Hands up who doesn’t want to be moved by the books we read, the films we watch and the games we play? Anyone? We always want to feel something, whether it’s excitement, contentment, anger, sadness or gas.
Games are often talked up for being the more involving due to the special sauce of “interactivity” yet there is such a chasm between the talk and reality. Developers have to employ plenty of tricks to bring us emotionally deeper into the material. How about some bombastic music? Some quavering voice acting? Photorealism?
But then you have Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) and Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) which dial down the graphics to grfx and dispense with voice acting. The response to these games is measurable on the Richter scale.
With this in mind, I want to discuss Rehearsals and Returns (Peter Brinson, 2014).
Rehearsals and Returns is Peter Brinson’s next work after The Cat and The Coup (Brinson & ValaNejad, 2011) which explored the West’s meddling in Iran during the 1950s. R & R had been in development for some time and even went to Kickstarter for funding to see the project home. The game has little in common with Cat even though it is exhausted in a similarly short time.
R & R asks you, the player, to say one thing to some famous people and some people close to you.
Go on, stew on that for a moment.
The game dresses this up in a little platforming but at its heart it’s about conversation. A one-way conversation, to be honest: you throw a phrase that’s either positive, negative or wise at your subject then leave. There are no ramifications, rewards or graphical fireworks.
Whether you find value in R & R will depend on the kind of person you are, how you see videogames and what mood you’re in when you sit down to play it. I mean, you’re not talking to the real people. Can’t you just say anything you want to? What does it matter?
The first trick Brinson pulls is this:
The implication is that you are being watched and somewhere a great machine will record what you do. It’s difficult to shrug off that Facebook feeling, that your conversations are not private. Maybe you should try to be genuine rather than an asshole?
Brinson complicates things by limiting your “phrase inventory”. You are only allowed to carry around three “love” or “hate” phrases and three “wisdom” phrases, the latter of which you have no control over. If you don’t pay too much attention, you can end up not having the right words to say and, considering you get to decide which person you want to talk to, this screwup is all on you. If you’ve got nothing good to say, you’ve just thrown away the opportunity to say something to this person. CONSISTENT INTERNET CONNECTION. The message is that you have to think about what you say: that moment in which the words go out may be the only moment. Those words cannot be taken back.
I can’t say the platforming makes too much sense or adds much to the mix of R & R. The jumping can be frustrating but I think the game would have been missing something if you didn’t have to formally approach the person you were going to talk to. If I only had to drag phrases over to names it would lose something. The impression that you are talking to someone is important rather than just associating sentences with names.
I was surprised that with such minimalist design, R & R worked a little magic on me. I felt troubled by the decisions put in front of me, as if I really was saying something to someone. What would I say to my parents? What would I say to myself ten years ago? What would I say to James Gandolfini?
Once you’re done talking, you get the bit you knew was coming ever since you were warned about CONSISTENT INTERNET CONNECTION. The game tells you about what other players did and how you compared.
R & R commented that I was generally nice to people and most players are. I was reminded of Amanda Lange’s article “You’re Just Gonna Be Nice” on how players make ethical choices in games. It wasn’t all happy shiny people, though. Apparently most people said hurtful things to Ayn Rand… and their parents.
In fact, it’s towards the end of the game that the questions become more potent, when they are about people close to you. To some extent the game is a rehearsal for this moment, when the questions become their most significant. It’s been training you for these questions. You are now ready.
What impresses me most is that the game doesn’t try very hard to mimic human interaction; it’s almost bland. But the abstraction works and can get under your skin. Take Alec Meer on Rock Paper Shotgun who wrote:
I said something vague about the importance of striving, intending it to reflect a sentiment that I believed he had tried hard to do good things (and succeeded) when he was still alive, but it came out mealy-mouthed and I was besieged with guilt and regret.
Nonetheless, despite such reactions, Meer concluded that he had “hoped for so much more after The Cat and The Coup.”
I find R & R fascinating from a design perspective, in how games can better utilise their human component to generate something moving instead of attempting to program the player via cutscene. Not everyone is going to warm to the game, but there’s a lesson in its minimalism.
Some days I think videogame developers are not trying hard enough – a few interchangeable characters dressed up in polished polygons – and other days I think they’re trying too much.
Today is a day I think they’re trying too much.