Welcome to An Adventure in Small Games, a monthly series focused on games that cost less than $20, ideally less than $10. In this series, Eve Golden Woods will focus on the indie game and what it has to offer the world of gaming. There will be spoilers. This month, Eve takes a look at Into or, I Turned My Autobiography Into a Fictional Second-Person Surreal Coming-Out-Of-Age Dramedy and Now My Life Is Happier.

Into or, I Turned My Autobiography Into a Fictional Second-Person Surreal Coming-Out-Of-Age Dramedy and Now My Life Is Happier

Animal Phase
February 25, 2016

Into is an odd little game, something that seems standards on the surface, but only gets stranger the more you look at it. It’s one of the shortest games I’ve ever played, taking less than five minutes. Into feels like a game that once met Wes Anderson at a party and liked his shirt. In its pastel colours, music box tunes, and soft-spoken fragments of dialogue, it definitely leans into an indie-film aesthetic, a sort of self-aware indulgence in conflict free storytelling. This is something that, though pretty common in film, is rarely seen in games, and it actually feels quite refreshing. Into is a game of soft pastels and Gaussian blur, a game about growing up that tries to capture, not the specifics being a teenager, but the feeling of it.

At a talk during “Different Games 2015” game maker DREAMFEEL described a particularly kind of game interaction that she called an illustrative or anecdotal interaction, and the games that contain them as vignette games.

Rather than trying to express ideas directly through the mechanics, and reduce meaning to a game rule, DREAMFEEL describes how these vignette games instead try to capture in interactivity moments that express these feelings and ideas indirectly. In this way game creators avoid telling players directly what to think and instead can let players interpret and produce their own unique meanings from the experience.

DREAMFEEL contrasts games like The Sims, which mechanises love the management of meters, and Passage, which literalises a relationship as a journey through the long corridor of life accompanied by another person, with a moment in the game At the Cafe by Pierrec. Vignette games often focus on very small movements and in the first sequence of At The Cafe two players control just the eyes of two characters in a cafe. If you happen to catch each other’s eyes the characters look away blushing, and if you catch each other’s eyes again the scene concludes.

The game amplifies tiny moments and intimate gestures, and suggests that it is from such brief and normal moments that deep and powerful emotions emerge. These illustrative mechanics make no definitive statements or rules about what love is, and so the scene may continue to give rise to as many unique interpretations as there are unique players. It’s a style of game-making that values the intimate and specific over the general, and Into is an example of a game that really aims to do this.

The game begins with a pink screen. A volume icon blinks at the bottom, and rustling sounds follow, small movements and shuffling papers. Someone breathes once, slow and steady, in and out, and then the music kicks in, leading us into the first of Into’s three sections.

Into, Animal Phase, 2016

We find ourselves in an art class. Two hands write back and forth over a page of drawing paper. As the player hovers over the boxes where they write, eyes appear, looking sideways at each other. In the background, the teacher’s voice murmurs half inaudibly, a susurrus heard so many times that the students just tune it out. Instead they talk about names, until the teacher’s voice intrudes with something new. Draw what you see, she says, not what you think you know. It’s a neat lesson, both for art and for life. The two students are teenagers, in the process of discovering themselves. They look almost identical, with short brown hair in an androgynous cut. Their identity is still loose and flexible, uncertain to them and to the player. We cannot see them, not clearly, but we can see what they see. We follow their eyes.

The second section has the same framing as the first. We look over the shoulders of the two teens as they gaze up at a ceiling fan and the stucco plaster behind it. Shapes appear on the ceiling, coalescing into circles when the player hovers over them. Their ideas emerge slowly, and the words tumble afterward, a lazy conversation about what they see when they look at the ceiling, about what people see when they look at strangers. It has the blithe self-assured profundity of young people who believe they are the first people to ever discover a concept, and the trembling uncertainty of adolescence when you hardly know your own self.

