All in the timing
Queers in love at the end of the world & Where the Goats are
I doubt it's solely a modern metric, but there definitely seems to be a trend in contemporary art criticism: the exultation of "getting lost" in artwork.
Living in the era of binge-watching television means that television must (natch) be binge-watch-able. Good books are "page-turners." I've lost count of the number of times I've heard theatre-goers lament the show that feels too long. ("Two intermissions? Who needs two intermissions??")
This metric is equally applied to video games, and I know it well. Whether it be my childhood obsessions with The Sims and Age of Empires, or my more recent dives into Dead Cells or Stardew Valley, it's really no challenge for me to log dozens (if not hundreds) of hours in the world of an especially immersive video game. Indeed, all the games I listed have been lauded as "easy to get lost in." It is seen as a positive virtue when you are so enrapt in a game that you forget how long you've been playing it.
However, this metric assumes an antagonistic relationship between art and time. By the above criterion, art is good when it surpasses the oppressive weight of time, allowing people to feel -- however fleetingly -- that they are removed from time's binds and limitation
This relationship doesn't need to be antagonistic. It is much more interesting to think of time as one of the many components a work can use to influence a viewer.
In my own art-marking, I work with a group of theatre-makers who task themselves to write plays that are usually no longer than about two minutes. Our work is showcased in an evening of these short plays. When starting out, it was easy to think of the two minutes as a limitation; it was something that we pushed up against. Though the twoish-minute limit is a restraint (in that we must factor it into our work), what is more exciting are the moments when my ensemble-mates play with that time, making it stretch and shrink to fit the space. In other words, it is far more compelling when time is seen as a part of the work, just as one considers a set, or blocking, or lighting when making theatre. Calling attention to our relationship with time only highlights the other elements of our work. For example: we time our show with a darkroom clock, and there are few things as consistently satisfying as hearing the audible gasp from the audience in the rare few moments that we stop the clock in the middle of a play.
Recently, I played two games that made me feel something similar in my gut: Queers in Love at the End of the World by anna anthrophy & Where the Goats Are by Memory of God. Like the moments where my ensemble-mates have stopped the darkroom timer during one of our performances, these two games both saw time as another element to play with.
There's Only so much time
I was late to the game with anna anthropy. (But better late than never.) I played anthrophy's Dys4ia a number of years ago after seeing a whole wave of press about the game. Dys4ia chronicles anthropy's decision to begin hormone replacement therapy and was rightly lauded for its use of learning game mechanics as an analogy for anthropy's experience as a trans woman. In Dys4ia, scenes moved quickly, and each scene had slightly different gaming mechanics. The attempt to interact with those mechanics mirrored anthropy's feelings: frustration, anger, sense-of-unbelonging. It was a game that knew it was a game, and used the language of game design to support its central thesis.
Not long ago, I picked up anthropy's 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, a manifesto on lowering the barrier to entry for creating video games. I read passages out loud to my partner, thrilled to have someone laying out video game theory so clearly, especially after I felt like I had been trying to untangle knots of thought in my own brain.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters deserves a discussion all its own, but what struck me most about anthropy's writing was her deep and considered knowledge on how video games can play with structure, especially amid limitations. Her main rallying cry was that anyone can (moreover: everyone should) make video games, and that having little knowledge of programming needn't be a deterring factor, especially in a world full of increasing numbers of open sourced editing platforms. Her argument was that games didn't have to look AAA-level polished, but could rejoice in their limitations.
This is definitely true in the game I wish to discuss: Queers in Love at the End of the World.
Created on Twine -- a free game creation software that uses hyperlinks to create text-based Choose Your Own Adventure-like games -- Queers in Love at the End of the World greets plays with a small wall of text, some clearly hyperlinked words (i.e. words that, when clicked, would lead the player to a new page), and a 10-second countdown clock that begins immediately once the game has started... a countdown timer that is ticking down to the eponymous End of the World.
That's right: this game is 10 seconds long. Once 10 seconds are up, the world (i.e. the game) ends.
hold tight. hold fast.
The moment you notice the timer ticking down, it's easy to want to read through quickly; it's in the nature of playing games to want to "win," or to want to figure out what "winning" means for the game.
However, in reading the text, you realize who your player's character is: she is a person standing with her girlfriend as the end of the world approaches, and who only has so much time to decide what she wants to do. You can kiss your partner, hold her, take her hand, or tell her [something].
