[In his latest feature, designer and author Bogost analyzes Jason Rohrer's fascinating new art-game Between to help define a new, indirect style of multiplayer gaming.]
Players of Jason Rohrer's previous art games Passage and Gravitation
might squint at first when trying his latest title, Between - intriguingly made for Esquire Magazine as part of its 'Esquire's Best and Brightest 2008' issue.
Sure, they will recognize Rohrer's characteristic style: a preference for
pixellation and visual austerity, the simple control over an abstract
character, and an environment both naturalistic and man-made.
But unlike many
of his earlier games, Between does
not directly model a human emotion or experience in the way Passage did with mortality or Gravitation with inspiration. At least,
not on first blush.
Between is a two-player
game, in the way that Pong is: it cannot
be played by a single player. Once connected to a counterpart over the network,
players still do not see each other's progress, at least not right away.
Players are given little explicit direction beyond what objects on the screen
imply: a tower of spaces for colored blocks stands at right, a wooden frame for
placing blocks at center.
The player can place and move blocks of a few
different kinds and then "wake" or "sleep" to move between three similar
versions of the game world. Four blocks placed in the wooden frame at center
construct a new block that combines their components when the player wakes, and
this process of constructing new blocks quickly becomes necessary to build up
The thing is, the player can only place primary colored blocks to
start (red, green blue), but many of the blocks on the tower require secondary
colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) as components.
After a while, combinations of
secondary color blocks appear based on what the other player has been doing
with their blocks and tower, meaning that the player has limited control over a
resource that he also needs to progress in the game.
The game gets hard very quickly. Part of the difficulty is a
spatial relations challenge: as the tower gets bigger, the blocks require more
complex components, which in turn have to be created through multiple
sleep/wake cycles across the three renditions of the world.
But the real trial
comes from the player's lack of control over available resources: the cyan,
magenta, and yellow blocks needed to make parts of the tower have to be coerced
out of the other player somehow.
Means for doing this is deliberately left out
of the game: one option is for players to talk to each other and try to tease
out the logic by which magic blocks appear. Another is for players to exercise
patience and simply wait for the right blocks, an event that may never come to
Still another is to try to manipulate the second player's blocks
indirectly by attempting to create blocks on the other player's screen which,
when used, might result in needed resources on one's own.
Two people playing on
laptops in the same room enjoy an additional clue: as the tower builds up
correctly, music begins to play with increasing detail and volume, which
provides a hint about a counterpart's progress (in a brief statement
accompanying the game, Rohrer discourages players from looking at each other's