What I never experience when playing videogames is a sense of raw evocation. I’m talking about sensuality, eroticism, being washed over and overwhelmed. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master does this to me, also The Bowl of Milk, by Pierre Bonnard. But never games. If I sense any emotional resonance when playing a game – and I rarely do, because they’re badly written, and occupied with boring subjects- those emotions are driven like a railroad spike. Games, for decades, were entirely empty. And now that this wave of independent releases is upon us, and titles like Journey and Braid have cleared the runway for games to have – or rather presume to have – artistic substance, the presence of emotion in games, and when you should feel it, is telegraphed like the press start prompt. Play Sunset. Play Gone Home. Play Brothers. Play Flower. Or watch Indie Game: The Movie and witness the mawkish bullshit talked about Super Meat Boy. Emotion in games is now a kind of commodity, advertised and overstated, nakedly flaunted. The previous absence of any substance at all from games has, I think, left developers determined to compensate, overly so, for a kind of inherited creative deficit, an original sin. Games were bad, for a long, long time, and people are trying to put them in reverse. So we get a lot of flag-waving, a lot of shouting, a lot of protest by games which violently and profusely insist their emotions. It’s not subtle and perhaps it shouldn’t be, because games need to grow up and change. But it’s not evocative, either. It might be a reaction to a worse era of videogames, but when emotion is explored this way, artificially, pointedly and with earnest and insecure determination, it isn’t genuine. You become so aware of the game trying to make you feel that feeling becomes impossible.
Glitchhikers, by Silverstring Media, is exceptional. I don’t see a point to this game other than rousing from me various emotions: wonder, relaxation, nervousness, a sort of drowsy curiosity. This isn’t emotion for gain. It’s not emotion used as marketing, or to differentiate Glitchhikers from its predecessors and contemporaries. There’s no crescendo, no point in feeling other than to feel. It’s the videogame equivalent of a smoking a cigarette outside a bar at night, headphone-listening to a long and brilliant record. You’re driving a car, but to nowhere. You’re talking to people, creatures, entities, but to neither an end or a realisation. “The journey is more important than…the other thing,” muses one of your passengers, too enraptured by the pure alcohol of the drive to bother to complete philosophical cliches. And in a sense, that’s Glitchhikers. The emotion is more important than what the emotion might mean. Just being in the game matters more than…the other thing. The antithesis of other videogames, where making me feel something, some specific and preferably unclaimed by another developer emotion is the only and final goal, Glitchhikers allows me to ruminate, to imbibe, to simply “be”.