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[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 tower.
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 pass.
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 screens).