Column: A Pistol and a Flashlight: Gregory Weir

By B.A. Campbell

 (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty of Colors (2008). Company: Kongregate. Developer: Gregory Weir. Platform: Web.

Silent Conversation (2009). Company: Armor Games. Developer: Gregory Weir. Platform: Web.

Babies Dream of Dead Worlds (2010). Company: Newgrounds. Developer: Gregory Weir. Platform: Web.

Looming (2010). Company: Newgrounds. Developer: Gregory Weir. Platform: Web.

Organising the half-shattered china dolls in the attic of my ancestral home, I came upon yet another antiquated handbill, identical in nearly all particulars to the first. It read:

Greetings (or should it be Farewell?) Innsmouthians,

Leave-takings are such trouble. While we were not able, in the end, to provide quite the breadth of experiences I intended, I believe it has been a good season. We have shown you historic Silent Hill, as well as its renovated town centre. We have been to the rural Northwest; the campus of the G.U.E. Technical Institute; and we have ventured as far abroad as Norway and the Orient. We offered an extensive tour of New York City’s Central Park, and we have given you the thrill of a zombie infestation in addition to more prurient titillations.

Now, at the close of the season, A Pistol and a Flashlight would like to offer you something unheard of: For the price of a single ticket, you may embark on a fantastic, four-part adventure. The point of departure will be the depths of the ocean; we will stop in the Nameless City beneath the sands before journeying, via a special procedure, to dreamed-of reaches of space. Our final stop – the final stop for me – will be that archaeological wonder of ruins and shadow known only as ‘Looming’.

Following this “blow-out” tour, the doors of this establishment will be closed for the season – perhaps for good. I thank you, sweet Innsmouthians, for your valued patronage and remain, as always,

Yrs,

[the signature is as illegible as the first]

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I have a sneaking suspicion that independent game designer Gregory Weir may, at some point in his life, have read Lovecraft. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it has something to do with an unexpectedly personable Cthulhu putting in regular appearances on his webcomic, The Absolute Sum of All Evil. Maybe it’s that one of his first and most-well-known games, (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty Of Colors, puts you “behind the tentacles” of a titanic creature risen from the depths of the ocean. It might have been the fact that two-thirds of the text in his literary platformer, Silent Conversation, is drawn from Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City”. Or maybe I’m just naturally suspicious of a man whose surname is one letter away from “weird”, that subgenre of fiction we all know and love.

Let’s just call it an informed hunch.

Not that Weir limits his interests to the weird, or even horror. His games have tackled topics as diverse as dragons and astronauts, hackers and fungi, paranoia and procrastination. About the only thing stranger than The Mold Fairy, the mutable saga of a little fairy who teaches humans proper respect for nature by sprinkling spores on everything in sight, is Sugarcore, a game about mining candy with high-mass projectiles. Whatever the topic, Weir never fails to push the boundaries of interactive art, whether by testing the limits of a player’s dedication in Narthex (“There are two endings. The second is not worth getting”) or crafting plastic stories defined at every step by the player’s actions.

The latter tendency has come as close as anything to defining Weir’s eccentric, ever-evolving style. And, like his Mythos nods, it’s a tendency that’s been with him since the beginning. The Majesty of Colors begins, in true Lovecraftian fashion, with a dream: “I floated in darkness, immense, squamous. My mind flowed like my body, slowly and sinuously, tremendous wheels both too slow and too fast for me to describe to you now.” Drawn by some nameless impulse toward the surface, blindly stretching its tentacles toward the light, the aquatic behemoth (That’s you) comes face to face with…a single, brightly-coloured balloon. Thus begins its encounter with a world as alien and inexplicable as any centuried ruins touched by the light of remote stars.

That’s how the dream begins, in any case…how it ends is left entirely to the player’s discretion. Awed, intimidated, but ever-curious about this new and fantastic world, the creature (you) must make many difficult decisions, often without realizing there are decisions to be made. For instance, taking a closer look at the fragile pink vertebrates of the surface might result in an accidental drowning, sparking an unwished-for confrontation. This confrontation can be won…but is that what you really want?

The interface is simple and elegant: Clicking anywhere on the screen causes the sea-beast to extend a tentacle in that direction; you can grasp objects by holding the mouse button down and release it to let them go. The visuals are highly pixelated and generally unimpressive – the eldritch abomination consists of little more than a tentacle and three eyes – but there are enough charming details, such as the creature’s eyes following your cursor’s movements and the sinuous way in which its tentacle unwinds, to keep it from seeming too bland. Still, it’s clear that Weir’s talent and attention rest with the storytelling. In this aspect, he doesn’t disappoint. Even the smallest actions can lead to drastically different narratives, resulting in one of five endings, all of them written just as Lovecraft might have. It’s hard to single out a “good” or “bad” ending; each one feels emotionally appropriate to the tale that preceded it. For example, one ending contains the following text:

“My body was torn apart by strange devices, the color slowly fading from my ruined eyes. My mind was consumed by agony, and I suddenly sat straight up in my bed, awake. I lifted my hand to my ear to find a drop of crimson blood.”

