On Homesickened

I produced this piece for an exhibition called Baby Castles X Arcade Review, in which the famed New York games collective teamed up with my favourite ever games magazine to pair videogames alongside critical essays via the medium of a crazy fucking art installation. AR is now defunct, but you can find its six wonderful issues (including a piece from me!) over at archive.org.

A modern computer display can show you more than 16 million distinct colours. This is nothing short of magical, but by now we’ve come to take such magic for granted. The landscapes we set as our desktop backgrounds look more or less like the ones we see in real life: the same red cliffs, the same blue oceans and the same green leaves.

In 1981 this was not the case. The Atari 2600—a machine designed explicitly for playing videogames—could theoretically show you 128 distinct colours (even though technical restrictions meant you’d see maybe a dozen in any given game). 128 was a lot.

Your parents’ IBM business computer, by contrast, absolutely was not designed for playing videogames. If configured to show only text (which was, after all, its intended purpose) it could display a whopping 16 distinct colours, each carefully selected to provide eye-melting contrast against the others. But if you wanted it to show you graphics—landscapes, characters or really anything else—it could only display about 4.

Of course, game developers could not help themselves. They were going to make videogames for it regardless—hundreds of them, it turned out—and just like musicians can spin pop hits out of only 4 chords, pixel artists could make sprawling fantasy adventures out of only 4 colours.

This is why, in 1981, every desktop computer game was pink.

Homesickened  (which you can play FOR FREE on itch.io) constructs a 3d environment of the sort we’re used to seeing in today’s videogames, but then presents it to us through the filter of IBM’s old cyan-and-magenta colour palette. It has us wander the streets of the sad little town where our protagonist grew up. We gather they moved away as soon as they were able; we gather they are unhappy to have been forced to return. It’s fitting that we should imagine this place as some relic we half-remember from thirty years ago, since for the protagonist that’s precisely what it is.

Homesickened, we immediately notice, is more faithful to its ‘retro’ source material than the vast majority of its contemporaries. Many games strive to look, say, Atari-ish on the surface even as they incorporate a host of modern conveniences: moving more smoothly, using extra colours and so on. Homesickened does the opposite of this. We do not slide smoothly through the space, like the floating camera people we control in today’s shooter games. We move like it’s 1981: One, really, long, and, slow, frame, at, a, time.

This is a very intentional artistic choice. The computer could go two hundred times faster if the game’s author, Snapman, allowed it to. Picture a golden retriever with a milkbone balanced on its nose: That’s how badly the computer wants to speed things up, and training it to do otherwise requires devotion.

At first we are inclined to sympathize with the dog rather than the author. Research tells us that a delay of even one tenth of a second between pressing a button and seeing a response is enough to cause us a sort of physical pain, and Homesickened leans into this hard. It feels dysphoric when our computer refuses to let us take the action we’ve already decided we wish to take; as we watch the frames scan by, one or two per second, a nauseous feeling rises from our gut. The game’s cyan-coloured townspeople await us way off in the distance, inviting us to speak with them. We are impatient to know what they will say: what our new instructions shall be. We feel a little annoyed and a little bored. As players we so seldom want to wait.

Yet eventually we may notice a magic hiding in that space between the frames. It stretches out our sense of time, making it feel like years are passing with every step we take. It makes the town into a discontinuous space, occupying a discontinuous timeline. It mirrors the shape of our memories: distorted and fragmentary.

If we make it past our initial burst of nausea—if we demonstrate the patience and wonder we had for our parent’s old IBM—we discover a patchwork of compelling personal stories. There was a picnic, the protagonist tells us, in which they took food from another family’s plate because they mistakenly believed it was pot luck. They felt this family glare at them (in the way only bad memories can glare); they then ran crying into the woods.

These stories serve to silhouette the reasons why our protagonist moved away rather than attempting to enumerate them outright. Were they hungry because their own family could not afford food? Did social isolation make them fragile against embarrassment? Did this family at the picnic look down on them (or did the protagonist believe this to be the case)? We don’t find out, but we don’t really need to. It is obvious, somehow, why a person would want to leave this place. It is present in the space between the frames: a sickness that pervades everything. And as we tromp back and forth over these sad, slow streets, the computer tells us all we need to know.

Venice, Persia and VIRTUA BLINDS

VIRTUA BLINDS is a vaporware by Daffodil that you can play on itch.io.

We call our blinds ‘Venetian’ for no particularly good reason. We’re pretty sure they were invented in Iran, which is a place we’ve often called ‘Persia’ due to an Ancient Greek mistranslation of its actual name. Playing this game makes me wonder about the history of these two powers. When Leonidas stood at Thermopylae and declared that “Tonight we dine in Hades!” did he foresee he’d be fighting to steal credit from his opponents for the invention of horizontally-slatted windowshades? If we’d shown him the suburbia his wars helped create—thirty million identical houses, all glimpsed lawn to lawn through cracks in Venetian blinds—would he even still have fought?

In Daffodil’s words VIRTUA BLINDS represents “the future of gaming”, which is a conclusion I’m prepared to accept. This is an industry in which our chief signifiers of quality include A) actually-flushing toilets and B) ‘god rays’ scattered everywhere EXCEPT for the inside of our actually-flushing toilets. We are not ‘immersed’—the situation is not ‘realistic’ enough—unless we can flush a toilet in which we didn’t actually pee and view brightly-illuminated dust particles in settings they would not actually illuminate. Why haven’t we been bothered by the absence of actually-slatted blinds, which go up and down and furl and unfurl and are ‘Venetian’? This is what the blinds in VIRTUA BLINDS do, and it is glorious. It sets a new gold standard for immersion and realism. It demands a response from gamers, from developers, from publishers and streamers. Here, it declares, is the future for which Leonidas died. Here, everywhere and always, is the future.