Every step you take, I’m there

I’ll spare you the suspense on this one: In Between is an attractive, enjoyable, well-made game, and it’s a failure. It has strong, distinctive aesthetics and solid level design, and it uses these things in an attempt to convey a serious, relevant message using game mechanics. The bad news is that the significant word in that last sentence is “attempt.” The good news is that the game fails thoroughly enough to be deeply instructive.

in_between_memory

The story concerns a man with terminal cancer facing up to the inevitability of his own death. The levels you play through represent his mental journey from shock to acceptance, with each chapter using different types of obstacles to symbolize different stages of the journey. At a basic impressionistic level, this is all very convincing. The backgrounds and the music impart a dull, haunted feeling that puts things in exactly the right emotional space. Some levels feature darkness as an obstacle, and this is portrayed with excellent visual precision. You can feel confident moving halfway into the black, as the graphics make it very clear where the actual danger line is without being obtuse about it. One particularly notable effect is the failure animation, where the screen splits into shards before reforming at the last checkpoint. The slightly jarring feel of this is like running up against a painful idea and mentally recoiling from it. It also works really well in terms of gameplay, since it’s a quick, sharp animation that provides a mental reset and is also engaging.

The story is conveyed through first-person narration, which has a lot of positive effects. First, it solidifies the fact that this is a personal journey that this guy has no choice but to deal with in the space of his own mind. Second, it meshes the story with the gameplay, since you’re going through the levels with the voice sounding in your head. Finally, the voice acting itself is convincing and adds an element of gravitas to the proceedings, even though the substance really isn’t there in the writing.

Easy though it is to make this accusation, the game just has nothing to say about its subject matter. The writing is nothing but bland bromides and generic slice-of-life vignettes, presented uncritically and completely unmined for insight, and in the end, having built up nothing with which to actually form a conclusion, the game finally rattles off some new age horseshit about how we all turn back into stardust when we die or whatthefuckever. Apart from its aesthetic offensiveness, this is ultimately uninteresting. That everything dies is just a fact; death is only a problem in the specific case. This is why one death is a tragedy while one million deaths is a statistic. Death is only meaningful if life is worth living, and the game doesn’t actually show us anything that implies that that’s the case.

Crucially, the game needs to make us feel something about the main character, to get to know him at least a little so that his death actually imparts a sense of loss. This doesn’t happen. His story is sketched in the broadest strokes, as a series of disconnected cliches. He has a strained relationship with his father, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, he loves his wife and daughter. That’s about it, and none of these things really gets developed much beyond the basic outlines. In particular, we learn absolutely nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife, and this is a huge problem, because this is supposed to be the most important thing in his life, and she’s the person most impacted by his untimely death. Any detail at all about how these two people got together or what they share with each other would have done wonders, but we get nothing. It’s the heart of the story, and it’s left hollow.

Of course, there’s a sense in which the man’s specific circumstances aren’t the point, as what’s he’s dealing with is the one true problem that every living being has to face up to sooner or later. That’s probably why the writing is as broad as possible: as an attempt at universality. The problem is that’s not how that works. The more you generalize, the less you give people to hold on to. A completely universal story is one that’s completely inapplicable to anyone’s actual circumstances. Paradoxically, it’s by being as specific as possible that you make your work relatable (this is why James Joyce always wrote about Dublin, for example). I mean, it’s not that much of a paradox; the concept of expressing the universal through the particular is like Art 101.

To the point, In Between didn’t actually make me feel anything about death, and I can assure you that I am highly susceptible to emotional manipulation in this regard. I really doubt that anyone involved with this game has ever actually felt the icy hand of oblivion clawing at their heart. I can’t imagine that anyone who had would allow the subject to be treated so bloodlessly.


in_between_spikes

As for the gameplay, In Between is a puzzle-platformer, which by itself is somewhat sigh-inducing. The success of Braid has meant that every joker who wants to make a Serious Art Game does so by rigging together a bunch of puzzles and then slapping a layer of half-baked pretentiousness on top of it. See, the fact that Braid chose this genre was not a coincidence: the puzzles in Braid are relevant to its theme in a meaningful way, and so is the fact that it’s a platformer (I’m going to write a big pretentious post about this sooner or later, so get hyped).

Now, In Between‘s level design is actually very good. The central mechanic is the ability to change the direction of gravity at will, which is clever (though meaningless), and the controls are surprisingly fluid considering how potentially awkward it is. There are a few obstacles where it’s just a matter of dodging past them at exactly the right time, but for the most part the solutions are logical rather than twitchy. Though the gameplay is based on the typical challenge/failure/retry loop that is endemic(/pandemic) to the medium, failure is usually a matter of not thinking things through rather than accidentally running into a obstacle. In this particular case, though, the use of the failure loop is a bit of a strange choice. Consider: isn’t it odd for a game about facing death to use death itself as a mere convenience mechanic? Doesn’t this convey precisely the wrong impression, that death isn’t a real thing? Doesn’t it feel wrong to be playing a game about a man afraid of death and to constantly be throwing that man into pits of spikes, only for nothing to actually happen? This is where the problems with the story start to worm their way into the rest of the game: since In Between doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, it has no basis from which to choose relevant mechanics.

