the rate of a rusty key in an immovable lock is so hard not to be gratingly saddening. You end up flying straight into objects such as thorned hedges, giant mines, or a harp, or any number of absurd things, and your solid swan of inevitability squawks with some sort of anger at you, though you did your best to turn out of the way.
There is so little sense of freedom or meaning to any of the landscape: I look at a disembodied head on the ground, bald as I fly over, and want to dip lower to investigate, but I can’t. This is a world in which my input or my strainings to understand are unwelcome. The pain of bumping into things, and slowly, slowly, slowly pivoting to turn is inevitable, and though the strangeness of a giraffe shaking its head wants to reassure me I am a human being, I feel the opposite. Everything is alien. Two odd trolls throw indistinguishable objects at me, which hurt me, but I cannot fly away properly. I think my wings are clipped. I am going to get some coffee, and think sadly about how well this game encompasses just about everything. I think I am feeling this Hieronymus Bosch dude.
This game is in its early stages of development, and you can play an early build here. I think they are planning to put it in museums. Perhaps they shouldn’t give it to children.