Platformers and Dimensionality

Braid and other platformer games with which it shares a family relation are obviously about movement through gamespace, left to right, mostly, jumping or climbing up and down. The fact that 2D side-scrolling gameworlds have in some cases been supplanted by 3D versions and in other cases have been crossed with them, making strange hybrids, suggests that the whole genre has continued to be about exploring the dimensionality. The Mario franchise embodies the whole history of this exploration, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy. Super Paper Mario famously built in the ability to toggle between dimensions–the player can switch from 2D to 3D views for brief periods, literally adding perspective on puzzles–and Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 made sandbox puzzles out of planetoids, each of which is a (game)world of its own with sometimes weird physics to deal with. Yes, the preoccupation of indie art games with 2D side-scrolling platformers is in part about employing a knowing, lo-fi, retro aesthetic, and is in part about what’s practical or even doable by a single person or small team on a limited budget; either way, it’s about making a virtue of the necessities. But I think it’s also often an attempt–especially true in the case of Braid–to return to foundational questions about gameworlds, starting with the question of what happens when you add a dimension (literally) to the gameworld, or are aware of multiple dimensions as possibilities for gameplay.

This question is obviously what lies behind the design of Marc ten Bosch’s promised Miegakure, which has only been seen in preview glimpses. It’s an art game about adding a 4th physical dimension (Braid toys with some 2D vs. 3D spatial elements but most centrally plays with the dimension of time).

What strikes me about Miegakure is how its multidimensionality is narratively or figuratively structured: as the irruption of one dimension into another. The player swaps between dimensions, yes, but especially in order to cause a block or other object to protrude into a dimension where it was previously invisible or inaccessible. Warps, wormholes, cracks in the fabric separating one dimension from another, are where strategy unfolds and the key moves are made. (In this respect, Portal is a related experiment, and so is  Super Paper Mario, not to mention another indie art game, Fez.) In other words, gameplay in Miegakure–and in many related platformers–is about negotiating the extrusions and eversions between dimensions.

In this context, the plaformer as a genre explores some of the same metaphorical territory as novels such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Pynchon’s Remains of the Day, or Murakami’s 1Q84, or traditional SF works such as Flatland and, most significantly, H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, with its eldritch horrors from another dimension, “from beyond,” that are only partly glimpsed when they break through briefly and extrude themselves into everyday reality: “. . . strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers,” one character declares, then reports, “I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting though buy supposedly solid body.” And passages like the following one really resonate in our current media climate, which includes the New Aesthetic, or the spooky live performance at Coachella by Tupac’s weird Idoru hologram:

“Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and      above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre. . . . I saw to my horror that they overlapped . . . . the newly visible world that lies unseen around us”   (H. P. Lovecraft, From Beyond).

In his digital humanities work on visualizing the discourse of TV Tropes, Elijah Meeks associates this Lovecraftian uncanny, this breaking-through from a parallel dimension, with “the weird geometry of the Internet.” I can’t help but see Lovecraftian dimensionality as a figure for the general eversion of the network, which as Gibson has said, is “leaking out into the world,” especially via mixed-reality or augmented reality experiments, which, to use Lovecraft’s terms, superimpose digital realities–a “newly visible world that lies unseen around us”-on “the terrestrial scene,” suggesting that a weird geometry connects them at points of overlapping layers, extrusions, places where the unseen turns inside out and reveals itself as a potential layer of experience.

Anyway, it seems reasonable to speculate that art games’ fascination with platformers may have something to do with the possibility of exploring this kind of multidimensionality (and the eversion itself) in a procedural, playable way.

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