At a Distance: A Social Game for a Lonely Winter

February 17, 2014 · Print This Article


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When I first came to Chicago in January of 2011, my girlfriend and I met in the large, empty luggage area of Midway that, even as a place designed for waiting,  seems hilariously ill-suited for the purpose. And then, after a brief train ride, we arrived–slightly out of breath and heaving large suitcases–at my brother’s front door, where we would stay for a month to look after a pair of cats and introduce ourselves to the brand new grid we would call home. A month later, we moved into our new apartment; a day after that marked the first day of the massive blizzard called snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, or blizzaster depending on what terrible local blog was on-screen at the time.

Here we are, three years later, in what feels like another long and dreary winter in the same vein as all the long and dreary winters before it, and after it, and etc. I always associate winter with a certain kind of loneliness, and especially that one three years ago, living in a new city without any real way to even figure out how to best navigate a massive snowstorm, when our plans to hit up IKEA were blocked and we ending up spreading peanut butter and jelly with chopsticks while sitting on the floor.

In a lot of ways, I think winter and videogames can be kind of comparable in that loneliness, for better or for worse. At the time of experience—either treading through a deep snow alone or deep into the fantasy narrative of an outrageous dragon-adventure—they’re both intensely personal. It’s only really until after the fact that people begin to talk about the shared experience they had, be it shoveling out their car, or falling into a snowbank, or conquering some foe on what ended up being a very similar adventure. In a similar way, games and winters begin in the individual, personal realm, and only later transform into the social, shareable experience after the fact, via discussion.

It can be difficult to get new players or people unfamiliar with the personal commitment necessary to play a sprawling, multi-hour epic, and truth be told, even as a fan, I find it daunting myself. After all, if you’re more comfortable with books, or films—you have the necessary foundations to understand those mediums, prevalent as they have been in our culture—it makes more sense to dive into one of those, just as it makes more sense to stay on the west coast, or in Texas, away from the feet of snow that always finds a way to creep into your boots.

I bring this all up because during that 2011 winter, with a lack of anything inside our outside our apartment (aside from snow), I discovered a game by Terry Cavanagh called At a Distance. I had first encountered Cavanagh’s work in the small flash game Don’t Look Back, which turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice’s ascent from the underworld into a bit of puzzle-platforming, and is its own obvious meditation on love and loneliness. At a Distance is something quite different, though, because, unlike Don’t Look Back or those other single-player monoliths, it requires not only two players, but two screens, two computers, positioned side by side. The game, however, is just as much about loneliness as it is togetherness, a kind of blending of that initial personal and secondary social experienced that can occur through gaming.

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Though it took a bit of work to get it setup—for which Cavanagh offers a handy guide—once we got At a Distance working, and played through it, it became one of the most memorable gaming experiences I had ever encountered. The art of the game is enchanting; there’s a sort of lo-fi blurriness to the game’s monochromatic worlds that wouldn’t be out of place on a 90’s screensaver. But the play is just as engaging, mostly because the way it treats shared space, physically, as different than the individual space, which is entirely cooped up in the digital form of your computer.

Like a lot of the press which came out about the game at the time, I’m reluctant to give too much away. But what essentially happens is that Cavanagh plays very successfully with a physical aspect of the game via screen-sharing. Maybe you’ve played or seen others play a split-screen adversarial game such as Goldeneye on the N64, where each player’s location, though broadcast openly through the nature of a shared screen, is a closely guarded secret. In short, screen-looking (as it is often called) is looked down upon, akin to cheating, as it could easily provide an edge against an opponent.

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Cavanagh’s At a Distance, on the other hand, flips this premise in two ways: first, screen looking is naturally encouraged via his setup suggestions (side-by-side). Since it’s meant to be played on two systems, the natural assumption by omission would be a head-to-head setup, computers and people facing each other, Thunderdome-style. Second, as players progress through the game, the digital space they find themselves in is not exactly shared, but intrinsically linked in a way that really only comes to light through screen-sharing, through conversational awareness, and social discovery between two players. Even though each player finds themselves in a solitary digital realm, the game is anything but lonely, because that social aspect—normally confronted after the fact through identical shared experience—is combined willingly into that personal, individual experience of playing a game on the lonesome.

Above all, what I mean to say is that, if, like me, you look outside at the grey canopy of snow/cloud/doom and feel the urge to crawl back into the warmth of a recently-vacated bed, give At a Distance a try. Just like hot chocolate is the perfect companion for a cold February day, so is At a Distance, if you and a partner are willing to give it a shot and stretch the boundaries of a sometimes solitary, occasionally-wintry medium.

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