If you haven’t played Jason Rohrer’s games, do it now. They are available for Windows, Mac OS X, and GNU/Linux, so unless you use something more exotic, there is no excuse for you not to.
I played Passage and found the concept to be quite ingenious. Rohrer explained what he was trying to do with Passage, but you should really play the game before reading that explanation. This game got high praise when it was compared to Portal at Grand Text Auto: “Portal is neat, and its design accomplishments and high polish are real. It just isn’t the true heartbreaker of this pair of games. And, of the two, it also isn’t the game I wished I had developed.” You can read that article for spoilers for either game.
I would suggest you play the games a few times for yourself. Passage takes five minutes, and Gravitation takes about eight.
*** The rest of this post will contain spoilers for Gravitation, so if you haven’t played it yet, please do so. ***
I want to concentrate on Gravitation. While the first game was straightforward in that it is a game about going through life and dealing with the choices you make and didn’t make, Gravitation was a bit more subtle. In fact, Rohrer hasn’t outright said what it is about.
I’m not going to provide an in-depth explanation for Gravitation. I’m hoping that most people will understand it as it stands. However, it involves more complex game mechanics than Passage, and it is trying to express something much more subtle. … Gravitation explores how a particular corner of my life feels, as only a game can.
And so here is my interpretation of the game: it’s about a creative person’s mood, specifically about switching between enthusiastic focus on creation and depression, about choosing to work on one project while leaving other projects to wait, and wondering if you’ve wasted your time.
To that end, the mechanics are brilliant. You can jump, and you can move left and right. Standard platforming fare, but there is also a resizing frame around your character that limits and expands your view. If you don’t do anything, that box will expand on its own. As it expands, the world becomes brighter and you see more of it. The music will change, adding more layers as more of the world is visible. You can jump higher and move faster. The viewable landscape will also shrink after a time, and as it does, the world becomes colder, the music becomes quieter and simpler, and your movement slows. Your child has a red rubber ball that he (yes, Mez is Rohrer’s son) can toss to you, and you can toss it back. The world above has projects (the stars) that you can obtain if you go after them, but then you have to return to the ground level and push them into the kiln to add them to your score. The more projects you try to push at once, however, the slower you can push them, and if any projects are on top of others, they need to be pushed first. There is a timer counting down, and when it hits 0, the game is over.
What’s amazing is that no matter what you do, these mechanics and entities all work together to let you take away a different part of Rohrer’s message each time you play.
The first things you’ll see are the kiln with the fire. As your view grows, you’ll notice your son to the left, and if you’re close enough, he’ll throw the ball to you. Each successful return of the ball increases your view faster, and eventually you’ll see the mania signified by the fire on your head. Gravity has less pull on you as your mania increases, so you can jump higher.
And so you might be inclined to do so. Jump through the hole in the ceiling, and you’ll discover a maze populated with stars/projects. Touch one, and it will fall to the bottom level, and you’ll be fired up, allowing you to continue jumping higher for a limited time.
Of course, all of those projects need to be attended to. As many as you can grab on your way up, your mania will die down, and you need to settle into work. Push those projects into the kiln. If you happen to enter into mania while doing so, however, you’ll find that projects become easier to push. It can take awhile, and your son is always there wanting to play with you.
This part is interesting. You can try to balance work and life, but you’ll likely do a poor job of either. If you work on the projects and ignore your son, you’ll get things done, but at what cost? If you exclusively focus on your son, he never leaves, but then your creative passion will burn while you miss out on opportunities. You can try to grab all the projects early on, but then when you come back to work on them, they might be stacked too high for you to get started. In fact, just getting those projects might result in depression trapping you in a well, and it isn’t until you mood lifts enough that you can leave and get to work.
Rohrer claims that every interaction is planned, and while I don’t know if there isn’t an unplanned emergent interaction, I noticed that many of the situations can be interpreted to mean something. The mechanics of playing ball with Mez have a functional purpose: you can get recharged, quickly moving out of depression to get back to mania. You might think that you can charge up, grab projects, come back, push them in the kiln, and play ball to do it all over again. And you can…for the first few minutes. Towards the end of the game, you’ll find the ball has been left behind. Mez is gone.
If you’ve ever been told by a loved one that you have taken him or her for granted, that you’ve focused too much on work and not enough on your family, then I’m sure you can understand the impact of learning that you’ve wrongly assumed someone will be there forever. “Cat’s in the Cradle” might tell the story in song form, but playing this game and experiencing that moment when you see nothing but the ball? I don’t think the impact would be nearly as deep if you watched the event unfold in a film.
Again, you could focus on Mez the entire time, but you can’t help but notice the rest of the world. It can be exciting to find ideas and projects, but you need to act on them if you are going to do anything productive! The game mimics the battle between talking about something and doing something, and it does so very well. When you’re depressed, you can’t focus on anything, and you’ll just have to pass the time until your mood changes.
What I find interesting is that working on your projects doesn’t get you out of depression faster than simply standing around. Rohrer has said that he has not actually experienced depression, and I haven’t either, but if you look at this difference between mania and depression as the difference between focused energy and being drained, then I would think that working on your projects should get you focused. Then again, if you are spending your time on the wrong priorities, I can see how they would be draining. Either way, working on the projects, pushing them into the kiln, simply results in increased productivity as evidenced by the score at the top. Your mood changes at the same rate as it would if you weren’t pushing those projects to the kiln, and I wonder why.
The projects do lose value the longer you wait to work on them, though. You can’t leave them forever, even if Mez insists on playing. Or you could, but then they’re just idle projects that you never finish.
You could also ignore Mez entirely. You could ignore your depression and your waiting projects, getting higher and higher in the maze, just trying to reach the end. The end of the level is interesting because after trying so hard to get there, you find nothing. No big payoff. No reward. You’re just alone with your thoughts, depressed or not.
If you manage to head back to the beginning, you may be surprised to find that the projects you’ve been using as excuses to search for more inspiration are so overwhelming that you can’t even start working on them because they block your way. As fun as it might be to make plans, you have to actually implement them sometime.
You can see Mez get frustrated when the ball isn’t returned. You’ll get annoyed when the projects are piled too high for you to get to the left side of them to start pushing. The music fades out during the last minute of gameplay. I am sure that there are other subtle interactions, but none of them were accidental. All of them give you a peek into what it feels like to be in a corner of Rohrer’s life.
I believe that Gravitation, like Passage, should be included in any discussion of games as art. Rohrer captured what he was feeling and managed to craft it into a game so you could experience it yourself. Gravitation is his fourth game, and Rohrer has made two before Passage that I plan on playing as well. Cultivation, a game about gardeners dealing with conflict and mutual interests, especially sounds interesting. I hope to see even more artistic games in the future.