Suicide in Closure

February 22, 2010

My Kill Screen colleague Jamin Brophy-Warren has written on the use of darkness in games like Heavy Rain and Closure. While it kills me that I can’t play the high-profile Heavy Rain — for lack of a PlayStation 3 — I couldn’t be more into Tyler Glaiel‘s low-profile Closure.

Tyler Glaiel's Closure


Closure has been totally remade for the IGF. The scratchy outlines of the Flash game have been refined into an intricate tangle of metal, tubing, and glass. The ghostly stick figure you guided in the original Closure now wears boots and what looks like a hard hat, both of which give him the distinct look of an explorer or miner. As he uncovers the murk, he passes husks of wrecked and abandoned machinery that recall Katsuhiro Otomo’s illustrations for Akira. But these backgrounds contain an uncanny sense of the Other more akin to the grotesque psychological landscapes of Shintaro Kago than to simple cyberpunk dystopias. It has to do with their darkness.

Darkness is frightening in Closure because it represents literally nothing. If an area of the world is not lit by one of the glowing balls set on a pedestal or carried by your character, then it doesn’t exist. Bridges, solid walls, even existing open spaces become voids. This is an exceedingly clever mechanic that allows you to open and close paths for your character just by changing the positions of lights. All of a sudden, a shadow creates a jutting platform that points your way forward. But if your character jumps into a void but lacks a ground to land on, then he’ll keep falling into oblivion and die.

Tyler Glaiel's Closure


The subtext is pretty glaring. The character needs light to see and understand his surroundings — to realize his purpose. Without understanding, he’s as good as dead. This is also an inherent critique of the gaming medium, whose photorealistic worlds might be mindbending and immersive but disappear like a flash once you unplug yourself. (Arguably this encourages gamers to stay plugged in, more than it encourages games themselves to linger meaningfully afterward. But that’s neither here nor there.) Closure‘s game world only exists when you can see it.

Like any good puzzle-platformer, Closure asks you to continually uncover new ways to exploit its central mechanic from level to level. As you internalize the mechanic’s advantages and downfalls, you also internalize the light/dark – something/nothing metaphor. Playing the game becomes a matter of learning how to retain the information that is useful to you and reject the information that isn’t.

But what struck me most about playing Closure were the consequences of failure. You’ll frequently trap your character by accident — catching him in existential paralysis. You open up the floor and let him fall into a space he can’t climb out; or you fall too far behind a moving light until it can no longer open a path for you.

There is a “retry” button in the game: It’s “K,” for “kill yourself.”

Tyler Glaiel's Closure

Facing death.

Once you can’t go any further in the game — perhaps you couldn’t think of another way, or perhaps you didn’t have enough foresight — then you have to think of ending it. Pressing “K” causes the void to swallow your character. You see him falling for just an instant before you fade back to the beginning. This is by no means a new idea, but the implication of death is unexpectedly powerful in Closure.

I often didn’t use the kill button, which felt jarring and violent. Fixated on moving light, I found it somehow easier to kill my character naturally. I would remove a light shining on a barrier and jump through, or simply drop the light I was holding so that the world no longer went with me. The process would last no more than a few seconds. But no matter how you achieve it, the brief act of committing your character’s suicide in Closure is haunting: It’s an admission of failure.

The more suicides I committed in the Closure demo, the more poignant the game’s light began to feel. It’s a flickering light with godlike power, an entity that creates and destroys the world with little interest and little remorse. It’s also your own power to exist, a power over which you are given complete control.

Krystian Majewski’s Trauma

February 10, 2010

Myst depicted the world as a series of images organized to match the four cardinal directions. That these images were mostly static did not detract from your sense of physical immersion. When you faced a stairway, clicking forward would bring you to the top of the steps; turning left or right might reveal side paths to distant buildings; and turning back would remind you of the path by which you arrived here.

Krystian Majewski‘s Flash game Trauma, a surprise IGF standout this year, also depicts the world as a series of discrete, unmoving images. But unlike Myst, these images represent a girl’s memories of her dreams (not her actual dreams) instead of the dreamlike terrain itself. As you play, the girl, who has survived a car accident, is recalling these dreams to a hospital psychiatrist.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

Question marks.

The images differ significantly from those of Myst. They aren’t windows into the world, views out the eyes of your avatar from different vantage points. No coherent body is implied. Instead, these are discrete snapshots, actual photographs, that you shuffle through almost like a deck of cards. They correspond vaguely to physical space; for example, if you are on a road, clicking ahead will take you further along that road. But Trauma‘s landscape is plastic, and the game upholds geographic integrity only so that it can disorient you later. Following the road, you end up at the beginning.

The camera pulls back from your first-person view to reveal that what looked like a straight road from your vantage point is actually a terrifying Möbius-like spiral. Consider how difficult it is to make sense of this spiral, and then consider the horror of poking around aimlessly from within the spiral’s underbelly.

Myst was full of seams. There was no visual transition to accompany an act as simple as turning left or right, ascending a staircase, or crossing a portal. Your changes in perspective or position weren’t fluid movements, but rather sudden displacements. To compensate, your mind reflexively imagined yourself turning left, automatically pictured the empty space you traversed to reach the top of the steps — filling the gaps left by the game.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

Zoom in.

