In Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave, players are left without character; without avatar. Even in traditional first-person-shooters where the avatar is not necessarily shown at every opportunity, there’s a sense of the body: glimpses in mirrors that reveal a self, a gun peeking into view as an extension of the hand, or movement that is defined by running, walking, and jumping. Artefacts instead exists solely in a space designed for the player, the person at his or her computer. It strips away the artifice of a designed world, of character, of setting, or of plot, and instead, like a math problem, is a task designed for completion, one contained within its title.
It proves to be similar to a constructed toy: a Rubik’s cube, or a disentanglement puzzle (where two interlocked pieces must be made single). In simplicity, Artefacts is, like these, a parlor game: an object whose goal seems to be defined by its physical presence. With its goal laid bare, there is no universe at stake; there is no character needing rescue. There is only the player; there is only the object.
And it’s both maddening and relaxing at the same time. As far as games go, it’s relatively simple: the player moves at a slow, deliberate pace through three-dimensional space. Where in most first-person games one might walk or run, here you float in space, as though you were a calm, digital fly, surrounded only by an infinite, white space, its only inhabitant a massive globe of polygons. Move toward it and an entrance is revealed, a small hole not unlike the exhaust port on the Death Star. But instead of a large planet of pipes, metals, and clones, Artefacts’ planet is made entirely of whitespace and black lines, a simplicity that comes together to form a great construction of geometric off-shapes, their corners never really touching at right angles, their walls never really indistinguishable upon exploration.
This is the main conceit of the game: one’s eyes are practically useless, and it doesn’t really set in until too late. I had just entered the great orb when I turned around and realized that the entrance would need to be an exit, and the great expanse of outer-white had blended into the same white surfaces that made up the walls which now contained me. After a panicky five minutes of bumping into every surface available, I found it, but realized it did not matter—I had to continue deeper. Deeper through great halls of jagged edges filled with floating boxes, their edges seemingly impossible. But the player isn’t meant to navigate by sight; the player is meant to navigate by sound.
There’s a secret area in the game Limbo—a moody and atmospheric platformer defined by a stark, deadly world of children portrayed in blacks and grays—that is entirely dark. The only visual cues there are the two white orbs that are the bright, scared eyes of the protagonist. While in the majority of the game, the player guides him (and his eyes) safely away from obstacles such as sawblades or giant, nightmarish spiders by visuals—in the same way one plays a Mario game—this stage is entirely unseen. Here, to avoid a sawblade isn’t to jump over its sharp, rotating edges, it is to jump over its sound—the caustic, cutting hum as it moves from right to left across the stage. It’s a lovely twist that subverts the dominant strategy of not only the game, but the visual medium, and moves a different sense—hearing—to the forefront of the experience.
Artefacts accomplishes the same not by putting the player in the darkness, but by offering a world that features no real features. In the same way James Turrell’s pieces (such as Wide Out) play with perspective and a sense of space by subverting corners and joints, Artefacts does the same by offering so many of them. It’s not an absence of walls; it’s an abundance. And while sight is necessary to discover rooms and float about, getting lost isn’t just easy, it’s nigh unavoidable: the jaggy sphere is massive, continually unknown. You might recognize the same set piece, but there are no visual bearings.
There are, however, audial ones. Depending on where the player is in the great sphere, they’ll find themselves immersed in great pools of noise: statics, whites, pinks. It’s a quick and obvious realization that in order to navigate in any real way, one has to be paying attention with their ears more than their eyes: to distinguish between a pure white noise, or a white noise blended with a gentle static, or the same static on its own, tiny crackles forming a recognizable beat that echoes within the skull.
After you find an Artefact—a gently floating object that stands out easily among the geometric sphere-scape—light, calming hues of color finally pop into being, only if to let you know that you’ve activated it, that you’ve taken a step towards the completion. It might seem like the only friendly system in an otherwise nightmarish world, but it’s not. It’s the statics that want to help bring you home, navigate the quadrants of a great, imperceptible object whose joints are needles against the eye, against spatial perception. They fill in like voices aware that they aren’t saying anything, but still screaming as a constant landmark in a giant shape that seems to shift and catch you in a circle again and again. They’re this strange, white world’s equivalent of a street sign, or a friendly local pointing in the direction of a tourist attraction. Only here, you can’t just look; you need to listen.
Like most of Increpare’s games, Artefacts is free and available for a variety of platforms. Check it and them out here.