If you're like me, you might spent the first play-through of the game reading that first page, trying to orient yourself, and trying to make a decision about which path you want to take. However, if you're still like me, that reading time and consideration takes up about 10 seconds, and before you can decide what path you want to take, the world ends.
Once the game is over, you have the option to play again. And in this choice, two distinct paths emerge:
- You could choose to not play the game again. After all, it's a 10-second game, and that time limit is important. Maybe that 10 seconds was all that you had, and all that you were intended to have.
- You can play through a couple of times, exploring new choices, and finding out how to "win" the game.
My gaming instincts got the better of me, and my curiosity was too much to not play again, so I went with option 2.
Catch lightning in a jar.
In today's day and age, it's hard for me to avoid thinking about the possibility of the end of the world. (I don't for a moment think we're the first generation to feel this way. It's my pet theory that every generation thinks that they're the last generation, and that it's a result of our own unbeatable self-centeredness.) In playing through this game, it's clear that Queers in Love[...] doesn't have to be about a literal global end, but can be about any sort of ending in a person's life, and about how time is foreshortened when those final moments are experienced or recalled.
Like a memory that gets changed a little with every re-thinking, playing through Queers in Love[...] again and again, I found that I stopped reading earlier sections entirely in attempts to "progress farther." anthropy thus sets up a balance in the game: you can "get farther" in the game, but to do so requires ignoring or more quickly reading through the earlier sections. To put it differently: you can either have a longer, but shallower experience; or you can have a more limited, but deeper experience.
In both cases, there's a feeling of trying to hold on to something. And that desperate feeling is only possible because of the count-down clock.
In other games that explore memory, like What Remains of Edith Finch or Gone Home, the player often ambles through lushly rendered spaces, taking their time to explore and discover the deeper plot running underneath. I enjoyed lots of things about both of those games, but neither affected me quite like Queers in Love[...], which didn't feature any lush renderings or amble-able spaces. Queers in Love[...] was built on a platform that doesn't provide the tools to create expansive 3D spaces. So, anthropy instead dissected the feelings of memory and loss to their basic elements. She made them a game.
Queers in Love[...] recognized that what is crucial in feelings of nostalgia is a recognition of the limited time that we all have with each other, whether it be 10 seconds or 10 decades. The game's 10-second timer the opposite of the familiar count-down clock on platform games, where one might be tasked to finish a level in a certain amount of time. For Queers in Love[...], the timer isn't something that you have to beat. Rather, it's something that you're given. It's up to you to figure out what you want to do with it.
Where the goats are
My mom's family is from the Carpathian Mountains on the border between Ukraine and Poland. There's a recording I treasure from my grandmother, from when my cousin had taken her to the StoryCorps booth in Grand Central a decade or so ago. In that recording, my grandmother tells the story of how she and her family were forced to leave their ancestral homeland in the mountains after World War II due to a Polish-government-led operation, aimed at removing the risk of Ukrainian rebels organizing in the mountains after the lines of Ukraine and Poland's boundaries were redrawn.
There are many things about this recording that I loved the moment I heard it, and many others I treasure more deeply since my grandmother's passing. However, the moment that I hold closest is a song that my grandmother sings.
I don't know her mother tongue, Lemko, but I've listened to the song enough times that I can get the vague sounds of the words right. I don't know what the song means, but I do know it's about goats. I don't know where she got it from, but I know that, before singing it, in her heavy Lemko accent, my grandmother said, "It's my song."
With that in mind, if you show me a game with vague Slavic art direction and goats, I'm 100% going to play it.
If it then turns out that that game is also about an older woman experiencing her world ending, well, that's a recipe for me crying over some digitally-rendered livestock.
Where the Goats Are is a short point-and-click game put out by Memory of God on itch.io. It's still a bit glitchy (with goats occasionally getting stuck in corners), but the game is beautiful, with its autumn-y tones and soft soundscape.
It starts simply enough: you play an older woman named Tivkah whose neighbors have all left to move to the city. Each day, she wakes up, and the player guides her through various tasks -- collecting eggs, milking her goats, making cheese, watering her plant, trading for hay with the man who stops by -- all within the confines of her white fence.
