You probably already know this but: I spend a lot of time thinking about how games. A lot of that is why games are great, and how they could be better: intelligent, emotional, stretching the form. And when I’m doing this, I’m pretty much always reaching for examples, pinnacles of what I’m talking about, without falling back on the clichéd ‘games are so art’ examples. Passage (of which I’m not a huge huge fan, being honest with everyone, and which one commenter rightly called me out for using, in my Disney/Death Escapist article) and Braid (which is a wonderful game, but mostly for the mind-bending nature of the thing rather than any emotional response it provokes) and all that.
‘Literary’ is the word we’re going to use here, if that’s okay with you. I’m forever drumming my fingers on a desk and trying to summon the name of some game that does the whole literary thing. By which I mean: the fluent expression of real, muted human emotions which catch you and knock you over a bit so you have to take a minute to think. Books are best at it, in my experience, but it’s a response I always associate with games as well. Only, y’know, not any specific ones, because I’m rubbish.
So this is a mental note: …But That Was [Yesterday] is the example I want to use from now on.
Go and play it for yourself, I beg you, and then come back and tell me how silly I was to waste your time. Because I admit, [Yesterday] is a very particular pleasure. It draws pretty directly from Passage, being a game where you can only walk in one direction (and using that as a metaphor for time) but its closest relative, returning to the literature idea, is probably Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity.
It’s similar to Eggers’ novel thematically: being about memories, and grieving and healing, and the relationship between the two and physical movement. Its flaws are familiar too: it’s showy, quite ‘difficult’, and exactly as pretentious-intellectual as the title suggests. But most importantly, it’s similar in the ways it transcends those flaws: a fragile beauty that summons those moments we were talking about earlier.
The thing is that, most of the time, the game only requires you to press a single button (→), with little challenge to reflex or mental agility. Frankly, it drags a little at times. A typical 30 seconds goes like this: follow a prompt to press ←, stop pressing → or any other key for 5 seconds, wait for the obstacle to roll back, and then press → again for another 25 seconds. Boring, right?
But two other things are going on in that half-minute. First, the game is so nicely presented that you can swallow doing nothing for a few seconds to take in the cartoon minimalism and listen to the breathy score.
This is [Yesterday]‘s main trick, this single game mechanic turned into a big fat metaphor. And as it explores those memories, shows you just the slightest edge of them, it quivers with real human emotion. And if the art and the music have got you attuned properly, you might quiver too, a bit. And because it’s understated, because it’s a little bit clever and artsy like that girl you fancy from the coffeeshop, it might just tickle the right part of your brain and your senses and those pesky feelings.
It worked for me. Finally, one of the clever little variations it pulls on that single-mechanic theme caught me just right and it managed to pull the breath from my lungs for a single, long moment. That literary sensation. And afterwards, I felt just a little bit clever and pleased with myself, like I was someone from a book or a good film or something. Maybe, if I wasn’t such a carved-out-of-rock troll of a human being, it might even have brought a tear or two.