Whenever I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey it always takes the first half an hour for me to slow down to the pace of the film, but the beautiful thing is that after that first little while I don’t notice at all. A spacecraft glides slowly and carefully into its docking station. It could be taking minutes, or hours for all I know; one triumph of the film is the way it immerses me in a sense of cosmic time. In the recently released game ‘Beyond Eyes‘ a young girl called Rae leaves the familiar surroundings of her home in search of her beloved friend, Nani, a ginger cat. As the player it is up to you to guide her, but there is no ‘hold down B to run’, or ‘press Y to jump’. Rae is blind. The player’s role is to help her find a safe path through countryside and town, so it is quite right that Rae does not charge about like a reckless, blindfolded Mario. Rae walks, carefully. And so, as with 2001, you adapt to what is a much slower experience than other games.
You also have to adapt to Rae’s blindness. As the player you don’t have perfect knowledge of the world; you only get to see what Rae imagines is around her, which she discovers by touch and sound. So her feet feel a path or grass, her hands feel a wooden fence or a stone wall. Sometimes she hears a water fountain, birdsong, the mew of a cat, or the bark of a dog, and these things emerge on screen, beautifully rendered like a watercolour painting (almost any screenshot from Beyond Eyes could hang in an art gallery, it’s that gorgeous). Rae has a marvelous intuition for her surroundings, the game is very generous on this front, but sometimes the world plays tricks on her. A tapping noise isn’t really a woodpecker, for instance, or obstacles appear where they didn’t used to be. And sometimes the world is downright scary, with angry dogs and seagulls. Beyond Eyes is about coping with these obstacles while exploring, in the hope that Rae will find her friend. I found it a wondrous experience, once I’d adapted to the slower pace. It’s also the first time my partner, who is generally uninterested in video games, has sat and played through a whole game (her comment afterwards, “it’s more an experience than a game”, pretty much nails it). At about two hours it’s not a huge investment, but there’s enough time to develop an empathy for Rae; to feel frustrated when lost, to feel nervous climbing a stile, and to feel happy at hearing a frog croak or stroking a cat. And of course there’s the lingering desire to find Nani, which is sometimes hopeful, and sometimes despairing.
The end is deeply moving. That’s all I can say really. There can’t be many games that have anywhere near the emotional depth of Beyond Eyes. Reach the end, and perhaps pay attention to the credits, and you realise what the whole game was really about. Taken as a whole I think it succeeds exceptionally well, in just the same way that a Raymond Carver short story or a Studio Ghibli film, unveils the experiences of another life, and another world, to the viewer.
Submerged is another indie game I leapt on when it came out recently. The setting for Submerged is spectacular; a drowned city that has been reclaimed by nature, with palm trees and grasses growing from the rooftops of skyscrapers, and whales and dolphins swimming along submerged streets. Most, if not all, of your time in the game is spent scavenging for provisions to keep your younger brother alive, which means boating around the city and climbing buildings to find chests of aid. It’s impossible to fall, or drown, or capsize the boat, so there is very little skill or drama. For a game in which you’re caring for a wounded little brother, it’s rather lacking in angst or tension, but the game really comes into its own after the story has concluded, as you are just left to explore the city. There are still dozens of story stones to collect, if you want to fill out all the backstory, but really it’s a unique pleasure just to skim around on the water taking in the sights. If you have ever read a post-apocalyptic novel like The Drowned World or The Day of the Triffids and wished you could have a city to yourself to explore, to experience the sublime loneliness, desolation and freedom, then Submerged offers you a warm, tropical version of that experience, without having to fend off zombies or shoot wolves for food. And it’s a visual feast, as the sun and the moon wheel overhead, thunderstorms come and go, and fireflies dance in the air. Although the world has succumbed to an eco-apocalypse Submerged offers a very chilled-out experience, with a poignant soundtrack that re-inforces a feeling of calm hope. This is no dark, oppressive dystopia. Nature still thrives.
Both games tell a short story about the life of a young girl. They are both non-violent and most of your time is spent exploring, so the rewards are more contemplative than competitive. Beyond Eyes in particular is emotionally articulate in a way that almost no other games manage. They may feel unrewarding and difficult at times, but I don’t think it’s fair to call them the video game equivalent of ‘eating your greens’. A vegetarian meal can be delicious too.
In ‘Video games have a diversity problem that runs deeper than race or gender‘, Anonymous laments that games like these must remain on the fringe; that the mainstream killer-shooter dominates far too much: “… how often do we consider diversity of genre; diversity of experience?”. This is a fine point. To me, Beyond Eyes and Submerged are evidence that the medium has diversified, but they remain small-scale and confined to online stores. Will ‘No Mans Sky’, the infinite Pokemon in space due out next year (?), make more of dent in the killer-shooter culture that defines mainstream gaming? I hope so. It would be stupid if people weren’t interested in movies because all they ever heard about were brain dead Hollywood blockbusters. Isn’t it equally stupid that people are turned off games because all they ever hear about is killing and sexism?