There are a couple of early clues as to what the fundamental problem is here. First, the game has spikes in it. Spikes are the archetypical Meaningless Video Game Obstacle, dating back to at least Mega Man, where spikes were somehow the ultimate weapon against a robot. The reason spikes are used to fill this role is that they’re obvious: they’re simple and pointy, so they connote “bad thing” at the lowest possible resolution (the game VVVVVV, as the title indicates, deliberately exploits this fact for aesthetic purposes). Hence the problem: “avoid bad thing” is not enough of a framework for meaningful action, and it doesn’t work at all if you’re making a game specifically about a bad thing that cannot be avoided.

The other clue is the fact that the chapters are based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I mean, for god’s sake. You can’t possibly expect to be able to say anything meaningful using perhaps the single most overplayed bit of pop-science dumb-downery as your framework. The only explanation for the fact that this is the horse the game chose to hitch its wagon to is that it has no idea where it’s going.

So, while the game makes a decent attempt at tying its mechanics to its theme, the fact that it has nothing to say means it ends up being excessively literal-minded. Each chapter has a few lines of narration implying the relation between the mechanics and the theme, but they’re always a stretch. For example, a level where you have to use switches to open doors has the narrator say, “Things change. Pathways that were open are now closed.” Which is a literal description of the gameplay that also kind of sort of seems like it maybe has some deeper meaning, except that it doesn’t. I mean, the whole point of the story is that there isn’t actually a path for this guy, right?

This is actually really important, though, because this attempt gets to the heart of how video games can be made meaningful to people. Designing mechanics with thematic significance in mind, such that the gameplay actually does the thing that it means to express, is exactly the right thing to do, and too few games are doing it. So it’s not enough to write In Between off as being “not good enough” here; we need to understand exactly why and how it fails in order to figure out how to get this right.


in_between_denial

Denial

Each chapter of In Between introduces a new mechanic that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s theme. “Denial” is represented as a big wall of darkness that advances on you when your back is turned, and recedes when you’re facing it. As a metaphor this is coherent enough: the truth will eventually overtake you if you turn away from it, so you have to “face the darkness” in order to be able to resist it.

But the actual gameplay here doesn’t really work. All you have to do in each level is get to the goal, and the darkness doesn’t actually get in your way or anything, so all you really have to do is move fast enough so that you can turn around before you get overtaken, which . . . is really the opposite of what’s supposed to be going on here, right? Rushing through something is basically the opposite of facing up to hard truths. Conceiving of denial as an obstacle that you have to overcome on your way to something else is exactly wrong: the point of denial is that the thing itself must be faced.

This is the first symptom of the fundamental problem that all the levels have: the game is about trying to come to terms with things, and navigating a level to avoid the obstacles and get to the exit is a totally incoherent metaphor for this. Because, you know, you actually win each level, which is not at all what happens when you’re actually dying (i.e. always).

So, okay, this can be fixed though. What would make sense here is if facing the darkness were the actual goal. First of all, it never really feels like you’re “denying” anything, so it would actually make more sense for the darkness to not be a threat in the early levels, so you can start out by ignoring it. Then, in order to convey the theme of “facing the darkness,” the later levels would have to change things such that facing the danger becomes how you complete the level rather than merely something you do on the way to completing the level. For example, you could have to explore each level thoroughly in order to banish the darkness from every corner, and doing so would expose you to dangers that you could otherwise have avoided. As the game actually is, though, the way you finish these levels is by ignoring the darkness most of the time and just focusing completing the level normally, only turning around at certain points where the darkness becomes a problem. The gameplay actually encourages you to remain in denial.


in_between_anger

Anger

“Anger” is by far the laziest chapter, thematically speaking. Anger is represented as big red orbs that kill you if you touch them, and that’s about it. Unlike in “Denial,” there’s not even any new behavior required here. The anger orbs are just another obstacle, and you avoid them just like you avoid the spikes. As a result, the levels create no emotional impression relevant to what the chapter trying to convey.

There is a slight complication, which is that some of the anger orbs move around in response to certain actions, so sometimes you have to shift them around in order to open up a path. Gameplay-wise, the problem here is that these behaviors are arbitrary, which makes the whole thing an exercise in uninteresting trial-and-error. But this also fails to elevate the levels thematically. Again, a literal-minded narration cue attempts to tie the gameplay to the theme: “there must be a way to control the anger, or to avoid it.” So having to move the orbs around is meant to represent “anger management.”

