Yugen and Games

"As the taillights of that last ride grow small and wink out, the horizon gathers itself to your singular perspective. There is no grandeur to bait expectation, no promise to invite distraction, only the quiet of ditch and litter and grass and self; without preconceptions you begin to see your place in a different way, from the ground up. You warm to how consummate this place is in its becoming: the perfect pattern of stones along the shoulder; the fast food wrappers, their logos clinging just so to the sage; there at long rest in the shadows, that old trilobite of the highway, the fallen muffler. And so you become consummate yourself; instead of a face lost in an embarrassed crowd, you become unique and necessary to that moment, your perspective creating, for better or worse, this one place in the world. It is a time to whistle."

That was a quote by John Landretti, from his essay "On Waste Lonely Places" in the book The Future of Nature. I had written it down by hand in my notebook close to a year ago; looking back through my notes of the past year in reflection, I found it again and decided to share it.

It reminded me of this blog post, which I had just come across earlier this week. The author describes playing the small art game The Graveyard, then the bigger and decidedly-non-art game GTA IV, and how both of these games created in him an experience he called yugen, "the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown never to be discovered."

Playing it, I found an odd thing. I found my head starting to clear. It wasn’t so much that I was sensing the emptiness around me - rather I was the emptiness. My thoughts were coming and going on their own - frothing up then melting away again - and slowly the oceans of my mind began to fall calm.

There was nothing mystical or arcane about it, merely an experience of being right here, right now. It was very ordinary.

To me it sounds like the experience of meditation, or at least the kind of meditation that I am familiar with.

And it sounds like a fruitful area of experience for notgames to explore, since this is something you are left with when you strip the "game" from "games", letting only the interaction and immersion remain.

The feeling of yugen hovers in the background of many games - filling me with the desire to explore those green hills behind Super Mario World’s flat levels, say - but it usually only breaks through fully when the mechanics of narrative and threat have been removed. My mind can’t empty in Another World - despite the barren, evocative landscapes - because it is so focused on avoiding death and finding a way home. It is when the designers take a step back from filling our time with obstacles and rewards, and allow us just to experience the realms they have created, that the subtler emotions like yugen are given room to manifest.

Still, I think there is something missing, something that we will have to identify before we can really make compelling yugen-ish experiences that are not games. When you strip the distracting goals and challenges from conventional games, what you get is rarely worth writing blog posts about. If nothing else, such "gamification" is good at getting people to care about what goes on in a virtual world, and the other ways of creating engagement and involvement with a story and characters common in movies and books and such tend to be more difficult in interactive media. But I think we just don't know enough.

I suspect that there are ways to direct this experience more subtly, still from a game designer's perspective, but not so heavy-handed with goals or points or typical game-y things. More toward Knytt, perhaps, but further. Much further.

I don't know. I guess I'll just have to try it sometime.

Happy New Year.

"Offering your attention to a waste place is like finding a book in a library, a book nobody reads. Or perhaps a book harboring a single due date, one purple smudge thirty years old. And there it is in your hand by the effortless design of coincidence. You look over its pages and before is effort and presence; whether the contents have appeal is another matter, but the book does exist and is open before you, full of its telling. And so it is with these shelves and sheaves of world that daily surround us: every rock, blade, and bottle, every leaf, an invitation to an understanding."

- John Landretti, "On Waste Lonely Places", The Future of Nature

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