In the third section, the shower water hisses and someone breathes heavily, with what might be panic or fear or desire or pleasure. The screen is blurred, but two naked bodies are half visible, facing each other. The mouse starts at the bottom of the screen and must be dragged to the centre. It moves slowly, like pulling a spoon through treacle. When it touches the circle the two figures reach out and touch, then slide through each other and disappear.

The mechanics in Into are interesting because they feel like an attempt to embody mental or physical processes that precede communication. In the first section, the suggestive eye glances recall shared moments of restricted communication. In a classroom, where words are impossible, expressions and gestures are more important.

Similarly, in the second section, the patterns of light feel like an attempt to represent the process by which thoughts become words. They begin as shapes, loose and diffuse, but as the mouse moves over them they collect together into a circle. One of the characters asks the crucial question: “Do you ever feel people see you wrong?” Each word is its own bubble, suggesting the slow hesitance of understanding. And in the space illuminated by the light, we do not see random droplets, but the shadowy outline of a figure, so that the words emerge haunted by the ghost of another self, whether future, alternate, or ideal. This leads into the slow dragging mouse of the third section, where words become action; slow and hesitant, not without struggle, but present nonetheless. When the mouse movement finally reaches the circle, it feels like the first step of a longer journey, like the beginning of the end of adolescence.

Into, Animal Phase, 2016

Mostly in games, films and other visual media, sound is a scaffold for the images, a complimentary, but subordinate element. There are exceptions, of course (movie videos spring to mind), but it’s certainly rare to find games outside of rhythm games that put their sound front and centre. Into is one of those games. The sound in Into is saturated and intimate. Each whisper, each breath, feels like someone speaking into your ear. It highlights the emotional intimacy of the game, and reinforces the feeling that the game’s vignettes are near-solitary moments of introspection, which we have been invited to connect with. It also makes the game feel immensely physical. Unlike beautiful, hi-res graphics, which strive towards realism, but often make game-worlds feel vast and distant, Into’s sounds, its hissing and shuffling and scratching and sighs, make the game feel like it has a body. I almost had the impression, playing Into, that if I looked to my left I would find someone lying on my bed beside me.

Into’s alternate title, I Turned My Autobiography Into a Fictional Second-Person Surreal Coming-Out-Of-Age Dramedy and Now My Life Is Happier packs a lot in, but it’s a good introduction to some of the tensions in the game. It appears at the end of the game, after the visuals have faded away and the last close breath has been let out. Retroactively, it gives a context to the short sequences that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but because it appears after the game, the player brings their own experiences to it. The list of adjectives and nouns piled on this short experience suggests the impossibility of ever squeezing the full tensions of adolescence into five minutes. The game refuses to try and make a narrative of its history, though there is a progression in its three sections. Often in narratives about adolescence there’s an impulse to focus on key moments as a shorthand for internal change (think of things like prom, graduation, birthdays, etc). Into takes the opposite approach and instead gives the player only the everyday.

All of this is added to by the second half of the title “and Now My Life Is Happier.” Crucial to this game is its perspective, which is not someone in the middle of a change, but someone looking back on it. The title suggests that the process of making the game was a therapeutic one, but it also offers a perspective for the reader. The uncertainty of self-definition that many people go through as they grow up is represented here, but the narrative very much looks back on it. Even the mechanics, and they way that they express the process of self-understanding, emphasise the adult perspective of the creator, that feeling of looking back.

Into describes itself as a coming-out-of-age, but it feels to me more like a coming-into. The ending, when the camera lingers on the space where the two figures used to be, seems full of possibility. Something new is beginning, something crucial has changed. What lingered with me, after I finished it, was a sense of my own journey towards self-understanding. It’s almost impossible to catch yourself changing, moment to moment, but when you look back, you suddenly realise how different you have become. I don’t know what my teenage-self would think of the person I am now, but when I look back on the person I used to be, I feel a sense of fond and wry affection. I, as the title suggests, am also much happier now.

Read the rest of the Adventure in Small Games series.