The first rule of Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance is you do not talk about Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance. The second rule is You Do Not Talk About Te-- wait, I got that wrong. The second rule is no smoking.
Gregg B and I took on At A Distance when I stayed over at his place in April. We’ve decided to talk about our experience and break the Fight Club rule. The following discussion is riddled with spoilers for At A Distance, including the ending.
HM: Okay, kick us off Gregg.
GB: I played At A Distance a little at the Eurogamer Expo last year but wanted to savour it in the peace and quiet of my own home with a friend. At the time I didn't realise it was an 'event' game. To be honest I expected to play it with my girlfriend but when you said you were wanting to pay me a visit it was an opportunity not to be missed. So after a while setting it up we started playing this thing. And it is a ‘thing’ because it's quite unlike anything else.
GB: Yeah you showed me those after we'd finished. It reminded me of screenshots I'd seen of 3D Construction Set for the Amiga or ZX Spectrum and little did I know they were created by the same developers of the Freescape engine and Driller.
HM: Let's explain how we played and what we worked out, right until the point where we “finished”. So there are two players with different screens. One playing "left brain" and another "right brain". Took us a little while to get the networking sorted out but it wasn't too much of a task.
GB: At the Expo I played as the left brain, so to keep things fresh I decided to be the right brain this time. In a nutshell, both players occupy different spaces but have to work together to progress. Progression involves the right brain collecting these blocks and connecting them together, each one representing a chamber that the left brain player gets to navigate through. Some chambers contain cubes which, when collected, give the right brain a key allowing them to access other areas to gain more chamber blocks to connect together. Of course, none of this is explained so both players have to work together and perhaps more importantly, be able to see each other's screens to understand how they interact. It's difficult to explain! But it is fairly simple once you get your head around it.
HM: Now as you worked on a bit already in the expo, we spun up fairly quickly. And during this phase there was nothing of story or meaning offered whatsoever. It was just geometric shit everywhere, a puzzle to solve. The dithered graphics made the gloom seem creepy and the places we explored - our worlds never intersected - felt quite foreign and dead.
GB: Yeah it's got a very lo-fi aesthetic but that adds so much to the atmosphere of the game seeing shapes emerging from the darkness around you as you explore.
HM: I should jump in here and point out it is not possible to die. The worst case scenario is when the left brain character - wandering around the chambers assembled by the right brain - leaves a chamber through an exit which isn't connected. Then you get dumped into a sort of waiting room as you are delivered back to the left brain starting point - the dead forest chamber. You, Gregg, couldn't "die" at all.
GB: The Waiting Room of Doom, as I called it, is just an endless chamber that wraps in on itself. The only way to leave is to stand motionless and the dithered gloom sort of consumes you and, yeah, then you’re spat back out into the orange dead forest chamber.
HM: We were having to work together, figuring out what to do. I would find funky cubes which were keys for you, which in turn allowed you to go find new chambers for me to explore and retrieve cubes from... I remember the disappointment when we found new chambers with no key in them. They were pointless and we wondered why the Hell Terry would put them in. Ho ho, that was to come back and bite us on the ass later.
GB: At A Distance is very much a game of two halves. The first half is the one we've discussed so far - the chamber blocks, the cubes, the keys, connecting the chambers. But the second half is something that seems to have gone largely without discussion across the internet, at least our searches didn't turn up much and we made many searches. A few stray commenters have mentioned it here and there but generally speaking it's almost remained a secret. Which is unsurprising given that this 'second half' isn't likely to be discovered in an expo/social environment as we found out.
HM: I remember that first realisation as we were working through the game together. As I navigated chambers and you slotted them into place - that this was just not an expo game. It was a thoughtful thing and something to reflect on as you were working through it. All told, I think we spent 90 minutes to two hours on the game - including all of our contemplation. It took too long to play for an expo environment which is all about moving on, the pressure of a waiting crowd behind you.
GB: Passing on the controller because you've been playing it for 30 minutes...
HM: ...and all that knowledge lost. I believe the original idea was that players would pass on the stuff they figured out to the next generation of players who would continue the challenge. I just don’t think that would work and, indeed, I don't think it did. I suppose you could just do the Jim Rossignol and Alec Meer thing and hog the machine until you’re done.
GB: I actually think the first half of the game is suited to an expo environment I'm just not convinced the second half of it is, which revolves around the end-game and beyond.
GB: I think the sorts of people who'd want to play At A Distance at an expo wouldn't want to pass on such info for fear of spoiling stuff (you only need to look at all the blog entries that say "Go play it, but we can't tell you why!!"). That and if the info did get passed on there's nothing to say that those players wouldn't move along before reaching the end anyway and not pass the info on themselves! The chain gets broken again. It's a great idea and it must be kind of disheartening and annoying seeing people continually not quite getting there. No wonder Terry was quietly keeping an eye out on the game.
HM: Right let’s talk about that end, then. Er...
GB: There comes a point where the right brain receives a cyan key which opens up a room containing the final chamber block, a yellow pyramid of sorts. Now, once the right brain picks this up, as they do with every other block, they head back to connect it up so that the left brain can enter it.
HM: And then... you walk back out of that big, dark room and find your world has changed. Quietly and without incident. Everything was different. You were left with one massive fuck-off cylindrical room in which every one of the chamber blocks was scattered around the edge. And laid out, rather nice and pretty, were several renditions of the rooms, like hieroglyphics. And what did we decide to do then, Gregg?
GB: We decided to directly hook the yellow pyramid up to the opening chamber so that we could see what was in there. We were taking the path of least resistance: opening chamber straight to final chamber, no faffing about-- such was our eagerness to find out how this thing was going to resolve itself. So you entered the chamber and... our screens went black. Then yours faded to yellow and mine faded to red. They stayed this way for what seemed like minutes. Had it bodged? Was this the end? Then BANG, we were both back at the beginning.
