Electron Dance
4Sep/12Off

The Yellow Pyramid

At A Distance montage

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.

HM: I wasn't sure what to expect. It looked interesting - with a modern take on those ZX Spectrum dithered graphics seen in games such as Driller and Castle Master.

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.

Right Brain searching

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?

Right Brain Assembly

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.

Green Darkness

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.

Gregg & HM playing At A Distance

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Comments (20) Trackbacks (3)
  1. …holy crap. That sounds intense.

    Sadly I’m not sure I’ll ever play this.

  2. Yeah it was a lot of fun. The critical part of the game – what it is really about – is the experience of figuring out everything with a companion. If it’s spoiled, the game is useless. So I don’t think you need to play it any more if you already read the article =)

  3. Thank you for writing this. I’m really glad you both saw these parts of the game – very few other people have.

  4. I don’t think I would’ve ever had a chance to play it myself, so I’m glad you and Gregg took the time to share the experience. I’m pretty bad a 3D puzzling and deciphering riddles, so I never would’ve seen it through.

    I’m also happy that you found a use for that music after all!

  5. Also, how much could Hawks at a Distance learn from this game?

  6. @Terry: That’s what we thought, we just couldn’t find any proper words out there about the game. There are a couple of Let’s Plays and one of them reaches a proper ending. Just interested- did many people on the show floor (wherever it was exhibited) discover its secrets?

    @BeamSplashX: The two PC setup definitely limits the number of ordinary folks who will play this, probably why it’s not been analysed much. I felt bad not using your music anywhere and I thought this was the ideal opportunity – possibly last for some time, considering I’m slamming on the brakes on my video work. Could “Hawks at a Distance” learn much form this game? Depends on your views on foreign policy.

  7. My brother and I played it through twice, much like you did. Once connecting the pyramid to the start straight away, as you did, then realising there was probably more to it, like you did, and trying again.

    It didn’t occur to me that the figures might be depicting a story, though. We were creeped out by the statues, and wondered what they were doing, but we didn’t sit and contemplate them because, with the map unexpectedly vanishing from view, we were busy trying to hold on to the memory of which way to go to reach the pyramid.

  8. And then, of course, with the game ending in a similar way to before, we were still left wondering if we “won” or not. :D

  9. @roBurky: Interesting, because that’s what it looks like someone was doing in one of the Let’s Play videos. Oh look I see dead people – now, where do I go? If I remember rightly, though, I think the exits on the final sequence were all primed to take you to the next scene because we wanted to go backwards into the previous scene at one point — and found ourselves in the next one.

    I guess that’s another interesting foible of the design that, just like the pyramid being a non-explorable structure (it’s like completing an electrical circuit which ends the game), you’re not actually expected to calibrate your route at the end despite your entire experience forcing you to think that way.

    I vaguely remember the sequences. There was one like this: a child being raised by parents; he leaves his childhood home with a hat and a bag; this guy is now on a train where there appears to be an “announcement” of serious news; he is then standing before ruins, presumably said childhood home; he finishes his journey looking at a grave in the graveyard.

    The No Quarter trailer seems to intimate apocalyptic themes but, from within the game, I find it difficult to see how that is signalled.

  10. Me and my friend did the exact same thing when we played: connect pyramid, wonder what just happened, play through again, and again, and again, increasingly working as one each successive time. It’s kind of an amazing process, and I keep trying to convince others to play through the game, but it’s difficult to get two people interested, particularly interested enough to puzzle through three different endings? (Stories?)

  11. Fuck you guys, I now feel like a complete idiot.

    I grabbed a friend and played through it the day it was released. Of course, we connected the pyramid directly to the starting room (TE-HE! SO SMART!). We did wonder if there was more to it, but the overall experience was so overwhelmingly beautiful that we decided not to play through it again, in fear of tainting the impression (this happens a lot to me).

  12. @cheepguava: Yeah, the technical setup is a problem all in itself (it was targeted as an exhibition game, so it’s not surprising) plus finding two people interested enough means this probably has been way underplayed. Which is such a shame, because like Portal 2 Co-op, it’s such a great experience to share with somebody.

    @Ketchua: I was wondering what you were up to, probably writing more reviews in a language I can’t read. Both Gregg and I wondered how often players would push through that premature ending, because the game is light on that sort of feedback, and we could find barely anyone talking about it online.

    I think this is largely due to how few have actually played At A Distance and with no one wanting to spoil the experience, it’s difficult to ascertain how many of those who said “this is an epic game” actually saw the true ending. Look at this from indiegames.com:

    At a Distance doesn’t take long to play. Ten minutes, 15 at most, before you’ve managed to figure out what you’re doing and how to do it… it seems almost like you’re being shortchanged at first, when it’s over so quickly, without really inviting a second go, except perhaps to witness things from the other player’s perspective.