Another concludes, no less melancholically:

“The flurry of fins and teeth took just a moment, leaving barely a drop of blood behind to mark the child’s passing…. The world spun, and I woke up in my bed, my nose bleeding and the taste of rust in my mouth.”

If those excerpts have you reaching for “At The Mountains of Madness” or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, don’t close your browser windows just yet; Weir has you covered. With Silent Conversation, Weir attempts to bring literature back into the lives of gaming addicts. Taking inspiration from a quotation by Walter Savage Landor, Silent Conversation is a platformer game stripped to its most basic elements…or it’s a reading exercise-turned-interactive. Everything is composed of text; text is literally the ground you walk on and every phrase is a picture out of a concrete poem. Still confused? The first line of the tutorial (which is also the first platform to be traversed) explains it concisely: “You’re the I above this sentence.” As an ambulatory letter I, your job is to light up words by walking across them, jumping section breaks and dodging “powerful words” that threaten to undo your progress.

Not certain, yet? Okay, how about this: Silent Conversation contains the entire unabridged text of Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City”, split into three levels. If you’re thinking you’d rather just read the print edition, let me ask you this: Does your copy of “The Nameless City” have you teetering on the edge of “a low cliff”, with nothing below but empty “quietness”; traversing “the untrodden waste” while “the night wind” gives way suddenly and colourfully to “roseate light”, and “a storm of sand” zips by overhead; or dodging the miasma produced by the words “eternal”, “strange” and “die” in Abdul Alhazred’s famous couplet? Through clever use of colour and placement, Weir manages to make the story manifest life in unheard-of ways. Even the landscape is composed of phrases snatched directly from the text: Yellow “sands of uncounted ages” are piled across the bottom of the screen, while the inky blue sky (“under the moon”) is punctuated by “the moon” floating distantly above “the nameless city”.

By having the player’s actions approximate the actions of the story’s narrator – hopping over “low walls” or squeezing through a narrow passage-between-passages in the claustrophobic blackness of “the cavern” – Weir creates an immersive reading experience that enhances, without overshadowing, Lovecraft’s original text. Words like “unwholesome” and “brooding” take on a new presence when they pulse blood-red and send phantoms of themselves out to attack the reader. The effect is only enhanced when it applies to an entire accursed phrase, such as the chilling implications of “if men they were”. At the same time, while there are some tricky gaps to jump and cliffs to descend, it’s all nearly subconscious, with the forward momentum constant enough that it often feels as though the text you’re reading is scrolling along of its own accord.

Though “The Nameless City” certainly looms over Silent Conversation, it’s not all about Lovecraft, or even fiction. To access all three parts of the story, you might have to stray outside of your Lovecraftian comfort zone, into the poetic landscapes of William Carlos Williams (“The Red Wheelbarrow”), T.S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and e.e. cummings (“Buffalo Bill’s”). There are even a few haiku from Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa. Luckily, with the exception of “Prufrock” and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Chapter 1), these are all much briefer expeditions than the one into “The Nameless City”. Plus, they have their unique tricks, like a “White Rabbit” that dashes away as soon as it’s touched and an unexpected descent during “Prufrock”. You might even fall in love with a work you never knew existed…just as many Flash gamers probably discovered Lovecraft thanks to Silent Conversation.

Weir was smart to keep the visuals in Silent Conversation strictly textual. His artwork, while occasionally effective – Titania in The Mold Fairy is weirdly disturbing, despite being cartoonish – is always crude; the best that can be said about it is that it usually doesn’t detract from his stronger attributes. The worst that can be said is that sometimes, it does. Such is the case with Babies Dream of Dead Worlds, a game doomed to live in the shadow of its title. The premise recalls “The Shadow Out Of Time”: Newborn infants, without any worldly experience to inform their dreams, are instead visited by the last faltering moments of a doomed, alien civilization. It’s a creepy idea that only gets creepier the more you think about it – especially when you take a moment to consider the last question posed by the aliens before their universe implodes.

Through the dreams of ten nameless children, we witness snatches of the lives of three of these creatures, as their shared world slowly decays. By focusing on only key moments, Weir gives us an apocalypse in a nutshell: One set of dreams takes us from a young athlete’s first practice run, through his short-lived fame, to the racing association’s final race before everyone goes “back to their families and wait[s] for the end.” Much of the dialogue connotes inevitability and futility, such as when a scientist’s mother says, “Good morning, Mell…do you think it will happen today? …I hope it happens today.” Nonetheless, Weir finds some beauty in the world’s end, for example, in the racing association’s declaration: “A record made today will last forever. It will never be broken.”

For all that, Babies Dream never takes itself too seriously. One dream begins with this tender moment shared between mother and spawn:

“Naijj, are you sure this is what you want to do with yourself?”

“Collect the priceless coins of lost civilizations? Of course, mother!”

