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Priceless Play - 1 December 2018

Location, Location, Location

I’m back from celebrating my time off for American Thanksgiving to bring you the final installment in my close examination of game components. The pair to my last piece, on embodiment and movement, we’re taking the deep dive into space and movement.

I know not all games are made of only four elements -- time, rules or constraints, embodiment, and space -- but it sure seems like that’s what make up the games I like. Sometimes it can feel like there’s so much Discourse about what does or does not make up a game: Does it require skill? Can you win? Is it difficult? Are there points? At the end of the day, if these questions aren’t proving productive or generative, it seems like it just isn’t worth it to ask. Questions I find more interesting are: what does this piece do with its components? What about it can I find compelling? What does this game teach me? Where does this game challenge me?

When it comes to movement, I think that space and embodiment are two sides of the same coin. When playing a game, one often embodies some sort of representational (or otherwise) avatar, and then there is the space through which that representation moves. There is Pac-Man, and then there is the labyrinthian space through which the Pac-Man Pacs. Last week considered what it meant to control or embody those representations, and this week’s post looks at the requisite space around those representations which gives them context. Here are some games with some neat focus on space:

Grace Bruxner’s ALIEN CASENO and The Fish Market

Grace Bruxner has been in the general zeitgeist over the past few months during the buildup to her recently released game Frog Detective. I haven’t played it yet, but if her previous games give us any insight, it’s going to be fantastic. I’ve gone with ALIEN CASENO and The Fish Market here for their sense of humour, good nature, and their pure systems. There’s nothing to do in either game except to wander her lovingly rendered environments chock full of wild characters and their disarmingly charming smiling faces.

ALIEN CASENO takes place on an alien planet, which has attempted to recreate a facsimile of an Earth casino. With all the limited information those aliens had, the impression one gets of a “caseno,” doesn’t seem to quite add up. But who has the heart to tell these alien anthropologists? The Fish Market, on the other hand, offers no clear reasoning for its existence. It just is what it is, and what it is is a fish market where the Vengaboys are playing. You can’t buy anything, you can’t talk to anyone, and no -- you can’t stop the Vengaboys from playing.

I think that some of the harshest criticisms around walking simulators is that there isn’t much to do. In some recent landmark iterations (Gone Home, or Firewatch, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, for instance) that simply isn’t true. Your simulated walking has a purpose, and you can interact with your environment. In fact, that interaction is requisite for the game’s completion. But what about games where that isn’t the case? What are we taking for granted in gamespaces where objects can be moved and manipulated and interacted with? What happens when that interaction is taken away from us? Bruxner offers a charming pair of answers to these questions in The Fish Market and ALIEN CASENO.

Pol Clarrisou's Orchids to Dusk

Orchids to Dusk, by Pol Clarissou with music by Marskye, is described on its website as, “a short networked wandering experience about an astronaut stranded on an alien planet, with only a few minutes left to live.” You crash land, you walk around, and then you die. It is a harsh existence -- I am reminded, in part, of Queers in Love at the End of the World (referenced in the first week of this series).

While the game is described as “networked,” it is never made explicitly clear what that means. Clarrisou expands in their postmortem, made available on Medium: “The world of the game is persistent, and every player’s death changes it: players who run out of oxygen leave behind a corpse for other players to find, and those who surrender and remove their helmets turn into forests that can be explored.” It is an environment of persistent and radical acceptance: this space will kill you, and it is only a matter of time. I set my astronaut off in one direction, and let her walk until she runs out of air. She curls up next to the corpse of another astronaut I have found --, the body of another player who, like me, ran out of time.

Jenny Jiao Hsia’s chat with me

Of all the landscapes I engage with -- more than my commute to work, my hometown, or the Appalachian mountains where I spent my summers growing up -- I know the terrain of cyberspace the best. And, better than that, I know the space that gets amplified in a long distance relationship. Hsia replicates the desktop of someone in a similar situation -- miles away from the person they love. Instead of a walking simulator, here we have a talking simulator.

It’s a more abstract version of space than the other, more direct, representations I’ve talked about here. Here, the space is palpable in its attempt to be mitigated. As it is, I suppose, in all long distance relationships. Scheduling around time zones, calls dropping, Skype glitches, the way that communication’s nuance lapses in that jump from screen to screen. Everything serves to compound the miles of land and/or ocean which separates you. Space sucks.

Ronyaib's The Herbalist

I’ll leave you with a bit of hope. Unlike in the previous games, Ronyaib’s The Herbalist gives you a quest: find a special herb. Here, you are a traveler in a strange land where you do not speak the language and you must find a plant. The environment is beautiful and evocatively rendered. The music is haunting. The desert is vast. I hope you make it further than I did.

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