Video games make us feel like gods, but we’re all just trained pets. A game will hand us a rocket launcher with unlimited ammo (I’m a god!). Then it will literally draw a trail leading us to our next target to shoot. And when we shoot that target, the game gives us a treat to tell us that we’re a good boy. Stupidly, we think that treat makes us more godlike. In reality, it’s just proof that we’re well-behaved.
Within (free for Mac, Linux, and PC) is not a game like that. You don’t ever get to feel like a god. You get to feel more like Job, that all-too-mortal peon in a world too large and esoteric for you to possibly understand. It’s an experience with no clear goal that leaves you feeling smaller and less significant than when you loaded it. I strongly urge you to play.
Developed by “Benjamin Gattet” as a master’s project at the University of Art and Design in Geneva (HEAD), the goal of Within is to “question the notion of space in a virtual world…” What that really means is your perception of what’s real and logical is about to go bye-bye.
The first time I load Within, I wake within a white room. All white. There is no texture, color, or shadow on the walls. It’s a 3-D space in the most minimalist sense possible, drawn from a few black lines.
I look around. There is no way out. “Bad programming,” I think. I’m about to reload the game when I turn again, and I see a door. I must have missed it.
I walk through, down the only corridor, making my way up, down, and around various ramps. All I can hear are my footsteps, and a growing, ominous, digital growl. I summit giant staircases that lead nowhere, snake my way around architectural cliffs, and soak in cathedral-like geometries that look awesome in their starkness. I’m exploring a wicked piece of digital architecture beyond the physical limitations of concrete and steel. And then I find that I’m lost.
Which door did I just come from?
Wait…where did that other door go?
Am I hallucinating or has the map changed?
Is that growl getting louder?
This goes on for 20 minutes. I reload the game a few times when I grow too frustrated, wandering around more lost each time and wanting to run as fast as I can when my character can only* walk at a steady pace. The walls feel closer and closer, and my confusion gives way to paranoia and eventually, claustrophobia. When I close the game for good and return to the real world, I feel like I’ve been through some sort of trauma. Kill Screen put it perfectly: “you’re a lab rat chasing the cheese through a maze devised to break your mind.”
I want to write to Gattet, to ask him what went on as I loaded and reloaded the game, facing what felt familiar and strange, and feeling a bit worse about myself–feeling less competent and even sane–as I tried to make my way through the experiment again. Was the path procedurally generated, using algorithms to build new mazes each time I played? Did doors really disappear and reappear when I looked away? Was there even an exit in the first place? I can’t say.
Because–SPOILER ALERT–when I eventually transcended, reaching a room that allowed me to break all the rules of the game, flying and walking through walls at will, the game crashed, as if to tell me, there is no room for the player as god. We are Job, proceeding on misguided faith and reaping no rewards for the task.
[Hat tip: Kill Screen]
*Correction: When playing the game, I did not realize, holding shift can allow you to sprint briefly.