September 13, 2015

My little problem with armageddon

Note: in general I don't warn about spoilers, except for the general heading above, Caveat lector but in this case I'll reiterate: there will be spoilers of Everyone's Gone to the Rapture below. It is a game that I think is best played without foreknowledge of its events. So take care.

I am a child of the 1980s; that's where my teens were spent and where I did most of my growing up. And I think that's why I have this problem of always worrying about the coming apocalypse.

When I was young, that worry was over nuclear arsenals -- the news was full of nuclear fear and rarely optimism. There were big television events (back when television was appointment viewing) like The Day After and Testament, the latter shown on PBS and absolutely the most terrifying thing one could watch at thirteen and already a bit afraid of the future¹. When I was in middle school, I honestly didn't think that humanity was going to survive until I was an adult. I genuinely believed this. We would talk about it, a friend of mine and I. We were well past the time when simple solutions (Duck and Cover!) were in any way empowering for children, and there was the underlying nagging worry that somewhere forces well outside our control or even understanding were going to kill us all.

Thankfully then there was perestroika, glasnost, and ultimately the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall and all of that, though the former has come with some uncertainties of its own. And, truth be told, not a little bit of being busy really growing up, going to college and starting an adult life. The twentieth century came to a close with a still thriving human populace, despite all my earlier expectations.

But like all things that we first encounter as children, I've always had a small problem with the apocalypse, there's a fear there lurking deep inside in some part of me I can't do much about. I don't worry too much about terrorism -- the fear trumped up around that is so clearly manipulated for political gain, though I wonder what effect that constant message in our culture has on my own children. Nowadays my own fears are about climate change; the fear doesn't go away, it just changes targets. Anyway.

It was with this worry deep in my heart that I picked up Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, the latest walking simulator from British developers The Chinese Room. In it, the player is embedded into a small Shropshire valley in the year 1984 or so -- right at the height of my adolescent fears. It is in the first person, and there is no indication of who the player represents, if indeed there is a "who" that the player represents. The setting is absolutely lovely, a gorgeous and lush representation of the natural world, peppered with human artefacts: homes (nicely alien to me being non-American), telephone boxes, bus stops, a playground or a camper park, even a small old church on a hill.

There are no people. Instead, there are ... sorts of afterimages of people, constructions of pulsing particles of light that replay elements of their last few days of life, and vague disembodied voices that play over phones. They have conversations in either case, in pairs or trios or even on rare occasions, alone. And there are a handful of main characters whose stories we have a chance to encounter in full -- one the priest or parson for the town; Wendy, an older woman who has lived there a long time (and mother of Stephen, to follow); Lizzie, a young woman who is rekindling her love with her old fiancé, Stephen; Stephen is himself a main character who is a scientist at the local observatory; and the superior scientist Kate, his wife and a village/valley outsider, who has somehow managed to start this whole catastrophe rolling.

The catastrophe has come in the form of some sort of alien intelligence, referred to as "The Pattern," which has traveled to Earth via the radio towers of the observatory where Stephen and Kate work. The mechanism is unclear; it appears at the very least to be a creature of energy and light, and while its intent is unknowable, the result of its encounter with the human race is that all sentient creatures (or perhaps all mammals) have ultimately been subsumed into it.

None of this really matters all that much, I suppose. What entranced me in playing was the ways in which the story was played out geographically rather than linearly; encounters would appear as you passed near a location, with or without a little bit of input from you². The feeling is almost like taking a tour with an older relative through a place they once lived, hearing about past events, in the sense of not knowing exactly when they might come up -- but instead, getting small scenes which act them out.

What comes through most through the storytelling is a sense of melancholy and loss -- not so much for the human race, and more on that in a moment, but for each of several couples whose love can't be fulfilled. There's Frank, whose wife died of cancer and at whose bedside he was too overwhelmed to sit in her final moments. Wendy's husband is gone too. Most touching for me was a young couple who had plans to run away to the Continent, because her parents wouldn't approve of their love, but who stayed behind because a lot of adults had disappeared, and they felt responsibility for the children left behind. There's Stephen, too, who has in a sense lost his wife to her research and the pattern, and rekindled this romance with his former fiancée, and he's racing around trying to find a way to contain the Pattern and yet find a way to let her escape it (even though he himself will not).

And yet of course, we know how this all ends, in a sense, from the very start -- we are examining the past that has led to the present state, where everyone has already gone to the rapture, while also exploring a past of our own real present, that 1980s and its nuclear fears. I found myself delighting most in the little things, the pleasure of walking on a country path or through a field of yellow wheat, encountering details of a world we've already lost just in the passing of time. Phone boxes. Stiles, entirely alien to us in America, and yet I loved seeing how they are actually constructed. A pub and a pint where everyone knows you and maybe throws a dart or two. Beehives.

