Time and Timelessness: ‘Mountain’ and ‘Durations’
Cameron Kunzelman is right to say that:
‘there’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity.’
It’s definitely a game that both invites reading whilst resisting interpretation at the same time. No matter how much we try and explore Mountain, either by zooming out into space or by flipping the mountain to see its underside, it always calls us back to that view of the rotating giant, turning endlessly through the day and weather cycles; no matter how hard we try and find something meaningful within the game that answers some unasked question, we are unanswered. Sure, we can zoom out into space if we really want to, but what does the space mean? What does it tell us about the mountain? Nothing, of course. Its purpose is to decontextualise; it’s seriously just a mountain floating in space. So we abandon the search for profundity. The game’s musical flourishes and occasional pieces of on-screen text are fleeting and transient, but the mountain itself is constant.
There Are Two Marstons
One of the Indie3 panels I was self-aware enough to watch live was Solon Scott’s interview with Arden Ripley about her upcoming game, Date or Die! Their discussion eventually worked its way around to talking about visual novels and games writing in more general terms, and how to write a protagonist who at once functions as the player’s ambassador in the game world and a fully-formed, individual character in their own right:
'[I]t’s really challenging, but fun, writing a protagonist who is their own character whilst still trying to give the player choices and options and stuff. I don’t want them to feel like they just don’t have any say in what’s going on at all, but at the same time I don’t want them to be able to say things that are wildly inconsistent with Hero’s character, because that just makes her a bad character and then the player doesn’t have any fun with that if their character is inconsistent and all over the place. That’s no good for anyone. […] Usually in some games you might get an option where you can say something nice to someone or be a jerk to somebody, and Hero’s not a jerk. She’s just not that kind of mean person. But what you might be able to do is accidentally pick an option where Hero says something insensitive or thoughtless, as opposed to her actively antagonising anybody. So it’s about how you approach making options for players that are meaningful whilst making her a consistent character.'
Machine-Machine: Automating Threes
We all enjoyed Twitch Plays Pokemon whilst it lasted, and with good reason; it was hectic, ridiculous, entertaining and spawned its own equally strange metanarrative that acted as grounding for a sense of involved community feeling. I’m evoking this spectre to set it against ‘Automating Threes’ from Team Colorblind, in which a robot powered by an AI program plays successive games of Threes.
While TPP was about thousands of people interacting with a game at the same time - taking the concept of ‘single player’ and parsing it, dispersing it into a mad spectrum - Automating Threes is about the absence of people. Instead of people interacting with a system, we have one system interacting with another system. This changes our perception of Threes the game; it becomes an ersatz version of itself when viewed from a distance. The sound effects that play whenever sufficiently high-numbered tiles are paired together - small, cute greetings that reflect the light, casual atmosphere of a little handheld puzzle game - are no longer addressed to a player, but to another machine that cannot possibly answer them, react to them, or hear them at all. We can hear them as viewers, but the distance of the act of viewing means that those little greetings are not for us, the spectator. This uncanny quality is then driven home by the rotor-buzz of the robot arms that come down from on high to swipe the screen. We are made acutely aware of the machine-machine interaction, and the artifice of the personality of Threes is foregrounded to strange effect.
The Fragile Point of ‘Pachalafaka’
To read this article, you need to have played Pachalafaka. Otherwise, a lot of things aren’t going to make any sense. You can download it on PC and Mac for free/name-your-own-price from here, and it takes five minutes to play. This is an attempt to exorcise some vague thoughts that developed throughout my playthrough(s), rather than a sincere explanation or examination of what the game is “about”.
I don’t get Pachalafaka, but I think that’s the point.
The best place to start any attempt to understand it is probably the website of the author, David Calvo:
‘Pachalafaka is a world, ending in songs.
Each song has a different meaning but this world always ends.
Entirely drawn by hand, with ink and watercolors, Pachalafaka is a series of game poems, transgender* prototypes between comic books and games, trying to articulate the fragile point where sequential art becomes interactive.’
So it’s a game about games, and about the boundaries that define what constitutes ‘a game’. It exists on a liminal boundary between ‘sequential’ and ‘interactive’ art, occupying neither of those spaces wholly and thus escaping solid definition. In the game’s opening, a contented face moves across the screen, the island space in which the action is situated is created, and the player is given an avatar at the westernmost side of the island. Afterwards, dandelion buds appear, which can be thrown about by the player moving into them. This is how we are presented with this movement from sequential to interactive - Pachalafaka starts with a single image before introducing elements of what we might call ‘gameplay’ as time progresses. But if this is where we start, then what we end up with is collapse. As you play through the game, the scene of the island your little avatar is occupying starts to shake violently and the rumble of earthquakes pierces the otherwise laid-back soundtrack.* This violence is the tension that arises from the movement that enacted the entire text; the work is unstable because its definition is unstable, a mere ‘fragile point’ in a movement from one concept to another.