HM: That was a pretty awesome moment. Awesome in a kind of WTF way. Thank you for a great ending, Terry. Thanks for passing the fucking time. All that for RED AND YELLOW. WHYY TERRY WHYYY? We sat there pondering on what it all did not mean.
GB: Yeah, we literally sat there in silence staring at the opening chambers. Is that it? Are we done here? Are we supposed to pass the controllers on to the people waiting behind us?
HM: For ten minutes we thought about this. And I think the penny started to drop, although I really, really didn't want it to be true, when you realised your starting area depicted a journey from the orange forest to the yellow pyramid. Look that's what we were doing! Oh God. I didn't want to be right. Had Terry just punished us? Was this Veni Vidi Vici all over again?
GB: Absolutely, the clue or solution to the end-game is right at the beginning which you head straight back to if you fuck it all up like we did. There's the orange dead forest, and a bunch of grey cubes linked together leading to the yellow pyramid. The question is: who sees the clue? And who puts two and two together? And who decides to keep hold of the controller and tell the masses behind them to sod off while they go do the end-game again? The answer: nobody. Most people move along and just like that, the second half of the game goes almost entirely unnoticed.
HM: But it took enormous courage even for us, sitting in your house, to go back. Terry had changed the rules on us in that final moment - until then every chamber was something to explore. But the yellow pyramid was a symbol, a terminus. I wasn't sure what I thought of Terry switching the rules on us like that and was concerned that if we played through the whole thing again... that if we got it wrong again... then it would be right back to the start again.
GB: I think that's the event horizon of the game; if you see the clue it's difficult to just ignore. Regardless of how punishing the delivery of that clue is! From that point it was uncharted territory for us. What the hell IS going on here? What are you doing to us Terry??
HM: At least when we went back in, we started to get more efficient. We pushed back against the functionality of the game. We checked that if I threw you multiple keys, we wouldn't lose them, and you assembled a route involving only the chambers containing keys so I could shoot through them in one go. And that was a very interesting thing because we didn't need to talk any more.
GB: We were gaming the game to get to the end section as soon as possible.
HM: We'd finished training ourselves in this co-op environment and talking was surplus to requirements. It was funny how Terry's game initially forced us to constantly communicate but after all that training it was no longer needed. We were working together without communication. Our brains were one.
GB: It's funny because there's this sense of compartmentalisation, connectedness and the breaking down of that connectedness throughout At A Distance and there we were: going from constantly communicating to each other to quietly and independently getting on with things in our own private virtual spaces.
HM: So when we got the pyramid chamber lined up again, there was definitely some anxiety in front of those monitors. I had this sinking feeling again when I saw the "hieroglyphics" - which seemed to tell you what order of chambers to stitch together. There were three different combinations of hieroglyphics laid out in your right-brain world.
GB: The clue at the beginning tallied up nicely with these tables showing the chambers in different configurations, the sequences we had to arrange between the dead forest and the pyramid. And there's three of them! Shit. I carefully connected the chamber blocks according to one of the sequences while you watched me and the moment I snapped the pyramid block into position my screen faded to black. It was all you now, Joel. It was my time to sit back and watch you explore what I had made.
HM: So our immediate reaction was WHOA CREEPY because my once clean geometric world was suddenly populated with humanoid shapes. Each chamber in the sequence had figures in it like posed statues. Nothing moved and I was a little... uncomfortable getting too close to the figures at the beginning. But it was soon clear that we had constructed a series of frozen moments and it was up to us to make sense of the story implied in the montage.
GB: I was enthralled I've got to say. Even if these stories or vignettes were difficult to comprehend and decipher.
HM: So we played the whole game twice more after that, to assemble the other sequences, meaning we played through it four times in total. We spent ages debating what stories the game was trying to tell us. I think we came to the conclusion the three stories weren't connected.
GB: I'm not sure we took away anything concrete but as mentioned earlier, I got the sense that the stories -- like the mechanics and the co-op element itself -- were about compartmentalisation, connectedness and the breaking down of that. There were depictions of families being reunited, couples forming and breaking up, people being imprisoned, running away and finding solace elsewhere.
HM: So I think... I think we saw things which were part metaphor and part not. Here's my stab, if anyone who played wants to compare notes. How the promise of love when people come together can turn destructive; the sheer desperation to find some space in our busy modern life, to run away from the crowds; and finally children who feel imprisoned by their family home may not come back until it is too late. This is all really trying to read between the lines, here. None of this is obvious.
GB: It's certainly not, but they sound like great interpretations! Note to self: must try harder. And: let Joel speak first next time. I think the ending with the figure stood at the lighthouse resonated with me the most because he looked... happy. I think the painful thing in all this is that, unless you notice that clue or manage to work out the end-game puzzle on your first playthrough, you'll miss out on all of this. It's the secret we've just spoilt that, even if you played the game, you might never see or hear of -- even by looking on the internet.
HM: The question is, despite Terry's brutality, despite having to do the same thing four times: did we have a good time? I think definitely. We talked about this for ages.
GB: We did. I fucking loved it, tough jump puzzles and all. I will say this though, when I said “[it felt] like there was something big to discover” in my brief coverage of At A Distance after the Eurogamer Expo, I didn’t realise how right I was about that. I'm sure there are others out there who have discovered these endings but I'm very curious to know whether any were found at the events the game was showcased at.
HM: I think that wraps it up. Let us know in the comments if you've had an experience with At A Distance and how it went. Gregg and I want to know. Left brain disconnected.
GB: Right brain disconnected.
Thanks to Sid "BeamSplashX" Menon for providing original music for the video.