What can I say about Interactivity: The Interactive Experience (Aetheric Games, 2019) outside of its unbearably long name and its unrealistically shiny environment powered by Unreal?

Interactivity belongs to that category of “games about games” and is reminiscent of The Stanley Parable (Wreden & Pugh, 2013). At first I thought it was a little bit too Stanley, but it charts its own course. Frustrating in places but the frustration is also sometimes the point. I liked it.

It’s quite short but I’m about to spoil it with extreme prejudice – and by that, I mean spoil it to commercial death – so you should go check it out if you want to draw your own opinions first.

Advance ye not who fear the spoiler.

My surface impression, putting aside the specular reflection overload, was that there was nothing worth commenting on here. The player explores a sequence of galleries in an exhibition on interactive mechanisms. I didn’t laugh although did crack a smile at a running joke about the light switch. It was fine.

Each gallery harbours a simple challenge based around its focus: the switch, the valve and the keypad. Sadly, I ran into difficulty on the keypad room: you need a code to proceed but there were numbers everywhere in the room. I scoured the diagrams on the walls for clues.

There was, however, a locked door hidden behind one of the displays. I’d like to say I made a note to come back to this later but it was unnecessary; the door was burned into my mind because I fully expected the correct solution to the “impossible” keypad challenge was through this door. I was wrong about that.

Developer Nick Bell (“MrBehemo” in the Electron Dance comments) tells me some people find this challenge as easy as gravy but others drown in the number soup. Bell had to give me a hint as I had exhausted my endurance of this section. At this point, I wasn’t enamoured with Interactivity but I soldiered on after the hint.

After the third gallery is the long walk to “The Button”, the ultimate interactive control, foreshadowed from the game’s opening. Screens warn you not press The Button. Don’t even even think about what it would be like to press The Button. The Button itself looks suspiciously like a mutant-sized fly amanita toadstool. You know, the poisonous redcap. When you approach it, an alarm rings and a cage blocks your advance.

Searching around, I dug out a key which finally permitted access to that hidden door. What then followed was a dialogue with the developer – you walk, he talks – as you search for an alternate route to “The Button”. The developer tells you there’s no point trying to press The Button. Not because you’re not allowed, but because everything is scripted. The whole secret route to get around the security – the developer built it expecting you to go this way. You’re not defying him, you’re doing what he wanted. “You have no agency here,” he insists.

Games are often work with reverse psychology. Every instruction in Interactivity not to press The Button is actually the reverse. This virtual exhibition is screaming at the top of its lungs, “Press the fucking Button!” You eventually press The Button, falling onto its curved surface from a great height. The alarm sounds. The Button sinks under your weight and everything fades to white accompanied by the dispiriting whine of a flatlining EKG.

There is no victory parade for doing what you were told. Because that’s what you did. Interactive elements are catnip to players – their very presence dictates instructions more powerful than a desire for narrative coherence. The slaves follow their orders.

And after the game crashed back to the title screen, I clicked on the readme which I hadn’t noticed before. It was garbled but I could make out a message indicating that a key was left on the reception desk. The titles invited me to push the button again. I was wary about whether this was just a fast-travel method to “get to the end quickly” instead of having to play through the whole experience. I started again… and discovered things were not the same.

On this second play, the narrations are distorted and difficult to hear, although the glitched screens indicated they were exactly the same text as before. Each gallery is now accompanied by ambient music and there’s a sense that the world is broken somehow.

What it brought to mind is how, when you replay a section of any game, you tend to ignore narrative beats a second time around, focusing more on the interactivity, the things you need to do. Of course the audio is muffled because you don’t care about that. You want to discover what’s different.

Completing the second run was no real challenge but now aware there was “more content” on offer on the other side of title screen, I didn’t hesitate to try again.

The exhibition is more haunting on the third run as the panels are without power and no audio accompanies your journey through the silent galleries. Something has spilled across the valve puzzle and the roman numerals on the keypad puzzle have been wiped away. You might argue we’re revisiting the gallery repeatedly over time as it decays in the years that follow our initial visit. But I am more attached to the idea the gallery decays because we revisit. The interactive elements are losing their lustre and we no longer hear the narrative at all.

