Playing The Story

     |    Wednesday, der 9. May 2012

Woo-hoo!! That sound has, for the past couple of weeks, been eminating from my computer speakers, although, sad to say, less often in recent days. That’s because I’m stuck. Where I’m stuck is in the root system of a large tree, and by „me“ I mean a band of tiny beings who’ve been running around in this tree since I bought a copy of Botanicula from Amanita Design. This may be the best computer game I’ve ever experienced, and, although I’m stuck, I’m not going to be forever, and there will be more. I’ve always been fascinated by digital games, and I’ve always been terribly disappointed by them. Many years ago, I wrote a story on the emergence of video arcade games for the Austin American-Statesman that was the first of its kind and got syndicated around the U.S. While researching it, a local game supplier even loaned me a Space Invaders game, which I set up in my living room, right next to the Colecovision console I already owned. When I got a computer in 1994, the first one to get me hooked was Marathon, even though it was basically a click-and-shoot like so many of the arcade games I’d played. The graphics were cool, and the thing which drew me in was the promise that a story was going to unfold on this spaceship where aliens had taken over, turning some of the crew into living bombs. Every now and again, there’d be a video terminal where there’d be text to read, but throughout the three episodes which eventually came out, I never pieced together a coherent story, probably because there wasn’t one. I had better luck with some of the patches, including one where the guy who programmed it used Leonardo da Vinci’s artworks in the design. The alternative was Oxyd, which someone in Germany turned me on to. A puzzle game, it was about rolling a ball around a field and hitting marked squares. If you got a pair, you were on your way to solving the puzzle. The game’s still out there as Enigma, if you’d like to try it. But again, no narrative. Eventually computers got a lot more powerful, although Macintosh was sufficiently a pain in the ass that a lot of games didn’t get released on the platform. The graphics got better, the gameplay got a lot more sophisticated, and there were hints of narrative, but…mostly it was shoot-‚em-up. Even when the reviews extolled the sophistication of the Civilization series designed by a guy named Sid Meyer, I got them, got over the huge learning curve, and discovered that there was no way to bring the world under your thumb using economics: you had to use firepower. If, by chance, you won without blowing your enemies to smithereens or grinding them under your heel, you got a tiny score for being a wimp. The narrative, of course, you wrote yourself, and it was about how you went from primitive weapons to less primitive weapons, while building up a trade network. But it wasn’t very interesting. Of course, there are those who’ll say that my insistence on narrative beyond competition is missing the mark. And I’ll admit it: competition is fun, or else I wouldn’t have spent so much time with Marathon. But I’ve always suspected that computers have made a new kind of storytelling possible, and that it’s been very much underexploited because the major market for games has been adolescent boys, and adolescent boys like to blow shit up. And boy are there a lot of ways to blow shit up on the market at the moment. Which takes me back to Amanita, and their fascinating take on games. They’re a little different. For one thing, they’re based somewhere in the Czech Republic. For another, they have a really idiosyncratic approach to design, funky and organic at the same time. They started around a decade ago with a game called Samorost, which was one guy’s university thesis. By the time of Samorost 2, the art was getting more sophisticated, and in 2009, Amanita released Machinarium, a full-length game, where the narrative and graphic brilliance the first games promised came into their own. There is one problem with this, though, at least for me. Like the Myst games, another disappointing franchise which didn’t involve blowing anyone’s shit away, Machinarium founders on the player having to solve problems involving switches and circuits. It does have the neat feature of having a small book icon in the lower right corner which, when clicked upon, gives you a primitive video game in which a key is sent through a short maze, shooting spiders, and arrives at a lock, at which point the book opens to the page with the solution. Remembering the complex solutions, though, can be a problem. The problems aren’t as hard as Myst’s, but getting stuck on one can be annoying. Botanicula, though, is a whole different ballgame. Through a series of animations, you’re introduced to an ecosystem, a tree under assault by some parasites which resemble daddy long-legs with one huge eye. The tree is the last of its sort, and a little seed is the only hope of there being more. The seed, along with four other tiny critters, takes off to save the species with the help of most of the other species in the tree’s ecosystem, which includes insects, reptiles, arthropods, a couple of mammals, and some sentient vegetable matter. Everything is communicated without language, and every task is clear. Mostly it’s about retrieving objects which appear under the right circumstances and then need to be delivered elsewhere. Each time you get it right, everyone cheers: „Woo-hoo!!“ It’s charming. Here, for instance, there’s a very important chicken in that oven, and the chef’s not going to let it go. Well, actually, it’s just possible it will, but you have to figure out how. Meanwhile, the soundtrack — I haven’t said a thing about how much I hate computer game soundtracks, have I? Well, there isn’t enough room — is the most enjoyable, and least intrusive I’ve ever heard. There’s no way to turn it off, I don’t think, but I’ve never even looked to see if there is. It’s the product of a duo called DVA (no, not the old post-punk band Clock DVA), who are incredibly sensitive to sound textures while retaining a charming melodic sense. There are a couple of moments in the game where you can start a little concert going by clicking on the right things — the salsa-singing frogs are a favorite of mine — and the entire sound design of the game is unprecedented. All the while you’re getting these little critters to dash around the tree’s various parts (and collecting little trading cards from the animals you meet) you’re having it brought home to you that all this life is interconnected. I suspect that if I ever get to the end, this message will be made overt. I’m not in a rush, though, because the contining sense of wonder, the way each character’s place in the whole is presented, and the surprises around every corner make it a place I like to spend time. And now a suggestion for Amanita. What if, at the start of your next game, there are three roads. Choosing one, you can’t go back to the other two. You play out the game you’ve chosen, and find that you can now go back to the beginning and see what’s down the other roads — one at a time. Yeah, yeah, I know: making these things is hard, and takes a lot of time. But the stories these games tell are so charming, so much fun to unwind, that I’m going to miss this one when it’s gone and wish there were another right away.