Given the farm-based setting of Where the Goats Are it's easy to equate it with something like Stardew Valley, another game that gives you a clear amount of time in which to complete tasks. It's thus a clear logical leap that the point of the game should be to run the farm most effectively. With Stardew Valley, the impetus to establish a routine came from a clock in the top corner of the screen. With no such timer in Where the Goats Are, the player has to look for other markers.
The passage of time is shown by the changing color of light from orange to blue to nearly black, with Tivkah automatically returning to her house if you keep her up too late in the dark. Within this limit, there was no way for me to complete all the tasks I wanted to do (again, the drive to "win" was too strong), but I did end up setting a little routine for myself, prioritizing the things I wanted to do. However, Tivkah moves almost agonizingly slow. She moved so slow that I found it hard not to do my own personal daily tasks -- checking my emails, replying to my emails, checking my other emails -- while I waited for her to cross the yard. It wasn't until I hid my phone from myself (literally in the other room of my house), shut my bedroom door, and played from bed, that I actually allowed myself to sink into the foreign speed.
Deliberate character slowness isn't a new mechanic. In Kentucky Route Zero, one of the characters hurts his leg at the end of Act I and so spends all of Act II limping. In KRZ, it was a pretty drastic change: this character that had previously been nimble was now taking nearly three times the time to get from one place to another.
However, for Where the Goats Are, Tivkah starts out slow. From the first day, the player realizes that they have to be deliberate with Tivkah's actions; if they send her in the wrong direction, they could spend a good chunk of the limited daylight hours in-game correcting her path. So, the player learns to focus in on time management, which further seems to cement the apparent goal of the game as: "Figure out how to spend Tivkah's day."
It all seems well and good, until the letters start coming from the outside world.
one foot in front of the other
Every day, Tivkah can pick up letters from a man who comes by her gate. They start out with her recently-departed friends and relatives talking about their new lives in the city and asking her how her farm is doing. However, slowly, the letters turn urgent: something is happening in the city, and it's not good. There's some sort of darkness approaching, and no one can seem to stop it. Parts of letters are missing. Sometimes just fragments make it to Tivkah, and nothing more.
I don't mean to make this about two games about the end of the world (though it is, and they are), and I don't plan on going into much more detail about what is happening to Tivkah, since I think that Where the Goats Are is best left experienced first-hand. Instead, I want to focus on how the established slow speed of the game supports and amplifies the change in the story.
Up until the news from the outside world starts going sour, the player has acclimated to a certain routine in Tivkah's day; there have been enough in-game cycles to establish a clear pattern of behavior. When the letters start turning grim, small changes appear on Tivkah's farm. The player's normal routine throws these changes into higher relief: when there are no more chickens to feed, so what is Tivkah to do instead? Spend more time tending making cheese to sell? What happens when the person who buys the cheese doesn't come by one of the days? Is he gone forever, or is it just a blip, and he'll be back tomorrow?
Among bigger changes to the yard over the days, it was easy to gloss over one of the most affecting changes: the speed of Tivkah's walk. Already near-glacial, it's difficult to plot its decline into actual-glacial. I thought I was just imagining it at first, so I started to look at the footprints she left behind. That was proof enough: each day the footsteps were getting slightly closer together, meaning she was taking ever-shorter steps as she crossed the yard.
So, in another game with a "normal"-speed character, I would have known exactly what to do when tasks started disappearing: I'd fill one empty thing with another thing that needed doing. But since Tivkah moved so slowly, I was already so specific about what she did when. When she exited her house one morning to find that none of the goats were giving milk, I didn't know what to do with her. I didn't want to send her to another, different part of the yard, because if I started to send her in one direction and changed my mind, it would take her so much time to recover. As she started to move slower, the cost of my moving her at all grew greater and greater, since it ate up increasing amounts of time in an already very short day.
So some days, she just stood still.
Where the Goats Are starts out as a game that looks like a beautiful mini version of the farming and time-management games that have developed a specific vocabulary all their own. Memory of God uses that vocabulary to lull the player into a sense of familiarity, with some small tweaks. ("Man! This woman moves slow! Ah well. She's supposed to be old. Let's make some cheese.")
Turns out, the game wasn't about time management at all. Instead, it uses the vocabulary of time management to heighten the feeling of desperation as things start disappearing and as time slows down further. It asks the player what they have when familiar things are no longer there. Who are we without our routine? What are we when all that is taken from us? Do we feel that rise of panic in our chests as we look at the screen and ask, "What do we do now?"
Do we just stand still?