Idle Animations is a recurring series in which I play games without playing them, exploring quiet, still moments, how games fill space and time, and what happens when you let a game play itself.

Rat Shrine. Rook and Porpentine. 2016.I had to set an alarm to write this piece, because the Rat Shrine is available only at certain hours. I woke up too early this morning when my smoke alarm malfunctioned and my alarm going off at midnight made me nearly shoot out of my skin—what I’d really like is to be getting ready for bed right now, but instead I’m listening to ambient music that’s just a little bit creepy and also perfect for 12:01 am.

The Rat Shrine is a collaboration between artist, designer, and musician Rook and writer and developer Porpentine, purveyor of fine, bizarre, and beautiful Twine games that always push the boundary. I’ve covered myself in sigils and sung along to Kesha playing Porpentine’s games, and now I stare at a flickering, purple image of a rat woman holding some kind of pendulum.

It’s near impossible to visit the Rat Shrine without doing anything at all. I can stare at the flickering figure, but instead I venture through the other options, making an offering of all those fries I stole off of my husband’s plate without asking and reading the offerings that others have left behind (something in Spanish, a spent torch, a book of poems). Once that’s done, I move on to the fire, where I’m met with a distinctive prompt:

Rat Shrine. Rook and Porpentine. 2016.

Maybe it’s because I’m a little (a lot) sleepy, but something about this lingers. I have no way of knowing if anybody else is visiting the Rat Shrine with me tonight—it came out several months ago, and for all I know I’m the only person listening for voices at this hour. The message is a little comforting, a little eerie. If I hadn’t been prompted, I wouldn’t bother to think about how many people are playing the same game as me. Before this, I was knee-deep in Breath of the Wild, not caring how many other people were also killing bokoblins and picking apples. But now, staring at this black screen and white text, I wonder if there’s a way to know how many other people are looking at it too.

Not to get too philosophical on you, but it is after midnight and I didn’t get enough sleep, and I can’t help but let my thoughts linger on that last line. What are we when we’re online? What parts of us are irrelevant? How much of us is body and how much spirit, when so many interactions take place without touching?

Before I get too lost in my thoughts, I move on to the next option—”Get Lost in the Flames.” And I do, for a moment, because the pixel art is beautiful. Rendered in shades of pink and purple, there’s a sort of unearthly glow to this campfire that flickers and casts light over the surrounding trees. I’m aware that the animation is a pretty quick loop, but it’s no less impressive for it.

Rat Shrine. Rook and Porpentine. 2016.

And the music, that droning, synthetic tune that’s been playing for the past 15 minutes as I’ve been writing this, matches up perfectly with it. There’s a clicking in the background I didn’t notice until I stared at the fire, but it mimics the sound of a fire crackling. You need both the image and the sound to appreciate it, and, even if unintentional, I find myself thinking that this whole experience is one of the neatest, most completely packaged game experiences I’ve come across.

I have only one more option left—to sit in repose. When clicked, this just brings me to a new screen with nothing but the Rat Shrine on it, animated just as it is on the home screen. The difference is that there’s no text to distract from it, no other options to choose. Your only choice is to sit in repose for ten seconds until it brings you back to the main menu. Like the fire, this animation is the perfect mixture of color and darkness, the black negative space suggesting a sort of closeness that threatens to swallow the light.

Rat Shrine isn’t something you play in the traditional sense, and spending my time staring at it is hardly playing against the grain. But setting an alarm and spending a half hour analyzing its details, including clicking through some of the code out of curiosity, is an interesting kind of devotion. If you want to experience the Rat Shrine, you can’t simply fire it up yourself; you operate on its terms, visiting at strict hours, under strict circumstances, with only a few acceptable behaviors. It isn’t just a shrine in name.

After a half hour (has it really been a half hour?), I’m nodding off as the ambient music continues to drone on. I think of the things I was supposed to be doing in this last half hour—reading an essay, working on something, sleeping—and whether anybody is even interested in idleness in a Twine game.

I am, anyway. And maybe whoever else is gathered around this digital fire is as well. Good night, and let me know if you happen to find my offering.

You can visit the Rat Shrine for one hour here at midnight and noon PST.


Read the rest of the Idle Animations series.