notes for a contemplative game
By Víctor Navarro Remesal
notes for a contemplative game
By Víctor Navarro Remesal
When the first Uncharted 4 demo was presented at the E3 show, its protagonist, Nathan Drake, appeared stuck at the beginning of a level that was full of life. Drake looked at one side and the other without moving, in the midst of a crowd of passers-by who looked back at him without much interest. I thought that it was a way of proving the excellent visual work of the team, Naughty Dog, and even a declaration of intentions about stopping and smelling the flowers in the middle of so many frantic adventures. I got excited fantasising with museums showing games no one plays, with the strange time of animations on hold, when someone said sorry and reset the machine: it was a technical failure. But
what if we really granted value to those pauses during the game? What if playing slow was better, or at least as good as playing fast? What if we could join slow culture with something like slow gaming?
The answers demand some caution: slow gaming cannot be just about rhythm, since there have been slow games since Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther inaugurated textual adventures in 1977. It wouldn’t be the case either of translating into the gaming world what we know as slow cinema, “a varied branch of austere minimal films” (according to Sight & Sound critic Jonathan Romney, who coined the term in 2004) defined by long shots, real time, scarce use of dialogues and music and, according to expert on the matter Nadin Mai, a defence of boredom. Thus, in order to theorise about slow gaming we need to look for something similar to the experience of time in directors such as Lav Diaz, Béla Tarr or even predecessors such as Angelopoulos, Ozu and Tarkosvki (even though the videogame adaptation of Stalker wasn’t exactly very Tarkovskian), but created with resources extracted from its own medium: more than a slow editing, slow mechanics.
I suspect, thus, than slow gaming has to do with doing. If a videogame is a system encouraged by action and verb, slow gaming would mean doing nothing or not much and thus revealing the guts of the system. For that reason, it might be necessary to understand it as two things: slow design (what the creators propose, the possibilities of behaviour they offer) and slow playing (our own behaviour). Without a game, videogames only half-exist. Uncharted can be a frenetic action adventure, but nothing stops the player from pausing every minute to look at the views. Grand Theft Auto IV can be an exercise of chaos and violence, but there are players who take advantage of digital rainy moments to jump in the car, park by a solitary place with a view and contemplate life.
If (the possibility of) slow playing has always been there, slow design has increased in the last years, thanks in part to the boom of alternative markets: there you have works such as The Graveyard, a granny’s walk through a graveyard in Proteus, a walking simulator in a psychedelic island in Cart Life, a game in which we manage the tedious life of a street vendor, or Mountain, a game for mobile phones the controls of which are described on the instructions thus: “controls: nothing”. All of them encourage us to relate to our surroundings, taking our time, without too many plans or goals. Another clear example: in Orchids to Dusk, we control an astronaut lost in a desert planet and we can only walk or sit down and wait until we run out of oxygen. Routine, boredom, contemplation and even the acceptance of death are presented as interactive experiences.
Life is strange
Having fun while slow playing: the design on hold of Life is Strange.
Being slow: three keys of slow gaming
With this approach and thinking about these and other examples, I realise that slow gaming is structured around three coordinates: time expansion, serene contemplation experience, and non-economical sense of action. That is to say:
1. Time expansion. The classic arcade model pushes us to always move forward, with resources such as countdowns or constant waves of enemies. Slow gaming, on the contrary, tries to force us to inhabit a dense and eternal present, almost close to static art (isn’t Mountain a virtual sculpture?) and silence. We’re allowed to contemplate without any hurry a world and some processes that aren’t stopped but pass us by with the weight of seconds. Time stops being a resource to reveal itself as a being, like the uji or “time-being” of zen master Dôgen: “time is existence and all existence is time”.
2. Serene contemplation experience. Let’s go back to the slowness of puzzles: in a textual adventure (such as Colossal Cave Adventure) or a graphic one (like, for instance, Maniac Mansion) the slow rhythm is useful to go investigate the setting to the last pixel and find hints and clues. The relationship with the world and the system in slow gaming is different: yes, we can observe everything thoroughly, but not to analyse it, rather to get a deep understanding of it. Think of the familiar and never-ending places of Ozu’s films: it was precisely with them with which critic Pablo Algaba compared the saga Boku no Natsuyasumi, vignettes of a childhood summer in the Japanese countryside. This contemplation, besides, is far from boring: it looks like the serene stoicism that always-cheery Schopenhauer presented as the only solace before boredom.
3. Non-economical sense of action. Traditionally, anything we do in a videogame is submitted to an evaluation of prizes and punishments, with production and progress. Let’s say that it’s an industrial and neoliberal way of doing. Slow gaming would look more like Taoism, the Chinese philosophy that defends letting things flow, not resisting what comes around and not imposing our own will. To win in Prune you have to cut a plant and accompany it while it grows, letting it bloom by itself. If you cut it too much you’ll have to start again. This ends up challenging the idea that anything in a game revolves around us: explore and have a look about in Shenmue or Lovely Weather We’re Having and you will see that there is a whole living system there while we do nothing (this idea is taken to the extreme by critic and academic Brendan Keogh when he talks about “videogames without players”).
Something like this would be my idea of slow gaming: games (or ways to play) in which goals and states of victory or failure are relegated to a secondary level, with a serene rhythm, the possibility of unproductive contemplation and an abandonment of the fantasy of power. An aesthetic experience that is an alternative (and a complement) to mainstream ones in which games would defend their status as spaces for decompression and limit that help us see the world with greater clearness. To see if I’m right at all I promise to play Uncharted 4 not touching any buttons from time to time and smelling digital flowers along the way.
The menu can be a meditation exercise.
I have to say that the growing defence of slowness has me in two minds: I wouldn’t know how to live without my walks, silence or Mizoguchi’s films, but anything implying to reject a discourse (to delete resources from culture) scares me. Is there a way to film chaos and fury better than in Mad Max? Don’t we go back to playful hurriedness with Crazy Taxi, or the hypnosis of F-Zero? Doesn’t the spark of punk give us life and sanity? Mistrust becomes dislike when I see that the flag bearers of the slow movement are gurus such as Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness and a usual feature of TED talks, in the hands of whom slow life resembles far too much positive thinking and self-help. Be careful with nostalgia for a fake paradise lost (they always talk about “retrieving” a different lifestyle), cultural dogmas and absolutistic wills: thinking in slow motion (as philosopher Ned Hall defines his discipline) is OK, but that doesn’t mean ceasing to think about the fast and the furious.
No Man’s Sky: exploring galaxies will never be piece of cake.
Fail or does this market deserve to be looked at?