Game Title: Windosill
Genre: Casual indie abstract adventure puzzle
Release Date: January 1, 2009
Game Writer/Creative Director/Narrative Designer: Patrick Smith
Author of this review: Matt McLean
Windosill is a short, absorbing abstract experience from artist Patrick Smith, who is known for making Flash “distractions” that encourage exploration and amusement. The adventures of an ambitious steam engine in the game manage to extend the best of Smith’s distractions into a longer play experience while maintaining their whimsical, exploratory nature. Smith’s excellent use of physical responses to player interactions gives Windosill a novel feeling of authenticity and elasticity that imparts an absorbing sense of connection to the virtual world. This feeling of tactile response is supplemented by the unique visual style, a surreal yet accessible mix of the familiar and dream-like drawn in the same delicate, spare nature of cut-out art. Smith’s work is meant to be approached and played with, almost as a toy – and intriguingly, this allows each player to bring their own unique, imaginative interpretations to the events in Windosill as they unfold. In the game, the steam engine reaches for freedom from the collection of oddities of which it is a part, moving into a strange, beautifully ethereal dream world that demands interaction.
Above all, Windosill feels like a game that is describing a dream. It delivers on this idea in every aspect, including its disjointed, spare narrative. The opening scene is in darkness until the player discovers the light bulb; and in this same way throughout the experience, every scene begs to be explored; every object begs for interaction. This area - a large shelf upon which many strange and interesting objects lie - imparts the basic rules of the game: click, explore, and find the white cube. That cube will fit in the slot above doors that allow the steam engine to move to the next scene. With this context-less - but beautiful and effortless - exploration, the initial interest in the game is high, and encourages the player to find out more information.
Upon escaping from the shelves housing the collection of oddities, the steam engine finds itself in front of a curtain. Pulling the curtains open reveals a grassy knoll upon which the blocky word “WINDOSILL” is situated. A small figure peers out from the “O” – this is the Boy. He hides when the cursor nears him, but it is clear that he is interested in the steam engine.
The next few scenes each have a clever solution to allow the steam engine to move forward and their unique visualizations and interactions establish their own vignettes, for example, a chick who wants a worm; and a series of plant-like devices that can only function with pill-shaped insects (an interesting representation of real-life plants and pollinators). These bite-sized narratives begin to combine in a way describing the journey of the steam engine, like episodes in an adventure saga.
The idea of these small stories linking together loses its strength when the steam engine confronts a brown monolith in its path. Containing no real narrative of its own and requiring no particular investment on the part of the player to move forward (since the interactions don’t contribute to building the story as in other scenes), it causes the overarching journey narrative to lose momentum.
However, the Boy soon appears again in a carnival-like level, peering from the edge of a circular swing. Again he hides, but the effect is that the beginning of the steam engine’s journey is now tied to its present. There is a general feeling that the Boy is watching the journey with interest, or watching over the steam engine as it moves through its trials. After another comparatively uninteresting scene – an abstract sea where the player simply waits for the key cube to appear – the Boy is used again to grab interest. A whimsical blue planet hangs in the sky, and upon being spun, its small moon-like satellite appears. After spinning the satellite a balloon begins to orbit it, and inside is the Boy, who waves amiably. The key block hangs from his balloon, and it can be dragged to the lock. Then the balloon can be used again to lift the steam engine over the crevasse and release it on the other side. While there is no information about the Boy, there is a good feeling associated with knowing he was watching out for the steam engine, and it encourages the continuation of the journey.
The next room is a bit more menacing, containing three creatures who can’t keep their hands off the steam engine. This is the most surprising part of the game, as they prove they can interact seamlessly with an object that was exclusively under the influence of the player. They interact with each other, as well, and the solution to move past them is the stuff of every great adventure story – like outsmarting a troll guarding a bridge, or figuring out a riddle that opens a sealed door. This distinct echo of an adventure tale solidifies the feeling that there is in fact a subtle narrative in the game.
The game ends with the steam engine reaching the top of a tower that doubles as a Rube-Goldberg device. Here, a window opens in the starry sky, and tracks descend to the tower. The steam engine rolls up the tracks, into the portal - and vanishes only to reappear racing among the stars and constellations, truly free at last.
The best thing that the game does is to allow its narrative to be discovered. Windosill could easily become a footnote in gaming history as a visually appealing puzzle game. Indeed, it is easy to overlook the idea that the game has a narrative in the first place because it is so appealing and playful by itself, and doesn’t provide background information, tutorials, or verbal cues. Instead, the game relies on its excellent artistic vision and player feedback to provide the context, and on interaction to provide the scaffolding of a story. The strength of that scaffold allows the player to bring their own imagination and experiences to the game for the generation of something altogether unique.
The game also connects scenes with several threads. For example, the Boy’s appearances end up being significant when he directly helps the steam engine. In the same way, all of the objects seen on the shelves in the opening scene make an appearance in other scenes, giving the impression that the dream world is incorporating things from the steam engine’s past (as dreams often do).
