Thursday, January 6, 2011

Don't look back

     Today I bring you Don't look back by Terry Cavanagh, to play here or on its Kongregate page or full screen. This game has been popularly praised for its ability to express a lot with very few resources, and popularly booed for having an exaggerated difficulty level. I don't think it's so hard, but it's true that it's a generally good idea to facilitate a game, at least to expand a little the encompassment of its enunciatee (or public, if you prefer the word, although it's not exactly the same.)
     If you want to play it and live the whole experience, in a way close to how the author planned it, this is the last chance I give you to stop reading me and play it. Just click Play game (or wait half a minute), then Start new game and know that the whole game is played only using the arrow keys to move and spacebar to shoot —once found the revolver— and that if you quit you can return any other day at the same place where you left it clicking Restore game. Past this point I will not hesitate to mention the end of the game and other things you should not know, at least for a while.

     It's always hard to summarize cherished artworks to a handful of words. Luckily for me, (allegedly) independent online game industry works so that each person must summarize to a sentence each of their games. So, for example, we know for the author Don't Look Back is "a challenging action-platformer in a minimalist style".
     The description is as accurate as one that short can be. In an interview with Brad Gallaway, Terry Cavanagh gets much closer to what Don't look back is by telling the two central ideas he wanted to join long before knowing how it would end up being:
1. That the gameplay was actually a metaphor for something else that's happening to the player, or to the character the player controls.
2. That the game was initially presented as a silly shooter, and was redeemed with a twist that put all previous actions into a new, far more interesting context.
     These two ideas up here listed in order of importance, are revealed to the player in reverse order through the game, and with each revelation one understands a bit more of the meaning of the title.
     The game begins with a man standing by a grave on a rainy night and the phrase "don't look back" in large letters. A title, by its peculiar enunciative situation, has the advantage —or disadvantage, maybe— of being able to pass as a mere identificatory phrase, so in principle we don't have much information about what it means nor we care too much to find out. The typical enunciatee of the game speaks English, understands that the sentence is mandatory, but not knowing who says it or to whom is addressed he can't provide more content. So begins the game, and the character moves to the right through the forest according to the platformer mechanics, restarting the screen every time he dies until he overcomes it, and then finds a gun to defend himself. Past the forest he goes into a cave full of peril, and the player is gradually understanding that it's all a descent into the underworld.
     After defeating the greatest demon —probably Satan or some equivalent— the protagonist enters a final stretch into the darkness, and finds the ghost of a woman. At this point, we have enough information to assume this is the protagonist's beloved one, whose tomb we saw at the beginning of the game. Our character turns left and starts going —almost— the same way we were doing but in reverse, with the ghost in tow. This second half has a twist: the protagonist can't walk right. If he does, the ghost disappears and we reset the screen. Notice how the gameplay itself symbolically equates the loss of the loved one to death, both having the same consequence in the game. Here unfolds what Terry Cavanagh proposed as a second central idea of the game: this is the part where the silly shooter redeems itself and presents all previous actions under a new lens. And here the name of the game goes from being nothing to signify something else: "don't look back" may be an order the spectrum gives to the man, and is also a reference to the the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A metaphor of the myth, if you will.
     Having retraced all the way, the man and his beloved one reach the first screen of the game. They both find, by the grave, the protagonist as it was before the game started. It's revealed then that the man hasn't ever moved from that place, and that the whole adventure was simply the manifestation of the desire to recover his loved one. Given this revelation, fictitious man and ghost vanish leaving the real protagonist alone with his thoughts, and the phrase "don't look back" appears in large letters, returning us to the main menu very subtly. Then the main idea whereby the work was developed appears: that everything that was being played is actually a fantasy, a metaphor for something else that's happening to the protagonist. The title takes on a new meaning: "don't look back" may be a moral, the imperative of not getting caught in the ghosts of the past. A moral I don't share —not forgetting nor forgiveness, ¿right?— but is beautifully and impeccably delivered. If we grant the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a metaphor to this notion, then the game —as a metaphor for the myth— can safely be admitted as a metaphor for a metaphor —metametaphor, or something like that—.

     I didn't say much of other things worth mentioning and analyzing, as everything related to the visual presentation —¡how much can be done with only four colors!—, the small single-headed Cerverus —reaffirming the reference to Greek mythology— and the brief but incredible soundtrack Terry Cavanagh composed specially for the game and with much effort.
     I'll write more things like this in my Notebook, so if you don't like reading much pray for I don't come across another game so great already translated1 —such as Today I die— or that doesn't need major translations —such as this one—.

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