    That doesn’t sound like they figured out the ending either.

  13. Great to see others coming out of the woodwork who witnessed some of the end game. It felt strange coming across all these things with HM; I felt as though we’d stumbled across something that few others had seen which, in this day and age of spoilerific and secret busting guides, wikis and forum threads, is quite a feeling to have. It was like ‘Shit, few people have laid eyes on any of this.’

    I think that’s what made it so rewarding though; picking up on that very understated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clue and following this crazy idea through to the end, three more times.

    Something to bear in mind is that HM’s brain was running on my girlfriend’s netbook (!) so At A Distance isn’t an especially demanding game technically. I hooked up the netbook to a bigger screen, linked both machines with an ethernet cable and hey presto! We were cooking. I can see this working if you can get a bunch of like-minded people into a room and let them get stuck in with no interruptions. The problem, I think, is that Expo ‘pace’ where people pick up, play and put down games so quickly that the required passing on of very specific knowledge in this case is a tall order. It’s a fascinating game and one I’m very glad to have shared with HM. Between us we’ve had some top co-op experiences.

  14. I wasn’t able to get to this until today, but what a great conversation! The video does a huge amount to communicate the way it feels to be playing the game. I love the descriptions of the aesthetic, I love the cleverness and simplicity (and complexity) you describe.

    This is an area that deserves more exploration on the part of developers – this side-by-side communal right-brain/left-brain co-op idea. We’ve seen it in a handful of mainstream games, but never, to my knowledge, as a core mechanic. Terry Cavanagh’s beautiful and creepy minimalist makes me think of all the potential in other experimental games as well as commercial ones. Side by side games where each player is responsible for different aspects of the same goal – like an RTS where one player manages the base and finances, the other does the military. Or something. I like the idea.

    Thanks HM! It’s always good to see you guys. :)

  15. @HM: Nah, I was taking a break before committing myself to English full time. Everyone owes me money, so I can easily live the rest of the year out on incoming late payments.

    The vacuum that’s been created by not discussing the game is truly fascinating. I can’t think of any other game that made us all so tight lipped. :D But I think it’s hardly our fault. There’s not much you can say about it without spoiling the experience for the reader. I remember including it in a piece I did on avantgarde back then, basically saying that it’s a different, off-screen kind of co-op and that it gave me a raging erection.

    I salute you for breaking the silence.

  16. @Gregg: Thanks for stopping by and lending a hand in the comments! And of course thank you for the idea. Playing At A Distance was your idea after all.

    @Steerpike: Thanks, I’m doing my best to keep Gregg busy so he can’t write anything for Tap ever again! I find the video pretty interesting but I don’t know if anyone else did. I think it fairly represents how we worked together to figure out the thing – and why playing was a lot of fun. It’s a Let’s Play in reverse; we don’t really show you the game, we show you the players.

  17. @Ketchua: Oh I wouldn’t blame anybody. It is weird that, aside from a few comments on sites here and there, no-one has analysed the game. Now, of course, it’s fallen off everyone’s radars and it seems unlikely to be revisted.

    It gave you a raging erection…? I’m… not sure that’s the kind of quote Terry was looking to put on the box. Maybe he’ll add it to a page on Greenlight.

  18. Something else that I thought of while talking to Hailey about it, the people or characters in each chamber had very subtle visual cues to identify them so it’s not surprising that they could be misconstrued as totally separate unrelated entities. HM, didn’t we spend a moment or two staring at one figure trying to work out if it was a male or female just so we understood the context of the situation?

    I think after my short burst with At A Distance at the Eurogamer Expo I was absolutely determined to play it properly at some point with somebody. I was originally going to play it with Hailey but she gets hopelessly disoriented in much smaller and identifiable virtual 3D spaces never mind the diffused geometric gloom of At A Distance. It would have been a disaster. My brother would have been hopeless as well based on his failed attempt at cracking Every Day The Same Dream. He never escaped the cycle and wondered what the point of the game was… *rolls head on keyboard*

  19. @Ketchua: That’s quite a reaction. I’m glad I didn’t react like that with HM next to me, for his sake as well as the video’s. Not that you’d have noticed anyway, the camera was positioned just right…

  20. @HM: I am a simple man. It was my way of saying it spoke to me. Nevertheless, it is an achievment not many games earn. It is the highest decoration the United States of Ketchua can bestow upon a game. The Purple… nevermind.

    @Gregg: I’m lucky the guy I played with was too busy to notice. Not sure I could convince him it was the game, and not his manly manness.