Have you ever had that sort of confluence of media when you watch, read, or play a number of things and they all seem to play off of each other? One year I went for months when, not only was every book I read great, but they also perfectly paired together. Recently I had a similarly serendipitous situation with a couple of games. I know, it happened at the end of 2017 so I was hitting up the Best Of 2017 games I hadn’t gotten to during the year, but these pair well and they’re worth looking at as a set.
Oh, and they’re both meditative experiences that focus on death. Still there? good
Orchids to Dusk
The first game is called Orchids to Dusk. It’s a short, free walking simulator. I stumbled across this one completely by accident, and was instantly taken by the clean artistic style of it. The set-up is that you are an astronaut and have crashed on a planet. Your escape pod is destroyed, and there appears to only be patches of vegetation, and the occasional body (other characters, or even past players?). Your air is running out.
You may want to stop and play the game at this point. It’s very short and very, as I said above, free. And while there’s not a whole lot of land to explore, the game can provide a pretty expansive emotional journey, and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone.
As I walked around I came to discover two things:
- the ship is not reparable
- there is no way to refill your air supply
Perhaps walking simulator is not the right term. A dying sim seems a little more appropriate. Depending on the amount of energy you exert while exploring, you have mere minutes to look around the alien landscape before you perish. And that’s all you can do; you just die over and over again. But as my vision blurred over and over before I fell over and died, I realized I was probably going through similar emotions that the astronaut was. At first I was curious, then panicked, then desperate, until I finally came to acceptance. And that’s when the game rewards you.
When you stop walking your character sits down. But if you leave them alone for a moment more, circles begin to spin above their head. After that, text appears giving you the option of removing your helmet. It took me an embarrassingly long time to discover this feature, as I tended to try and explore to the farthest reaches my air would allow, leaving little to no time for contemplation. Once you do remove your helmet you fall forward, and then your body explodes in a burst of local flora, creating a patch of plant life.
That’s when I remembered the game description:
A short networked wandering experience about an astronaut stranded on an alien planet, with only a few minutes left to live.
The game is networked. Those bodies I saw every now and again were other players who had suffocated like I had. But every patch of life, every spot that I had previously sought out and, if I reached it, chose to die at because it was pretty, had been another player. I wasn’t quite alone as I thought, and their deaths had eventually gone to give someone else a moment of quiet contemplation and beauty.
This dying simulator gives you a moment, over and over, but it’s not a moment alone. Orchids to Dusk puts you in a fatalistic situation with a single, inevitable outcome. But by repetition it conditions you to regard the gameplay differently over time, from a rush to survive to a calm acceptance of your surroundings. It then rewards you for simply taking the time to be, and eventually reveals that you are going to have to deal with the situation you’ve been dealt, but you can have an impact on others, and the larger world.
I went back in a few times after I discovered this connection, and sought out the bodies of players who had died without talking the time to contemplate their surroundings. Often they were curled up in desolate areas, possibly running out of air while trying to reach a distant rock formation or dense grove that could have been something to save them. Perhaps some of them were me from an earlier play-through. I spent about fifteen minutes, which in this game is literally lifetimes, finding these bodies, sitting next to them, and taking off my helmet, and sprouting around them.
Far From Noise
Far From Noise is a weird game that’s more in the vein of a visual novel, but isn’t quite that. While the previous game was about learning when to stop moving, Far From Noise has no travel whatsoever.
You have gone for a drive and, through some action, have veered off the road and are now balancing on the edge of a cliff. For the whole game. You aren’t meant to solve your physical predicament, but with the help of a talking deer, can tackle your mental one. That balance keeps you at a strange place that’s both under a constant threat of death and yet also a stable situation. That, and your deer therapist, force you to experience your life moment by moment.
When you talk to the deer a general pattern emerges. Often you fret about your current situation or your past, and the deer re-frames things. Mostly it will point out something about the moment that is beautiful and larger than yourself. Sometimes it will ask you about your emotions, and point out when you have a choice between something you’ve failed at or accomplished, and steers you away from the failure. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding you that there are parts of your situation that are more than just the cliff (metaphor alert), such as fauna that surrounds you , or a long-lived tree, or just the weather.
The game, specifically the deer, repeatedly draws your attention to the fact that the world may not be offering you what you want, but it still is offering you something. And by talking about your past and present while constantly dangling over a cliff, the game attempts to inure you from the threat of death, to see each moment as more complex than just a simple moment of panic. He also speaks in poetry. Even when his words seem cliche, there’s something soothing about the cadence of his words, and the way they integrate into the scene.
If Orchids to Dusk is the exploration of a good death, then Far From Noise is a meditation on an examined life. Orchids attempts to help players reach the best situation when death is inevitable. Far From Noise teaches the player how to deal with the current moment when death is a distinct possibility. One is how to die, the other how to live when confronted with mortality.
Another way to think about it is to compare death, and the moment preceding it, in these games to death in most other games. In most games the moment before death could usually be described as frantic, panicked, or even desperate. But both of these games exist wholly in that moment, and both are peaceful, beautiful, and calm. These games subvert the presumed survival goal in gaming, and guide players toward appreciation and clarity. Death here is put forth as a persistent possibility, if not outright inevitable outcome. But taking away the definition of survival as the definition of success, they explore the confrontation of death on the terms of the player, albeit within a situation beyond their control. And before you know it you’ve been tricked into exploring existential philosophy and meditation.