Friday, February 27, 2009

Between, Playing a Game with the Other

The sleeping world and a tower of blocks in Rohrer's Between. The other day, Andrew and I used the magic of the Internet to play Jason Rohrer’s game Between.  I suggest you do the same before reading if you’d prefer to experience it as he intended.

You may remember Rohrer from a December piece I did on his most famous work, Passage.  His M.O. remains making games that are out to enrich your life, not quench your achievement thirst or satiate your hunger for prettier explosions.  In Between, Rohrer examines an essential part of the human experience: interaction.  His pre-game blurb states his thesis a tad more poetically:

“Somewhere, across whatever barriers stand between, is an other.”

Andrew and I played this game for over an hour.  Read on for what I think I learned.

Again, I must warn you that, by merely writing about how this game works, I will be spoiling it.  I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.  When people say “Spoiler Alert,” they think about plot twists and cool fight scenes.  This comes from the world of passive media (which I don’t use derogatorily), where the author’s intended story depends on the audience experiencing a carefully-planned sequence of events.  I don’t ruin a movie by telling you how to watch it; I ruin it by letting slip a crucial plot point or two.  I can, however, spoil Between just by telling you how to play it.  Again, Rohrer pushes gameplay to the fore.  More developers should strive to create gameplay that might lose something in the explanation.

After the two players have used a code (similar to the old system of trading IP addresses) to bridge the physical gap between your systems, the game begins.  The art style is unmistakably Rohrer: simple colors, pixels, nothing wasted.  You control a stick figure capable of creating three types of blocks – red, blue, and green.  You can place them in a grid Andrew and I came to refer as the “House,” on the ground, or on a stack of faint blocks let’s call the “Tower.”  Blocks placed over their corresponding outlines in the Tower begin to create music, a sign that you are closer to achieving your goal.  Whatever that may be.

To the left and right of your Tower are two rooms.  One suggests night, the other day.  You can use these rooms (or more efficiently, they’re corresponding buttons W and S) to shift between three worlds (worlds of waking and sleeping, I presume).  Each world has a House and a Tower, but the ground is a different color – green, gray, or brown.  Filling the 2x2 House with blocks in one world allows you to create that pattern as a single block in the next world.  This proves crucial when trying to create the more intricate patterns required by the Tower.

Okay, so it’s a puzzle game, with a neat block-building mechanic.  Great.  But where was Andrew?  I couldn’t find him.  He wasn’t in any of the other worlds.  Another issue: I could see the Tower would require blocks of colors I couldn’t make: mauve, yellow, and teal.  Andrew and I had decided on no out-of-game communication to the keep the experience pure, so I had no idea where he was, what he’d accomplished, or how we might help one another.

Then a funny thing happened:  I started finding yellow and blue blocks.  And when I came back to the Green world, my Tower was in disarray.  Someone I couldn’t communicate with had directly impacted my world and my progress.  Assuming that Andrew was the one making the other three colors of blocks, I began appropriating them for my Towers.  But then I found weird blocks, with useless color patterns that didn’t even seem to fit the puzzle parameters.  How was he making these blocks?

We played for forty-five minutes, neither of us getting very far.  I believe we kept stealing from each other’s towers, though I’m not entirely sure.  Because we knew I wanted to write an article about this, we decided to Skype and try the game again.  This led to a series of stunning revelations. 

Andrew’s experience was not that dissimilar from my own.  He, too, could only make red, green, and blue blocks.  He, too, had assumed me capable of creating the other colors.  That light-bulb moment remains one of my favorites from Between.  We also learned a bit more about where the weird block towers were coming from.  If I started building my Green world Tower, Andrew would find it mirrored and discolored in his Green world and vice versa.  Our eventual solution was to drop four of each color in every world, thereby giving each other the ability to make the new colors on our own through creative House manipulation.  I’ll admit it – we cheated.  We each built our Tower and reveled in the bizarre electronic music it made.  But the game didn’t end.  We thought completion of the Green world with its mirrored towers (which didn’t show up in the other worlds) meant victory.  Over what, I don’t know.  And there’s the point.  Our in-game interaction means more to Rohrer than some perfunctory fruits of our labor. 

The opening section of Between, when you start working on the Tower with your own colors, speaks to an inability to succeed on our own.  “You know exactly what you need to do -- you can see it shimmering right there in front of you,” Rohrer says in his synopsis, presumably referring to the Tower’s outline of required blocks.  But when switching between the worlds provides no immediate way to make new colors and your partner is nowhere to be seen, you find yourself “alone in the expanse with the construction.”  Purposefully, he refrains from including a precise method by which to communicate with the other player, creating “a pinhole that eventually yawns into a deep ravine of longing” – a longing for help completing the Tower, or at least some company.  But by making the other player’s Tower appear as garbled, useless blocks, Rohrer teases the player yearning for a companion he knows to also be playing.  Reaching out will not be easy, Rohrer seems to say. 

Being a purely multi-player experience, Between tackles human interaction from two sides.  First, the issue of insurmountable barriers.  Assuming no contact outside of the game, there is no way direct line of communication between players.  Presumably, you know the other person, otherwise you couldn’t have started the game with them.  But despite any previous relationship or knowledge that they truly exist, you cannot find them.  You merely get the by-products of their existence as you move from day to night, from waking to dreaming.  How wonderfully existential and not-so-wonderfully depressing.

But it is the other side of Between’s approach to interaction that I feel we should take with us.  It’s the idea that – however alone you appear to be, behind a barrier of background, location, gender, or what-have-you – there is always another person on the other side.  Another person struggling to achieve similar goals with a similar set of tools.  They, too, are capable of creating.  Of waking and dreaming.  Of feeling alone.  Is that not enough to cross whatever stands between?

Jason Rohrer’s Between was released in December 2008 and is currently being hosted by Esquire Magazine.  It’s been nominated for the Innovation Award in the 2009 Independent Games Festival.  The rest of his work can be found here.