Few games – if any – that are considered short, casual experiences offer the same value and subtle complexity in terms of narrative.
One act of Windosill stands out as particularly unusual from the rest. In this scene, the progress of the steam engine is hampered by a large, brown monolithic surface. Clicking on the surface opens doors of various sizes that each contain a different object (strange rolling eyes, a jittering set of teeth, a bugle). The only option is to continue clicking until the white box that acts as a key for the next door is revealed behind one of the doors. While Windosill does an otherwise fantastic job of making the player depend on themselves to move forward through its puzzles, this particular scene was confusing and didn’t feel like a cohesive part of the story with the other scenes.
Since the story takes place in a dream world, it makes sense that there are unexplainable phenomena present. Additionally, scenes in Windosill definitely tell their own stories and aren’t bound by any particular rules – each one has its own rules and own method of clever puzzle-solving. In this context, perhaps the brown monolith is not so out of place among a gallery of scenes whose only shared thread is the journey of the steam engine; but it doesn’t match up to the cleverness of the other scenes, some of which are quite striking in the stories they tell solely through interaction. This scene managed to be particularly unsuccessful in forwarding the story through interaction, something at which the rest of the game excels.
Close to the end of the Windosill experience, there is a truly remarkable scene that reaches through the boundaries of the game. The steam engine finds itself in a room with three ominous dream creatures (who look suspiciously similar to objects from its old home, the shelf). At this point, an unexpected occurrence amounts to one of the best moments in the game.
The first creature grabs the steam engine with its fingers and rolls it along the ground as if it were a toy. After helping the engine through the game to this point, it is quite easy to view it as one’s own toy. To have a creature begin playing with it without permission feels like some sort of transgression. The player has been through so much with the steam engine that it seems wrong that it is “just a toy” with which these creatures feel the need to play. Even so, an interesting boundary is crossed: the steam engine is now an object that both the player and the virtual characters can interact with, when previously it was exclusive to the player. They play with the engine with a strikingly child-like curiosity, and their interactions are so smooth, that it feels spontaneous and exciting.
Luckily, the player gets a chance to play with something of theirs. The white block which functions as the door key is underneath the hat of the small creature in the middle. He seems also particularly fond of the engine – but not enough to ignore the fact that the player is trying to remove his hat. He will constantly grab it and pull it back to his head. However, if the player submits and allows this creature exclusively to play with the steam engine, he will become distracted enough to allow the hat to be removed. The third, snake-like creature dives for the hat and is thus distracted as well, allowing the player to grab the block key and yank the steam engine from the grip of the center creature.
This sequence creates an intense feeling of drama. Who are these creatures and why won’t they leave the steam engine alone? What does the player have to do to get out of there? Interestingly, similar questions are often asked when one is having a bad dream. The interaction with the creatures – who are so enraptured by the steam engine – and the boundaries they cross contribute to this in a significant way. The scene also requires that the player sacrifice control of their steam engine, but allows them to feel clever in freeing it from the clutches of the creatures. For these reasons it is overall the most memorable scene, and the most powerful example in the game of storytelling through interaction.
Windosill, despite being a short, one-man Flash production, has received positive acclaim. Reviewers were impressed by the smooth animations and whimsical visual style, as well as by the sense of playful exploration inherent in the game. Because of the spare nature of the story itself, reviewers tended to focus on other elements of the game that performed well, taking it in stride that there may not have been a narrative at all.
Games Radar praised the game, saying “Vectorpark’s Flash-based games raise the bar with their mix of beautiful art, exploration, and a strong sense of glee.” Naming it their Indie Pick of the Week for May 14, 2009, IGN was enthusiastic if not a bit more conservative: “Solutions to the game's puzzles don't necessarily make sense but you'll likely be fascinated by the strange scenarios.” Review blog Jay Is Games specializes in casual experiences and gave the game a rating of 4.9 out of 5, remarking “This game will reward you and intrigue you, inspire you without preaching, leave you wanting more.”
For such a short experience, Windosill still manages to be touching and impactful; this reason alone makes it worthy of further analysis. It forges a direct connection to the player through its playful vignettes and surprisingly tactile responses. Watching the steam engine race among the stars, its dream somehow fulfilled with your help, is a powerful moment linked to all the memorable encounters preceding it. Additionally, no detail is overlooked - even if the player knocks over the letters forming “WINDOSILL,” a helpful hand appears to re-arrange them neatly, acknowledging the presence of the player in the world. As noted, critics and reviewers often skipped over the idea that there may have been a story at all; indeed, the game does little to give context. However, there is a narrative inherent in its interactions, but this, like everything else in the game, must be discovered by the player. This gives each player the opportunity for a unique narrative experience synthesized with elements in the game and their own imaginations. Games are the only digital media capable of this type of interactive narrative construction, and Windosill is an excellent example of how effective it can be in a short period of play time.