But even when you have to move the orbs around, they’re still just obstacles, and an obstacle is not the type of thing that anger is. Anger isn’t something external that prevents you from reaching a goal; it comes from inside you, and what’s scary about it is that it feels right. I mean, even without any analysis, it’s obvious just from playing these levels that they don’t feel anything like anger. This chapter wouldn’t have made it out of alpha if the developers had just listened to their feelings.

So, since anger comes from within, since it’s something that affects your own actions, it ought to be represented not as an external obstacle but as a player ability. It would have to be something powerful, something that feels good to use. Since this is a platformer where you have to navigate around obstacles, the obvious thing would be an ability to destroy parts of the level so that you don’t have to deal with them. You could blow away some spikes, or punch a hole in a wall and just walk on through to the exit.

The other half of the problem is the same as in “Denial”: there’s supposed to be a progression here, the protagonist is supposed to be working through these feelings, but the obstacles remain mere impediments to the goal the entire time. In order to portray the protagonist changing his perspective, the means of navigating the levels would also have to change. Specifically, indulging your anger would eventually have to backfire. The later levels could be more intricately designed, such that trying to break through them would actually make them uncompleteable. The player would learn how to be careful about using their ability, to think before acting, to control their anger, before finally completing the last level without using their anger powers at all, but rather accepting the world as it is.


in_between_bargaining

Bargaining

“Bargaining” is the most successful chapter, because it’s the only one where the new mechanic is something other than a new type of obstacle. You control two characters at once on a split screen, and you have to maneuver them both to a point in the level where they can come into contact – each level is completed when the two characters touch. So this is also the only level where the actual goal is changed to match the theme. Also, the second character’s controls are reversed, which adds a nice aesthetic touch: the two halves of each level feel like opposing fragments, with a tension between them that you have to balance carefully while moving gradually forward, until you finally achieve a synthesis where the parts negate each others’ flaws and become whole.

The problem is that the thing I just described there isn’t what bargaining is. The struggle to harmonize opposing parts has a different name: reconciliation. Bargaining is almost the opposite: it’s when you’re trying to get something or get rid of something at any cost. But the only thing to say about bargaining in the face of death is that it doesn’t work. You could probably work this into the gameplay somehow, but I think the developers actually had the right instinct here: reconciliation in the face of death is a much richer subject. Again, sticking to shallow pop-science models = not that great for artistic expression. By inadvertently abandoning the model here, In Between comes very close to succeeding in spite of itself.

But it’s that very success that allows the flaws with the game’s story to come creeping in. Even if you’ve got good mechanics, you still need to connect them to the thing that they’re supposed to represent. And if you don’t actually write a story where there’s something there to connect to, you’re just reaching out into thin air. In this case, all we really learn about the dying man is that he feels bad about leaving his family behind. There’s just nothing there to be represented.

When I said that you control “two characters” in this chapter, that was actually a bit of wishful thinking. You control the main character and like a ghost version of him, or something. It’s kind of funny: it’s like the designers were subconsciously aware that they had nothing to represent here, so they put in something that actually symbolizes a lack of representation. What’s less funny is that they had a real solution right under their noses. In the cutscene introducing this chapter, the screen is split between the dying man and his wife, running home to meet each other after his diagnosis comes in. So, since we’ve established that the point here is that this guy has to think about people other than himself, that even in death, there’s no escaping the web of human relationships, isn’t it pretty fucking obvious that the second character here needs to be one of those people? Most obviously, his wife? I mean, you can stick to the conceit that this is all happening inside the guy’s head by making it like an afterimage of the person or whatever, but if the point here is that this guy needs to reconcile his own trauma with the needs of his loved ones, isn’t it thematically required for those people to actually be present in the gameplay?

I’m going to go out on about half a limb here and say that the problem is sexism. Recent events have indicated depressingly that a female player character with a purpose other than adolescent sex appeal is just a bridge too far for some people. Guess what though: sexism isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a quality issue. It is not at all the case that “inclusiveness” is a form of “censorship” that “dumbs down” games. Quite the contrary: games cannot be made correctly until this problem is solved, until the other half of humanity assumes its place as player characters. As In Between itself demonstrates, a man’s story cannot be told without accounting for the subjectivity of women.


in_between_depression

Depression

“Depression” is dishearteningly similar to “Denial”: it’s a big wave of darkness that you have to avoid. When you wind up representing two different concepts in almost the same way like this, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your chosen means of expression. Also, I think we can do a little better than representing “dark” things as literal darkness. Anyway, the difference is that to get through the depression-darkness you have to move between pockets of light, just like how when you’re actually depressed you have to find the little things in your life that make you feel better and focus on them in order to keep moving.

