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23 March 2009 @ 07:18 pm
Between, by Jason Rohrer. Between what, exactly...?  

I'd have to say that this Jason Rohrer game is somewhere "between" an almost (but not quite) insulting waste of your time, and outright shit.

But why listen to me yammer on about it?  Play it yourself for free.  (Well, free in a monetary sense.  There's no telling how much of your life will be sapped away, however.)  The game is hosted here:

Okay...if you haven't played the game, you have the chance to download it and play it before you read on.

If you have no intention of playing the game, you have nothing to fear by reading the rest of this entry.  If you have ANY interest whatsoever in experiencing the game for yourself, stop reading.

I mean it.  Don't read on.  Because if you do, you'll...no.  No, I can't even finish that sentence.  Even THAT would qualify as a spoiler.

So make your decision.

And I will wait.

Ready?  Good.

Between is an interesting game, but the most interesting thing about it is its classifcation as "game."  And I'm not being wry; that is genuinely the most interesting thing about it.  And unlike games like The Graveyard--which sees the player guide an elderly woman to a cemetary bench, upon which she muses silently on mortality, and then either shuffles out of the graveyard or drops dead, depending upon whether or not you've paid for the game--the grander message or clever implications do not justify the looseness of concept.

The game (should I just call it a program, instead?) is abstract.  The goal is undefined.  The instructions are unhelpful.  Do you know what all this sounds like?  It sounds like an experiment in deconstruction.  Which is fine.  Actually, it's beyond fine; it's necessary.  Music, literature, film...the major creative mediums have by now been saturated with examples that question their own existences, impacts and limitations.  So why not video games?  I'll ask that again, because it is a good question:  why not video games?

Well, The Graveyard does a great job of being passively deconstructive.  And Passage, Rohrer's own earlier attempt at such outward-looking awareness, seems to have done a much better job at it.  I don't know...I haven't played it...but the little I've read has convinced me that it was much more focused (and admirably twisted) than this.

If you boot up Between you'll be forced to connect with somebody.  It's a multi-player game.  Well, a two-player game.  Rohrer asks you not to communicate with the person you're playing with, and, predictably, the game itself offers no messaging system.  So you can either connect to a stranger, or talk a friend into playing with you, swapping codes so that you're sure to be connected to the same server. 

Except that you never actually know if the other person is there.  Oh, sure, the game won't start until the other person connects, but if that person disconnects, you are not informed.  And since you never directly interact with (or see) the other person at any point in the game, you'll never know that you are now playing alone.  And if you are abandoned on the server, you're pretty much trapped; though you don't interact with the other person, you need him/her around to make progress.

See, in the game, there are these bricks.  And you need to arrange the bricks into a certain pattern.  But you only have three colors to work with, and you need six.  When the other person lays down bricks of his/her own, they will appear to change color on your end.  By grabbing the other person's bricks, you can use all six colors to build the necessary structure.

Straight-forward, no?  Remove the questionable non-announcement of abandonment and you're left with a simple, but inoffensive, block-manipulation puzzle game.

Except that it's not even that.  That would be okay, if a little pointless.  But, instead...well, you can't win it.  You can't do anything really.  If you build the tower nothing happens.  If both players build the tower, nothing happens.  If you don't build the tower, nothing happens too.  So basically you'll get the most out of this game if you boot it up, don't do anything, and quit.  Or if you don't download it to begin with, actually.

The first time I played I connected to a stranger.  I wasn't able to determine much, except that there was a cycle of three plains of reality.  No difference between them apart from the color of the ground, as far as I could tell.  If you hit "S" you fall asleep and move one plane down from wherever you are.  If you hit "W" you wake up and move one plane up.  Simple.  If you set a brick somewhere, it doesn't follow you.

Eventually I started to see strange bricks appearing of colors I couldn't produce myself.  I correctly deduced that these were left behind by whomever my mysterious partner was.  I took these bricks and arranged them into a shimmering grid, mimicking the patterns I found thereon.  Was I doing the right thing?  I think I was, because each time I set a brick correctly, the pretty music would build.  I was working toward something, or so it seemed.  If I set a brick incorrectly, it would blink at me and the music wouldn't advance.  So I was getting feedback from the game.

But eventually the mysterious second set of bricks stopped appearing.  I guess my partner logged off. 

A few days later I played with my friend Andrew.  This time I intentionally broke Rohrer's agreement by communicating with Andrew via IM, but I think this was necessary, as I didn't want to be abandoned again.  Together we learned that we shared a plane of existence within the game (the one with the brown ground) but that the other two planes we each had access to did not overlap.

We left blocks for each other, figured out how to mix patterns, and built our towers.  Sometimes mine would collapse, and he wouldn't know what he did to cause it.  I thought he was lying.  Then his would collapse, and I didn't have an explanation for how or why, so God knows what it was we were doing/not doing to cause that.

I finished my tower after some time and nothing happened.  I waited for Andrew to finish his.  (It's a multiplayer game, so maybe both have to finish.)  He finished his.  Nothing happened.  About an hour had gone by.  We each finished our towers, but the game was still going.  There was nothing even left to do, or experiment with.  We were both bored.  The game didn't end, but we left it.

I've been doing some research since, to determine where we went wrong.  It turns out we didn't go wrong.  The game made it seem like there was a reward for building the towers, but once we did, there was no reward.  We were fooled.  I guess.  But it wasn't a clever sort of fool.  It was just...sort of a waste of time.  The positive reviews of the game that I've read tend to gush about how exciting it is for the player to realize just how the other person is interacting with them, but I didn't have such a moment.  They leave blocks, and you find the blocks.  La di da.  It's a surprise in the sense that you weren't specifically told that this is what would happen, but...that's a lame justification for excitement.  Your mother didn't always tell you what your sandwich was for lunch, but did that mean it was a blast to finally see that slice of olive loaf?

The game is a failure because this is its only trick.  Nowhere online can I find anybody (whether they enjoyed it or not) who had an experience with the game different from mine.  The first surprise (or "surprise") is that the other player leaves bricks for you.  The second "surprise" is that the game doesn't have a goal, which you only realize after you think you've accomplished the goal.  Which makes it sound a lot more clever than it really is.

It's not like going to a film and discovering that it doesn't have a distinct plot, or that it achieves characterization in a non-traditional way.  Or that everyone speaks in a nonsense language.  Or that the film is run backward.  No.  It's like walking into a cinema and sitting down for a movie, only for the projectionist to run the projecter without any film.  And it doesn't end after two hours; it never ends.  You just eventually get sick of being completely unstimulated and you leave.  That might take two minutes, or it might take all night.  Neither way are you going to walk out of that theater praising the director.

Between sucks.

(Anonymous) on March 23rd, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC)
Andrew Says
This game should be called "Between the Cheeks of Your Ass" because that's what it is: shit.
Dylan Holmesaerothorn on March 24th, 2009 12:32 am (UTC)
I suppose I won't read this till I get a chance to play it - though the reason I haven't played it was because I found Passage to be mildly interesting but not particularly great.