Trauma anticipates and undermines your instinct. As you click around, the image before you lurches, blurs and fades unsteadily into the next. One flat plane is literally subsumed into another. The game plays out the transition for you, revealing the world to be exactly what it is: a series of discrete images that you willfully connect into a seamless space; nothing more. They are no better or different than the small polaroids you collect in the game, little scraps that contain evidence of questionable authenticity.

At stake here is the notion of a continuous experience. As you navigate the lands of Trauma, you hear the girl speaking to her psychiatrist, trying to remember how each scene is relevant either to her dream or to her past before the accident. She never sounds quite certain. Sometimes there is clear doubt in her voice. As the player, you are embodied in the girl’s memory; you actually enact her remembrance. Playing Trauma — probing the depths of memory — leaves you with many contradictions and few clear answers.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

This throws the profound unreality of many first-person games into sharp relief. In reality, memory is what allows us to experience life as continuous. Our present was begotten from the past; our future depends on our present. In contrast, in games that hope to mimic reality — take the paragon of seamless first-person experiences, Half-Life 2 — it isn’t memory but technology that fosters continuity. It is HL2‘s Source engine, scripted action, and non-player dialogue that let us roam and interact with the world entirely from Gordon Freeman’s eyes, as if we had merely stepped into his boots and proceeded from there.

But past, present and future all exist simultaneously in Half-Life 2 as code. Memory is nonexistent; the physical world of City 17 is also Gordon Freeman’s beginning and end, a timeline collapsed into a single locus, not at all like a Möbius strip. In other words, if Gordon Freeman has a memory, he is incapable of remembering anything that you have not played through. His brain is no better, or worse, than a cinema reel.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

You don’t imagine yourself into the worlds of Half-Life 2 or Myst, because those games simply show it all. Trauma, meanwhile, is a game about imagining, where nothing is shown simply. A strange act of doubling therefore occurs: The blatant subjectivity and natural instability of the girl’s memories align with the obvious artifice of the game world, and this more accurately reproduces human experience than Valve’s and Cyan’s literal re-creations. The narrative is full of holes, and the space is knotted beyond comprehension; yet the mystery is comforting. Rather than being a seamless slide forward, life is experienced more as a series of memorable flashes or punctures in the fabric of time. This isn’t a conceptual exercise; it is how the game is built.

The Mess of Super Meat Boy

February 1, 2010

By now it’s clear that Team Meat’s upcoming Super Meat Boy will be a rallying point for indie platforming. Tim from Braid, Commander Video from the Bit.Trip games, Hominid from Alien Hominid, Flywrench from Flywrench, Meat Boy himself — these DIY heroes star in the hardcore platformer and make their case for the expressive value of 2D run-and-jump.

I’m encouraged by the thought of indie creators finding common ground and strength in numbers. But what most strikes me about my Independent Games Festival build of Super Meat Boy (it has been nominated for both the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Audio) is the game’s skillful, almost offhand commentary on the masochistic nature of platforming. Meat Boy’s mechanics are instantly familiar to any Mario or Sonic devotee — run to build momentum; jump for your life; avoid spikes. You are certain to fail, and die, dozens of times in your quest for the princess. Super Meat Boy portrays this nearly Sisyphean task as a lengthy series of short, pithy levels in which Meat Boy or others scrape through thick and thin to grab the princess at the other end, only to have her taken away and placed out of reach once again in the next level.

Super Meat Boy

The past in the present.

Upon completion, you have the option to replay your playthrough of the level. But it’s telling that your failures are ultimately as memorable as your successes. The former are recorded by the game just as clearly as the latter: Meat Boy drips (naturally) blood at every step, and his fateful path from platform to platform to killer bank of razor blades is painted in bright, messy red. The more tries he takes, the bloodier the level becomes.

Compare Super Meat Boy and Super Mario World. The plumber’s world is one of rounded edges, soft landings, wide eyes. Meat Boy’s is full of blades, splatter, and clenched teeth. By the time you hit the flag at the end of one of Super Mario World‘s more stressful levels, what you feel is that you’ve really done it right. Your missed landings, your tumbles into oblivion, your failed attempts? They left no visible trace; they’re as good as nonexistent. In a normal platformer like Super Mario World, your mistakes are swept under the rug. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be filling the hero’s shoes, never missing a step.

It’s easy, then, to consider Meat Boy a platforming antihero. Even his most balletic movements end up a smear. There’s no clean dash to the exit. Even such an innocuous movement as jumping across a gap, narrowly missing the ledge on the other side, and drifting down to the ground leaves a long, bloody trail against the side of the cliff. Frustration is written on Meat Boy’s face.

Super Meat Boy

The joy of falling?

Meat Boy’s fluids also impart a fresh, wounded physicality to the terrain of the platformer. This isn’t just a fantastical landscape of vertiginous canyons and saw blades. It’s a highly subjective one, on which your anxieties and attempts to overcome slim odds are automatically written. With a few exceptions (the retro-themed, certifiably awesome warp levels), you don’t lose lives in Meat Boy. You have infinite chances to try, try again. Instead of the standard cycle of death and reincarnation, you live in a perpetual state of woundedness. Subtext aside, what this suggests is that Super Meat Boy is less about perfecting your performance (here, a fluke is as good as seasoned skill) than about being able to experience the game in full, to see and read all that the game has to say.

The game doesn’t take too many gallons of blood to make its mark. The whirring, razor-sharp saw blades everywhere drive the pain home. Games like this, from Yoshi’s Island to ‘Splosion Man, cut a very fine line between the exhilaration of living and the drudgery of repetition.