Essence is a strange one. Imagine Skyrim’s world fused with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture-esque gameplay, with a little touch of abstraction thrown in for good measure. That’s pretty much the gist. A walking simulator of sorts, one in which the environment is altered as the player progresses. It’s not going to replace Call of Duty anytime soon, but for those who appreciate this kind of thing, it looks to be a noteworthy title.
I love weird arthouse games like this, the kind that experiment with the capabilities of the medium, the kind that make one question what a ‘videogame’ even is. Indeed, I often drop that term entirely when it comes to such discussions, referring to ‘the interactive medium’ in an effort to frame it in the most objective way possible. Essence is just the latest example of such a game, and it’s caused me to ponder a lot of things.
I’ve played and enjoyed some pretty weird titles in the past. Linger in Shadows. .detuned. Proteus. All three are viable demonstrations of the interactive medium, yet I’m not sure whether ‘videogame’ is the right term to describe them. Proteus is a particularly relevant name to drop, as Essence seems to have been designed on similar foundations. There’s something that nags away at me whenever I discover titles like this, however. A series of questions that hover in the air:
Does this really have depth, or artistic merit? Is this truly an intellectual expression? Or is it just pretentious?
I consider myself to be something of an authority on pretentiousness. I am an English major, after all – English with Creative Writing, to be exact, so I’m no stranger to half-assed attempts to seem poignant and meaningful that are really just examples of someone trying to come across as smart. If you don’t understand it then it must be over your head, obviously.
Art games are often called out for trying too hard, usually by individuals who are out of the loop on the very kind of dialogue they dismiss. The whole concept of ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ became something of a joke in parts of the industry, for a time at least, before it was accepted into the common parlance.
Something naysayers should keep in mind is that this thought process exists on the developer’s side, too. Not every developer is thinking about the best way to explore the medium when they work on a game. Sometimes, people just want to make cool games, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Often, games developed under that philosophy kick ass. But artistic awareness certainly influences the design of many games, whether they be smaller independent projects or AAA blockbusters, and so it’s foolish to dismiss the idea that games should be discussed artistically.
Spec Ops: The Line, written by Walt Williams, was designed with a very clear purpose: to show players that they’ll do anything in the name of progression. It’s only a game, after all. If I need to commit war atrocities to reach the next level, so be it. An uncomfortable example of cognitive dissonance, one of the game’s endings, according to the very man who wrote it, is to put the controller down and stop playing.
But now we’re straying from the very game that sparked this conversation. If I have anything to say to those that might dismiss Essence as pretentious nonsense, it’s this: try to consider that you may not be thinking about this project the way the developer intended it to be thought about. Maybe you don’t see the appeal now, but the developer clearly had an idea in mind when they started work on the game, and perhaps if you were to look closely enough, you would see it too, and accept it for what it is.
Then again, maybe someone just got really high.
For more on Essence, check out our previous coverage as well as its Kickstarter page, where it’s currently sitting on €5,046 of its €60,000 goal. You can also follow the developer on Facebook, Twitter, and its official website.