The last thing I came away with was a renewed wonder for the beauty of our natural environment, trees and birds and flowers and bees. I came away with this sense that even though the human race may later or sooner disappear into oblivion, our planet will still be a stunning place to see, as will much of the architecture we've left behind. Some day there will be no one to look at it, which just makes me want to make sure I see a bit more of it while I still can. I think I'll go take a walk, and untether myself from the normal pattern of my life for a bit.

¹Seriously, that movie: gutting. Seeing that when I was a early teen was like seeing Old Yeller when I was six.

²The mechanism on the PS4 was by using its accelerometer to tilt the controller back and forth; it feels a bit like tuning in a radio station on an analog dial (a rare circumstance these days, but still a common one in the 1980s).

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:07 AM | Comments (2)

August 21, 2015

The minutes, they are so few, and so precious

Lately I've been on vacation (to the extent that one can be on vacation from a semi-retired life), and have noticed the difference I feel between having my iPad nearby and when I don't. A few mornings, I have brought it down into the lower floor where my bedroom is, after finishing the New York Times crossword, and a few mornings I have not.

Those mornings where it's not nearby are significantly better, in a few ways; in particular, I'm more focused and more present in what I'm doing, whether that's reading a novel (this week, those have been The Little Friend by Donna Tartt and The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, both highly recommended) or playing a few games of backgammon with my son once he's up. That investment of attention feels like the right way to be, to me, in comparison with the distracted and distractible condition that is my mental state when the device is nearby. In the case of the words I'm reading, it feels like they are building up enough to make a tide that carries me away, rather than splashing about in different puddles when I occasionally pop over to Twitter or check email, never gaining enough momentum to feel the transport I truly enjoy.

On the other hand, I need computers in my life. I find I think better when I type, writing a blog post or something else. I write by hand in a journal, but that works well because it fits the fluidity of accessing my emotions and thoughts, and it's not intended for publication in any case. When I am constructing something, I prefer to type, and obviously that's the only way to code. (I gather from some research I saw via Austin Kleon's blog that this is a better use of handwriting versus typing, so that's nice.)

I'm starting off by deleting the Twitter apps from my phone and my iPad, just to make myself a little more present when those things are nearby, which is often in the case of the phone especially. I'm planning on keeping them in "nighttime mode" most of the time as well -- the phone will still ring through, when it's someone I know, and that's the only time I pick up the phone anyway. Same with texts. We'll see how it goes.

I may ultimately abandon Twitter altogether, though I'm not severing that tie just yet. I unceremoniously quit Facebook a year and a half ago because it started to cause me to feel a falseness, that my "Connections" with my "Friends" became a performance rather than any meaningful indication of friendship. I miss the ability to see folks' photos, though I still catch a few via my girlfriend, who still maintains an account and who shares things with me that way on occasion, primarily posts from my family. I don't quite have that relationship with Twitter, right now, but I eye it more and more warily (and wearily) each day.

The thing with Twitter is, it has devolved into a meaningless source of distraction for me, and I don't know how to pare it down in a reasonable way -- I'm not sure it's worth the effort to me. When I joined it, it felt cozy in a way; many of the journalists and bloggers that I knew who were writing interesting bits about games were on there, and it was a way to connect with them. But the connections that I made that way have mostly been of particular interest when I've had a chance to connect with those people in person. I'm really glad to have met so many people through it, particularly the group loosely gathered around Brainy Gamer.

But making connections like those involves a lot of sorting through noise to find signal. These days, following the 800 or so people that I do, I find myself dropping tens of minutes a day pursuing links and keeping up with stories or dialogues that are ultimately the mental equivalent of empty calories; those are fine in moderation, but too much when it's every day.

Overall, the tenor of conversation on Twitter has changed, I guess. I used to be able to have a conversation with someone like Nels Anderson about my feelings about "Mechanical Apartheid" without having some anonymous GG rando to argumentatively question why I might find such a tagline to be distasteful (especially considering I had just made those arguments to Nels). That happens when things get too big, for sure, though the open and public nature of the thing is particularly weird. I'm going to prefer the smaller and more intimate, for a while, I think, like Slack.

So, I guess don't feel badly if I don't reply quickly if you mention me or whatever. For now, I'm keeping the account and will push out notifications when I do stuff that people might be interested in -- I've got that Republic Commando live-streaming to finish, and occasionally I blog a bit, and I still want people to be able to see that if they're interested (including this article) since RSS is more or less dead. And I also do like to have a point of contact where people who are looking for feedback about getting into games programming or whatever can find me easily. I'll probably check in with it from time to time just to make sure someone's not pestering me. It's been mostly something I've enjoyed for long enough that I don't want to kill it off entirely, but my relationship with it has to change; it isn't worth the fraction of my life minutes I've been putting into it lately, and hasn't been for awhile.

When the next thing comes along, be sure to let me know. :)

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:01 PM | Comments (0)