I want to describe an interesting experience I had recently. Something which completely changed my experience of a piece of art and something which is almost unique to the medium of video games.
The other day I was pointed towards Souvenir, a work-in-progress from MFA students Robert Yang, Mohini Dutta, and Ben Norskov. In the creators' words:
Souvenir is a first-person video game about growing up and leaving home. The disorientation of becoming an adult is reflected in the surreal M.C. Escher-inspired world with multiple gravities.
Sounds like something I'd want to check out!
I loaded up the game, and I'm presented (after some initial confusing elements) with a house decorated with floating fragments of memory.
A very literal interpretation of "environmental storytelling".
It becomes clear that I'm moving out of my parents' house and I have to retain some number of memories of my childhood to take with me into adulthood.
Trying to look around, something very strange happens. My character's view skips and jumps around, seemingly at random. I try to concentrate on an object on her desk to look at its associated memory and I end up gazing out the window. At times I appear to be able to focus and look at things with ease, but then I can't keep my head straight, my eyes slide off objects and drift elsewhere.
Once I leave the house, I'm presented with a distorted world which I can dart around, flying to any point I can see and reorienting myself so that gravity points towards the ground.
Walking away from her house, I take a path of well-crafted association through all the places a child's memories might be clustered around: school, church, local neighbourhood. Just like the memories of a childhood, things are jumbled and mixed by random associations. Moving around is strongly reminiscent of introspection; I can try to visit every memory I can relating to her classroom, but before I know it I'm in some other associated memory — from the desks she sat at with school friends I see other benches she also sat on in a park, or the pews she sat in in church.
A single click jumps me right into this tangential memory. The change is disorienting as the world shifts around me and I reorient to my new surroundings, made harder by the random, skittish tendency to end up looking somewhere else.
My goal is to try and search for memories which seem especially personal — I want to find out more about who my character might be now based on how she remembers her childhood. The coupling of my constant reorientation into new memories and random skipping of attention when trying to focus on specific memories is powerfully evocative of how it really feels to forcibly introspect. It's fairly frustrating, but so thematically consistent that I can't help but admire the developers' commitment.
So I came away from Souvenir with extremely positive impressions, particularly of the environmental storytelling and the subjective-made-literal nature of the navigation and traversal of the world.
This evening, some weeks later, I've been playing another student project, Sphere, also made in Unity. When I start it up I instantly recognise the random skipping of view which I experienced in Souvenir. It's just a bug in Unity. The nature of the bug seems to fit so perfectly with the experience of trying to remember something. Because the view jumps seem to occur only at random times, but only when the view angle is being changed, attempting to use fine movements to really try and look at something closely makes it more likely you'll lose it. What I considered to be one of the boldest and most affecting choices turns out not to have been a choice at all, but merely a random artefact of the medium.
I love video games.
The only other time I can remember something like this happening is when I was unaware that a severe audio distortion almost made the first 15 minutes of Crank watchable. (When I finally fixed the glitch, I stopped watching the movie.)