This disintegration reaches its climax in the fourth run. At some point, a fire has destroyed the exhibition, burning every surface and filling the galleries with a dull brown haze. Perhaps the fire still rages outside as a yellow glare penetrates the windows. Perhaps pushing The Button launched a thousand nuclear strikes and the world out there no longer exists – if it ever did.

Some of the interactive elements have survived, but it was like picking out charred needles in a charred haystack, with only my hazy memory of previous runs to guide me. We reap what we sow. Obsessed with interactivity to the detriment of everything else, can we survive on just buttons and switches?

Without the environment able to signal not just the presence but the purpose of the interactive elements, what value do they offer? It’s not just about the little widgets that respond to input but what they mean. The passive environment selflessly donates to these elements: the interactive elements need context, yet as they accept this gift, they often steal away a player’s attention with it.

But that’s not the totality of it. The switches and buttons need another donation. Without someone to make them sing, they remain lifeless. If no one ever clicks a button, was it actually a button?

Even in this ruinous place, The Button still hungers for us to give it life one more time.

Who cares about the exhibition? Push it.

Push the Button.

Disclosure: Developer Nick Bell is currently collaborating with Electron Dance on a short film.

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7 thoughts on “A Donation for The Button

  1. This puts me in mind of some stuff that John Walker wrote about Brechtian distancing in regards to games like Pathologic. The other thing is The Moment in Bioshock, and of course Stanley Parable.

    The problem I’ve had with all of these formalistic… I don’t know if you’d call them deconstructions, perhaps interrogations?… of games is the point where they seem to cease to observe, and go on to constitute a sort of injunction or manifesto-in-the-budding.

    It’s like, okay Ken, you’ve ripped the piss out of the player-protagonist who is supposedly empowered but actually mindlessly follows the orders of NPCs. And in doing so you’ve made the First Realistic Game in which the player’s absurd relationship with agency is properly contextualised by the narrative. I admire you for that – The Moment was archly observed, and a great twist and narrative pay-off into the bargain.

    But, uh, are you going to ever make another game? How is the player going to receive their tasks? It had better not be from a series of questgiver NPCs, Mr. Levine! It would be quite the thing for you to upturn the tables so furiously, only to quietly reassemble them it because hey, a man’s gotta eat.

    And that’s the problem I have with the think’um’ups. The central statement, even if playful or ironic, is that these are worlds designed to point out their own absurdity – and in so doing, paint themselves into a tiny corner. While I understand creators chafing at the constraints of their medium, surely there’s a cost to so publicly rending the veil and setting fire to the theatre? As the great Pinter probably-didn’t-but-possibly-might-have said, ‘you don’t shit where you work’.

  2. Good day to you, CA.

    I am generally over these type of self-examinations and tend to go out of my way to avoid them but Nick sent me a copy and I thought, well, I liked Bonbon

    Forget about other games, it’s unfortunate that Bioshock just didn’t finish on that scene but then carried on with people giving you quests 🙂 I can’t remember if I ever read what Levine said about that scene but I wonder if it was a “reflection on player agency” or simply a really cool way to turn AAA shooter linearity and guard-rails into something that has narrative bite. (And there’s Spec Ops also playing with convention to similar effect.)

    These think’um’up’s, as you call them, work best when small vignette. They often don’t have the legs to carry a larger experience and wind up creating weird dissnonance. I’ve felt like The Stanley Parable was the final word when it comes to a games covering the idea of player agency, but I liked Interactivity because it gave me something else to focus on; player perception rather than choice.

  3. Yes I absolutely love Francis’ alternative which I think the Internet agreed at the time was superior. We should’ve had a vote.

    Instead we had a boss fight with a glowing man.

  4. Oh yes, I did love that Bioshock alterno-ending. Which puts me in mind of the good work he did for the RPS Neptune’s Pride diaries, which reminds in turn to finally get around to reading The Apsiration. 🙂

  5. (The RPS diaries were great although I shamelessly tend to think The Aspiration is better – not necessarily the writing, but because of the tension and some of the twists. I thought of making a film of it in recent years but it’s huuuuge.)

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