Unfortunately, while Weir can always be counted on to come up with clever ideas and evocative writing, his art and gameplay are more hit-or-miss. In this case, they fall well short of the mark. The creatures, in portrait, look more like manically grinning dogs than whatever monstrosities their creator intended, and I was never clear whether the red lines extending from both sides of their bodies were supposed to be wings, legs, tentacles, or some gravity-altering filament without earthly analogue. When it comes to the gameplay, as far as I’m concerned, the coin-collecting segments can go fall into a tear in the fabric of the universe. Even during the relatively painless racing levels, I never felt compelled to try for a faster time. It’s one thing to pad your story-heavy game with simple-but-unobtrusive gameplay, but here, two out of three characters exist solely to provide barely-enticing gameplay challenges. Sticking to the middle column of babies, as weird as that sounds out of context, will grant the most story with the least hassle, but it still results in a lacklustre, ludic experience.

In any realm of experimentation, there are bound to be some successes and some failures. If Babies Dream was, alchemically-speaking, a chunk of carbon, Looming is Weir’s lapis noster. Visually, it is perhaps the simplest of his achievements: Everything is represented in two colours (black and white), with details reminiscent of a low-resolution bitmap. The protagonist is a simple stick-figure, the ground looks like it was sprayed on using the airbrush tool in MS Paint, and the only movement comes from single-pixel insects and birds it took me ages to realize weren’t dead leaves – even then, I thought they were bats. For a game all about exploring deserted ruins (“A dead place, abandoned by everything but time and shadows”), you’d think that graphics this dated would kill the experience.

Oddly enough, the monotony of the presentation, alongside the soundtrack of howling winds and weird, croaking wildlife, helps to evoke exactly the sense of loneliness and isolation that the name of this realm, “Looming”, suggests. And with no fancy textures to distract the eye, Looming’s colossal broken gears and Apatosaurus-sized rib bones can’t help but arouse a fundamental awe…and fear.

Looming‘s story is a vortex of mysteries, never fully elucidated. It recalls Myst, but with the latter’s 3D renderings and push-button puzzles replaced by a greater emphasis on archaeological, anthropological and paleontological discovery. The “goal”, from a gameplay perspective, is to discover all eight gateways out of Looming, the majority of which will only appear when you’ve gathered a set of artefacts left behind by one of Looming’s vanished cultures. There are the tally beads and rods of the Seecha, prodigious builders of complex machines who scoff at the theoretical sciences; the tablets and mindfulness rings of the Lorem, who follow scientific principles like a religion, but have no head for practical applications; the bones of the Oarbar, a single-winged, intelligent, omnivorous dinosaur; and the notes of others who have come to uncover Looming’s mysteries. As can be imagined from those descriptions, Looming isn’t light on allegory, but even without considering their real-world counterparts, the philosophical conflicts between these cultures are fascinating and often illuminating. Mysteries are further compounded by the Seecha’s refusal to believe in the existence of the sky, the source of a natural phenomenon known as the Epiphany: “The Epiphany occurs here. It is natural to Looming, as far as I know. It is like snow or wind; it comes, it lingers, it fades away. And it makes you know your future.”

As engrossing as this all is, what kept me returning to Looming was the correspondence between the protagonist, a weary explorer named ‘September’, and his (or her?) lover, ‘January’. Every time you enter or exit Looming, you’re treated to another of these letters, which subtly suggest a mounting distance, a self-defeating obsession. Is it merely the subtext, the mythological connotation, the unbridgeable gulf of time between January and September? “There is a feeling of inevitability about this place,” September writes, “that I fear will infect the rest of my life. Looming tells a story, but it is a story that has ended long ago.” Elsewhere, he admits, “Coming to Looming again and again wears on me. My clothing will always bear traces of the dust here, I fear. My feet will always bear its soil. My nose will always itch with the smell of bones.” Although he peppers his letters with “my loves” and presents left behind, we can sense the inevitable when he insists, “My place is here in Looming, for now. There is always more to learn.” The more impassioned his declarations of love become, the more coldness we feel on the part of the ever-silent January, until we begin to question her very existence. This emotional drama kept Looming never far from my mind.

Or perhaps it’s that I, too, can no longer bear the thought of never again returning to that melancholy place. There is always more to learn.

All of Gregory Weir’s games can be played from his website, Ludus Novus.

Bio: B.A. Campbell writes, thinks, and dwells in all sorts of dark, suspect places: horror, dream-space, the interactive, and terrifying permutations of all three.

 

About B.A. Campbell

B.A. Campbell, since guiding Mario repeatedly down the plumbless abyss at the age of three, has been fascinated by the peculiar relationship between video games and the experience of horror. He writes fiction, some of which is interactive, much of which is horrific, and a portion of which is both or neither. Currently, he is pursuing his MFA in Writing at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, where he shares a cramped, leaking apartment with his wife and their amazingly talented and promising cat. He's also responsible for a monthly series on interactive storytelling over at http://blackclock.org/blog.

B.A. CampbellColumn: A Pistol and a Flashlight: Gregory Weir