Recently I had the pleasure of attending WINDOW by ATTEMPTS and The Doodle People – which you could say has been my first local participatory theatre performance since having the Bean. It was also technically a PC game, so I thought i would use this to kick off my attempts to do a ✨WEEKLY GAME REVIEW✨ on this writing blog.
For over a year now I have ‘threatened’ to start a Game Review Blog for all the weird not-really-games-games I play – for how could I attempt to make games-as-art if I didn’t concertedly review the games out there or play more games? Instead of creating yet another blog, let’s file it here, into my writing blog!
The last time I went to a ticketed arts event when Beano was about 7 months old, when I had to leave midway because she insisted on noisily breastfeeding. I could tell the the snuffling and slurping sounds that punctuated the silent dancing were beginning to perturb the other guests. All my other recent attempts to attend free film events and talks have often required me to be flexible to leave early if the Bean herself starts to rankle. She has also developed some strong but also completely irrational views on art and architecture. Mysteries of the mind of a two year old. She currently hates cardboard and architectural models. Who knows why? The point is that as a mother you pick your battles and accept that some changes have to be made to avoid meltdowns. So most times I have to be prepared to suddenly leave.
So it has been a treat to find a performance I could attend from the comforts of home. Yes, it was an evening session where the Bean did sit on my lap like a demanding cat and frequently attempted to hijack my keyboard. This live one-to-one theatrical experience requires you to download a Windows .exe game (in my case I am using Parallels to run it on my Mac, although non-PC users could go to Centre42 to use one of their computers to play the experience) and to login to a Zoom call with a live human facilitator.
One thing I didn’t expect was that the Zoom call was going to play such a big part – for the full experience you’ve got to be willing to talk to your animal guide in this game. Its like an awkwardly polite phone call with a stranger. You can see my Giraffe Guide here in the right corner.
The premise of the story is that you are a colleague of SARA who has gone missing after a very stressful period of time during COVID, and no one knows where she is. You try to solve the mystery by looking into her computer, which is a portal into various other folders and also alternate realities.
Premise-wise, this reminds me of The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden (The Stanley Parable), where you look inside the laptop of a game developer and try to guess what kind of person he was from the half-built games inside his laptop, however in that case a very overbearing narrator speaks over everything which is meant to twist your understanding of the narrative.
In WINDOW, your animal guide is not there to subvert your experience of the narrative, but instead is polite and helpful and almost respectful to a fault. Were all the guides different, with different personas – since we know they were actual actors and not just technicians? I do not know for sure. I’m also not sure why an animal was chosen – is it for the cute factor of having a non-intimidating animal bring you around, bobbling around wildly as they speak? Would it be different if my guide had a human form?
Your animal guide is like both emergency tech support (assisting you with your onboarding to this experimental platform) and (slightly) performative narrator. (In the background, you can almost hear the murmur of other guides speaking to other participants, like an uncanny call-centre)
On a functional level (in making the experience work for the user), it appeared that the animal guides had some control over my location and could teleport me to a location if I got stuck, which was handy. My giraffe guide prompted me to explore the space and asked me to inform her of what I had clicked on. It was a little strange to narrate my choices in the game to my giraffe guide, since it made me self-aware that I was being watched and by doing so probably changed how I played the game. But the animal guide did need to know where I was headed, because when I got to the new world, she would narrate a little script to describe to me what I was seeing. I say script because it did feel more like a tour guide reciting a script to me of the wild virtual sights I could take in, such as this floating utopia world. There is quite a bit of text scattered about in-world, some of which duplicates what your animal guide is about to tell you.
Some of the worlds involved mini-interactives like this car experience where you have to keep pressing a key to climb up a hill but its an impossible sisyphean task.
There were some scenes which were a bit more piecemeal like this experience where you could pick certain gear to put onto your avatar. My giraffe guide dutifully explained each one to me and how wearing each item would show off my avatar’s identity. But what’s to stop me from donning… EVERYTHING? Nothing though. There’s no particular consequence to some of these mini-scenes – they are truly just a tiny standalone experience within the game.
There was a waiting room and I understood later that if you waited longer, something else would happen. But because I am a “completer finisher” sort of person, I decided my priority was to see EVERY ROOM instead of waiting here.
In format, this is like the immersive theatre experiences such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (which I saw in London) where audiences roamed freely and picked up different threads of the narrative by exploring the set, and some audiences would then find utility in repeated viewings so they could uncover different aspects of the storyline. But of course, in scope this was a lot more constrained. Can you see all the rooms in the 1 hour performance? Yes, you can, although you could also just spend longer in some of the rooms to explore and find other details in the games.,.
At the end, you’re asked to pen a note to Sara, who you didn’t meet. Alright, I am afraid I still don’t know who is Sara from all this. Timewise, the game was quite short and its not enough time for to get to know my giraffe guide, let alone to get to know Sara who I didnt meet. But do get that the overall experience is meant to tap on some universal feeling of loneliness and isolation that people have felt during the Covid pandemic, and to highlight mental health issues.
In review, I think its a enjoyable experimental piece which could still be developed further in how more of my choices could have had consequences on other parts of the game. It does seem like it might have replay value and that there might be things hidden away that I could explore, but on the surface I did get the sense that I could easily superficially visit every scene/room within the limited time given.
As for the narrator – I am on the fence on whether the animal guides were the best way to present this work. There were many reminders that your animal guides were human and you should be nice to their feelings because this was ostensibly a work about mental health and isolation. Because of the way it was conducted via Zoom one-on-one, it felt like I was playing WITH my giraffle guide and and had to be respectful of her feelings, so my choices were tended to be on the safe side. You could say that my virtual persona that day, playing the game, was THE NICE DEBBIE.
Interestingly, usually my personal tendency in a game (if I play alone) is often to try to break it or glitch out of it, but because my giraffe guide was soooo nice, I was not inclined to be very naughty or to play it as if I was trying to break the game. However, I somehow think that it may be more interesting if the player is intentionally trying to be very naughty and trying to misuse things – to test the fundamental limits and boundaries of the world…
For those curious about the creators of the project, here are the credits!