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Wot I Think: Rehearsals and Returns

Being mean to Johnny Cash

Rehearsals and Return is the new game from (primarily) Peter Brinson, creator of the remarkable art/history/politics vignette The Cat & The Coup. This shares a certain cut-up appearance and a maudlin tone (well, depending on how you approach it), but it's a rudimentary platform game set to surrealistic, sometimes chaotic backgrounds, wherein you collect dialogue options then make decisions about how to treat assorted famous and infamous figures. And a few less famous ones too.

At present it costs just $1, and will eventually rise to $4. This is a discussion of the experience I had with it, not of its value proposition.

To start with I sneered at its simultaneous archness and whimsy, the banality of a moral litmus test that challenged one to say something nice to Saddam Hussein or be awful to Frida Kahlo for no good reason. By Rehearsals and Returns end, I was in a state of grief and guilt. What began as a game about offering words of love, hate or wisdom to famous names from politics and culture turned into one about saying what you wish you could, or could have, to those closest to you, or who should have been.

It's personal, clearly. Those rare souls somehow untouched or untroubled by loss, or by unhappy upbringings, or by regret at relationships left untended, will feel nothing. Actually, they'll probably just feel annoyed by the alternately pseudy and pat dialogue options. I certainly did at first, and I am capable to at least some degree of this human thing you call 'love.' A shallow, short platforming aspect offers no entertainment in itself - it's just a loose structure to progress from saying judgemental, fond or inappropriate things to the silhouettes of famous figures to agonising over the best thing to say to the unnamed shade of your parents, your younger self, a lost friend or a deceased relative.

The love and hate-related dialogue options are one-shot. As you gently drop and bounce from platform to platform, you pick up floating bubbles marked 'Love 13' or 'Hate 4' as you travel across simply-structured but abstractly-backgrounded platform worlds, and at the end of it you can choose to keep just one of them. If you know you haven't had a chat with Robert Oppenheimer yet and feel you want to say something damning but not excessively vicious to him, perhaps you'd elect to hang on to Hate 4. If you've spotted that one of the upcoming conversations is with a dearly departed friend, you're probably going to want the unbound praise and sentiment of Love 13. Or perhaps you want to tell Johnny Cash how desperately you miss him.

Or, as I did, you might have exhausted all the Love bubbles you'd collected and found yourself facing said dead friend with only various degrees of hate to offer, and thus instead had to offer one of the apparently limitless, philosophical quotes instead. To my best friend, who died a decade ago, I said something vague about the importance of striving, intending it to reflect a sentiment that I believed he had tried hard to do good things (and succeeded) when he was still alive, but it came out mealy-mouthed and I was besieged with guilt and regret.

Later, when choosing what to say to 'Your Parents, When They Were Your Age' I chose Hate 3: 'you should be better' with all too little hesitation. May they never read this, much as I know they now share the same sentiment and attendant guilt. I felt a mixture of horror, righteousness and relief. I felt glad that Hate 3 had been in my inventory for this 'level', then wondered if my having acquired it a couple of levels previously was a bittersweet accident of chance, or extremely careful and knowing placement on Rehearsals and Returns' part. Really, it doesn't matter - this is a game that's about the baggage you bring with you, not anything it gives you.

If Hate 3 hadn't been there, I have no doubt I'd have decided another option reflected my feelings in some way. Perhaps I would have chosen sympathy - some lower-end Love bubble, something that seemed to say 'look, I know you guys kind of screw things up but I now know from my own experience that parenting is hard. Partnerships are hard. Being a grown-up is hard.' Yet I would have resented not having also made it clear that I'd been let down. As it was, I had a moment of catharsis. Rehearsals and Returns is just vague enough and just universal enough in its evocation of loved ones that there's a strong chance most people would find at least something to connect to.

All that introspection and unspoken recrimination, all from clicking on one speech bubble. The scratchy, abstract backgrounds, the gradual increase in jump height as I collected more love/hate bubbles, even picking whether to go through the door marked Pussy Riot or Julian Assange first - none of that moved me, because it was rudimentary and because it wasn't about me. The last few 'worlds' were, which is why sudden grief and sudden resentment took temporary hold of my brain at 11 AM on a Tuesday morning.

Rehearsals and Returns is one of those games where the effects are far greater than the components. I could easily have done with it what I did with The Novelist last year - its words punched me in the gut, but its actions were shallow and repetitive, felt tacked on to justify an emotional journey. It is very cheap, yes, but that doesn't mean its fundamentals don't distract from the intended effects.

However, I could have approached the game completely differently. I could have derived pleasure from telling Michelle Obama she was an awful person, I could have told George W. Bush that to have him back for just one day would be my greatest wish, I could have implied that Harry Houdini was a warmonger. I could have played it for laughs, in other words. Or I could have played it as some irritatingly whimsical lovefest, showing sympathy and support to everyone . If only you could talk to the monsters. I was somewhere in between - respectful and affectionate to good souls, but neutrally didactic to those with blood on their hands. Perhaps I should have pushed myself rather than keep on keepin' on.

I could play it again to try those approaches on for size, but I won't. It got inside my head once, but I've seen Oz behind the curtain now and it can't work again. I'm glad to have undertaken its experiment, and clearly the price can't be faulted, but I'm not sure it's anything like the equal of the Cat & The Coup in terms of impact or cleverness. I believe it was trying to help me learn something about myself, but while I might have been coaxed into gazing inwards I saw nothing new - I miss my friends, I'm still affected by my childhood, I find it hard to be openly unpleasant even to awful people, I find platforming pretty tedious even when it isn't just a fairly cursory support system for introspection. Indeed, while this borrows from platformers it is clearly not intended to be at all challenging in that respect - this is a personality test. I don't at all regret taking it, but I had hoped for so much more after The Cat and The Coup.

Rehearsals and Returns is out now. At present it costs $1, rising to $4 in a few days.

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