The RPG Maker crowd is a world unto its own. I’ve steered clear of the fan projects that emerge from it over the years, because, let’s face it, the depth of gameplay and story that I need in games often isn’t there. But, based on a recommendation from the nice folks at Meridian Dance (site now defunct), I gave it a shot. Despite my own misgivings about RPG Maker games, I was delighted (and disturbed) to find a game that invoked more emotion in me than any other indie game to date.
Before you read on, head over to the Wither page and give it a go (Windows-only, Mac users will have to run Parallels/VMWare/Boot Camp). The game can be finished in 5-10 minutes. If you’re not the kind who cares about spoilers, then please, read on…
On its surface Wither won’t grab most players. It visually borrows the cabbage-green Game Boy aesthetic of the 80′s and 90′s, the sounds are lifted from other games, the gameplay isn’t much of an improvement upon Pokémon Red, there are no battles to speak of, the story is small and unambitious, and its earnest 8-bit melodies hardly stir up a sense of grandeur.
But even a few minutes of the delightfully simple yet otherworldly dialogue disturbs me from any of these criticisms. Wither’s charm comes from the tiny, almost unnoticeable details that unsettle me. When I sit down on the bed, I am prompted with YOU HAVE A NIGHTMARE. The phrase prepares me for a journey into a desolate underworld littered with the skulls and carcasses of animals, juxtaposed with beautiful flowers.The music reminds me of the kind played in funeral homes: synthesized organs echoing the somber mood that call me back to memories of a dead loved one. The grey/green-scale artwork embraces a monochromatic world, as a story about guilt and depression quickly emerges. The lighthearted Game Boy-esque experience manages a perfect disharmony with its sober tone. But all of these elements are crafted together with subtlety, and the author doesn’t beat us over the head with cheap metaphors or sentiment.
What separates Wither from games like Jason Rohrer’s Passage that try to grapple with the same kinds of human existential problems? Passage tries to mechanically represent emotion through gameplay (e.g. walking forward in time and watching one’s loved one age and die) that leaves absolutely no room for interpretation. In contrast, through strangely poetic moments like having bizarre nightmares and witnessing suicides, Wither leaves the protagonist’s psychological world open to interpretation.
If it is clear to the player that at some point the protagonist has reached the Farthest Shore (quite literally – via a boat) in search of her/his loved one, just what this means is open for debate. How should one deal with personal tragedy? Does losing someone mean losing one’s own life too? Or is there a way of coming back to the world of the living after making this crossing? The game was never intended to address (or answer) existential questions, but the fact that I can entertain these questions after playing through Rastek’s “poetic-prose” is a recognition of Wither’s minimalistic expressive power. Wither is, by design or by accident, far more artistic than any game that advertises itself as such.
Note: Melly Tan has a much more extended and articulate write-up on Wither that I could only dream of writing myself. I strongly suggest reading her article if you’ve played the game and are craving more analysis.