So this works fine, mostly, except for the game’s lack of specificity again rearing its ugly head. We never actually learn anything about what makes this guy depressed (beyond the obvious) or what makes him happy, so the whole enterprise comes off as hollow. What you actually do in these levels is move glowing boxes around to create lighted areas you can move through, which really doesn’t feel like managing depression. It feels like making whatever arbitrary moves are available so that you can get through a video game level.

I’m really not asking for much here. All that’s really needed is for the light-producing tools to portray something the guy likes, and to behave in a relevant way. Given that this game is about a very practical real-world experience, it’s inappropriate to try to convey it using generic abstract video game objects. A little bit of representation goes a long way.


Acceptance

“Acceptance,” appropriately, is an epilogue rather than a chapter. It consists of a series of trivial rooms that repeat in a loop. One of the rooms has spikes in it, but they’re not in your way, so you’ll never hit them unintentionally. The only thing you can do is “accept death” by deliberately killing yourself.

Straightforward enough, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense. Killing yourself is not the same thing as accepting death. Indeed, because killing yourself is the only way to finish the game, doing so is actually the goal, i.e. the thing that you’re supposed to do, so you’re not actually “accepting” anything. This turns dying into something you do, rather than something that happens to you without your consent. In order for the concept of “acceptance” to actually be applicable, you would have to somehow be required to give up on finishing the game. It really doesn’t count as acceptance if you get an achievement for it. (Actually, there’s also an achievement for going through the “Acceptance” levels several times without accepting death, which I believe establishes a new state of the art in Not Getting It.)

The disease here is the idea that a game must be “finishable,” that it ends when you’ve done “100%” of everything there is to do. So the puzzle-platform framework, where the game consists of a series of challenges and it’s over once you’ve cleared them all, is fundamentally at odds with In Between‘s intended theme. A more appropriate framework would be something like a roguelike, where’s there’s a wide variety of potential things to do, but each playthrough is limited in some way, so you can never get everything at once. The game would eventually end on you of its own accord, while you still have unfinished business.

This would also be a great chance to develop the story. In what little of it there actually is in the game, we learn that the protagonist’s untimely death leaves him with a number of regrets. He never fully reconciled his feelings about his father, he was never able to pursue his dream of being a writer, he’s worried about leaving his wife alone (the wife gets zero character development. I’m telling you, sexism at work), and he’ll never get to see his daughter grow up. So, what could be interesting here is if the later levels in the game gave you the opportunity to explore some of these relationships, but not all of them. There could, for example, be some kind of stamina mechanic that depletes as you play levels, with the game ending once you run out. This would force you to make choices about what to do with your remaining time. It would close off important paths that you wanted to take. It would leave you with regrets.


in_between_death

I’m not picking nits here. There’s a specific and important reason for all of these problems, which is that In Between chooses a means of expression that doesn’t work for the thing that it’s trying to express. It takes standard avoid-obstacles-and-get-to-the-goal platformer gameplay, tightens the design into the form of puzzles, and then paints over it with a series of shallow, literal-minded metaphors. But even if that coat of paint were more evocative, the actual moving parts underneath it don’t move in the right direction. The gameplay portrays the wrong thing – it uses completionist solution-finding gameplay to portray a situation in which there’s no such thing as completion and there are no solutions. This is as wrong as writing an EDM song about the good old days before technology ruined everything (ignoring the possibility of irony, which is obviously not what’s happening here). The means don’t lead to the ends, and this disconnect, irrespective of the quality of the writing, silences the game before it has a chance to speak.

Again, the reason In Between is a puzzle-platformer is because that’s what Braid was, and everyone agrees that Braid is a meaningful game, so obviously if you want to make a meaningful game you should do the same thing. More fundamentally, the misconception here is the idea that any means of expression can potentially convey any message – that one can communicate as though by Mad Libs, taking an existing design and switching out the words. The misconception is that “story” and “gameplay” are separate things.

A work of art is an aesthetic object; once created, it steps in and the creator leaves. The intent vanishes behind the act. But to suppose that this fact robs art of its ability to communicate is to lose sight of the real good while looking for the imaginary perfect. On the contrary, we’re fortunate to live in an ordered universe, one where specific actions have specific effects, and where intent cannot be directly transmitted. This forces us to engage with reality. In exchange, we lose the ability to inhabit the realm of pure ideas, which is a good deal, because that place is fucking boring.

Of course, reality involves danger, and the danger of communication is that you can make an honest go of it and still trip over your own tongue. One’s chosen method of expression comes in between the intent and the interpretation, and once it’s in position, it takes on a life of its own. Galatea was not an anomaly – any work, once encountered, begins to communicate of its own accord. And unless you’re really sure that it’s something you want speaking for you, it’s going to make you look like a fool.

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